Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Playwright/TV Writer Jason Grote on Writing for TV and Making Opportunities Happen

“There’s a lot of opportunity now.” 
–Jason Grote

I spoke with TV writer, playwright, and librettist Jason Grote (MAD MEN, SMASH, HANNIBAL) about his upcoming online TV writing class, and what the differences were between writing for TV and the theater, as well as how he got his first break, and how all this translates into an awesome writing class.

“I was always interested in TV but had no compelling reason at the time to pursue it,” said Grote, who, upon graduating from NYU’s MFA Dramatic Writing Program, stepped into a full-time teaching job at Rutgers University. But then, due to cutbacks, he needed to find something else, so Grote started asking everyone he knew for tips on how to break into television. “I had a toddler running around and needed income and health insurance,” explains Grote. One of the people he asked was prolific playwright and TV writer Theresa Rebeck (NYPD BLUE, LAW & ORDER, BROOKLYN BRIDGE). “She knew my work well, and I knew hers, so it was natural.” A short time later, when Rebeck was staffing her new show, SMASH, he got the call.

“It’s still writing,” says Grote, “you just have to write a lot faster.” Grote was given the opportunity to create a character for Bernadette Peters, go on set, and, as he put it, “work with really amazing people.” And how is it in the room? “It’s a business, and there’s a lot of money at stake, so there’s also more pressure. You need to have the ability to collaborate and talk your ideas out, to be vocal about them, and ultimately, you have to be able to really listen to the showrunner.”

Grote’s former student, Christopher DeWan, studied TV writing with Grote a few times.  They met through their mutual friend TV writer and playwright Sheila Callaghan (SHAMELESS, CASUAL, UNITED STATES OF TARA) “This more recent time that I took Jason's class, I knew that I had to write a pilot very quickly for something I was working on, and I knew it would be great to have the deadlines, and the readers, and the support.” DeWan was able to complete his pilot, put it in the hands of the people who wanted it, and is keeping the good news under wraps until it becomes official.

Mad Men

“Most people don’t know how to really talk in the way that people talk about ideas in TV,” says Grote, “so that’s one of the things we work on in class.” Grote gives a seven-step pitch outline which students apply to their ideas, in order to flesh them out. “There are things that he talks about, in terms of what you need for a pitch, that I haven’t heard anywhere else,” says DeWan. “It’s clarifying in terms of selling your idea to someone else, and also in terms of when I’m writing, if I start to lose my way, it’s a great beacon for getting unlost.”

Another student of Grote’s, Krista Marushy, who has a master’s degree in playwriting agreed. “It was the most challenging part for me, but it was a great stretch. I had an idea was very abstract and the challenge was to crystallize it and to communicate it. He was upfront and said the idea was tricky, but I really wanted to do it, so he was supportive. People who had a more specific idea had greater success. What I got most was practicing. Now I know to come up with a better concept from the beginning.”

The pitches are gone over in the class and feedback is given to strengthen and hone the ideas, then the writing begins. People will bring in pages and, says Grote, “it’s great if its 10 -15 pages, at least, so we have something to work with. By the end of the class, some people have half of their hour-long pilot written, some have a whole episode of a half-hour comedic drama, and some people work on a web series.”

Another component of Grote’s class is analyzing five produced pilots which include TRANSPARENT, THE HANDMAID'S TALE, MAD MEN, BREAKING BAD, and THE SOPRANOS.

“Jason is pretty much the best person I’ve ever seen at reading scripts closely.” DuWan used to work as a dramaturg in new play development at a variety of theaters in New York and L.A. so knows his way around a script, nevertheless, he is effusive when speaking about Grote’s ability to analyze the work.

“Each week, he’d zoom in on a different pilot and look at how the script was built on a very deep level. He would talk through the pilot, making sure we knew what the screenwriter was doing, and why that was a smart thing to do. And then, he’d supplement that with anecdotes from his own experience so, in the case of looking at the Transparent script, we’d look at how they solved a particular problem in the script, and then Jason would say, ‘on Mad Men, we faced a similar issue and solved it this way.’ He’d read it closely enough and smartly enough so that you could hopefully make your script work as well as some of these produced pilots.”

Marushy agreed. “I loved reading a bunch of shows you’re familiar with, and then going and seeing what changed from the script to the show. It was really practical. He really unpacked things.”

DeWan adds,” Many classes spend so much time on the work we’re generating in the class that they don’t take the time to look at the craft of people who are doing it well. I’ve never seen anyone do it as deeply and as smartly as Jason.”

The last class is devoted to the business of getting in the business. “Not everyone comes to TV from a writing background,” says Grote, “or they come to it in middle age, so they may not want to be a production intern. We talk about those issues - everything from learning how to navigate the business, breaking in, taking a meeting, building a network, and working in a room is discussed.”

“He’ll tell you what’s going on behind the scenes in a realistic way,” says Marushy. “He gives ideas on where to take the next step. Several people had specific questions on where to take certain projects and he was a resource for that.”

DeWan agreed. “Hearing him talk about working with a manager or questioning if I could be doing my meetings differently based on something he said - just getting a glimpse into how somebody else is doing it, is invaluable.”

“All the successful writers that I know are always working,” says Grote. “They are always writing, in rehearsal, in development. Even if they’re staffed, they’re working on the next thing. It’s just the nature of the business. There’s a lot of opportunity now.”

Knowing how to access that opportunity and work successfully within it, is what’s Grote’s class is all about.

Theaterspeakers get 10% off of Jason Grote's class if you register by February 18th! Info below.

WHAT: A six-week online seminar (you can take the class in your pajamas!)
WHEN: Sundays, March 3rd - April 1st
TIME: 9am-11:30am Pacific Time (12p – 2:30p Eastern) 
HOW MUCH: $675 (10% off if you sign-up by 2/18!)
HOW: Email jasongrote at gmail dot com. 

Class size is limited.  Limited scholarship options and payment plans are available. Contact Jason Grote with questions.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

How to Achieve Success by Working with a Press Rep

"I want to have sold-out shows and get in the NYTimes."

