The Spotlight Podcast: Producing Theatre with Francesca Moody

Fleabag producer Francesca Moody talks to us about taking a show to Edinburgh Fringe, producing theatre and much more. 

In the first of our Edinburgh special podcasts, we sat down with theatre producer Francesca Moody. Francesca has produced theatre in London, Edinburgh, on tour in the UK and internationally. She is the original producer of the multi-award-winning and Olivier nominated Fleabag by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, which she has presented in Edinburgh, at Soho Theatre on UK tours and internationally in South Korea and Australia and most recently New York for DryWrite.

Francesca is also the former Producer of British New-Writing theatre company Paines Plough where she worked on plays by the UK’s leading playwrights including Dennis Kelly, Duncan Macmillan and Kate Tempest.

In this episode, we talk about how she chooses her projects, what skills make for a good producer, and tips about taking a show to the Fringe, amongst many other things! 

34 minute listen.

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Episode Transcript

Christina Carè: Hello, and welcome to this special episode of The Spotlight Podcast. We're coming to you from the Edinburgh Fringe. I'm Christina Carè, I work at Spotlight, and in today's episode, we're talking to producer, Francesca Moody. Francesca has so many great projects going on at the moment, including Baby Reindeer, Do Our Best, Square Go, and Fleabag. Francesca talks to us all about her journey to become a producer as well as how you can produce your own work successfully. Take a listen.

Christina Carè: Francesca, thank you so much for joining us on the Spotlight Podcast.

Francesca Moody: Thank you for having me.

Christina Carè: It's been about two years since we last talked.

Francesca Moody: Yeah.

Christina Carè: And since then, I feel like you've just taken on so many interesting projects. You've got a bunch of shows going on at the Fringe right now.

Francesca Moody: I do, yes.

Christina Carè: It must be quite a hectic month for you. How are you holding up? You're halfway through.

Francesca Moody: I think I'm actually okay. I mean I am surviving; I would say. I was saying to somebody the other day actually every year that I have come to the Fringe, it's less of a Fringe experience if that makes sense.

Christina Carè: Yeah.

Francesca Moody: So not going out, going to bed at a reasonable hour, having a cup of tea rather than a gin and tonic, that sort of thing. So yeah, I'm surviving. I haven't run myself ragged just yet anyway.

Christina Carè: Good. I want to ask you then, I mean I feel like we probably talked about some similar things last time, but I know that you were interested originally in drama, and in acting, and in the theatre world. What took you to producing?

Francesca Moody: Yeah, I think, like a lot of people who work in this industry in other roles that aren't performing roles, I think I didn't realise that there were other opportunities, I suppose. So, I'd spent a long time thinking I was going to be an actor. I wanted to be an actor. And I've obviously went off to drama school, went to the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and trained there. And then when I graduated, I mean I was working a little bit as an actor, but not really. And I've always been very, very, very passionate about theatre. It was always the thing that I wanted to do the most. And I mean after I graduated and I was doing a part-time job at the Royal Opera House and then, in between, auditions and acting jobs, but I would be constantly spending my free time, so over romantically going into the National Theatre book shop, and buying plays, and reading them, and then spending all my money on theatre. So, it didn't really sit very well with me, this idea of just waiting around and not engaging culturally in theatre, basically.

And actually, because I had some really strong ideas about what kind of work I thought was good and the kind of work that I like to see on stage, and what the power of theatre was for me personally. And so I was very fortunate that I had a friend who basically needed some help with a funding application for the now-defunct IdeasTap, which, for those people young enough not to know what it was, was a really brilliant charity. They existed to help young and emerging people in the creative industries through lots of different ways, like funding streams and training resources. But I think you had to be under 26. And they ran this award called… I think it was an Edinburgh funding award basically. And he had a project that he wants to get off the ground, and he is an actor, but he was a little bit older, so he asked me if I would be interested in helping, basically because I was under 26. And I suppose it just all spiralled from there really.

