It’s The Relationship, Stupid


Again and again and again at the Theater Bay Area conference a few weeks ago I heard playwrights being given the cold, hard truth about why their work is not getting produced (and why it is).

Here’s the facts: The open submissions process is a lie. Work does not rise up from a pile of anonymous scripts and slap artistic directors upside the head saying “DIRECT ME!”

Playwrights get shows produced at theaters because of the relationships they have with those theaters (or with taste makers that those theaters respect and trust).

I heard this statement, or variations on it, so many times in the last few months as the Outrageous Fortune report made its national rounds that I got the overwhelming urge to make a T-shirt.

It’s the relationship, stupid.

We are told that “open submissions” piles are read by interns, destined for form letters (a particularly hilarious/heartbreaking send up of the form letter genre can be found here), and rarely rise into season consideration without a strong recommend from a nationally respected literary manager or a trusted voice within the artistic director’s inner circle.

Even agents, we are told, are next to useless in getting plays seen and seriously considered. These days, A.D.s want to discover the play themselves, contact the playwright directly with questions, and only involve the agent when there are contracts to be signed.

So, you want to get your plays produced? Develop relationships with the taste makers and companies you want to work with.

All fair enough.

Except that as I write this, I can literally see a thousand artistic directors across the country cringing at the thought of the number of phone calls, Facebook messages, blog post comments and emails that will now come flooding in from playwrights wanting to “develop a relationship” with them.

And from the playwrights point of view I hear a lot of: “Okay. So. Build Relationships. HOW DO I DO THAT?”

Today, the artistic director I currently work with received an email, a blog comment and a Facebook message requesting a meeting. From the same playwright. Whom he has never met and never heard of.

I can tell you this did not make him feel that a “relationship” was developing between them.

So what would? Are there appropriate alternatives to this hard-sell “telemarketing” approach that might help you discover which directors and artistic directors would be a great fit for your work? Are there less invasive, more effective ways you could go about cultivating a relationship with them?

It turns out, the panel discussion (and resulting conversations) that brought me to the Theater Bay Area conference yielded quite a few potentially helpful insights into exactly this question.

The panel was called “Advancing Your Career through Social Media.” It could have just as easily been called “Build Relationships that Matter through Social Media.”

Here are some insights that arose out of that panel, and how they might apply to playwrights in particular:

1. Know What They’re Already Saying about You.
Okay, so you send an email to an A.D. you’d like to work with and request a cup of coffee to talk about how you might work together. What’s the first thing that A.D. is going to do when she considers whether or not to say yes? Ask the people in the office if anyone knows you. And then Google you.

Let’s tackle the online portion first. So, do you know what is being said online about you and your work right now? If you did a vanity search (a search for your name) on Google would you find the last three rants you did about how the last director you worked with “ruined” your play? Would you find a review from a respected local blogger saying that your work had “promise”? Your inclusion in a local playwrighting festival? Or would you find nothing at all?

You have a huge amount of control over what’s available online about you (in particular, you have a control over what comes up as most recent and most relevant).  So your first step is to discover (and track) what is already being said online about you and your work. The easiest way to do this is by setting up a Google Alert for your name that emails you every time someone mentions your name online. This way you can share, post and repeat the positive things being said about you and respond to or correct any negative things being said about you and your work.

If there is not much conversation about your work online at all, or if the most recent things being said  are less than positive, then considering creating a blog post that highlights the recent criticism of your work and then discusses what your recent experience has taught you or inspired you to do next.

If you don’t have one already, consider creating a website specifically for your playwriting. That way you can consolidate good reviews, letters of recommend, short descriptions of the kind of work you do, all in a place that will be easy to find by a casual Google-searcher. Remember, to have a relationship with you, they have to have HEARD of you. Make it as easy as possible for them to find all the information you want them to have about you online.

The second part, “who knows this guy?“, is equally important. The real subtext of this question: “Is this stranger whose contacting me a crazy person?” So you need to think carefully about who at that organization you may have worked with, and the strength of your relationship with them. In this particular situation, think lateral, not hierarchical. A box office staffer (and talented young actor) who had a great experience working on your show at a smaller company in town may be a stronger reputation builder for you than an assistant lit manager who knows your name primarily from the mail merge rejection letters she sent for your last twelve unsolicited submissions. More on that in a bit.

2.  Praise in Public, Criticize in Private

This is good management practice and its GREAT social media strategy. Complimenting the people whose work you honestly admire (in a public  way through a blog post, tweet, or Facebook update) not only creates a positive impression on the person complimented (again, authenticity is important- give the compliments you can really mean), it also alerts the people within your current web of relationships about what kind of work you respond to and aspire to. Some times an authentic “I found your work really inspiring” can open doors in ways that a “let me tell you about my newest play” never will.