One of the biggest mistakes a person can make when they're producing their own (or someone else's) show is waiting too long to hire a press rep or having unrealistic expectations on what a press rep will do for you. 

I asked a handful of kick-ass press reps from the indie theater scene and beyond to share their thoughts on how to get the kind of success your show deserves. 

If you like this post, please share your thoughts, experiences and suggestions in the comments below and stay connected on Twitter and Facebook!

What does a press rep do?  

EMILY OWENS PR: A press rep acts as a liaison between the show producers and the media. We handle everything from sending out press releases and submitting listings to pitching feature stories and securing review coverage.

David Gibbs
DAVID GIBBS (DARR PUBLICITY): A press rep works alongside clients to decide on possible angles and ideas for pitching a show to the press. They advise clients on protocol for press nights, opening night and the booking of reviewers. The work starts by putting together a press release and reaching out to outlets with targeted pitches - at this stage, the rep’s relationship with the press, as well as the show’s own assets, helps push the release to the top of an editor’s list.

Press outlets may include newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, websites, freelancers and bloggers, along with any new and emerging forms of media. It’s the job of a press rep to stay on top of the new publications and outlets, with the aim of getting the show as much coverage as possible. That may be reviews, feature stories, interviews or profiles on the artists, a listing, or even an appearance on a program. They handle all seat requests from the press throughout the run as well as reach out to committee members of awards the show qualifies for.

KATIE ROSIN (KAMPFIRE PR): A press rep's job is to raise awareness about a production to the media.  They do this by issuing press releases, pitching features or stories, securing interviews, submitting listings, distributing photos, inviting critics to review, and maintaining positive relationships with journalists. I love this article and send it to all potential clients.

RON LASKO (SPIN CYCLE): We act as a liaison between a theater company and the media. Our goal is to get print, online, radio and TV outlets to cover your show. As quickly as possible and as favorably as possible. Timing is everything.

ANDREA ALTON PR: A press rep helps create a buzz and raise the profile of a production or theatre company. This is usually done by writing an engaging press release, pitching story ideas, and securing reviewers.

What does a press rep not do? 

Emily Owens
EO: Marketing or audience development. A press rep is not focused on selling tickets or getting butts in the seats. Reviews, features and listings will frequently translate into ticket sales, but not always. Press coverage isn’t a marketing plan, but it can supplement whatever audience outreach you already have in place. By the way, press reps can’t make any guarantees as to which outlets will cover your show (and if a PR person does guarantee you something, run far, far away!) but it’s reasonable to expect at least some type of coverage in the form of listings, interviews, and reviews. I’ve never worked on a show that received zero coverage!

DG: Ultimately, the rep can’t control whether an outlet decides to cover a show, that’s up to the gods at the end of the day, but they can make an enticing case. They can push and push your show, politely, of course. Also, asking a press rep to specifically not invite a particular press person to a show is a no-no.

KR: A press rep does not put butts in seats.  The fruits of their labors (ie, if an article is secured or a great review runs) if properly marketed may help to facilitate audience development, but PR is not a direct line to the consumer.

RL: Fill seats. Invite other industry people to your show.

AA: Press and marketing are two different things. I know most theatre companies don’t have money for both press and marketing but if you can budget a little money for marketing, it’s usually worth it. You can buy web ads that aren’t too expensive and there are ways to get free advertising such as cross promoting with other theatre companies and offering ticket giveaways.

How should a producer go about picking a press rep? 

EO: Honestly you just have to go with your gut! When I’m deciding what projects to take on I first read the script. If I don’t dig the play, that’s an immediate pass. You should work with a press rep that believes in you. It doesn’t matter how many people recommended them or how much coverage they secured for someone else’s show if a press rep doesn’t believe in the work that you’re doing. The rest really just comes down to personality. Do you like the person? Are you on the same page? Do you communicate well?

DG: Two questions a producer should ask a press rep are: How interested are you in this project, and do you have the proper amount of time to give it your full attention?
Katie Rosin and Antonio Minino

KR: Picking a press rep is very much about relationships.  Most press reps have the same contacts, but do they have good communication skills, do you get along and have fruitful and smart discussions, are they collaborators, do they like to have check-ins. If they have a good rapport with you, they most likely have a similar rapport with the journalists they are trying to attract.

RL: I would look at smaller shows that have gotten some attention and see who repped them.  Find something that didn't have a star, a "hot" playwright/company, or was in a fancy new theater. Show-score.com is an excellent place to do some research. With one click you can see how many reviews something got and a score for that review. If something got a lot of mediocre (or even bad) reviews, someone put some effort in.

AA: First, I’d ask colleagues for referrals. I find that people are very open to sharing good and bad press experiences. Also, if you see a show that is getting a lot of press, find out who the press rep is and reach out to them. Figure out what your goals are and what you hope to achieve by hiring a publicist. If recent press coverage isn’t posted on their website, I’d ask for it. It will help you evaluate what types of press they can get you. Also, be leery of publicists that only show you press coverage from years ago.

How can a producer best work with a press rep? 

EO:Communication is key. Check in once a week and see where they are and what they might need from you. Be responsive to emails and phone calls, and clear time in your schedule for interviews. Keep your press rep in the loop as much as possible. Especially with any major changes to the production (the playwright added an entirely new character, your director quit, you decided to add an intermission etc.)

DG: Because press outlets have hard deadlines, one of the most important things a producer can do is to provide all assets to the press rep in a timely manner and respond quickly to any/all requests by the press rep. Going out to the press with full materials, including photos, will give your production the best chance of being covered. Choose your press dates carefully, it can be challenging to reschedule press once they are booked. While unforeseen things can happen during a production, having clear communication with your rep and pre-set press dates will ease the process.

