Tobi Kyeremateng FRSA is an award-winning producer, writer and social entrepreneur.
Kyeremateng uses film, written essays, live public events, and community-led and co-designed programmes to create rich cultural experiences, document Black British & Diasporic cultures, and facilitate social change. Perhaps better known for founding the award-winning initiative the Black Ticket Project, Kyeremateng is also a celebrated theatre and film producer, board trustee for multiple theatre organisations, and writer, currently under commission to develop her first audio-documentary, Rave Rituals, and writing her debut non-fiction book, THEATRE SH*T.
In early 2021, Kyeremateng will be taking part in the National Theatre’s new free digital programmes that aim to teach young people about theatre-making and roles in the industry. Kyeremateng will be leading the ‘How to be a Producer’ course, for which 50% of places are available to young black people in partnership with the Black Ticket Project.
Please introduce yourself.
I’m Tobi. I’m a producer, working across film, live public events, and community programmes.
What word or sentence best describes your life right now?
It’s hard to find a word that describes everything that’s happened this year. I’m just going day by day. This is how I feel, this is what needs to happen. Probably the same as everyone, this has been quite a chaotic year, a very strange year, so maybe that’s the word – strange.
You’ve racked up an impressive list of credits in roles at the intersection between arts and business as a cultural producer, strategist, consultant, project manager, and board trustee. How did you get into this work?
I did an apprenticeship at Battersea Arts Centre when I was 18, and that was my entry into producing within an organisation. It was a great organisation to start in because it’s not a traditional theatrical space, so it meant I got to test lots of different ideas and art forms. I don’t know if I would consider there being an intersection of art and business, it’s just intrinsic to the way that we have to work in order to survive and make art and make money and pay people and try to pay people well. I guess producing can be seen as quite a business-y role because it involves money, but I wouldn’t necessarily see it as that. I think it’s quite a creative role. The money side of it – the budget and fundraising side of it – is just storyboarding and time-lining an event and hoping to pay people what they should be paid for their time in making the work.
Let’s talk about that, because, at entry-level, there’s an expectation that young people should be willing to work for free – what are your thoughts on this?
The idea that starting out you have to do things for free only serves specific communities that maybe have a culture of being able to afford the time. I think for those of us who haven’t had that luxury, thinking about money is just part of our practice, but not in a way that’s like, ‘I’m making this work because I want lots of money.’ It’s, ‘I’m making this work with my people and my people need to live and eat and pay their rent and pay their bills and be afforded time to make the work of the quality that we want to make it.’
Sometimes money/business is seen as the antithesis of art because art is all feeling, all emotion – it’s not allowed to be logical. That particular mindset only suits certain kinds of people who are allowed to operate within that framework. For the rest of us, we don’t have the choice but to consider these things. People who have had that freedom to work in that kind of way could learn a lot from working-class communities that have had to be resourceful, and think about finance in a very specific way.
You’re perhaps best known for founding the Black Ticket Project in 2017. How did you first come up with the idea?
In 2017, Barbershop Chronicles came to the National Theatre for the first time. It was still a very white, National Theatre audience, which, for a show that’s about black men, masculinity, and barbershop culture set in cities across the world, I found really strange and frustrating. So, me and some friends bought 30 tickets and gave them to young black men to see the show. The year after, Nine Night came to the same space, so I just got in touch with the National Theatre and said, ‘This is what we did for Barbershop, we want to do this again for Nine Night, but you need to be more involved in this process.’ So, they subsidised the tickets and we crowdfunded the rest, and, in the end, I think we got enough for 250 black young people to see the show across the run. People said they wanted more things like it – to participate consistently and donate every month; people said that they wanted it to be a thing, so we made it a thing.
Black Ticket Project targets an area theatres don’t often directly address – how to get Black people in the audience. Why is it so important to ensure that Black people are in the audience?
I mean, why not? I don’t think anyone asks why white people should be able to see theatre. As long as we’re alive we should be able to access whatever we want. It’s kind of the bare minimum for me. I always find that question very interesting – the justification for why black people should be there, like, why shouldn’t they? A lot of people think that to send a show to Black Ticket Project it has to be made by black people – but, we are multi-faceted like everyone else, we should be able to access everything. In the same way that all those white people didn’t think twice about going to see a show about black men in barbershops, I think we can also do the same in seeing a show and having something about that show pique our interest. It’s just the culture of going to see work and that culture is afforded to different people in different ways. But the first show that I want people to see through us has to be representative of them because that’s where the culture has to start from.
In its 3 years what do you see as the biggest successes of the Black Ticket Project and how do you envision its future?
Last year we brought some young people from London and Bristol to Manchester International Festival – I wasn’t there with them, but I think being able to do that and move people to different cities that they might not have been to before, I’d definitely like to do more of that. In the next couple of years, I don’t know. So much of the project is dependent on the needs of the people that we work with, and so, if the need for us to exist stopped tomorrow, we would just stop. At the moment I’m not wedded to, ‘This is my five-year plan. This is what I want to achieve.‘ I’m focused on what people need from us, how we can support that, and how we can make a change that feels wanted, asked for, and useful, as opposed to me coming in and saying, ‘This is what you need. Here you go and I’m going to hand it to you whether you think it’s useful or not.’
So, you’re being responsive to whatever’s happening within the industry. In this case, is it desirable that eventually the work being done by the Black Ticket Project is done by theatres themselves? If so, how do we get to this place?
