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Artists in Isolation - Zak Khan on producing, utilising boundaries and rejoicing in silly.

Our interviews are a soundboard for those living a creative life, as told by working artists of all kinds. Circling back and always examining our creativity, we think, helps us to engage more authentically with it.

Zak found producing while studying at university, and produced across Bristol, London, Brighton and Edinburgh. After graduating, he moved to in-house producing, with his first position as Resident Producer for the Oxford Playhouse & Magdalen College School. Since then, he has spent the majority of his time as part of the commercial producing team at the National Theatre, focussing on UK and international touring, and West End and Broadway transfers. At the start of 2020, he left London to join the team at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, as Producer.

He writes very pithy tweets @Brown_iZak

How are you doing?

I’m alright. I am very lucky. I’m in a nice space and I have my partner with me. There are those moments when you forget that we are in this strange lockdown time and it just feels like a very odd mini-break, I feel really conflicted about that! But in the good moments it has actually been quite lovely - It’s been really lovely to find moments to sit and be silly and laugh and play.

We’ve had that moment of reaching out to our loved ones and being like “Are you ok? Are you ok?” - It’s that first conversation. Then you move past that and you are on you’re third or fourth phone call and you are like, “Oh so um...I was thinking about where else I’d like to live in a different city ” or “If I ran a restaurant it would be this” and your kind of back to the normal mundane shit and it’s so nice to not be worrying intensely over every single family members individual health. We can now just chat about how fucking crazy Tiger King is.

Where are you right now and how has this impacted your work?

I’m in Manchester in my flat which my boyfriend, Billy, managed to get to before the lockdown so we have both been working from home here. We are sharing the living room with one table, but I have a big computer set up, and he has his laptop and halfway through the day we wander onto the sofa. He generates content, so he’s fine as all people are doing is scrolling their phones at the moment.

For me, I’ve lost my building. As a producing house as well, we can’t trust other people to sort it out for us. It's like “Ok, how are we going to put this back together". And for our business model half of our income comes from tickets, so how can we produce theatre and utilise the skill set of all the craftspeople we have nurtured over generations, how can we continue to honour that and do what no other theatre in this city is placed to do? We have to protect the art. The parameters are definitely going to change. Budgets are being slashed nationwide. The way theatre is made is definitely going to change. So how do we protect freelancers and the art itself? We are talking about all of this.

We are also discussing what does it mean to do a show at The Royal Exchange? I mean it’s the power of story. That’s what works in our space. And whilst it’s tempting to strip things back, people do still turn to us for that escapism and fantasy. There’s a lot of existential questions being asked. It’s kind of alarming, but it’s also kind of re-affirming? Here’s a very different set of parameters. Creativity responds to parameters. How can we be inventive and continue to push and tell stories and bring communities together and sustain livelihoods.

Would you agree creativity is almost always defined by its time, the boundaries that context places on it?

Creativity has to have something to respond to, yes. Creativity without bounds gets lazy!! Otherwise, you are just looking at lots of money on stage and laziness, and it’s like Ok - did you need to build that world that way? Have you really tried to pull me up and take me along as an audience member in a different way? Theatre isn't film. It shouldn't be a totally expensive thing and mirroring reality, it can and it should challenge us. So by limiting it, you test people’s creativity. And that’s when you see real moments of brilliance, gorgeousness and joy when you are like “right here we fucking go”.

What’s your story? How do you think have you ended up creating the work that you do?

Producing came out of this moment of here’s this room full of brilliant wonderful people who all have this amazing talent to share and I really see the potential in that and I think what I can bring to this is join the dots and facilitate them telling the story in the best possible way. For the audience too, so they can take and share in that story. I think that my ability is to bring people together and let them share in the magic. It’s that - "ok how can I tap into the potential of all these people". They do the work themselves, I’m not a director or an actor, but I can make a space and protect that space so they can nurture and grow what's within them. That's why I do what I do.

One of my friend’s mum’s always thought I was a bad influence, she never liked me, but she always said: “you are such an enabler”. And I’m like, yeah that’s so true. She meant it badly but she got it. She got me!

Which makes you a great person for a night out!

Whether it’s Theatre or tequila shots - I’m an enabler..!

What are your favourite activities for feeding your creative process?

Anyone that knows me will know that I hate theatre. I love it! But it’s also me sitting at the back of a theatre, having a glass of wine and hating it. Because then I’m having a really rigorous and intense discussion around it - trying to dig into the nuts and bolts, where was that lazy? How could that have been more exciting? Because then for me, I see 3 or 4 things a year where I’m like”...I liked that”, and the elation I feel when I see those things, it’s exhilarating.

Sitting and reading too. I’m not a natural script reader, it’s something I struggle with but I’ve been trying to read 3 or 4 scripts a week now. It’s taken me a long time to get to that place. That’s been really brilliant. I’m not too precious about the details, I let things make a gentle build up so that I have a little flicker now and again of “oh that reminds me of this thing, I’m going to draw on that, and this and that”. It builds that frame of reference and really inspires me. I might hate a lot of theatre but I’ll love a certain aspect of it and will draw on it. Building new things from what I’ve tried and tasted.

Also just chatting to my friends! Even not talking about theatre or art. Having that easy, gorgeous personal connection with someone. It’s so nourishing. I’m an extrovert so I get a lot of energy from other people. My friends mean the world to me. It’s like sticking a plug in me and charging me up to see prospect and potential and light and shade and colour in the world.

And my work also.

As a producer, a work/life balance can be tricky as there are so many blurred lines. What’s often seen as leisure conventionally is work for you. How do you find it works for you?

I‘ve always really struggled. I really love what I do, the people I work with, I derive a lot of purpose from it, and am a bit of a workaholic.