KR: Working with a press rep does not eliminate the work of the producer.  It is the producers job to make sure the press rep has all the material they need to do a good job.  We have a form "What Kampfire Needs to Do Their Job and Do It Well" that lays out exactly what we need from the producers.  This includes everything from bios to photography.  Great photography can make or break a PR campaign, so this is very important.  We have a list of photographers we like working with at every level.  Maintain a weekly conference call or check-in to update the press rep on new happenings; the producer is in the rehearsal room and has more intimate knowledge of the production then the press rep.

Ron Lasko
RL: Hire early and provide good materials. Make sure you are hiring a professional photographer to do advance setups (that everyone has put some time and effort into) and also final production photos. If you are permitted do video, put some effort into filming and editing. Also, don't harass your press agent about listings; they are pretty much irrelevant, except in the most major of outlets. Yes, it is nice to get them and any good press agent should be getting you at least a few. But your press agent really should be focused on reviewers and feature stories.

AA: Hire someone sooner than later. Sometimes the press rep is the last person to be brought on board. In my experience, the sooner I start working on a show, the more press coverage I’ll be able to secure. Also, providing info in a timely fashion and having great press photos and graphics can really help. Everything is so visual and immediate now. If you can take some photos a month before your show opens, you’ll increase your chances of getting press and you’ll also have something engaging to share on social media.

What are common mistakes producers make working with & picking a press rep and approaching this aspect of their production, in general?  

EO: I hear the term “leveraging relationships” a lot when people talk about press reps. I think this gives producers the idea that we can pitch anything to journalists we have good relationships with and they’ll cover it. That really isn’t the case! At the end of the day, editors are the ones who make the final decision on what to cover and there is not much a press rep can do if that person passes. Don’t expect press coverage to be some kind of magic bullet that will achieve you tons of critical acclaim, sell out your entire run, or launch your career to the next level. This unfortunately rarely happens!

DG: A producer needs to get an honest answer from a press rep about the rep’s bandwidth and interest in their production. If a press rep has too much going on they won’t be able to dedicate the necessary time to get the show the coverage it deserves. Producers need to have reasonable expectations, as well. Everyone wants The New York Times to review their show, but it’s simply not always possible.

KR: The New York Times - if a press rep promises you a New York Times review they are not being truthful.  This can not be guaranteed.  What I promise is that I will invite them, I will follow up with phone calls, and I usually get a hard answer (No is my second favorite answer because at least I know.) If it is a NO, I can still go back and ask one more time with a different angle.  I also think people try to save money on this aspect and I often get "emergency" calls from someone who paid very little and is getting very little and are upset.  Be wary of someone who over promises, but also of someone who underpromises.  Meet in person and make sure that you have a good understanding of goals.

RL: There are three.  The biggest is that they don't include people on the administrative side in on the creative process. Theater is collaborative and the biggest successes are when everyone is working together.  A press agent can help make valuable decisions about when and where to do your show, who to cast, etc. We tend to know who the hot up-and-coming actors and playwrights are that the press likes. We know the theaters that they like to go to and what performance times are going to be most attractive. The second is in not knowing the difference between press and marketing. Getting a lot of good press is often not enough to fill houses. People have to see those good reviews and then want to spend time seeing your show and fork over the money to do so. The third is in not knowing the difference between a preview, a press preview, a company opening and a press opening.  All are different and important when creating your performance schedule. In terms of your expectations, it very much depends on your goals and how much you are paying. Nothing is impossible with time and unlimited resources.  These days the average showcase gets 3 or 4 reviews. Timing, luck and a good press agent can get that up to maybe 7 or 8 reviews.
Andrea Alton

AA: If you’re a small theater company just starting out and no one has heard about you yet, it’s a process. You’re building your brand and business and that takes time.
Also, sometimes people assume nothing is being done if they aren’t getting interviews or review requests. Know that if you hired a quality press person, they’re working on your behalf but also ask for updates.

When is a press rep needed and when is one not needed? 

EO: If you’re producing a show that has a 3-4 week run with at least 9-16 performances, and having the show reviewed is one of your goals, then you’ll want to look into hiring a press rep. You really don’t need a press rep if 1. The play is still being developed and you’re presenting a workshop production, 2. You have less than 9 performances, 3. Your show opens in less than six weeks, 4. Reviews and press coverage are not one of your goals.

DG: Short runs are challenging in the theater world so it’s good to have reasonable expectations. If a show is still in a nascent state or a work-in-progress and press will not be invited, then a press rep may not be needed. Only invite press if the show is ready to be reviewed. Revivals by new theater companies, without a unique angle or star casting can be difficult to get press interested in, but that said, if your show has an angle or is topical, a good press rep can work with that.

KR: A press rep is only needed if you want to raise awareness of your production to journalists.  If the project is in development and you want audiences but no reviews, you can often get away with a limited PR plan or just marketing.

RL: PR is definitely needed if you are looking to build and grow a company and not just a single production.  Beyond that, it depends on your goals. If you don't have at least 3 weeks of performances, it is really difficult to get coverage. And I would never hire anyone for a festival unless you are 100% committed to the material and the production team and have serious plans to take your show to the next level.

AA: If you’re new to New York and have never mounted a production in the city, you might want to get a production or two under your belt before you spend the money on the publicist. Also, if you have a solo-show and you haven’t workshopped it or put it up in front of an audience, I’d recommend doing that first and then bringing in a press rep. If you need write-ups or reviews for grants, want your work reviewed, and want to increase your profile and grow your brand, I would hire a press rep. If you’re a theatre company that plans to be around for years, it’s also worth the investment.

How much should one pay (or what portion of their budget) for their level of production? 

EO: For an indie/off-off show you should expect to spend $2000-$3000. If you’re producing on an off-Broadway contract you’ll probably spend a little more.

DG: That really depends on the level of involvement from your press rep. The more involved they are the higher their fee might be. Do your research and homework. Ask around. Find out who your peers recommend. Interview lots of candidates and assess their interest, and you’ll wind up with the right person.

KR: Standards are that a third of the budget should be spent on Marketing and PR but that includes everything from your posters, postcards, eblasts, ect. But definitely don't short-cut yourself on spending. I recommend budgeting for the publicist alone anywhere from $1k - $5k depending on your level of Off Off Broadway.  Off-Broadway and above publicists get about $750+ per week.