I helped him write a funding application for that and I really enjoyed the process of just taking a bit of control. And the idea of maybe making work as well for myself at some point had crossed my mind, so it felt like quite a natural progression for me to do something like that. And then I was just very lucky. It was just a series of happy coincidences that led me into producing, really. So that, and then there was a director who I'd met in Edinburgh at the festival, and I basically just asked him if he had any acting jobs, and he didn't, but he had a need for somebody to come and help him with the press on a show, so I did that. And then a friend of mine knew that I was doing this sort of stuff, and he'd written a play, and he wanted to put it on the Fringe, so I agreed to help him on that.

And then that same original friend who'd asked me to do that funding application, he was producing a bigger show at the Edinburgh festival, co-producing it, and he had a writer approach him with a much smaller play and some money that was already attached to it, and asked if we would basically produce it, and so he offered it to me. It was an amazing moment, really, because in many ways it was quite defining for me to have him basically say, "Do you want to take this project on?" So I think basically by the time I graduated from Royal Welsh, it was only a year ... it was the next August that I was producing my first show in Edinburgh.

Christina Carè: That's amazing.

Francesca Moody: Yeah.

Christina Carè: Very quick.

Francesca Moody: Very quick. So yeah, it was just a snowball effect, I suppose, but I just really enjoyed being in control, and I think producers enjoy that. I think if you're a producer, I think you're right at the top, and you can control so many things, and you can be part of so many conversations. And I think I really enjoyed that because it really spoke to the passion in me for theatre.

Christina Carè: Yeah, for sure. That's interesting you say that because I think actually the thing that's intimidating about producing is the fact that you are in control and you have to do the organising basically. Was that a steep learning curve for you or do you think the best way to learn how to produce is just to do it and get stuck in?

Francesca Moody: Oh definitely, yeah. I think there are some brilliant courses, mostly MA courses, out there for aspiring producers, but I have to say that the best way to learn is by doing it yourself, really. And that is essentially what I did for the first two-three years of producing. I just learned as I went and learnt mostly by making mistakes. And you're right, there's a lot of accountability in producing and that can put people off, but I suppose what I always say to people is it's not rocket science. It's almost just about being able to have perspective on the bigger picture, look at everything that needs doing, and then work out how you're going to achieve that. And along the way, you may expect that you have some problems, because ultimately the role of the producer is the problem solver, and when things go wrong, it does always come back to you so it's just about being as prepared as you possibly can be really.

Christina Carè: Yeah, for sure. I mean obviously people listening to this, they will likely know your name because of the attachment to a very small play called Fleabag. It would be remiss of me not to ask you, but when that came your way, did you get a sense of what that was going to be as a show? Do you get a sense of that when a project comes towards you?

Francesca Moody: Yeah, well I think Fleabag's taught me a lot of things, the main thing being to trust my gut instinct when I read work. So I was very fortunate because I'd just already started working with Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Vicky Jones as their producer on their theatre company called DryWrite, and we were producing another show together, and Phoebe had written that short comedy storytelling piece, which at the time was called Chancing your Arm. And I'd been to Edinburgh twice by that point as a producer. I'd also been working in Edinburgh in some capacity since I was 17, so as an audience member, I felt like I knew what festival audiences wanted, to a certain extent, and I knew how to produce in Edinburgh from those previous two years and from just having a real sense of the place, and I read it, and I had an immediate gut reaction to it because it was so funny, and it was so brilliant. And I didn't necessarily know what it was all going to be about, but also, because I was friends with Phoebe, I could see her performing it.

Yeah, so I suppose Fleabag has taught me to really own my gut instincts when I read work and to go for it when I really believe in something. And actually, so far that has worked so well for me on all the shows I produced as an independent producer. Obviously, when I worked at Paines Plough, for example, that was a more collaborative process with lots of other people, but if we're talking about me as an independent producer, and committing myself, and committing to fundraising, and committing my time and energy to a project, it's that feeling that you get when you read a play and it just gets you immediately.

Christina Carè: Yeah, for sure. I mean it's interesting hearing you talk about that process. Has that changed in terms of how things come your way now? Because if people are trying to bring their own work to the Fringe, for instance, they will consider self-producing, so they may not attach a separate person or really even think about that, and then later down the track, it's like “oh crap, I'm producing this thing.” But what would you say to people if they are thinking of doing a fringe show, for instance, for the first time? How useful is it to have that be an external person? At what point should you be thinking about the producing part of the process?

