EXECUTIVE PRODUCER NICK LEVITT ON BUILDING TEAMS THAT GEL, PROBLEM SOLVING WITH WONDER WORKS, AND BEING ADDICTED TO THE BUZZ OF LIVE EVENT WORK
Nick is a powerhouse in the live events industry. An expert at building teams and ‘making them gel’, he has produced some of the most successful music tours of the past 30 years including Prince, Simple Minds, Culture Club, Michael Jackson, and U2. Now Technical Producer on ABBA’s pioneering concert experience in London, we catch up with him at Pudding Mill Lane to hear about his life on the road, how he moved into ceremonies and what keeps him working.
WW: What’s your background? How did you get into live event production? What was your first major project?
NL: My first foray into entertainment was with the Hull Truck Theatre Company, who were a fringe Theatre Company based in Hull. They are now well established but at that time, they were just being conceived. I left school at 17 and went straight to Hull Truck [Theatre Company] which was great for me because I was able to do everything from driving the van to looking after the props, and even acting in one of their productions! That took me to London where I found myself answering an advert on the back of one of the music papers called ‘Melody Maker’, saying “Roadie Wanted”. I didn’t know what a roadie was, but it sounded really glamorous. So I applied and got it and then went off touring with a Japanese percussionist in Italy, called the Red Buddha Theatre.
One thing led to another and we ended up on tour in the UK with a support band called ‘Hatfield and the North’, which was one of the first Virgin Record bands. That was the start of my career on the road. And for the next 30 years I worked my way up as a Guitar Tech, Stage Manager, Production Manager and Tour Director. First with the early UK prog rock scene of the 70’s / 80’s, then in the ‘pop’ world with Kate Bush, Culture Club, Ultravox, and Wham in the 80’s and 90’s and Simply Red and U2 in the 90’s.
WW: So what made you stop touring?
NL: I met my now wife during that period who was working as a live film producer on U2. She didn’t want to be with somebody who was touring, and I didn’t want to tour. We made the decision that I’d come off the road. By that stage I’d been looking after Simply Red for over 20 years. And they were going out six months later, and I said “can I just set up the tour and organise everything, but not tour?” And they said yes, which was amazing! That gave me the freedom to look into event work – ceremonies and big scale shows, which I’d never really been involved in before. Les Miserable and Phantom of the Opera anniversaries followed, along with producing the Pink Floyd Exhibition with Jo Cameron from LarMac and a series of ‘one off global bespoke events. Then in 2012 I got the call from Piers for the London Olympics.
WW: You’re widely known in the industry for bringing together the best teams to create spectacular events. Is this an innate skill, or is it something that you’ve learnt along the way?
NL: As a stage manager on tour, I did everything from driving the truck, putting up the PA and lights, and looking after the backline mixing. This gave me a good overview but I wasn’t very technical. I know that sounds crazy, considering what I do. But instead of drilling into either sound or lights as a department, my strengths lay in man management.
I love working with people. My role has always been about putting teams together, managing teams, managing budgets, the logistics and bringing people in to do the tech. Technically talented people like Jeremy & Piers. My job is people management to a huge extent. Knowing how to treat people, encourage people, make people feel good about what they’re doing, being able to support them when there’s issues, being able to take their problems away from them, and solve them.
Can you explain how you landed the role as Production Manager for the famous Torch Journey in London 2012, with Beckham on the speedboat? And what did it involve?
NL: It started with a call from Piers! I was sitting at home feeling a bit sorry for myself that the Olympics was going on, and I didn’t have anything to do with it. To be honest I hadn’t been involved in the ceremony world at all at that point so it wasn’t entirely surprising. But I could see some of my peers from rock and roll starting to get jobs at the Olympics and I was a bit gutted.
Piers had been talking to a friend from Stageco, who I’d just called to ask if there was anything going on. He turned to Piers and said “you should call Nick Levitt, he’s looking for work”. Next thing I knew I had a little office on the river at Butler’s Wharf and I was helping to train David Beckham to drive a boat!
WW: What would you say gives you the biggest buzz at work?
NL: I think putting the teams together, and making those people gel. Because as a Producer that is really what you’re there for. With live work anything can go wrong. And it does! Knowing how to react and understanding how your team will react is so important. It’s adrenaline, it’s a buzz and it’s an addiction. Everybody in live work will tell you the same thing. We’re all addicted to it.
WW: You’ve worked with Wonder Works for a number of years – London 2012, Clusters of Light in 2014, Abu Dhabi’s Founders Memorial in 2018, three UAE National Days (47, 49 & 50) and most recently Abba Voyage. What do you like about working with them?
NL: They just get it. They understand the big picture. Their knowledge and expertise goes way beyond producing shows. I think because Piers and Jeremy both come from touring and event backgrounds, they’ve got the wider knowledge and then they’ve also become experts in the detail. And that’s where they’re invaluable. Spotting details. Spotting mistakes, spotting solutions.
WW: You worked as Executive Producer on 2 National Day Ceremonies in the Middle East during the height of the pandemic. What was the biggest challenge in pulling off these mega events during COVID?
NL: COVID made it hard from a practical perspective. First of all, we had to isolate when we got there, which lots of people found hard. Rules and regulations were very strict in the UAE so everything was difficult. Transport was difficult. Testing every day was challenging and it required a lot of patience. And then managing situations when people got COVID. Who were they in contact with? How crucial were they to the show? On National Day 49 we lost over 50 of the performers because they were isolating! It was a crazy time because at that point we didn’t know how serious COVID was. We didn’t know whether people were going to die, whether they were going to infect somebody else. So that was incredibly challenging on top of a very challenging show.
WW: What would you say is your career highlight so far?
NL: I’d say I’m most proud of the 50th National Day Ceremony in Hatta. That was the biggest and most challenging show I’ve ever EP’d. Everything about it was challenging; The location, the fact that the entire show was floating on water, building roads to access the site. But the final result was breathtakingly beautiful, so it was all worth it.
WW: And what project would you say you’ve learnt the most from?
NL: Probably ABBA. I’ve been working on it for four and a half years now and my role has been overarching. All of our creative team and producers are from film world so it’s a real marriage of events tech and film knowledge. I’ve had to learn how to marry those skill sets. And to understand them as well.
WW: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
NL: To shut up in a meeting. I always remember that one. When you go into a meeting, don’t say anything. Then everybody else starts talking and it allows you to read the room. That was a good piece of advice.
Another one is not to shout. When you want to get your point across to someone or if you’re cross, don’t do it in front of everybody. Take them to one side and have a conversation. Then by the time you’ve made the decision to take them to one side, you’ve calmed down and your words are actually cohesive, rather than just angry. I’m very capable of being stern at the right time and place. But there’s nothing worse than being in an environment with people shouting at each other.
WW: What satisfaction do you gain from your work and what keeps you doing it?
NL: I just love it. I love the relationships. And the friendships that come from it. Some are short. Some are just for the event. Maybe you never see them again. But quite often you do. Usually on the next job!
WW: What’s given you the most adrenaline? What’s been the scariest opening night?
NL: I think the Founders Memorial in 2018 was up there! There was a 30 metre by 30 metre Kabuki that had gone wrong in front of our client in rehearsal. Then when it came to the real thing, I couldn’t watch. But that’s the buzz, the adrenaline of live shows.
WW: What’s next?
NL: ABBA is keeping me busy at the moment, alongside working with Simply Red and Simple Minds. I’m 70 and I love doing what I’m doing. But I don’t want the intensity or the pressure of event after event after event. With my couple of bands and ABBA, I don’t need much more. There are other things in life to do and enjoy.