Yeah definitely. It only exists because organisations aren’t doing that work. The ultimate aim is to cease to exist; to stop being useful. If this goes on forever, there’s a problem. Sometimes I feel like people talk about Black Ticket Project like it’s a really revolutionary thing. It’s not a hard thing to do; it’s very simple and organisations that have much more resources and money and manpower than I do could quite easily do this job themselves. Build trust with people who already have relationships with young people, instead of being obsessed with having to find them and create your own team of young people. People think I have all these black kids around me and I just pick them whenever we get tickets – very rarely do I meet the young people who go and see the shows. I’m working with people who they already trust – independent youth workers, their teachers, their youth leaders – those are the people I’m connecting with and building relationships with. The sector is really obsessed with ‘these are our young people‘ – it’s really quite strange. If organisations really wanted to do the work, they could. The way they revolutionise Black Ticket Project feels like a subtle way of saying, ‘We could never do that, so I’m glad someone else is.’ Like a way of disowning any sort of accountability. I would love for organisations to do just do it and stop talking about possibly doing it.
Let’s talk about your upcoming work with the National Theatre. You will be leading their ‘How to be a Producer’ course – for those of us who don’t know, could you just summarise what being a producer involves? What kind of skills does it require?
There are lots of different kinds of producers – some that are finance heavy, some that have nothing to do with finance. I think it’s assumed that the producer is the budget and fundraising person, but you can be a producer and not do any of that. Ultimately, you are facilitating an idea into being realised. Most people have produced before if you’ve ever organised a group dinner: trying to get something to happen, pulling in all the necessary tools for that thing to happen – booking the restaurant, checking how many people want to be there, distributing the menu and checking everyone’s happy with it, organising a time to meet. All of that is producing. People have probably done it before, the language just needs demystifying a bit.
Of all jobs in theatre, I’ve often been most confused about what being a producer entails, but your approach to producing has definitely highlighted how interesting and important this role can be. In your opinion, why should 16-21 year olds sign up for the ‘How to be a Producer’ course?
For this reason – it’s such a mystical job role, but it’s actually a really important job that doesn’t get talked about enough. We’re constantly in need of new producers – people with new ideas, new tastes, who are really in touch with what’s happening now in the world and how that’s affecting different generations. Now more than ever, that work should be produced and it should be produced by people who haven’t been in the game for 50+ years; people who are on the ground right now.
It’s also a really good way to meet lots of different people. You leave with a network of 19 other people, which is sick! Every one of those people has different skills – some of those people might not just solely be producers, they’ll be writers, directors, musicians, dancers, architects. There are so many different ways of being able to collaborate. And you obviously get to know and network with the people who come in to talk on the course – that’s the whole point of inviting the rest of the industry in and saying, ‘This is the next generation. You need to listen to them because they’ll be running your venues soon.’
Also, all of these skills can be transferred into any sector – learning how to budget, fundraise, market, pull together a team of people, pitch. Even if you don’t stay in theatre. I’ve used my skills to produce film festivals, music gigs, run workshops, and projects. People don’t need to be wedded to the idea that because they do this course, they have to do this job. The whole point of these courses is to be a space for playing and experimenting and downloading different skills from different people.
Aside from your work as a producer, you’re also currently writing your first audio-documentary, Rave Rituals, and your debut non-fiction book, THEATRE SH*T. What’s it been like making your writing debut?
The book has been very stressful! But, it’s been cool to be on the other side. To take the things I’ve learned as a producer, working with writers and directors, and apply it to my own work. It is scary being on that side. As a producer, your role is kind of anonymous – it’s not very forward-facing, people might know who you are, more time they don’t. Whereas this is your work and your name is on it, so that’s quite scary, and I’m still getting used to being really creative and not limiting myself with my producer’s brain. It’s been cool; it’s been a mix of really fun, really experimental, really scary, really stressful. I’m looking forward to them being released into the world.
Do you think you’ll continue to write?
We’ll see what happens when these two things go out in the world, people might be like, ‘No. Never write again.’ ‘d definitely like to get better at it, and experiment with different ways of writing – I’d love to write a short film. I don’t know if I could write a play – I’ve seen that process too many times and it kind of scares me a bit too much. I’d love to keep writing, but I think I just need to get over the fear of it first.
Have you got any other upcoming projects you want to tell us about?
I’m working with No Signal radio station and we’re running the No Signal Academy, a training programme for young black people ages 18-25 who are interested in behind the scenes roles in radio – radio production, live events, photography, videography, graphic design. It runs next year. I’ll be running it as a programme manager. Applications will open in December and we’re currently recruiting for a programme assistant. I’m really excited for it, actually.
Getting to Know You …
- A book you have to have in your collection: The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla
- A song / album that defines the soundtrack of your life to date: Find A Way by A Tribe Called Quest
- A film / TV show that you will watch whenever it’s on repeatedly: You know what, Come Dine With Me – it’s jokes!
- A play you watched that reminds you why you’re in this business: Brand New Ancients by Kate Tempest – it was one of the first shows I saw at Battersea Arts Centre, and that for me showed the possibilities of theatre, poetry, live music, story-telling.
- What’s made you sad, mad, and glad this week: Sad – the weather, it’s just dark all the time, I miss the sun. Mad – lots of things to be honest, obviously Boris Johnson moving mad, trying not to feed poor kids, that’s made me really angry. Glad – Wizkid’s new album Made in Lagos.
Find out more about the Black Theatre Project here.
Find out more about The National Theatre’s free digital programmes and how to take part here.