Francesca Moody: Totally, yeah. I'm always in awe of people who can self-produce because it's a lot of work. But what I would encourage people to do is to think about actually what are all the things that need to happen, in that same way that I said, to give yourself a bigger picture, because ultimately what it comes down to is when you are making your own work, when you're writing your own work and you're presenting your own work, whether you have a producer or not, you will do some producing on that show.

So I think if you're thinking about taking your own show to the Edinburgh Festival, making your own work, it's to just actually think why am I going? What do I need to do in order to get it there? And what is the plan for afterwards? Because I think when you answer those questions for yourself, you'll probably have a clearer sense of what kind of person you need to come with you on that journey, whether you need a person at all. And then I think if you're going to reach out to a person or interrogate the idea of potentially attaching a producer to your work, it has to be somebody who is really passionate about the ideas that you have and is really onboard with what you want to do with the show. I think that's really important because I think that will ultimately galvanise the future life of the work.

So I would say if you're thinking about going to Edinburgh and you're reaching out to potential producers, it's not always about going to the most experienced producer. Sometimes it's about going to somebody who you know who might have only produced one show, might not have produced anything at all, but somebody who's really passionate about the ideas, because as I said, it's not rocket science. And if you're coming to Edinburgh, there's so much here to support you in terms of how you can give your work a future life. And then the industry itself is so open that actually if you need answers to questions, either for yourself or for your producer if they're not as experienced, there are producers like me, or plenty of people who have their doors open to you, or venues that you have relationships with who are willing to impart their knowledge and support.

Christina Carè: Yeah, for sure.

Francesca Moody: Does that answer your question?

Christina Carè: Definitely. I think it's really interesting, particularly having seen a few different shows that you've produced now, it does sound like the key point of what you were saying was to have that vision yourself in terms of what it is that you're making before you start thinking about the to-do list, basically.

Francesca Moody: Totally, yeah. I think it's like you do a mini business plan for every show. This is how I would produce now, I do a mini business plan for all of my shows. You ask yourselves the questions who, what, why, where, when, and then you go “what venues in London do I want to get it to? How am I going to do that?” You create a little trajectory. And of course, you are also responsive to the opportunities that present themselves to you, and you can still do all of that, but I think if you just give yourself a bit of shape, it allows for focus, and especially when you come somewhere like Edinburgh, which is an amazing place and is essentially a huge marketplace for work, but is also busy, and stressful, and fun, and you just want to make sure that you don't get swept up in the romanticism of all of that at the same time.

But yeah, I think if you can just really be honest with yourself about what you want to do with a show, and what you aspire to be able to do with it, then it will help you have conversations with potential producers or really think about what you need. And then also, if you're thinking about self-producing or you're a group of friends who are making a piece of work together, and maybe you don't want to engage a producer, or you can't afford a producer, whatever it is, it's just being really, really clear with each other about what the division of responsibility is in terms of the work and how you put it on. And that really goes for any relationship that you set up in this industry. And sometimes it can be really easy to... you can get by without doing that, but you forget how important that is because when things get really stressful or when something doesn't go right, actually if you guys have all sat down and said, "I'm doing the press, I'm doing the marketing and I'm in charge of technical stuff, and conversations with the venue"-

Christina Carè: It's just much clearer, yeah.

Francesca Moody: So much clearer, yeah.

Christina Carè: I think that's the bit that is also the most, not just intimidating, but the bit that people don't like to do, because obviously when you're making theatre, you just want to involve your friends, and get together, and it's collaborative, and it's fun, and it's meant to be all of those things, but the legal stuff and the contractual stuff, what would you say to that? Should people really educate themselves in terms of understanding that side of things if they're going to embark on producing?