RL: You are going to pay between $1500 & $3000 for a limited-run engagement. Fees have actually come down a bit over the last few years - or at least stagnated. Many major outlets just aren’t covering theater unless there is a celebrity involved or you luck into being the hot topic of the moment. So the amount of coverage that is even possible has decreased fairly radically over that past few years.

AA: In addition to PR, I’m also a writer/producer who has hired publicists in the past and I’m very sensitive to the money issue and people throwing their money away. Many many years ago, I paid a press rep $750 to work on a festival show and the results I got were amazing. The next year I paid someone $2,000 (the other PR person had moved across the country) and the results were lackluster and I ended up doing the work on my own. With that said, I would be cautious of spending more than $2,500 - $3,000 on a festival show or indie theatre production. If you pay above that amount, I feel that the press rep should have extraordinary connections and a stellar track record. However, there are no guarantees with press so anything can happen.


Emily Owens is a media-relations expert specializing in New York and World Premiere productions off and off-off Broadway. Her clients include downtown theater venues, indie theatre companies, and self-producing artists. Since founding the company in 2007, Emily's clients have been nominated for Drama Desk Awards (The Navigator in 2012; The Man Who Laughs in 2013; Alligator in 2016), won Obie Awards (Kate Benson and Lee Sunday Evans in 2015 for A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes; Horse Trade Theater Group in 2015 for The Fire This Time Festival), and numerous New York Innovative Theatre Awards, and received rave reviews and Critics Picks in The New York Times, Time Out NY, New York Magazine, The Village Voice, Wall Street Journal, NY Post, NY Daily News, and The New Yorker. www.emilyowenspr.com

Press Representative David Gibbs is the founder of DARR Publicity, a boutique press agency specializing in theater, dance, music-driven shows and unique theatrical experiences. David’s clients include The Amoralists, Blessed Unrest, Company XIV, Ice Factory Festival, La MaMa, The Mad Ones, New Ohio Theatre, PTP/NYC and The Queen’s Company. David has publicized shows at Rattlestick, Peter Jay Sharp Theater, Atlantic Theater, Minetta Lane Theatre, Playwrights Horizons, Theatre Row, New World Stages, The Flea, Walkerspace, Soho Playhouse, Town Hall, Cherry Lane and HERE. His clients have won Drama Desk, Lucille Lortel and Obie Awards. For more info visit http://www.DarrPublicity.com.

KAMPFIRE PR/MARKETING was instrumental in the launch of the Broadway musical Brooklyn and the National Tour of Mother Load. Kampfire has been integral in multidimensional campaigns for New York Innovative Theatre Award Recipients, GLAAD Award winners, back-to-back NYMF Best of Fest winners, and Drama Desk nominees. In 2014, Kampfire launched Stage17.tv, a digital entertainment destination for episodic fiction and reality programming for the world’s largest stage—the Internet. Kampfire clients include: Convergences Theatre Collective, Ensemble Studio Theatre, International Human Rights Arts Festival, The League of Professional Theater Women, Manhattan Theatre Works, MyCarl Productions, New York Innovative Theatre Awards, New York Neo-Futurists, and The Performing Arts Center at Purchase College. www.kampfirefilmspr.com

SPIN CYCLE was created in 1998 based on nearly thirty years of combined experience by its founders, Chip Duckett and Ron Lasko. This innovative cultural communications company specializes in PR, marketing and special events, and is extremely diverse in its projects.
Contact Spin Cycle at news@spincyclenyc.com or on Twitter: @SpinCycleNYC.

ALTON PR & PRODUCTION was founded in 2011 by Andrea Alton with the aim of providing full press and production services to theatre artists. Our goal is to provide affordable services to artists with an emphasis on new plays/musicals, solo shows, comedy, festivals, Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway theatre. In addition to press representation, we also offer assistance with production, audience outreach, and marketing. Recent productions include The Motherf*cker With The Hat and Loose Ends (T. Schreiber Studio/Theatre), Haram! Iran! (TADA), Damaged Goods (TOSOS), And Miss Reardon Drinks A Little (Retro Productions), A History Of Servitude (The PIT), The Fresh Grind Festival (Black Coffee Productions), Mr. Toole (Midtown International Theatre Festival), The Cleaning Guy, and ChipandGus (FringeNYC/Fringe Encores). Andrea is also the social media director for Emerging Artists Theatre as well as a curator for their biannual New Work Series. Alton PR has handled press and production work for numerous New York Festivals including The New York International Fringe Festival, The Frigid Festival, The 1st Irish Festival, Dream Up, The Midtown International Theatre Festival, The Fresh Fruit Festival, Planet Connections, and the United Solo.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Playwright/Actor Chris Harcum on Writing & Playing Martin Denton

 What was the development of Martin Denton Martin Denton?

Several interviews with Martin and some others from the indie theater sector > over 400 pages of transcriptions + other research > first draft in mostly chronological order > fact checking from Martin > second draft with the style of the play more solidified > first reading > fix, fix, fix, fix > second reading > three other drafts (we’re at 250 hours at this point) > Aimee Todoroff’s directorial magic + Marisol Rosa-Shapiro’s creativity in rehearsal > 40 hours of running lines on my own > Matthew Fisher’s design brilliance > stress and sweat > show > interacting with people after the performances and online.

What is it like playing and getting inside the minds of Martin and Rochelle?

This piece is a hybrid of the interviews and my own playwriting. It is Chris playing several characters and Marisol playing like 28 characters. It is a very difficult piece for both Marisol and me to perform. It needs to feel very loose and relaxed but we must be very precise and work at full-tilt for 95 minutes. We switch styles a lot and quote productions from the last 20 years throughout the piece. It is very comedic but turns on a dime and it is quite emotional in places. There are several layers of reality happening at once wrapped around some straightforward storytelling.

