Find a Mentor

Find a Mentor

THE WORKING PLAYWRIGHT: a monthly blog column by Melissa Bell 

Find a Mentor

Sometime after I wrote my first musical, I attended an alumni event. While waiting for the elevator, a well-groomed woman and I picked up a conversation. When I asked her what she did, she said “I’m a Broadway producer.” Although at that point I had never heard the expression, the proverbial moment was about to come true – you meet a producer in an elevator, what do you say? I smiled and said that I had just written a musical that had been optioned by a film company, then added “so we can talk,” meaning I wasn’t going to try to sell her my show. She responded with a smile, “I would love to hear about your show.”

Thus began a 14-year mentorship – and friendship – with legendary Tony-winning producer Stevie Phillips, who singlehandedly produced THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS from its Off-Broadway beginnings to Broadway, film and beyond. I recommend reading her amazing auto-biography Judy & Liza & Robert & Freddie & David & Sue & Me for the details of her career as high-powered agent, manager, and producer.

So how did this amazing producer become my mentor? Over time.

 

Cultivate the Relationship

After our initial meeting, Stevie attended another alumni event I hosted called the “Writers Forum.” We were reading scripts and screenplays, and she showed up. Giving only her first name as an introduction, she joined the group, read parts, offered feedback, and listened to 5 sets of 10 pages of new work. Near the end of the meeting, one participant innocently asked, “so how do we get our scripts out there?” I looked at Stevie to answer that question, whereupon she introduced herself to my stunned participants. Her answer was simple: “You do it just like this. You go to readings, submit your work, if you don’t know where, get your friends together, do a reading, and invite people. When I was at Universal, I read the first 10 pages of everything that made it to my desk. That’s how you do it.” She added it was hard work, but everything worthwhile is hard. I took that advice to heart and still follow it with my own work.

A few days later, Stevie reached out to me and asked me to read something of hers. I read it and sent her my notes. She replied with thanks and asked, “now what can I do for you?” I invited her to a reading of my play a few weeks later. She came and sent me her notes (which was like getting a masterclass in playwriting). Back and forth we went. When she told me she was planning to produce a new show with Tommy Tune, I begged to be part of it. “I’ll take, notes, run errands, anything.” Noting that I had high-level PowerPoint skills, she said, “I’d love to have a presentation I could run on my iPad.” I met with her and Tommy, came up with an idea and created a pitch deck that she used to pitch Universal Studios and others. Sadly, the show didn’t work out, but we had become a team.

When I got the opportunity to present a one-night-only benefit reading of “Lost in Love,” a musical based on the hits of Air Supply for which I wrote the libretto, I called Stevie immediately for advice. She looked at my press release and asked me “What are you selling?” I was unsure of what she meant. She noted that I had not just one star but two in the cast, but that the press release listed all the actors in alphabetical order.

“Listen to me,” she said, “your first press release should say: Tony-nominated actor Constantine Maroulis cast in Lost in Love at the Triad along with his photo. One week later, your second press release should say: Tony-winner Andrea McArdle joins cast of Lost in Love. And the third week you announce the rest of the cast.”

Lesson: when you have a star, use them. It was golden advice, and a strategy I have followed to this day.

 

Be There

Stevie has been an amazing mentor to me ever since. I call her when I’m facing a tough decision, when a production goes off the rails, or when I don’t get the “yes” I was hoping for. Stevie calls me when she needs help with her various projects, knowing I will show up, ready to support, and will always share my honest impressions and listen to hers. And sometimes she just needs me to send a large file by setting up Dropbox for her. I will drop everything to help her, and I highly value our relationship.

Finding a mentor is a two-way street. It begins slowly and builds over time. The best way to gain a mentor is to either ask for advice with a specific problem or to offer a service only you can deliver, and then overdeliver. Go beyond the call of duty.

If you are a member of ETC, I know you’ve found a mentor as I have in Cate Cammarata as well as in the fellow members. I share my real-world experiences in the hopes that my experiences can mentor you as well. Being a theatre-maker is hard work, but so is anything worthwhile.

Find a mentor to make the journey a bit easier.

 

Melissa Bell’s work has been featured in the New York Times and nominated for Best Adaptation & Modernization by New York Shakespeare and awarded Finalist for Henley Rose Playwright Competition for LADY CAPULET and awarded Honored Finalist for the Collaboration Award by the Women in Arts & Media Coalition for COURAGE.

 

Where Are We Going?

Where Are We Going?

How Are We Doing?

 

I can’t believe we’re already approaching 2025, our quarter-century mark. That’s a significant milestone in history, with enough time under our belt now to collectively look at “how we’re doing” and where we’re going.

The first 25 years of the twenty-first century were a difficult time to live through. Although Y2K never happened, it was a precursor of the “fake news” that would build enough momentum to destroy our trust in the media, government, medical/pharmaceutical industries, and in general all of the large institutions built in the twentieth century that told us what to believe and what to do. Unprotected, we chose instead to silo ourselves into smaller insular tribes with whom we decided to “know, like and trust” (a concept fittingly forged by various marketing strategies). Technology intensified and exponentially expanded each individual voice through social media and the internet.

