Disclaimer: This post is for artists who want to make their own work and use that vehicle to move them into film, TV or broadway. If those aren't your goals, the goals deep down in your heart that you want and are willing to take the criticism to achieve, then don't read any further.
When you're making your own work, that is the perfect time to use the work as a vehicle to get you seen by industry folks. Folks like casting directors, agents and managers. Folks who can change the direction of your career.
Not only that, but when you make your own work and it gets produced, you're earning two paychecks: one as actor, one as writer. And that's is very good indeed.
Who Should See Your Work & When
Now if you want to do a reading of your work, a play, solo show or screenplay just to get feedback, I strongly suggest you do that in a private setting with invited guests. Or out of town where decision-makers are not likely to see your work too soon and gossip about it not being ready.
Oh, yes, theatre people in power do gossip about work, especially when it's not good. Those invited guests should be fellow playwrights who are produced and successful. Those are really the only folks who can give you meaningful feedback that will get your show produced. Everybody else just has opinions. Established writers can help solve problems.
Here's why you should keep your work under wraps until it's ready:
You only get one shot with producers, artistic directors to show them your work. If it's developmental and not ready, that's the impression they leave with about your work: developmental, green and not ready. This is especially true of first time playwrights.
How can people who have never been where you want to be, help get your closer to your goals?
Who's your creative team? If the goal for making your own work is to get produced in a regional theatre or off broadway, then as a first time actor/writer/producer, you can be the only newbie on the team. Your director, dramaturg, sound, lighting team should be composed of folks who have substantial credits, awards, nominations and essentially are very successful in the mediums that you are trying to break into.
Get Decision-Makers to See Your Show
Now, once you have a production-ready script, that's the time to do a huge public reading and strategically invite industry folks. And before you do any inviting, you must have a clean, sophisticated web presence in place. One place folks can go to see your headshot/resume/reel and buy tix to your show that you're producing. If they got to click to a bunch of pages, they ain't doing it.
Remember: You're a newbie, you're not a hit name yet, but you want to be. So make it easy for people to make you a star. Make it easy for them to get access to your. Fellow actors who are your level, can't help you, that's not who your target audience is for your show. Your target audience are people who can't take you where you want to be . Date up, not down.
Once your web presence is in place, snail mail invitations should go out at least 3 months in advance. You should be doing a bi-weekly newsletter with 3 bullet points about you and/or your show. You have to keep your work foremost in the minds of industry people to create heat. That's what puts important people in seats: agents, managers, network casting directors and artistic directors.
As one very famous playwright once told me:
"You have to make them want to fuck you to get produced. So make create some heat. Make yourself hot & fuckable."
About 8 weeks out, you should follow-up the snail mail with a postcard, then 2 weeks later an email, then two weeks after that, pick up the phone and call the office. Be prepared to have two tickets ready for each office you invite. And don't let it discourage you if they only send assistants. Assistants are agents, casting directors or artistic directors in training.
If you don't give industry folks lots of advance notice, you will not get them to your show in large numbers. Remember: industry folks are reading New York Times reviews and going to hit shows in town every night. They book at least 6-8 weeks out.
Don't Show Your Show Until It's Ready
Lots of folks will argue with me about this, but I believe the reason plays stay in development for umpteen million years is because writers share the work with people who cannot really help them as writers. So they're just getting random peoples' opinions way before they know what it is that they're writing. And these random opinions are coming from people who have never written a play like the one you're writing. So how can they possibly help you fix writing problems? That's crae crae.
Find a writing mentor or teacher. SOMEONE WHO HAD DONE WHAT YOU WANT TO DO. You're throwing good money after bad, paying someone who has never been produced regionally and off broadway to teach you how to write. Unless, you're writing just to do it...then go right ahead.
But if you're writing to get produced, get great reviews, nominations, then you have to get feedback from someone who is successfully in the game.
Find a writing mentor or teacher. Make sure they are seriously bad=assed and make sure they can also speak to you about how to market your work to get it produced. Those are two separate skills and equally important. There are lots of genius writers who can't get produced...
I had tons of writing mentors. Each playwright whose work I had done as an actor were my "go-to" resources in getting my first play produced. A first-time writer who is also an actor getting her play produced off broadway is pretty much fricking unheard of. The only reason my first play got produced is because I followed all of the steps outlined in this blog. Tanya Barfield, Lynn Nottage, Kia Corthron, Marcus Gardley, Seret Scott and Jessica Blank were my writing mentors. They were all doing the kind of work I wanted to do and at the level that I wanted to do it at. So date up, not down.