Neither of us leave the stage at any point in the show and we each do the work of 10 actors. The physical, mental, and vocal energy is intense. I have a ton of facts, names, and numbers that I dole out throughout the night so I need to be clear-headed. I feel like I’ve done two solo shows when I leave the stage and I have to keep after the athletic portion of doing this thing. Marisol, on the other hand, can have a fried chicken sandwich 30 minutes before curtain and be fine.

Several people have told me that I really captured Martin in certain moments. Erez Ziv from Horse Trade said there are times where I drop away completely and he only sees Martin when I’m performing. Others have said to me how Marisol is channeling Rochelle.

I'm assuming that Martin saw the play and if that's the case, what was it like playing Martin
Chris Harcum and Marisol Rosa-Shapiro
Denton to Martin Denton?

I’ve performed pieces as the person I’m playing for the actual person before now so that wasn’t difficult. Plus Martin had read the script several times.

We’ve had great audiences. Some are loud. Sooz Nolan said last Thursday’s show was like being at church. There were rolling reactions. The show ran seven minutes longer without any changes to the text.

Martin attended our second matinee, which was comparatively quiet but the audience was present. Like no one wanted to miss anything. Lots of laughing under their breath. There was a little more fragility crackling in the air. I try to recalibrate the performance to meet the audience where they are but to pull them along or kick them in the rear, if they need it. This one, I tried to allow more space to let it be received however it was being received.

We went to B Bar after the show and shared a meal. It was a pleasant experience.
Do you have a day-job and if so, how do you organize your creative bad-ass self?

My Clark Kent job is as a staff editor at a news organization. In addition to acting and playwriting, I’m the Producing Director for Elephant Run District and the Director of a Bright Future for the League of Independent Theater. I work on things project by project. I try to get the work and business stuff done first so I can let loose with the creative stuff.

What's it like collaborating with your partner-in-crime/director/Elephant Run District AD Aimee Todoroff?

We try to be very aware when we work with others so they don’t feel like they are in the middle of our relationship but are working on a production. We keep a very professional relationship in the rehearsal room and in the theater. I don’t get special treatment as an actor. We were two months into a project for another company when someone in the cast asked me what my wife did and I pointed in the direction of the director’s table.

It’s sometimes hard during ERD projects because the work comes home with us. The producing stuff and the work to get ready for the next rehearsal. So it can feel like we don’t get a break when we’re in production. We have to carve out time to be a couple and relax. Aimee suggests more fun things to do and I panic that I’ll never be ready if I take a break. But you can’t let life pass you by while you create it.

Of the two of us, she is the more fun and outgoing one. So it’s kind of funny that she’s the director and I’m the performer. She’s much better about talking about a show than I am and people generally like her more. Maybe we’ll get wise and switch places.
Chris Harcum and Marisol Rosa-Shapiro
What's coming up after this?

I don’t know. This was a big rock to push up the hill so I’ll take a bit of time to recharge. I’ll also get back to my advocacy work with the League of Independent Theater. This is an election year in the city so we want to get arts-friendly, local candidates into office.

Anything you'd like to add?

The conversations after the shows have been amazing. People who make indie theater are having some emotional experiences and it is great to talk to them. I heard a woman who is not in the theater saw the show. When asked what she thought the show was about, she said, “How life is pre…” and before she could finish saying “precious” she started crying. This has been quite a special show to make and do each night.

Martin Denton, Martin Denton written by Chris Harcum and directed by Aimee Todoroff plays through July 23th at the Kraine Theater. To purchase ticket, go here.

Photo Credits: Cilla Villanueva

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Playwright Adam Szymkowicz on Getting Produced

"You really need to send each play to at least 100 places if you want a production."
-Adam Szymkowicz

Last week, there was a popular thread on Facebook started by a post from prolific playwright Adam Szymkowicz about how many times he submits his plays in order to get a production. The post garnered a great deal of response in the form of questions about how he submitted etc., (as well as a post from playwright/TV/Screenwriter & reporter Aurin Squire seconding the sentiment) so I reached out to Adam to see if he'd like to chat about it for Theaterspeak and he did, so here it is. Hope it serves to inspire and motivate.

How many times did you submit this year? And what were the responses?

Most I have not yet heard back from. I sent 60 in '17 so far, and two of them have led to productions. This is very good numberwise. I think a lot of playwrights don't send many plays out. You really need to send each play to at least 100 places if you want a production. That takes time.

Is this for productions or also grants and fellowships?

This year?  Just for productions. Those don't make a lot of sense for me right now. Or maybe some of them do but I find that applying for the things everyone else is applying for makes every submission more of a long shot. I try to send to small theaters and big theaters (sometimes) who might be a match. But also, that's because of the kind of plays I write. I don't get awards and fellowships usually.

Someone on Facebook had asked if you cold submit - meaning you submit to places where you don't have a contact, and you said you did but you didn't used to. Can you talk about that?

I think I've always cold submitted and over the years have had luck with that. I think it's a lot about your play and about luck and not about a lot else.

If you don't know someone at place do you do 6 degrees of separation and see if someone does know them and can put in a good word?

Not a lot. Sometimes. I think a lot of theater people know who I am at this point but yes sometimes it helps if someone who knows how things actually happen at the organization is advocating for you. Other artists can be very generous that way.

How much time to you spend on submissions daily, weekly?

I have a reminder telling me to submit every Monday. I have no idea how much time I actually spend. The reminder helps me remember it's something I want to concentrate on more but math wise to get the number of productions I want I actually should be submitting at least one thing a day every day.

Do you have an agent and how do they (or have they) helped?

Yes. I think agents are all overworked. They can only do so much. Eventually we have to make our own relationships and no one should stop sending plays because they have an agent.

Same goes with manager? (Some people say that managers are more helpful...). 

For TV, managers are helpful. I don't have one.

Where do you find your submission opps?

Mostly I look for theaters using google. I tell people to google plays like your play and approach the theaters doing them and see if they'll read your play. It only works for theaters that do new work so super famous plays aren't the ones to google. Which means reading and seeing a lot of plays. And really figuring out what your aesthetic is and who it matches with.

How do you track/organize them?

