Producer Profile: Ben Qasim Monks
Ben is Executive Director of Improbable, an improvisation company led by Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson. Improbable is currently producing Tao of Glass at Royal Exchange Theatre as part of theManchester International Festival; and recently produced Still No Idea (Royal Court& tour), The Paper Man (Soho Theatre & tour) and Akhnaten (ENO London).
Before joining Improbable Ben ran Supporting Wall with Will Young, producing Mike Bartlett's BULL with the Young Vic, winner of the Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Affiliate Theatre, and the world premieres of five plays by Philip Ridley including Dark Vanilla Jungle, Tender Napalm and Radiant Vermin. Ben has been producer for the Women Centre Stage Festival at the National Theatre and Birds Eye View, the UK's Festival of women filmmakers at BFI Southbank, Curzon and the Barbican; and has worked for the Koestler Trust delivering arts mentoring for prisoners and secure patients. He is a trustee of Deafinitely Theatre, Sphinx Theatre and the Multi-Story Orchestra.
It was a while ago, but tell us about your introduction with Stage One and how the bursary was beneficial to you?
It was a while ago! I did the Stage One producing workshop in 2008, then received a bursary with Will Young for our work at Supporting Wall in 2010. Both were hugely valuable – not just the practical advice (contract templates! Touring budgets! Gold dust!) but a space in which it was OK to ask stupid questions, and the peer network of new and established producers it created.
It was also a terrific insight into the commercial sector. When we got the bursary in 2009 I knew I was mostly interested in subsidised work, but I wanted to learn more about how commercial shows operated. I'd just read Robert Cogo-Fawcett's book about the relationship between subsidised and commercial theatre, and was curious about how to the two worlds actually spoke to each other and what they could learn from one another. That experience has proved really valuable since, and informed my producing work in both subsidised and commercial contexts.
Tell us about how Tao of Glass came about?
Improbable’s co-artistic director Phelim McDermott has been a Philip Glass devotee for decades – as a listener, then using his music in shows, and then directing some of Philip’s operas. Phelim and co-director Kirsty Housley have created a show that is, at one level, about Phelim’s relationship with that music; Phelim talks more about that on Front Row, here.
From a producing point of view, it’s a great example of partnership working. The show has been co-commissioned Manchester International Festival (MIF), Improbable, Perth Festival, Ruhrfestspiele Recklinghausen and Carolina Performing Arts – University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and the premiere this week is co-produced by MIF, Improbable and the Royal Exchange Theatre. Six partners across four countries including festivals, venues, a company and a university… Balancing the different needs and styles of such a broad group can be tricky at times, but this kind of partnership also creates a space in which each partner can contribute the thing that they're best at doing. And without international partners, a show like Tao of Glass simply couldn’t happen.
You have co-produced this production with MIF & Royal Exchange Manchester – what is the best piece of advice you could give our alumni on co-producing?
I guess that there’s no blueprint. Of course there’s loads of theory and precedent and best practice that can be really useful touchstones - but nobody really knows how producing works. Ultimately it's about people working together to create something, so "good producing" is as much about individuals and personalities and a good deal of luck as anything else. Trust your instincts, but also listen to the people around you and allow yourself to be changed by them.
I'd also say find a mentor. Someone you can go for tea with and dream with about future plans, but who you can also ring up in a crisis for some words of wisdom. I think those external perspectives are useful whatever stage of your career you're at. Finding a mentor can be hard - I remember agonising for ages about whether it was OK to email someone and ask if they'd be willing to mentor me, and when I did I was surprised at how quickly and clearly they said yes. On the whole I think producers are a generous bunch, so don't be afraid to ask more experienced peers for help!
Last time we spoke you were telling me about Devoted & Disgruntled, can you explain a bit more about how our producers could get involved? How might they benefit from participating?
Devoted & Disgruntled (D&D) is a 13-year-long-and-counting conversation about theatre and the performing arts. It’s a bit like an “unconference,” where groups of artists, makers, producers, venues, funders and audiences gather to work on key questions. There’s an 2.5 day annual event that moves around the country, and about 10 half-day events a year that focus on specific questions, places or art forms: https://www.devotedanddisgruntled.com/Pages/Events/Category/past-events
Anyone can attend D&D and the agenda is set collectively at the start of the event - anyone can timetable something they want to talk about. Most of the D&Ds are free. Over years hundreds of shows, partnerships and ideas have been created there - it's a great way to work on the things you care about, and meet fellow artists, producers and collaborators along the way.
What can we expect from Improbable in the future?
Tao of Glass runs until this Saturday (!) as part of the Manchester International Festival. After that Phelim heads to New York where our version of Akhnaten is at the Metropolitan Opera, while our co-artistic director Lee Simpson is reprising Still No Idea on tour this autumn, produced by Ellie Keel.
In the meantime two of Improbable's associate artists Alex Murdoch and Guy Dartnell are running an improvisation workshop that begins next week - more on that here. And Devoted & Disgruntled will be at Cambridge Junction and Omnibus Theatre in September.
One show you’ve seen and loved that will always stay with you?
I often think about DV8’s John from 2014, which I think is one of the most powerful pieces of storytelling I’ve ever seen. And the TEAM’s Mission Drift from 2011. I’m a huge fan of Rachel Chavkin’s work - her direction plus Heather Christian’s music and a gentle dissection of consumer capitalism was an awesome combination.
And of course, Improbable’s LifeGame. It was the first Improbable show I ever saw, at Lyric Hammersmith in 2010, and I remember feeling I’d never seen anything like it – it was generous and remarkable and felt incredibly moving while never taking itself too seriously. I think I saw it four times...
Tao of Glass:
An exploration of life, loss and a single question:
Where does true inspiration come from?
Inspired by a dream, this world premiere marries ten meditations on life, death and Taoist wisdom with ten brand new pieces of music from Philip Glass, presented by Phelim McDermott, co-directed by Kirsty Housley with an ensemble of musicians and puppeteers.
Part-concert, part-performance, Tao of Glass is a storytelling tapestry, soundtracked by Glass’s mesmerising music and shot through with Improbable’s trademark theatricality.