Francesca Moody: I mean yeah, ultimately if you're going to be a producer, you absolutely need to have a real robust understanding of contracts and how they work, and how the industry is set up. And the more you work as a producer, the more you need to understand equity contracts, and what kind of parameters you need to set to be able to employ people fairly. I think if you're thinking about producing your own work for the first time, I mean you really don't need to over-complicate things at all. And something that my dad said to me, and he's a lawyer, and years and years ago he said to me, "You don't need anything complicated. Don't get bogged down in all of this particular language that you're supposed to use, or particular things that you're supposed to say. Just know what it is that each of you are committing to do, and make sure it's fair, and make sure it's really simple and easy for you to understand." And also, when it comes to contracts, if you don't understand anything, there's always going to be somebody that you can ask, so it's just about asking, really.

Christina Carè: Yeah, asking the right questions.

Francesca Moody: Yeah.

Christina Carè: I want to ask you then about one of the shows that you've got on right now. We saw Baby Reindeer at the beginning of the week. And it's obviously having an amazing run right now. I think you've just added some more shows.

Francesca Moody: We have. Three extra shows, yeah.

Christina Carè: What was the process like of producing that show? How did that show develop and what attracted you to it?

Francesca Moody: So how did I come to be attached to it? As you know, and as probably, hopefully, people will know from what I just said, I used to work for a theatre company called Paines Plough. And I had already known of Richard Gadd, who is the writer and performer who made Baby Reindeer. He had had a show on a few years ago that I absolutely loved called Monkey See Monkey Do, and I really loved his unique way of making work that potentially didn't really sit inside one genre or the other. And I found it really challenging and inspiring, and compelling. So I was already a big fan of him, basically.

He had started to develop this play, Baby Reindeer, and he sent it to the team at Paines Plough. The team at Paines Plough read it and, very fortunately for me, send it to me to read on the proviso that they thought that it would be the kind of play that I liked as an independent producer. And so they basically suggested to Richard that he and I meet up, which we did. So essentially the play got sent to me. I got very excited as soon as I knew it was a play by Richard anyway because I'm a big fan.

Christina Carè: And it's such an incredibly unique play as well.

Francesca Moody: Yeah, it's an amazing play already. And then I remember reading it, and it's this thing about trusting your gut instincts. Basically, I was on a train coming back from Norwich, and I'd had a really busy day of work. And I was right, now is the moment for me to just stop doing the admin and read a play, because it's really, really hard when you're producing to make time for that sort of stuff, and actually it is, obviously, the most important thing that you can do really because it's how you get your next show. So I sat down on the train, put my laptop away, got the play, read the play, didn't stop reading the play until I got to the end, didn't stop reading the play until 10 minutes after the train had pulled into Liverpool Street, so I was still on the train because the play was so good and I found it so engrossing, and tense, and brilliant.

And at that point, immediately I already had that response. I have to produce this play, basically. I have to. I have to be involved in this. How can I make this a possibility? So then Richard and I met up. We met at the pub with John, who is the director, and I think they both knew about my work, and I obviously was a big fan of theirs. And actually, what was really funny about it was that I thought that I was going for an interview with them to basically pitch myself, and they thought they were pitching to me, so what was really lovely about it was ultimately at the end it was just like oh, right. I guess we're working together then.

Christina Carè: This is happening.

Francesca Moody: Yeah. And so Baby Reindeer as a play was already formed in many ways when I became attached to it, and then it went through a rigorous development period between January and May, May/June, and then July obviously we went into rehearsals. So what's been interesting about working on that show particularly has been that I'm working with a... It's not unusual for me to be working with a writer/performer, but we're working on a piece of theatre which is also not a piece of theatre because it is autobiographical, so it sits outside of that regular genre. Yeah, so the challenge for me in that is just making sure that we're telling Richard's story in the right way and making sure that everybody in the creative team has bought into the idea that actually this isn't us putting on a writer's play, it's us helping to facilitate Richard telling his story, really.

And obviously, my job is very much a facilitator, and I think a lot of people will think of themselves as facilitators, but with this particularly, it's a quite a potent word, I think, in the context of that. And then obviously there are lots of things around the fact that it's a true story and making sure that we approach that in a very sensitive way, the way that we present it, the way we talk about it. And then since then, it's been amazing to be the producer of that show because obviously, as you will know, it's doing incredibly well.