Poorly. In a notebook at the moment. Here's the thing-- everyone should submit the way they do it. You don't have to be super organized. You don't have to be famous.

How do you feel about paying to submit?

I pay for the big things only. Like things that would help my career if I got them.

Do you submit everywhere or are there some places you won't? What's the criteria and has that changed throughout your career?

It has changed. I sort of don't know how to answer this question. People should judge for themselves where to send plays but don't be afraid to put your stuff out there. No one can discover you unless you put yourself out there.

How do you negotiate payment for your productions? Do you use your agent or some other resource like the Dramatist Guild?

My agent does the contracts. Most of my contracts are for premiere productions. Most of my productions overall are from publication of plays that had premiere productions. Which means my agent might take care of one or two productions and then the publisher takes over collecting money from theaters.

How do you balance creating new work and submitting work and seeing other people's work? (And a family?!)

Badly. I am always overextended.

Do you have a day job as well and how do you (or have you) managed that?

I am the Lit Mgr at the Juilliard School. It's a cool job and it's flexible but it's a lot of work.

What about Film and TV?

I had a TV job once and I lived cheaply off that money for a long time.

Is there anything else regarding the submission process that you'd like to share?

People might like your play and never tell you. The new norm is to just not ever send a rejection so you should expect to never hear from anyone again and if you do hear from someone, that's really good.

How can people see/read your work?

I'm about to have my 10th play published. Amazon has lots of them.  Go to the Drama Book Shop and pick them up there. Or check my blog to see upcoming productions. If last year is any indication, I'll probably have 20-something productions of my full lengths this year.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Playwright Hollis James on Drugs, Trepidation & Writing His New Play KYLE

Playwright Hollis James
Playwright Hollis James
 "I think a misconception about abusing drugs and liquor is that the people doing it know why they’re doing it."
-Hollis James

What made you write KYLE? 

I think that KYLE was a story that I wanted to tell eventually, but I never thought I was ready to tell it until I sat down and the pages poured out of me. I think a misconception about abusing drugs and liquor is that the people doing it know why they’re doing it. I’m a bit vague in the show about why the lead character begins using, because to this day I can’t put my finger on exactly why I got hooked. It’s sort of the same with writing; I can’t really explain why I needed to tell this story or even why the story chose this time to get told. All I knew was I had to write it.

Did you experience fear or trepidation in any point of writing and developing something so personal, and if so, how did you deal with that? 

I didn’t feel any fear while writing it, which is probably why I managed to be so truthful. But I definitely felt some trepidation once my wife Emily suggested that we actually produce the play. I immediately pictured my octogenarian parents sitting in the front row, watching their former-altar-boy son do blow for ninety minutes! Luckily, that feeling passed by the time I had my final draft. I used to joke that I’d be a hell of a writer once my parents died. But I’ve reached an age where writing about certain topics is no longer off limits, no matter how bad it might make me look.

Kyle Production Photo

What has been the development process?

KYLE started as a couple of small scenes. I’m a big dialogue guy, so I just had two characters talking
to each other. Then I realized one was based on me during a very tumultuous time in my life. I wasn’t sure who the other character was. A few more scenes made it clear to me what was going on with those two. Before I knew what happened I had half the play written, and my wife, Emily, said, “We’ve got to produce this.” We filed paperwork to form Hot Tramp Productions later that week.
I don’t have much experience producing indie theater, but I do know this is break-neck speed compared to most shows’ development!

What is it like working with your spouse as your director and co-producer?

It’s great. I love that we get to share this experience together. I also can’t imagine trusting anyone else with a story so personal to me. Whenever you do anything creatively, you need at least one person you can always count on—because there are armies of people lining up to say “no.” My best friend, Ted Alexandro, and I found that out making our web series, Teachers Lounge. We were always there for each other, stoking each other’s confidence and manufacturing positivity. Emily and I have different skill sets that compliment each other well. I never doubted Emily and I would succeed, because everything we do is always better when we do it together. That’s why we got married!

What is your writing schedule like?

I mostly write early in the mornings or late at night. I think that comes from my background in magazine publishing, where I was constantly on deadline. When I get an idea, I write as much as I can as fast as I can. I don’t judge it; I just keep going until I reach a point where I get stuck. An important part of my writing process is sleep, which is never easy for me because my mind is constantly racing. But when I finally manage to get to sleep, I usually wake up the next day with answers about where to go with the story.

What is inspiring you right now?

I’m still drawing inspiration from a lot of the same figures that made me want to be a writer in the first place. I’m a big non-fiction fan, so in the last two weeks alone I’ve read books on Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges, The Kids in the Hall, The Compass Players, and am currently reading a biography on my beloved Peter Cook. There’s always going to be a special place in my heart for all those people who created the art that hooked me as a kid. These days—where art itself is under attack—I like being reminded of the impactful and transformative power wielded by artists.

What's next?

My pal Ted and I are at work on a new full-length screenplay. It’s in the hush-hush stage right now, but we’re hoping to go public very soon!

Anything you'd like to add?

Only that the cast Emily and I have assembled are the ideal actors to present this gritty little play. They totally got what Emily and I were trying to do from KYLE’s very first read through, and we feel lucky to have them onboard. I can’t wait for show time!

KYLE will play UNDER St. Marks March 9-25, Thursday through Saturday at 7:30pm. Tickets ($25) are available online at www.HotTrampProductions.com 

Monday, February 20, 2017

The "Most Offensive" Play for a Most Offensive Time: Director Michele Travis with writer Libby Emmons

HOW TO SELL YOUR GANG RAPE BABY* *FOR PARTS is a comedy about internalized misogyny, rape culture, and the road to being your best self. It was born from a site-specific series of short plays set in bars that ran in NYC called Sticky. Co-producers Libby Emmons and  Ali Ayala (dir/co-pro) appeared together in a series of these shorts featuring the characters "Ali" and "Libby". These shorts became HTSYGRBFP.

