Booking It! Producer Ken Davenport on Getting Your Show Off the Ground

By Adam Hetrick
April 25, 2014

Playbill.com's new feature series Booking It asks leading industry members to share professional insights, need-to-know tips and essential tricks of the trade for up-and-coming and established theatre artists. This week we speak with Tony Award-winning producer Ken Davenport.



Davenport, who writes the theatrical industry blog TheProducersPerspective.com, is the man behind such Off-Broadway productions as Awesome 80's Prom and Altar Boyz, as well as a producer of the Broadway productions of Mothers and Sons, The Bridges of Madison County, Macbeth, Kinky Boots, Godspell, Chinglish, Oleanna, Speed-the-Plow, You're Welcome America, Blithe Spirit and 13.

The innovative producer, named one of Crain's "Forty Under 40," also ushered in a new era of Broadway fundraising with his 2012 revival of Godspell, which welcomed theatre lovers and first-time investors to back a Broadway show for as little as $1,000.

Davenport also runs industry-related seminars for actors, producers, writers and more. Check out the upcoming workshops here.

His current projects include his adaptation of the novel and film Somewhere in Time, which recently premiered at Portland Stage Company, as well as the musical Gettin' the Band Back Together, which played an acclaimed run at the George Street Playhouse last fall.

Below, Davenport shares his thoughts on the current landscape of theatrical producing, as well as some of his tips for aspiring producers and actors.

How much is an above-the-title producer involved in the show's creative decisions? Are they, in any way, involved in casting or the creative process?
Davenport: The lead producer is very involved... as involved as they want to be. An above-the-title [producer] may not be as involved in the cast process, but is certainly involved in the creative process as the piece develops, by giving notes, suggestions, etc. to the team to help shape the material.

When you are involved in casting - what do you look for in an actor's audition (monologue or song). Davenport: I have a simple casting rule. I look for people that I want to hang out with for 2.5 hours... in the dark. Actors have to have incredible charisma to stand on a stage and keep the attention of 2,000 people.

What are some challenges that actors face now that are new to the industry as it evolves?
Davenport: Like everything else in the internet age, actors have to keep up with technology. When I was an actor, all that I needed was a black-and-white headshot. Then it was color. Then you needed a website. And then everyone needed a reel. And then that reel needed to be on your website. And if you want to stand out, you have to keep up.

In a producer's eyes, how weighty is representation for actors and/or writers, creatives, etc.?
Davenport: When the actor is in the room, nothing matters. But representation helps get you in the room.

How does one break out into the world of producing? How do you get started in making investments into commercial productions?
Davenport: To break in the world of producing, you need to start producing! Find a show, I don't care what it is... Do Romeo and Juliet in your living room! Start small, but start.

To start investing in Broadway shows, find a producer whose shows you like and reach out to them. Get on their list. Go to readings. Be proactive. Investment opportunities aren't that public, so you have to put it out there that you are interested.

What is the best way to start saving money, raising money and meeting investors?
Davenport: I could teach a seminar on raising money. Oh wait! I do! Check it out. The quick tip is that raising money is just like selling Girl Scout cookies. You start with your friends and family and go from there.

Is it worth it, as an up-and-coming producer, to start with Off-Broadway or the New York cabaret scene?
Davenport: It's worth it to start on the street, if you're passionate about the project, and you can make it happen.

What are your thoughts on the cabaret scene, with both composers and young producers?
Davenport: I think it's a fantastic option for new artists and producers to show people what they can do. Theatre rent is one of the most expensive parts of theatre producing. In the cabaret scene, the space is often free!

Talk about the self-producing composer. Do you think this is beneficial – producing your own work to establish your voice?
Davenport: Absolutely. Why wait for someone else to produce you when you can produce yourself?

What are programs or internships young producers should be investigating?
Davenport: Find producers that you like and respect and contact their offices. Not everyone should work for me. Not everyone should work for Manhattan Theatre Club. Identify what type of theatre you are interested in and seek out those opportunities.

Talk about producing new, contemporary work that may not have an outright commercial appeal. What are the risks involved? Is it worth it to take the risk?
Davenport: My business model is simple - if my shows don't make money, I don't eat. So I always have to think about a show's commercial potential. That said, I like finding a way to give something that doesn't seem commercial a real shot at making money. It's a challenge. I do things that I love... That's what all producers should do, commercial or not.

Many young people are passionate about theatre but might not be performers. Can you describe some of the creative facets of being a producer and what the role encompasses?
Davenport: Producers are like the CEOs of companies. We're in charge of it all.

Can you speak about what attracts you to produce certain projects, especially new works? Does it change for each production or are there common triggers that speak to you?
Davenport: It differs. But I have to be passionate about it to want to work on it. Producing theatre is too hard to work on something that you don't enjoy every day. And since so many shows don't work out, you want to make sure you love them. If I wanted to make money, I'd do something else. There are a lot of easier ways to make money. I produce theatre because it makes me happy.

What are some mistakes you have made in the business that turned out to be really helpful to you and that you were able to learn from the most?
Davenport: I learn more from the shows that don't work than the shows that do. And everything that hasn't worked has always been worth it in the end, because it has opened some door for me.

During your career you've nurtured new work and also produced revivals. Some people bemoan the amount of revivals we see on our stages, but can you speak a bit to the value of both? 
Davenport: I don't believe people bemoan revivals. I think people bemoan bad revivals. Revivals can be fantastic because they can make you look at something in a totally different light. Read a book when you are 20 and then again when you're 30. It could affect you in a totally different way. That's what is so terrific about great works of art.