Jess Donn is a freelance producer working across the UK, with bases in the East of England and the Northwest. They recently completed an Emerging Producers Placement with the Colchester Fringe Festival.
Here, they tell us about their producing journey and their role in bringing the Colchester Fringe to life.
I did theatre as an extracurricular while studying at the University of Nottingham. My degree was actually in Computer Science. Theatre turned out to be a better fit for me but, in part because of my STEM background, I became more interested in the mechanics of a production. Nottingham has an excellent theatre society, and the only student-run theatre in England. This opened up so many opportunities and gave me a lot of hands-on experience. I knew that, if I didn’t give producing a shot when I graduated, I’d be disappointed.
Everything is very linked up. With things like the EPN, there’s a real drive to connect theatres and practitioners in a way that’s quite unique. You get a real cross-section of the region. It’s enabled me to meet and collaborate with lots of different people and explore interdisciplinary work that I might not have previously considered.
Ironically, I’d say the biggest challenge for me is the lack of connectivity in terms of public transport! I don’t drive, so it’s quite difficult to get from one part of the region to the other. This affects audiences as well. I guess you could see that as an opportunity, too, as it means we can bring the same shows to locations where there isn’t a cross-migration of audiences.
In my first year at Nottingham, I stage managed my first show at the Edinburgh Fringe. I got a taste for festival life and went on to produce or co-produce a show there every year (barring the pandemic). After that, I was fortunate to get a Stage One placement, which brought me to Colchester to work at the Mercury Theatre. Along with Firstsite and the Arts Centre, they’ve been the driving force to make Colchester an artistic hub of the East. The placement with Colchester Fringe allowed me to get in on the ground floor, whilst also building up my festival experience.
I worked alongside Cam Abbott-Betts, the director of the Colchester Fringe. He built the festival from scratch as part of his PhD at the University of Essex. It was a 30-day placement, but the time was spread so that I got to see the full breadth of the process. In the early stages I was supporting with scheduling and project administration. I also created a welcome pack for artists travelling into Colchester.
Festival week was very full on, and I wore lots of different hats. I was the face of the festival for artists and members of the public, making sure everyone had what they needed and knew where to go. I sold tickets, worked front of house, and solved problems on the fly at venues.
Brilliant, energetic, and a lot of hard work. It was such a close-knit group of staff, all of whom were really supportive of the vision of the festival. It felt very familial, and they helped to make the experience. Also getting to work with so many community partners across Colchester and feel the buzz of the city turning into an artistic centre was so rewarding.
I learnt how much goes into organising a festival from the ground up. With an established institution like the Edinburgh Fringe, it’s hard to imagine what the grassroots of it were. Being part of something still in its early stages like the Colchester Fringe, and knowing what it could become, was really exciting. I also learnt a lot about project longevity and building a business model. It was useful to see the different stages, to be able to understand where we are now, where we want to be, and how to get there.
It’s definitely been an amazing developmental experience. It’s enabled me to take work to other festivals with a wider knowledge of what things look like from both sides. It’s also allowed me to do more work in the region with people I met through the placement.
I have a national tour of an award-winning sell out show from last year’s Edinburgh Fringe. The tour debuts at the Mercury Colchester and will travel across the country. Coming Out of My Cage (And I’ve Been Doing Just Fine) is about the song Mr Brightside and is just an unashamedly good night out! I’m also working with an American comedian to bring another show to the Edinburgh Fringe, with plans to tour it around other Fringes after that. It’s called Welcome to the Big Show and is a really fun stand-up show about queer and trans experiences.
Pop into your local theatre and ask! People in this industry are so generous with their time, especially to bring people up. I think it’s because there’s an appreciation of the constant cycle of making. So many theatres in the region have amazing developmental programmes for performers, writers, producers, and directors. Just put yourself out there; you’re never going to start unless you start.
Also go and watch as much theatre as possible. Events like the Colchester Fringe are great as there is such a variety of work and ticket prices are affordable. Watching shows will not only show you what’s out there, but it will also help you to understand your own tastes and what you want to make.
Coming Out of My Cage: www.shepardtonetheatre.com