Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Producer in Profile: Stephanie Wickes

As Stephanie Wickes makes ready for her departure as Executive Producer of Blind Summit Theatre, we asked her about the highs of her job and what it's really like to get ground-breaking puppetry put on stages around the world... 

What is your earliest memory with the company? 

I started when the whole team was touring France and rehearsing for the Olympics, so I spent three weeks sitting on my own in a workshop in North London with no idea where to start. It was the most terrifying thing I'd ever done. But I put my head down - I read 4,000 emails, looked through every file, scrutinised every budget. When I had my first company meeting at Stratford station in a rehearsal lunch break, I was able to keep up with everything Mark and Nick were talking about. From then on it was a lot less scary!

When you were starting out with Blind Summit, did you have a good idea of where it would lead? 

Not at all. I started as General Manager on a 6 month fixed term contract, and ended up staying 5 years and becoming Executive Producer. The real joy of my job has been living through every momen alongside Mark and his amazing team. The work the company creates is very experimental, so my role has become the "safety" that allows them to take that artistic risk... always knowing the answers so they don't have to, knowing how to manage the budget so they don't even notice, holding off questions and problems until the creative process is at the right point to answer them. So although I hover behind the scenes, every opening night I get to feel that the work is as much mine as those on the stage.

What is your London highlight?

I saw The Table for the first time at Soho Theatre after I'd just accepted the job and resigned from Watford Palace. I was irrationally terrified that I'd hate the show and would have to work it for weeks! But obviously I adored it, and as I sat amongst the fans raving about it afterwards I remember thinking "I'm going to work with that company". Whenever I'm at Soho Theatre's bar I remember that feeling.

'Le Rossignol' in Bregenz

What is your touring highlight? 

This is tough to answer.

Overall, it was going to Bregenz Festival in 2014 with three different projects - Mark was directing a cubist-puppet opera of Stravinsky's Le Rossignol with 11 puppeteers and about 300 puppets, a revival of The Magic Flute on the giant lake stage with the same puppeteer team, and a one-off of The Table to cap it all off. We'd been preparing for over a year, and when we got there I didn't really sleep for three days. But I was rewarded by Le Rossignol - probably my all time favourite Blind Summit show. The biggest project I ever saw from beginning to end, the first opera directed by Mark - and just an amazing show. It was one of the few times in my career that I had happy tears welling up on opening night.

But there are also some smaller personal highlights like going to the sold-out run of The Table at the first ever Chicago Puppet Festival, looking out over the incredible city skyline from the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. And dancing all night at the amazing opening night party for The Magic Flute in Bregenz in 2013 and limping home at 5am without my shoes.

Is there a Blind Summit puppet or show you have a special connection with? 

Strangely I think it's the dog from A Dog's Heart - strange since I haven't had much to do with the show. It was first made long before I worked for Blind Summit, but I'd booked tickets for it at ENO because I'd never seen an opera before and the combination of Blind Summit and Complicite made me want to give it a try. I absolutely loved it, it became the first of many operas I saw, and it was the show that inspired me to apply for the job when it came up the next year. I also happened to go to the opera on an early date with a new boyfriend who is now my husband, so there is a bit of a personal link there too. I went along to see one of the revivals at La Scala in Milan not that long after I joined the company, and now it's on again as I leave, I feel like it's a full cycle!

What three tips would you give the next Blind Summit producer? 

1. Get comfortable with being reactive. Things change quickly - have plenty of secret contingencies up your sleeve, people you can call at a moment's notice, and a schedule with extra time in it!

2. Have a network in the wider industry. Being in such a small company means that being able to ask some other producers what on earth they are doing about new pensions regulations, or to share a template contract is an absolute blessing.

3. Know who all the artists are. The heart and soul of Blind Summit is the artists, and knowing what everyone's strengths are and what they are up to at the moment, is key to being able to help Mark pull together a team for a last minute R&D day or puppet filming day.

What is particular about producing a Blind Summit show? 

There is no "producing formula" here. Every project is so different, from an opera to a devised theatre show to filming for a TV show. So I've loved getting to know all the different artistic processes - the various ways of making puppets, Mark's way of running rehearsals, how we develop scripts, how we cast. In that way I can draw on all that knowledge to plan for a new project. Plus I feel much closer to the art than I ever have done as Producer elsewhere.

What are you leaving to do? 

I'm taking a leap out of theatre to work for a tech start-up. I've worked in theatre for 11 years, and I decided it was time to find out what goes on outside of our bubble. I'm hoping to learn some new skills and bring them back into theatre and the arts in the future. And I'm looking forward to being a theatre audience member for a few years, particularly of Blind Summit's work.

Steph & team receive a Fringe First for Citizen Puppet in 2015

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