Interview: Fiona Popplewell on how to get into producing at Cambridge

The CUADC Producers’ Representative 2023/24 gives advice to newcomers in the society

If you are a fresher with an interest in producing, it can be difficult to know where to begin in the Cambridge theatre scene. Fortunately, Fiona Popplewell, CUADC Producers’ Representative 2023/24, is willing to answer all of your questions.

I was lucky enough to interview Fiona Popplewell in Michaelmas 2023, and we discussed her journey as a producer, and the advice she would give to anyone new to the CUADC.

How did you first get into producing?

Fiona: “I was very involved in student productions at school and local drama classes, and I knew it was something I wanted to continue at Cambridge. But I wanted to settle into Lucy Cavendish first. I was cast in a Smogasbord play at the Corpus Playroom a few weeks into my first Michaelmas term which helped me to begin to understand the mechanics of putting on a play in Cambridge. I also attended a workshop about producing organised by the 2021/22 CUADC Committee, where I found out more about the role and how it might suit my personality and skills. I got to work as an Assistant Producer for Peer Gynt, another Mainshow at Corpus Playroom, and built up experience from there. The main Producer was Jacob Gaskell, who taught me a lot about producing. A Producer does a bit of everything: they handle the logistics of staging a play, help solve any problems as they occur, and work closely with the director and can have creative input too, which is great.”

How do you balance Producing with your degree?

Fiona: “I study English Literature, and my degree has broadened my knowledge of the canon and introduced me to a variety of plays across many genres and time periods. I got to produce one of the first ever theatrical responses to T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland in Michaelmas 2022, which informed my study of modernist writing and my supervisions and essays that term. The production process made me look at the poem in a different way. I also produced the ADC Mainshow Vanity Fair: An (Im)morality Play in my first year. I enjoy developing and working on literary adaptations.”

Was it a simple transition to your role as Producer’s Rep at the ADC?

Fiona: “Fairly, yes! The ADC Committee is elected to serve three terms, and there are elections in Lent term every year. In Michaelmas there are lots of onboarding events aimed at recruiting new faces who might want to get involved with Cambridge theatre. I’ve helped organise and run the producing and publicity workshops, and the fresher’s plays. I also did a Q&A workshop about the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and another of these will happen soon. In my case, I saw the role of Producer’s Rep was being advertised during my second year and submitted an application. We have had elections this term, and I would encourage anyone who enjoys producing to consider applying for the role next year.”

How do you delegate duties as part of your job?

Fiona: “As Producer’s Rep, I attend weekly CUADC Committee meetings where we discuss things like shows we are going to fund next, organise social events like the CUADC Club Dinner [which happened this term] and how we can support the theatre community. Communication is everything, and I like to make sure everyone is in the loop. In terms of delegating work as a Producer, I really enjoy having a team of Assistant Producers with me. I like to ask them what they want from the job, and delegate accordingly, as opposed to enforcing my own tasks. So if an Assistant Producer is more interested in publicity, I’ll encourage them to run the social media accounts for the play, and organise reviews. Producing can be completely personalised. But as a team, we always put up posters together which helps to spread the workload and means that we can advertise productions across colleges and departments.”

Image Credits: Geograph

Where are you hoping to take the role next?

Fiona: “I am hoping to run more events that bring Producers together throughout term. Producing can be quite a remote job; half the time you could do it from a laptop in your pyjamas! I want to nurture the producing community, for example, by encouraging Producers to sit down together, have a cup of tea and discuss the projects they’re working on. On another note: I would seriously encourage Producers to make an effort to go to the rehearsal room, and get to know the wider production team beyond beyond Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp groups. It elevates the experience of producing a play, and you can see how the production you have helped to manage and organise is coming to life, and talk to the director if you’d like to have some creative input and offer feedback in rehearsals. I like to work as a ‘Creative Producer’ and use some of my directing experience in the rehearsal room too.”

What is your favourite part of the production process?

Fiona: “It’s hard to narrow it down. As a producer I get to be with a show from the beginning and help it to grow and develop, which is very rewarding. I love managing a big team, and collaborating with them to put on a show. You all have the same goal—to bring a Director’s vision to life —and the team spirit is very rewarding. I enjoy helping to organise ambitious sets and finding the relevant equipment to be ordered and working with the tech team on this. I love publicising shows such as creating content for the play’s social media. One of the great things about working on a bigger show is that there is usually a Publicity Officer, so we can have fun promoting the show together and make sure it reaches the target audience. I also enjoy mentoring people new to producing.”

And your least favourite part?

Fiona: “As with any passion project, producing can slightly take over from my degree, but as I mentioned earlier, I’ve also been able to bring what I have learnt from a production process and incorporate that into supervisions and essays. There are many times I’ve found myself in the library, flicking between my essay and production tabs, but at least I have improved my ability to multi-task. This is important because producers work on several aspects of the production at the same time. Communicating with the production team is one of the responsibilities of the producer. For example, sometimes the Director will have a question about set which you might then ask the set designer about or arrange a meeting to talk about things together. It is understandable that sometimes people can take a while to respond because they also have busy study schedules and a demanding degree, but it can help if I can be one step ahead and communicate things early.”

Have you got an idea of what you’d like to do after Cambridge?

Fiona: “I’m quite open. I also love directing and acting; I know I want to work in a creative industry. I produced a successful play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and was selected to be on the Emerging Producers Development Programme, where there were workshops led by industry experts, and which spanned many aspects of producing in the industry, such as how to foster sustainable practices when working on productions. I’m enjoying bringing this knowledge to workshops at the ADC!”

Finally, what advice would you give to someone who has never produced before?

Fiona: “Give it a try! The Producer’s Rep is always willing to mentor and offer a listening ear. If you see an interesting vacancy on CamDram, discuss it with the Director and apply for an Assistant Producer role. There are always lots of shows each term, and it’s never too late to get involved. Keep an eye on CamDram and on the Cambridge Theatre Facebook Group. I didn’t do any fresher’s plays, and still found my place in the theatre scene. You’ll soon get a feel for it and will learn lots on the job. Even I am still learning!”

The CUADC Committee Nominations roles have now closed for Lent 2024, including Producer’s Representative. All CUADC Members receive emails with the necessary information.

Fiona is happy to answer any questions if you are interested in applying next year. You can contact her at [email protected].

Feature image credits: Fiona Popplewell

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