The criticize in private is EQUALLY important. We’ve all had nightmare situations where we’ve worked with people who were horrible or whose work we LOATHED. Its tempting to vent on Facebook or in a blog post about what’s WRONG with such and such artist or company (especially if they are a ‘big guy’ and you are a ‘little guy.’ ) But here’s the thing:

No matter who they are, you don’t know who their friends are, nor can you predict whether you might someday be in a position of needing to work with them again because of a good opportunity through a third party. I can’t tell you how many times I have ended up in meetings or interviews with someone who seemed great, who I later discovered was BEST FRIENDS with a person I disliked working with (and who it turns out was going through an awful divorce at the time). An ill-advised Facebook flame campaign could have burned that bridge with this (perfectly innocent) third party before it even began. Theater’s a very human business. Never forget that.

And more importantly, someone who doesn’t know either of you (and has simply Googled you or found you on Facebook) could very easily see your rant (or string of rants) and leap to the conclusion that you are a negative person to work with (rather than assuming that the person you were working with was nuts).

So rant away. In the bar. With your friends. And where appropriate, have direct face-to-face conversations with the people you have beefs with to discuss your concerns. You may be shocked at the great relationships that can arise out of being honest face-to-face with someone you’ve had difficulty with.

But focus your public discussions on what inspires you. What you liked. What you’d like to do next.  And trust that if that person is really that awful, people already know. Your Facebook rant won’t help (and it can definitely hurt).

3. Follow the 80/20 Rule.

80% of your conversations (online or in person) with someone you are hoping to develop a relationship with should be about mutual interests, inspiring or entertaining things, generous compliments about great work by others.

20% of it should be self-promoting. So definitely post and share those great reviews, the behind the scenes rehearsal posts from your staged reading or world premiere, and the requests for feedback of the first draft of your next piece. But make sure that the majority of your posts are about things you are interested in the world, useful information you’d like to share about your areas of expertise and things that invite people to share their own  perspective on something you are passionate about.Be of value to the people you are communicating with online. If possible, be of MORE value to them then they are to you.

4. Ask Questions. And Listen More than You Talk.

Again, this is just as true online as it is in person. If you do manage to score that informational interview with the director you’d love to work with, and you spend that interview talking non-stop about your project and what a great fit it would be for them, you will end the interview knowing just as much about your own project and absolutely NOTHING about what might draw them to working with you.

Same is true online- sharing of yourself is great; inviting others to share (and listening hard, and learning well) is way better. So listen hard for areas of mutual interest, for exciting ideas that take you new directions, and then use those as a starting point to build rapport. And if you can’t secure a meeting in person, listen online. Track the blogs and public conversations of the people whose work you respect (be they directors, actors, or other playwrights) – and chime in where appropriate. Everyone who is writing online (no matter how “big” they seem to you) is desperate for feedback. Thoughtful feedback about an artists’ online work can be a wonderful starting point for a relationship (as long as you can refrain from instantly pitching in the aftermath of that pleasant interaction). And a good online conversation can lay the groundwork so that when a face-to-face meeting does occur (at a conference, a networking event, or a coffee date), you both already have some idea what you might talk about. But be sure to ask more questions in person to confirm your hunch.

5. Look to Give Before You Get.

This returns back to that lateral relationship idea. The projects you are working on now, and the people you are working with, are connected laterally (through people they know) to the projects you will be working on 10 years from now. You absolutely can’t predict who among the group you are working with now might hold the key to an amazing new opportunity for you later. So give your all to each and every project you participate in (whether it’s your own play or not).

And before you get that thrilling “Yes we want to commission/world premiere/workshop” your script from that fantastic regional theater company with the great reputation for new work, you will  do a lot (a LOT) of work that feels thankless, helping smaller companies with their projects, creating projects of your own and inviting people to participate (knowing that only a few people might see the work). Remember that the bonds formed on these small projects are what open the doors to other, bigger relationships.

So get out of your ink-stained attic garret and get out into the community.

Volunteer at the local general auditions (and keep your eyes peeled for actors who would be great in the piece you’re looking to workshop next year). Participate in the discussions about the  new work happening in your town. Join (or create) a group of playwrights who will collaborate in producing each other’s work. See the work of other writers you admire (and write them personal fan letters with lots of questions afterwards). Be unstintingly generous with your time in helping to support the work of people you’d like to be working with. There are few things more memorable than generosity and hard work. And if you have worked hard for others, your own requests for assistance, introductions and advice will be met with equal levels of generosity. It’s the oldest rule in the book. But it works.

Yes, of course you need to reserve time (and creative energy) to create and hone your own work. But if you are not out there, contributing to the work of others in your community, then your own work, no matter how accomplished it might be, will stay in the place where it started:

Words on a page. Written by a stranger. Who may or may not be a crazy person.

  • May 21, 2010
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