Christina Carè: It's an incredible play though, as well, and just an incredible experience because, as you say, it trespasses that line of theatre and something else. I don't know. It's just because it's real.

Francesca Moody: Yeah, very much. And I'd say as well, what's been really lovely about that show is in many ways, it feels like the biggest show that I've produced to date - with the exception of Fleabag, which we'd sit outside of this a little bit because Fleabag I produced for DryWrite - whereas, for Francesca Moody Productions, this feels like the biggest show in many ways, because it is technically so challenging, because there are so many different things happening on stage, there's projection, there's a revolve, there are lights, there's sound, there's Richard. So being able to work with a much bigger team and essentially present a much bigger production has been lovely but has challenged me, I would say.

Christina Carè: Yeah. Well, definitely for the best.

Francesca Moody: Yeah, for the best.

Christina Carè: It's such a great production. I want to ask then, you kind of hit upon a few things earlier within that about the differences of a fringe show and a festival show, and you kind of mentioned earlier about knowing what a festival audience wants to see. What is your take on the difference between producing theatre more generally and producing specifically a Fringe show? What do you think the differences are?

Francesca Moody: Well, I think at the Fringe, you've got a captive audience.

Christina Carè: Yeah, true.

Francesca Moody: I was talking the other day to someone about the fact that a successful Fringe show does not make a successful London show or a successful touring show. The difference between producing at the Fringe and pretty much anywhere else is that you've got an audience of people who want to see work. And actually, the challenge for us outside of this context is how do we justify people coming to see the work? Why should somebody in Barnsley come and see Baby Reindeer, for example?

Because it's very easy for audiences to come and see Baby Reindeer here, because Richard's well known, he won the comedy awards, that's part of the language of where we are now, but I mean Barnsley is just one example, but somewhere that doesn't have all of those points of reference I would say is the biggest difference between producing work here and producing ... I think how do you know whether something is right for a festival? I mean I think festival audiences, they want to be entertained and challenged, basically. So I think you can really push to the limits of the type of work that you make, and I think audiences are a bit more receptive to it. That's not to say that there aren't audiences all over the country and the world who are equally as receptive in different contexts but-

Christina Carè: There's something about the Fringe that you're expecting potentially something quite unusual. You're more up for it, I think than if you've paid a London price ticket, for instance, at a conventional theatre space.

Francesca Moody: Yeah, very much so. And of course, it's all about knowing your audience, basically. So when you produce work outside of a Fringe context, it's just about knowing whether it feels like a show that you have an audience for, or that in some ways you're able to engage an audience with. Yeah, and if you're thinking about touring your work, that's such an important part of producing, I think, just really interrogating who your audience is. Yeah, does that answer your question?

Christina Carè: And in terms of the specific challenges of the Fringe, you mentioned earlier that producing, you're the problem solver, what does that mean? What does that look like? What can go wrong with a Fringe show?

Francesca Moody: I think the biggest thing that can go wrong with a Fringe show is that it doesn't sell.

Christina Carè: Right, and that's a risk.

Francesca Moody: That's a big risk. That's a risk that you take when you bring any show to the Fringe. And of course, when you produce any work, that's a risk you take, because ultimately ticket sales and audience booking habits are massively dictated by what is going on in the world. What else is available? And I think we have only so much control over that stuff, but what we can do, and what producers are very good at doing, I think, is thinking ahead, thinking about “what can I do in order to make sure that I can sell my show?” And again, that's about planning, and you keep coming back to planning and thinking about that stuff. And I suppose that's me solving the problem of ticket sales before we have the issue if that makes sense.

But yeah, I mean ticket sales is definitely the biggest issue that you could come up against. But then the other thing is at the Fringe, it's the Fringe, you have 10 minutes to get in, 10 minutes to get out, you've got four hours to tech your show, you've got really limited technical capabilities within the venue, depending on where you are. Your venue techs could be amazing, they could also be 18 and not know that much, and that is part of coming to the Fringe. So, I guess the other big problem is making sure that your work fits into the space, and when work doesn't fit or it doesn't work technically because people haven't thought about how it sits within this Fringe context, that's a problem. So again, that's just about foresight, really. Yeah, and then actors being tired, and people getting stressed out because they get bad reviews, and that's about pastoral care.