An earlier incarnation of the play (titled PUFF PUFF) won “Most Offensive” in Jacquetta Szathmari's Festival of the Offensive in 2014 (dramaturgical support from Brad Rothbart and directed by Michael Domitrovich). Michele Travis (Sticky co-producer 2015-2016), directs HTSYGRBP for Horse Trade’s Frigid Festival this month and spoke with Libby about the play.

How did you choose the title? 

The play was born with the name Puff Puff, and when asked what it was about by Festival of the Offensive producer Jacquetta Szathmari, I said "it's about how to sell you gang rape baby, for parts!" And she said, "that should be the title." So I changed the title. I've gotten some push back, mostly from people like my mom, and I've been sort of concerned about that whole trigger thing, but I figure it will draw the crowd that would enjoy having their buttons pushed, or at least I hope so.

What's the origin story of the Libby and Ali characters (also known as The Pusses)?

Libby and Ali are modern women who don't like working for a living, and can barely get with the pretense of living at all. That sounds bleak, but really it's funny.

The plays started as shorts for the Sticky series. Mostly about trips, more like misadventures. Then they got a little political, then more political, until finally you have what we have here, an anti-Trump, post-feminist, satirical dark comedy inspired by the true events of house party gang rape, human and organ trafficking, sex dolls, extreme body modification, and a whole bunch of other things that are really about how much everyone hates women, or at least loves us to death.

Libby Emmons and Ali Ayala in Libby's RE:DUCKS
What did you change when you decided to rewrite the play for this Trump-era Frigid Festival run? 

Mostly what I changed is that the fun-loving, life-affirming intern who gets knocked up the hard way is a Trump supporter. But also the pusses (aka Libby and Ali), are spurred on by their need to take positive, political action in this new dumpster-fire atmosphere of these United States.

Most of your plays are comedies centered on women characters, and deal with things that are usually not considered inherently funny.  When the Libby/Ali shorts were performed at Sticky, I remember the women in the audience were the loudest, longest laughers, while most of the men looked really uncomfortable.  (This is one of the reasons I love directing your work -- it's hard for the audience to just sit there and not have a point of view.) Are you deliberately trying for this effect?  To make women feel less alone, while discomforting men? 

No, I just write as honestly as I can. I had a professor at Sarah Lawrence, Cassandra Medley, who said "go to the place where you're afraid, and start from there." I still do that. Another guiding principle is this: when I was a teenager hanging out in bookstores, I searched the shelves for books about me, about what I was experiencing, about my perspective on the world. I was looking for a friend in a book. I often looked to women authors, and instead I found these depressive figures-- sad Ann Sexton, sad Sylvia Plath, sad Virginia Woolf, over-sexed but prudish Anais Nin. The closest I could get was Dorothy Allison, and yeah, she's good, but like... So I write for the me who is sixteen, looking for a friend just like me in a book, and to her I say: have a laugh, I love you, it's all hell, but it's all brilliant, and you are brilliant, and you make existence worthwhile, and I am just like you, and we matter.

What are you working on now? 

I've been working on a novel about 13 year-old best friends who have to face their worst fears in order to find out who they really are. It's called Emmy Archer and the Mad Secrets, and I just quit my job to write it. I'm working on the developmental reading end of a full-length called Hippopotamus, with actress Richarda Abrams, about the stay-at-home artist-mom in a two-mom family, who has to readjust her expectations and question her priorities when her son is recommended for special ed programs. I have a one-minute play coming up in the One-Minute Play Festival at The New Ohio in early March. I'm working on As I Lay Dying with Live-Series. Also I'm trying to get my son through first grade, which is both less easy and more fun than I thought it would be.

What do you most enjoy about making theater?  

The part where it's super scary and you feel like you can't possibly do it and then you do it and it's a blast and the lights feel warm and so do the laughs.

HOW TO SELL YOUR GANG RAPE BABY* *FOR PARTS runs in the Frigid Festival at the Kraine Theatre, NYC, February 18th – March 4th. Advance tickets are available online.

Logo by Christopher Guerrero
Photo: Libby Emmons and Ali Ayala in Libby’s RE: DUCKS, directed by Michele Travis. Beauty Bar, 2015. Photo credit Mike Olivieri. (RE: DUCKS is a sequel to HTSYGRBFP)

Monday, January 30, 2017

Theater Family Values with Playwright Lawrence Dial

"Theater is one of the odd professions where you can find an above average percentage of middle-age couples without kids, and it often seeps into what we eventually see on the stage."

What is your play DANNYKRISDONNAVERONICA about?

I wrote DKDV in response to two great plays I’d seen earlier that year: DETROIT by Lisa D’Amour, and THE REALISTIC JONESES by Will Eno.  Both plays featured two heterosexual couples coming together, becoming friends, and collectively dealing with life issues.  I loved each play, but upon introspection there was an obvious omission:  neither play even remotely mentioned children.  I thought ‘In what world could four married heterosexual couples throughout two different plays, each character in their mid to late thirties, not at some point when discussing various life issues, mention children?’  I know a lot of mid-thirties couples who do not have kids, but all of them mention it quite often, but lament that because of their choice to pursue theater, doubt they’ll never be financially stable enough to raise a family.  In truth, theater is one of the odd professions where you can find an above average percentage of middle-age couples without kids, and it often seeps into what we eventually see on the stage.

I have two children, and the premise for DKDV at first seemed very simple:  write a play with two married couples (a later draft nixed the heterosexual part) dealing with life issues while ALSO being parents.  I looked to DINNER WITH FRIENDS for inspiration, but didn’t relate to the class-level of that play (they’ve got a goddam summer house—who’s got a summer house?), and also, GOD OF CARNAGE, but felt uncomfortable with that play’s missing kindness I’d experienced from almost every parenting couple I’ve ever met.

So the formula for me was PARENTS + CHILDREN + LOWER/MIDDLE CLASS + KINDNESS = DANNYKRISDONNAVERONICA.  I added the setting of a Brooklyn Park, and then waited to see what happened.  If you’ve ever tried to write a play with kindness in mind, real quick you realize kindness and drama do not go together.  So I struggled for two years with it.  It was harder to write than I prefer.

