"Modesty is a virtue that can never thrive in public… A man must be his own trumpeteer, he must write or dictate paragraphs of praise in the newspapers, he must dress, have a retinue, and equipage, he must ostentatiously publish to the world his own writings with his name, and must write even some panegyrics upon... them . . . and must perpetuate his fame." - John Adams
I started writing plays just over ten years ago. I had no formal training, no previous experience. Just curiosity and an opportunity. I was an actor that joined my theatre company’s writing lab on a whim. I had no idea what I was doing, but I cranked out two scripts that, after a lot of revision, turned out to be pretty good. Now, ten years later, they’re both published (one found a home here at Stage Rights), and I’m struggling to find the time to get my third script done (with ideas for a fourth and a fifth already queued up and waiting). But I’m not writing about time management here. No, instead, I want to talk briefly about the journey I took from finishing the final draft to publication.
Apparently I’m kind of unique amongst playwrights – just about everything I’ve written has been performed, or at least read in public. I go on The Official Playwrights of Facebook Group, and see posts from many, many writers struggling to get even a staged reading of their work. They submit and submit and submit, but no one bites. Now, without getting into a discussion about quality or artistic merit of the work submitted (as that is all subjective), I know firsthand that it’s true that most companies receive a deluge of unsolicited material, and can’t get through it all. Hell, I shopped both of my plays around to other companies before they were published, and even with good reviews and a solid pedigree of previous productions, I found that most of the time, most of my inquiries and submissions garnered no response. I don’t blame them, but at the same time, this left me stuck in an unenviable position.
So, what to do? Well, in looking back at how I’ve stumbled around for the last decade as a playwright, I realize I did three key things that directly contributed to my success. Here they are:
1) Get directly involved with a small theatre company.
Now, granted, I kind of cheated here. I co-founded a theatre company in 2008. It’s where I develop my plays and premiere all of my material. But that doesn’t make this any less valid of an option for you.
There are tons of small theatre companies out there. I’m spoiled that, here in Los Angeles alone, there are over 300 companies that work in houses under 99-seats. I realize that may not be the most realistic option for artists in other cities, but if you’re in even a small metropolitan area, chances are there are a couple of scrappy, hungry, talented folks creating theatre with spit and duct tape. Unless you’re already established enough to walk in to a larger house and command some attention (in which case, this article isn’t for you), this is where you want to be. Google is your friend. Go forth and track them down.
Once you find them, get to know these people. Read their mission statements. Research their leaders. See their shows. Volunteer for them. Help them paint sets and run their box office. Why? Because Theatre, by its very nature is a Collaborative Art. If you’re cool and you invest in the work of theatre artists, they’ll invest in yours. If you support the company, you’ll become a part of the family. I’ve seen it happen before.
And once you’re inside, you suddenly have a collective ready to help support you: readings, workshops, possibly even a production, if you can bring on the page. You help them build their brand with your work, and in turn, your brand is enhanced by their artistry. This is the nature of collaboration.
Okay, so there aren’t any small companies in your area? Or you are really masochistic? Do like I did, and start your own company! It doesn’t have to be a full, seasonal theatre company with a resident ensemble, either. There are lots of different models to build upon. One of the most intriguing collective production models I’ve learned about recently is New York’s now-defunct 13P, and a number of similarly structured offshoots. Playwrights coming together to develop and mount each other’s work. Each writer in the group gets a work premiered, then the collective disbands, or passes the torch to a new generation of empowered self-producers. The beauty here is that you, again, have a support system of an invested collective to help you make it happen.
Okay, so there aren’t any small theatre companies in your area, or they just don’t “get” you, or they only want to do work by Jason Robert Brown and Sarah Kane, or whatever. That brings you another option: produce it yourself.
Now, please note, I said produce it yourself. Not produce/direct/stage manage it yourself. If you’re going to self-produce, do it right. That means you need to, once again, surround yourself with competent artists not named you. Or at least hungry, passionate folks that have a clear vision and are willing to work hard. We were all new once, and we all had to start somewhere.
But seriously, get a director. I am of the not-so-humble opinion that writers should not direct their own plays (and yes, if you look at my resume, I directed a 10 minute musical I wrote once, but that was to get practice at directing musicals). I know it happens all the time. It’s tragic. I say that because if you direct your work yourself, you’ll never know what another set of eyes can find in your material. Putting your script in the hands of a good director is the ultimate road-test for the material, because a good director will help you see where the script shines, and where it still needs work. This is the kind of analysis you can’t do yourself, and is an important part of the development process. Trust me on this.
Also, don’t stage manage the show yourself unless you know what you’re doing. Get a qualified Stage Manager. You’ll know one when you see them. They are one part magic pixie dust, one part logistical ninja, and 98 parts utter badass. Look for the unicorn horn. But seriously, a good stage manager will increase the quality of your production manifold and save you tons of headaches.
Finally, this will cost money. As a matter of fact, this is probably the most expensive option of the three. If you don’t have a savings or are independently wealthy, learn how to fundraise. If you are independently wealthy, I have a theatre company in Los Angeles with open seats on the Board of Directors.
Where was I? Oh, yes. Crowdfunding tools like GoFundMe and Kickstarter can be a great tool if you’ve never asked your friends and family for money or support before. Also, it’s amazing what you can get for free or barter if you just ask, but there are certain costs that are unavoidable (insurance, for one. And yes, you want insurance.)
“But renting a theatre is expensive!” you cry. Well, yeah, it can be. But sometimes you can find deals. Ask about late-night performance slots for shorter works, or off-night slots for shows with simpler tech requirements. Make a budget. Raise the money. Then raise 10% extra. Because you will go over.
“That seems like a lot of work. Isn’t there an easier way to self-produce?” Well, kind of, yes… and that brings us to my final suggestion:
3) Fringe, baby. FRINGE!
Both a noun and a verb, Fringe is a magical state of being akin to Nirvana for theatre people. I have been a part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival since 2010, when I first self-produced Friends Like These at The Ruby Theatre in The Complex. There are Fringe festivals all around the world, and they provide a lower cost of entry to the world of self-producing than doing 100% of the work yourself. You still have to hustle, but now you’re hustling in an environment with a built-in community and support system, ideal for first-time self-producers. Here you may be able to find a built-in audience base, critics, awards, and tons of other artists to network with as you plan your next steps.
Now, no two Fringes are alike, so do your research on what the application process is like, what the requirements are, what the festival provides and what you’re responsible for. Trust me, nothing is worse than losing your venue less than a month from opening because the Festival accepted your 90-minute show and booked it into a space scheduled with hour-long performance slots. Moral of the story – do your homework.
So yeah, those are my three suggestions for folks looking to get their work seen. Sometimes you need to roll up your sleeves and do it yourself. Embrace it. The rewards can vastly outweigh the investment. Don’t be afraid to be your own greatest champion.
Because sometimes, if you want something done at all, you have to Do It Yourself.