We’re delighted to reveal the first guest in our new series, Ask the Expert: a monthly interview slot where we chat to people we admire working in the world of arts, culture and entertainment. From building brands to curating exhibitions and producing podcasts to launching bold new projects, we’ll be going behind the scenes to chat with the people who make the magic happen.
First up: Serena Brett. In her role as producer at events company Fane Productions, Serena has been instrumental in building speaking careers for some of our best-loved authors, actors and comedians. We caught up with her earlier this month to find out what the things that make her tick are, the key to a knockout event, and what it’s like to work with writer, broadcaster and all-round national treasure, Elizabeth Day.
Describe your job in one sentence.
I produce one-off live events and multi-date tours across the UK, alongside my positions as Head of Branding and Head of Audience Development.
You haven’t always worked in events. How did you end up here?
I thought I wanted to be on the stage, but after a stint at National Youth Theatre, I decided behind-the-scenes was for me! I worked at Chichester Festival Theatre and gained internships at Finborough Theatre and the National Theatre, before applying for an assistant position in the talent department at Curtis Brown. I spent several years there, learning an incredible amount about working in a fast-paced creative environment, before joining Fane in 2017 as their office coordinator. There were just four of us then and now there are 25!
You get your inspiration from lots of different sources – what are your top three tips for people when it comes to event planning?
Know your audience: where do they live? What kind of venue are they likely to feel most comfortable in? How much are they going to pay for tickets? What extra things can you do to make this event feel really special for them?
Pick the right interviewer: I like to take the time to match the interviewer to the author and their subject matter, considering whether they fit the tone and content of the event, as well as whether they appeal to the audience. They are, after all, often making up half of the people on stage! The interviewer also needs to be a good listener, not just someone who rattles through their pre-written questions without engaging the author in conversation. The best events are when the questions and answers flow so naturally that the audience feel as though they are eavesdropping on a private conversation.
Eye-catching marketing: this ties into knowing your audience, but brilliant artwork design and engaging show copy is crucial to translating website browsers into ticket-buyers.
What do all the best performers have in common, if anything?
The best performers are great storytellers, whether they are talking about their fiction writing, recounting tales from their own lives, or conveying a political or social idea. Engaging with the audience is also crucial – breaking down the fourth wall, acknowledging their presence and making them feel involved in the conversation can make the room feel electric.
You’ve built Elizabeth Day’s live event career during your time at Fane. When was your earliest meeting with Elizabeth? Did you have an inkling she’d become the national treasure she has?
I first asked for a meeting with Elizabeth and her agent at the end of the summer in 2018 (the first episode of How To Fail with Phoebe Waller-Bridge was released in July 2018 and I can remember exactly where I was when I listened to it!) I could see that Elizabeth had tapped into something really special with the podcast and that the format, her warm personality, and her (now trademark) honesty would translate perfectly to a live event.
Often when we are trying out an idea at Fane, we start with a test event – our first show was in East London in 2019, where 400 people queued round the block to squeeze into the Rio Cinema to see Elizabeth talk to Ncuti Gatwa. Fast-forward to 2023, and we have built live into all aspects of Elizabeth’s career. In September 2021, we sold out the Barbican to launch Elizabeth’s latest novel Magpie; in Autumn 2022, we produced four live-recordings of How To Fail with Caitlin Moran, How To Fail veteran Mo Gawdat, Craig David, and Sophie Ellis-Bextor, and in March this year, we sold out the Royal Festival Hall to celebrate the publication of Friendaholic, Elizabeth’s newest non-fiction book. Together we have sold out The London Palladium, the Bridge Theatre and the National Theatre in London, as well as venues across the UK and Ireland.
We’ve also worked together on establishing her corporate speaking career, booking engagements at companies such as Google, Meta and Netflix.
Elizabeth often says that I had faith in her before she had faith in herself; I could absolutely see her potential from our very first meeting and I am only glad that she can now see that too!
Biggest pinch-me moment of your career?
Oh, there have been so many, and almost all of them are the fleeting, trivial things that happen behind the scenes. Stanley Tucci making me a martini just before he walked out on stage, Margaret Atwood scrolling through pictures on my phone, being hugged by Malala, hearing a crowd of 2,500 people lift the roof off the London Palladium chanting There’s Only One Arsene Wenger, making a cup of tea for Dame Julie Andrews, eating Deliveroo with Jessie Ware, receiving a hand-written thank-you card from Kathleen Turner, selling out of books for Candice Carty-Williams, Nick Grimshaw asking to be in my BeReal, watching 1,000 women lovingly heckle The Receipts Podcast, Bernie Sanders coming into the office to record a podcast, being in the Acknowledgements of Elizabeth’s latest book, Mel C telling me she liked my pink trousers!
But honestly, there is truly nothing like the buzz I get when I hear the sound of the audience clapping and cheering when an author walks out on stage.
What’s on your radar?
Non-fiction: anything by Patrick Radden Keefe and Friendaholic by Elizabeth Day (obvs)
Fiction: Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld, Lote by Shola von Reinhold, and Small Worlds by Caleb Azuma Nelson
Watching: Succession season 4 (aren’t we all?!)