Since moving out of London and from The National Theatre and coming to Manchester, I have been able to establish one a lot more. Having protected my evening headspace is so so valuable. Being able to cook for two hours. Going to a yoga class. That’s when the ideas hit! And it’s like “Now I can give”. That’s really brilliant.

Also, I’ve never been a natural exerciser or particularly sporty, I’m much more of a scary spice. It’s only been with this move that I’ve been able to exercise and use my body and take care of it. Basically, the hangovers just got a bit too awful…! I don’t naturally enjoy running or relish getting a sweat on, those people are alien to me, but I think there’s something about clearing your head so utterly that’s really brilliant. And that feeds into having a better time at work.

I’m so respectful of the people that can say “I’m drawing a line now”, this is the end of my day now and it’s something I have always struggled with, and nothing but respect for those people who can do it and who are firmer. I don’t think it’s just when you’ve been around in the industry for longer. One of the people I worked with, they were so good at it. They were so clear cut about on and off. It's - "If you had a problem you should have come to me in the day time." I try to encourage and learn from that idea.

It’s so tricky with theatre when those boundaries blur. It’s an industry that thrives on taking advantage because it’s a vocation for all of us. It’s a tough one to balance supporting work and life.

I am a selfish person, I do think “what am I getting from this, what brings me joy?” and in my work I am always pushing for that. That’s really helped me develop and grow, it’s mean that work so rarely feels like work. I’m so fortunate to have that joy in what I do.

It’s so interesting how the word “selfish” is so bastardised. Selfishness is just perhaps taking the time to think those things about our lives in terms of finding joy. I love that. What are your thoughts about community? How does it inform your work?

Community is entirely the driver. You are creating that space for people to come together. Communities can be long-standing or new companies, new audiences, or even one night and one show. It’s why we are all there, that experience of humanity together. I don’t know if its the same in film or TV. You lose that live quality. That shared breath.

I read something about how an audience’s heartbeat synchronises when you are watching a play. Some of that is because your emotions are steered by music and staging. But to think of The Olivier - 1,300 people all sat in a room staring at a single point and there hearts beating at the same time….

That might be the most beautiful thing I’ve heard so far this year…

It’s so mindblowing.

It totally encapsulates that unexplainable thing about theatre.

That subconscious unity. You don’t have to enjoy what you are watching but there is something about being together that is so special, it’s what I think I’ve really struggled with as part of this lockdown and losing theatre. It’s that absence of community and I only clocked it when watching the first NT At Home - One Man Two Guvnors. I do not care for that play really, but sitting and laughing and knowing other people are doing the same thing at the same time, the WhatsApps coming through.

It’s like the antidote to Netflix. It’s so easy to just turn it off or skip or just get distracted.

Yeah, it demands your attention, it only lasts that long. It’s limited and that's where its beauty comes in. So yeah community is important!

What makes a good producer?

I think the producers I really admire and look up to are absolutely people people. They will sit and get to know someone and try to understand their journey as a creative. They understand what their motivations are so that when it comes to trying to shape something you can really understand what's at the heart of each of their intentions. It also means you can work a room. Theatre is hard, it’s vulnerable, people feel exposed, people can lash out, it’s emotional. It helps to protect yourself and everyone. No one is ever angry - they are scared and anxious. It’s about seeing that person and their actual feelings, offering the reassurance and guidance and clarity that people need. It’s that ability to move people forward.

The producers I look up to, there's something else they do. They do not hold grudges. They move forward, look upwards and outwards and are clear-sighted. Sometimes it’s that laser vision to zone in on a key element, offering solutions and provocations.

Also, people that are just shit hot with numbers and things. I mean attention to detail is key. Being able to look through a 30-page document and move 3 commas and just change the entire thing! That high-level processing. I’m in awe of it when I see it done. I try to bring it whenever I can. Occasionally I get it right.

What will you take away from this time in isolation?

Personally? Ok this is going to sound arrogant now, but I’ve always backed myself to find joy and fun and silliness and to make sure I have a good time. And this time has continued to confirm that for me.

That’s beautiful! It’s not arrogant I promise.

Yeah! It’s like “cool I do still have that”! I can be playfully and silly and I know how to look after myself.

Professionally. I’ll probably take away that I hate zoom. Honestly. It’s just the worst fucking thing in the world.

I suppose I’ll also take away that this has challenged the way theatre is made and that will always be really valuable to have lived through. Hopefully, I’ll remember in the future that just because something is the status quo doesn't mean it has to be. And if you need to fuck shit up because necessity demands then such is life and let’s get on with it.

Also the value of having friends and family. I chat with people 2 or 3 times a day. Work people or actual pals, and it’s so nice to move past doom and gloom and talk about the random minutiae. Remembering how valuable those moments really are. And you see who gets in contact. No judgement if it’s a month in or something, but - you see.

Top 5?

  • Book - Tales of The City - all about people connecting, an extended love letter to San Francisco (which made me go there). It’ s outrageous and silly.

  • Film - Micmacs - the same director as Amelie. It’s a classic.

  • Series - Quiz - Devoured it. I bet in two months I’ll have forgotten it existed but at this time it was just a bit of great acting, and you can see how it was a play first which I love. (Also the writer has done a twitter thread of all of his favourite waves)

  • Podcast - Greater Boston - It’s a drama series about the public transport network that connects the area, it starts a bit mundane but then gets thrilling.

  • Wildcard - FROZEN TANGFASTICS - I swear to god, once you try it you will never go back. It’s like a human chew toy.

As told to Olivia Foan (over Zoom you'll be pleased to hear. Zak was not pleased.)