And one vital thing: use developmental labs. But use them strategically. The folks that see your work in prestigious developmental labs become champions of your work. But only share a script that s production-ready or almost there, so you can get new eyes. Remember, you only get one shot when showing your work, make sure it's a full representation of your talent.
""""One of the most mortifying moments I experienced in my theatrical career was when I was asked to bring the entirely African-American cast of a new musical we were workshopping, a new piece by an African-American librettist and composer, across the street to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and up into the plush boardroom so they could perform a song or two for the board of directors. I wanted to say something, but I didn't. For one thing, it would take an invaluable 45 minutes to an hour out of the creative team's limited time together. But... every year we had to do the same old song and dance for the board to remind them that yes, we did do new plays and musicals, so yes, it was sometimes a good idea to expose the board to new voices, to the vibrancy of an exciting work in progress.
You all know where this is going, don't you? I led the team in. The talent in that team! The writer/composer himself and the cast, lauded veterans of the stage and the most promising members of the next generation of acting giants. And there was our board. White, as white as can be, white white white white. And very comfortable. They'd just been served lunch, I believe. My theater spared no expense in pleasing our board and catering to their demands (oh my god, I'm feeling such rage right now! I'm pretty sure we had a staff member who was mostly dedicated to help our richest board members get house seats to shows on Broadway and the West End. But I digress...)
The only black face in the audience seated at the conference table? The only person of color? The head of our education department, of course. My heart went out to her.
The cast sang a song from the show. They did it. And they brought it. Because they were and are professionals. And the very pillars of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion reverberated down to the parking lot. It was breathtaking.
And I had just been complicit in the remaking of a scene for the millionth time: black bodies and voices entertaining white audiences, an institution raising money on the backs and voices of black bodies.
I was too mortified to apologize to our writer and to our cast, none of whom, I should add, expressed even an iota of discomfort. They were professionals, and they shone. And come to think of it, they'd probably all become accustomed to this scene. "It's just how theater works," they might have thought with a shrug of their shoulders. Or maybe they seethed inside, for the millionth time, when all they were trying to do is workshop a new musical.
Well, I apologize sincerely now to our writer and those actors. I wish I had had the courage to put my foot down. It is not how theater should work.
I quit the American theater on Valentine's Day 2016, so I've been out more than four years now. And honestly I don't plan to return, which is why I can write with such candor.
The heart of the problem, my friends, is with the non-profit structure, which is capitalism on steroids. Who are the bosses ultimately in an American institutional theater? The board of directors. Who are the board of directors? For the most part, those members of the community not with the strongest attachment to the art form but those with the deepest pockets. Often they're really not members of the community. They often just drop in. They are sometimes mere tourists.
It's no wonder that that board meeting was held in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The theater, like most American theaters, had built its board of directors on the old opera model: You get the richest folks together, offer them galas and house seats and receptions and private recitals and showings (for which artists often don't get paid extra, mind you), you pamper them and make them feel more special and entitled than they already do, and then they'll write you big checks to support the kind of art they like, the kind of art they can bring their kids and grandkids to. AND they--not the artists, not the community--get to hire the institution's leadership.
It is a rotten model. Rotten to the core. How can any artistic institution claim to be working for and in the community with that model?
It's got to be torn down. It's got to be reinvented. And I have no idea what the next model will be. I really don't. And no, honestly I don't think government is the solution frankly. Some of the most bloated, self-satisfied, decadent theater I've ever seen was in Germany, where it was almost fully government-funded. Lots of bells and whistles and provocations and completely soul-dead.
I see amazing and galvanizing lists of demands recently being made and posted by theater artists of color. These are vital demands. But they don't address the central issue. As long as the ultimate bosses of an artistic institution remain the community's deepest pockets, nothing will change. Nothing. You'll be putting band-aids on a gaping wound. Sorry, but it's true.
So please figure something else out. Maybe for a few years you just avoid the institutions. You've already started. In the pandemic, so many of you are making amazing art without an institution. Find those who truly adore your work and ask them to fund it. Screw non-profit. Form a corporation and value your art art-making as a resource that profits you, your viewers/audience and your community. I have no idea.
But please don't return to a new version of the old. After the virus, after he's out of office, after police reform and nationwide conversations about race, after, after, after, begin something new. I can't wait to see what it is!”
Words: Pier Carlo Talenti
Video: Griffin Matthews
April Yvette Thompson