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Spotlight on Liam McMullan

This month TheatreNI spoke to young NI theatre producer Liam McMullan!

Tell us a bit about yourself and your work to date.
Born and raised as an only child, coming from a hard-working family, I’ve been involved in a family business working with furniture from an early age.  So, my story from Furniture to Theatre is one that I personally believe deserves its own play…one day. I have always had the best support from my mother and father and without them god knows where I would be, I owe a lot to them for the person I am today.

I remember the first time I was in a theatre, I was completely mesmerised by everything about it. I recently read a quote about pantomimes being the first time a child comes into contact with theatre and how we need to make that experience the most magical experience for them in the hope that we have created a future theatre lover who wants to attend theatre or even become involved. That is exactly what happened to me. I had been involved in the usual school shows and had been a performer in my early teen years, achieving my grade 8 in musical theatre and performing in amateur shows. One day my mum said to me about the youth show at The Grand Opera House – at the time I thought that this was a great opportunity. On the day of the audition, I had Anthony Boyle staying in my house, neither of us wanted to go to the audition but my mum beat us out the door. We both were cast and that experience (for any kid to stand on that stage) is one I’ll never forget.

I was introduced to two gentlemen during my time at the GOH who opened doors for me, helping me understand the business side of theatre. I spent two weeks in their company and working with the team at GOH, where I found my love for producing and theatre management.  I have Adam Knight and Michael Ockwell to thank for helping on my way with that one.

At that stage in my life I was only 16 years old and still uncertain of where to go to for further education, it was the business route or performer route that I wanted to take. My heart was more on the business. Still unsure two years later I decided to take a bit of time out and aged 18 yrs, I took myself off to Australia to become a cowboy. True story! I worked for a few days as a cowboy, 5 snakes under my shed, no hot running water, unregular toilet facilities, dinner in a steel cup and trying to deal with my boss and some difficult behaviours. (Told you it could be a play.)  I was so fed up I thought I’d go home and work for my family business. My mum encouraged me to stay and I lived there for another few months and worked for a furniture company in Perth, WA. The decision was made from that day that I would never work in furniture again and that I would follow my heart into theatre management.

Returning home, I found a great course in the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (LIPA) specialising in the entertainment industry, and from there the opportunities were endless. I started a Music Management Company with a friend of mine managing international artists which took me around the world touring. I toured with the famous all male ballet company Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo and produced a sell-out run of RENT in the Paul McCartney Auditorium in Liverpool. I have a lot to thank LIPA and my lecturers for (John, Jeremy, Phil, Maria, Gill and Liz). I looked to home for my course placement. I was placed in GBL Productions for six months; working on three large scale productions and by that stage I knew that this was the job for me. I graduated from LIPA in 2017 and now I am working full time as a Commercial Theatre Producer.

L-R: Tom Hendrik Uebelgünn, Mikey Jones, Jake Lipiec, Jalen N’Gonda, Liam McMullan – Liam on tour with Jalen N’Gonda in 2016 – Montreal Jazz Festival, Canada (Supporting Ms Lauryn Hill).

Tell us about working as a commercial producer
As a commercial producer you are taking risks on every show, will it sell, will it not? I work in a small team of four but we cover all areas and work hand in hand together to bring the show to the stage. I believe the training in LIPA set me in good stead for working in such a fast-paced company. It is hard to pin point exactly what my job role is, as it covers an endless list of tasks.  We are constantly planning ahead. I have the majority of our 2018 programme contracted and well ahead with 2019 plans. Some days I feel that I have moved two years ahead because my mind is working on shows in 2019 and we have just started 2018. I get this great thrill at the first meeting of a show and deciding what we will produce, picking the image, casting, rehearsal, opening night and the closing night. The process of it all (even though not every show goes smoothly) is the main reason I do my job. It’s seeing it through from day one to the end result – seeing the audience in tears of laughter or kids dancing to the songs in panto. That’s what it’s all about for me.

I think a producer is as important as a lighting designer or the actor – each person needs the other to help with their job, if that person isn’t there fully, then the job doesn’t get done. The role of a producer is to pull everyone together: crew, cast, venue and creatives. However, the main role of a producer is holding the purse. I think people often misunderstand the producer’s role – they are not just doing it for the money. They love of it!  I think training for producers is vitally important as the industry is changing all the time, Theatre NI held a great day on producing where it gave independent producers the chance to ask questions to venue managers about how they book their venues, what is a co-production, what is a box split etc. There needs to be training not only on how to deal with venues but how to deal with contracts, health and safety and benefiting from additional investment through theatre tax relief for example. These are all vital areas in which a producer needs to cover but it is great to see that Theatre NI is continuing to bring these training sessions to Belfast and giving the producers in Belfast the opportunities to learn how to better themselves in these areas.

Graduating from Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (LIPA) in 2017

We hear you have an idea for a theatre awards ceremony?
Since being back home, I have had more time to see local theatre and the talent that we have in Northern Ireland is amazing. We have some brilliant theatre artists and it made me think about putting together an evening solely dedicated to the Theatre Industry in Northern Ireland. I think we need recognition for the hard work we all put in. Making theatre is very stressful, it would be great to have a night where our small community can all join togethr and celebrate our successes. I would love for it to be recognisable within the industry. It is a work in progress but over the next year or two it will get to its feet and I hope to be welcoming everyone involved in Theatre in Northern Ireland out for the evening.

How’s the future looking right now?
I am always looking to the future, whether it be for future productions or my career. I am excited about the future, I think I need to be as a young producer. I recently spoke to an actor friend of mine and he explained to me that “Being Irish is only a commodity when you leave Ireland”, I think it’s so true and I have high hopes of producing a number of shows across the water and around the world. (Though I Don’t think I could go back to Australia). I am only 22 and I am hungry to get my teeth into projects and to take risks, I think I am very lucky to have the job I have at my age, and even more lucky that I have the drive to move my career forward. To run The Grand Opera House is a dream of mine so who knows, I might end up in there one day.

What are your ideas for our arts sector for the future?
There’s a great uncertainty around the arts sector here at the moment (as we all know too well). As I don’t particularly work within the funded arts sector I do believe it would be wrong of me to give my opinion on the subject. When I see people however really fighting for the arts sector and those people are inspirational to me. Belfast has been producing some great theatre over the last number of years; but still there is this struggle to get an audience into our theatres to see local product and I think over the next few years we can encourage more and more people to come see this. I can’t explain the struggles of a funded arts organisation because I work in commercial theatre, but both funded and commercial theatre companies take huge risks. Nothing is ever concrete in this industry, but we can’t let that stop us from creating and collaborating to make great theatre and entertainment.