How did you decide on the title?

Oh man, this is a long story I’ll try keep short, and not talk too much smack.  I had gone up to YALE to interview for their playwriting program, and the first interview with Jeanie O-hare went amazing; she seemed to like the play, and enjoyed that I was writing about parents and the difficulty of parenthood etc.  It was very encouraging.  I wasn’t entirely sure how I was going to move my family up to New Haven, have my wife quit her job, re-enroll my kids into another school etc… but she didn’t seem super fazed by this, and the interview ended positively.

Next, I met with Sarah Ruhl, and the entire experience was like slowly letting air out of a balloon.

She asked me important, but from my perspective, inappropriate questions:
What does your wife do for a living?
And I told her, and then somehow answering her own question she hadn’t yet asked, she responded with “Yeah, I married a doctor…”  The subtext was That’s how I survived.

I got the hint fast, and became a little gloomy, because Sarah’s got her own kids, and I had expected us to bond on this, for her to have loved my play about the difficulties of parenthood, but what she was showing me was she felt threatened somehow.  Or was just unable to disguise how doomed she believed I was.  Which I get, honestly.  Being a parent and a playwright and living in NY—it’s doom.  And most grad schools don’t want doom in their programs; they want diversity of voice, and ease.  They want the safest bets they can place, and a stay-at-home parent is not one of them.

But at some point Sarah says:  “Talk to me about your title.  What’s up with it?”  I tell her it’s called THROUGH THE TREES, which is part of the saying 'You can’t see the forest through the trees.' the idea being you’re too close to a thing to see what it actually is.  Which I thought was a wonderful metaphor for the conflicting emotions parenthood can inspire (there’s also a fallen tree in the play; wind through the trees etc.).

She shook her head slightly, nope.  “It’s doesn’t have the heart of your play in it.   It doesn’t capture what your play is about.”    Uh…  I mean, what do you say to that?  This is Sarah Ruhl telling a perspective grad student, a playwright who is so excited just to be sitting in New Haven even being considered for this program, that his title doesn’t work.

I’d like to say that I didn’t change the title from THROUGH THE TREES to DANNYKRISDONNAVERONICA entirely because of Sarah Ruhl (nevermind if it’s even a better or worse title or more fully captures the heart of the play), but she’s probably part of it.  I left the interview and bought a six-pack and rode the train home; I was not surprised when a three-sentence form-letter rejection showed up in my inbox a week later.  I think Sarah’s a great playwright, and I imagine an even better mother, but I can say with confidence she’s a reckless interviewer, and I can’t speak on her abilities as a teacher.

What was its development?

The first person to really believe in DKDV was Tessa LaNeve at Primary Stages.  I had been workshopping the play through ESPA with Julian Sheppard (who also liked it; a great teacher and playwright), and I later submitted it to ESPA’s drills program (twice actually; they rejected the first draft), and Tessa and Sarah and Miranda all liked it.  We took it up to Teresa Rebeck’s summer home (Teresa Rebeck has a summer home, that’s who) and workshopped it for a week.  Later, we did a very successful reading of it at the Duke, and a lot of people came to me afterwards and gushed about it, but no one wanted to produced it.   It’s a play about parents and kids, and Theater (with a  capital T), unfortunately, doesn’t really relate to that.  That is until Jeff Wise came around…

How did you hook up with Wheelhouse Theater Company?

Only three months ago I had another play up called IN THE ROOM, and we had cast Matt Harrington in the lead male role.  Matt’s a great actor, and a founding member of Wheelhouse Theater Company, who were looking for another producing credit, and we were glad to have them onboard.  Near the end of the run on the show, Jeff Wise (one of Wheelhouse’s Artistic Directors) came to me and asked if I had any other plays he could consider for production.  At the time I didn’t realize that Jeff was a stay-at-home father to three kids, and skeptically I forwarded him DKDV, not really thinking he’d be very interested in it; it’s very different than IN THE ROOM.  But he read it and love it, and I encouraged him to direct the production based on his presence during IN THE ROOM, and the insight he could bring to these characters I’d written.  I’m not sure anyone else could have seen what I was going for with this play, other than Jeff.

What is your writing schedule?

When I’m working on a project I’m writing six days a week, and I’m usually working on something. Only when I’ve got a play in production do I slow down.  Or between projects sometimes.  But generally, more than anything, I enjoy writing and love getting lost in it.

How do you organize yourself?

Kids do it for you.  It becomes very easy to see what little time you have available after you have children.  You can look at your day and see the exact time you have to write, and that’s useful because you know if you don’t do it right then, it won’t happen until the next day.  With DKDV (roughly four years ago) both my kids were home with me all day, and I was writing only about 45 minutes or maybe an hour and half each day.  So it took a while, around two years.  I remember lamenting this to Stephen Guirgis, and he told me he had a buddy who wrote a whole novel at only one hour per day. And sometimes, that’s really useful.  When you can’t move too fast, it forces you to slow down and think about each interaction with great detail.  But you can also get bogged-down this way, and stop seeing the bigger picture of what you’re writing.   So you have to find the right balance.

Who inspires you?

I think I value perseverance over talent or success.  I enjoy my friends' work the most.  I’m inspired by the off-off Broadway plays that mostly go unnoticed by the big names out there.  Struggle inspires me, I think.

What's next?

I HAVE TO WRITE A TELEVISION PILOT.  There’s no way I can sustain playwriting and a family without another income, and my waiter job is killing me.  So this year I’m focusing on TV.  And maybe a play about a climbing gym.  Or a driverless car.

Anything you'd like to add?

I didn’t get to mention Padraic Lillis; he helped me a lot with the first draft of this play.  I can sit in the audience tonight and hear some lines and remember some things Pad had suggested during one of his writing classes.  Pad’s a great teacher, if you see a writing class of his out there, sign up.  Also, check out my website.  Most of my plays are on there:  lawrencedial.com

Production Photo Credits: Steve Fallon