Christina Carè: Well, how do you deal with the reviews stuff?

Francesca Moody: I think a review is just one person's opinion. I mean in terms of press; I think press is very important here in Edinburgh. I mean it's a necessary and important part of our industry. It's critical. I can't think of the words…

Christina Carè: Like feedback?

Francesca Moody: Feedback, exactly. Critical feedback from your audiences, but also from the critics. And I think people can get very despondent when they don't get press into their shows. That can be really hard. And I think it's getting harder and harder to get people in to review your work, particularly if you're not well-known, and even to a certain extent like we've experienced, I've experienced that with my smaller show, Do Our Best, which is on at Underbelly, which is brilliant, but Remy is a new writer, unknown, and I think, of course, there are less than less people up here, there's less and less opportunity for them to review, and so they're just going to book for the stuff that they want to see first. But when it comes to press, if you can get the press in, if you get a good review, yay, amazing. If you don't get a good review, it's one person's point of view.

And I think as long as you know that the work is good, and that you believe in it, and that you've done that thing where you have gone “I know what I want to do with my show. I see where it's going. I see what venues it might go at in the future”, then a three or a two-star review really is completely irrelevant, because if you're doing all the other stuff and achieving all the other stuff, it really doesn't matter. In the same way that it doesn't matter if you don't sell all your tickets here. If programmers are coming to see your work and they're saying, "I love that show. I want that show to be at my venue," then that's brilliant. And then you can think about what other things you can do if you take that show on tour that you didn't do here that will help you galvanise an audience.

Christina Carè: Yeah, absolutely. I want to ask you then, if someone is thinking of Fringe 2020, or something like that, maybe 2021, what should they do? How should they start? Should they start now?

Francesca Moody: I mean yeah. I mean I would encourage people who are thinking about going to the Fringe next year to come to the Fringe this year, and obviously again, come next year if you're thinking about going the following year. Do your research. Assuming that you know the work that you want to take up, just make sure that you're really clear with yourself about what venue is the right venue for your show. You should absolutely apply to all venues when you're coming to Edinburgh, but it's better to have the option to choose, I think than anything, because not every venue is right for every show. Yeah, so I think research is really, really important at this stage. And also ask around, have a few coffees with some other producers who've already brought shows up to Edinburgh, or other companies, and get their perspective on it, ask them how you start, something like that, I think. Yeah, it's all about galvanising advice.

Christina Carè: Yeah, for sure. Last question.

Francesca Moody: Yeah?

Christina Carè: I want to ask you what is for you or has been for your most proud moment in terms of your producing career so far?

Francesca Moody: Oh, so many moments. Well, it would be remiss of me not to mention Fleabag and all its success, and the fact that it's about to open in the West End next week, I suspect, but that is in the future. So that may well be my proudest moment as a producer, but I suppose for me this year, my proudest moment as a producer was actually hitting my fundraising target for the shows, which is a really big deal for me because it is so, so challenging, and for me, knowing that I have been able to justify to people why they should help me put on these productions and present them was a personal moment of achievement, I would say.

But yeah, I always, always feel hugely proud when I get to go to the first night of any of my shows. So this year, watching Richard Gadd on stage in Roundabout for the first time, and seeing projection work in the Roundabout, which is a first for that space, and then watching Remy perform her show and seeing people rolling in the aisles, laughing and then crying at the same time, and then watching Square Go happen again with a full audience for a second year in a row, all of those things. And seeing people's responses. I think audiences are really at the heart of what I do. It is all about the audience at the end of the day, and just being able to be part of that and see that audiences are really responding. Very proud.

Christina Carè: Thank you so much, Francesca.

Francesca Moody: Thank you. Thanks, you're welcome.

Christina Carè: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Spotlight Podcast. If you have any questions for us or would like us to cover something in an upcoming episode, send us an email at [email protected].

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