The next thing to hit us (literally) was 9/11. Whatever vestige of safety and security we had in whatever institutions that were “supposed to keep us safe” were destroyed and replaced by excessive fear against the “other.” The “other” continued to be defined to be whomever didn’t look like us and believe what we believe.

Although 9/11 was an American tragedy, the reverberations were felt globally. With the increasing alacrity to hold “the other” at bay, nations globally reflected the search and destroy philosophy video game theory promoted and kept people hypnotized and in fear worldwide.

And … here we are.

Wars. Hatred. Potentially permanent climate change. Dire economic realities. Unthinkable just twenty-five years ago, democracies everywhere are being threatened with their very existence, to be replaced with autocracy and/or radical change.

Where’s the promise of freedom, prosperity and growth? Will we ever know, like and trust our neighbor again?

Fear expands exponentially, whether promoted for personal or national aims.

 

The Golden Age of Greece

 

The fifth century B.C. is known as the “Golden Age” of Greece. That classical era that established the concept of democracy in the first place also saw the birth of the drama itself as the primary offering to the god Dionysus. The Dionysian Festival is a huge part of the celebration of freedom which Athenians saw as an important feature of their democracy – the freedom to discuss new ideas and to reconceptualize established myths and stories to reflect a new “way of seeing” to the citizens gathered in the theatron (which literally means “placee for seeing”). The fledgling democracy of Athens supported this festival and the literary forms that flourished in this setting. Tragedy, in particular, was useful to the state and funded by the monied choregos, or producers, who also usually served in government or the military. As the “noble offering to the gods,” tragedy, unlike comedy, was always a primary platform to communicate the values of the polis. At least it was until the end of the fifth century, when political ineptitude, fear and corruption made the drama “dangerous” (as Plato said famously later, in the fourth century).

Dangerous? We can all agree that new ideas can be dangerous. But dangerous to whom?

Dangerous to the entrenched leaders, of course, who were the funders of the drama anyway and who subsequentially shut down the platform. When the drama returned roughly 100 years later audiences were entertained with broad, physical comedy rather than a theatre of new ideas. Audiences were entertained and distracted by the comedy, instead of being challenged with plays of new ideas. New ideas were thought to be politically dangerous to the established state and the dear leaders’ political strategies.

I think that we, now, like the Ancient Greeks, are in the transition stage from what was into what will be. We are definitely being entertained and distracted by the many “powers that be” that fund our multitude of various distractions.

All this to say that we should wake up and smell the expresso.

 

Where are we going?

 

I’m not Nosferatu. I’m a theatre maker. We reflect our times and put it onstage. But like the ancient choregos, I’m interested in putting the poetry of the present on stage to help represent and preserve the ideas of the moment in a new way.

In other words, I’m interested in helping writers craft their contemporary stories on stage to deliver a message meant for a wider platform of people to receive, understand, and to interpret in their own way. Creative expression received is dependent upon the story the receiver attributes to it; the creator has no control over the individual’s interpretation. Such is the nature of art.

And such is the usefulness and function of art in our society. Then and now. To receive new ideas in new ways, and to be open to new modes of thought and understanding.

To understand the “other’ and their world as perceived vicariously in the audience through the dramatic journey is what we do. To honestly experience theater is to experience another’s way of life, way of thinking, and another’s human journey without judgement, in reception of the ideas as they are presented. To present theater today is to challenge the audience to be open to other ways of living, thinking and being human.

Wherever this century takes us, we’re not going very far without knowing, liking and trusting the other and their human experience. Theatre arts help society develop empathy, which apparently we’re dreadfully lacking. 

 

Theatre Makes Us More Fully Human

 

To enjoy theatre is to understand the functions of the artist in society. To support theatre is to support those artists who sensitively create art onstage in order to reflect ourselves back to us. 

Keep making theatre like the world depended on it  – because it sort of does.

 __________________

Up next tomorrow: Theatre kids rule the world (according to the NY Times).

 

 

Marketing Your Show: the Basics

Marketing Your Show: the Basics

Marketing is NOT a Choice

If you know me then you know that I’d much rather spend all day every day helping you write your show than marketing myself. Marketing is not my favorite thing.

However, I have to remind myself that marketing shows is how we get audiences into seats (butts in seats). Likewise, marketing myself helps me meet more talented writers.

If we are going to engage in commerce at any level, then marketing is not a choice. It’s the basis of business – how you put yourself out in the world and what you do.

Here’s Where to Start

Every show should have the following:

  • LOGO for the show
  • Tagline
  • Short Synopsis: Describe the journey of your show in 3-5 sentences (sometimes you will need a longer synopsis, but not often)
  • Website
  • Quality demos of your music (for musicals)

Who is your audience? Find a person that best represents your audience. Discover everything about that person. Build an “avatar” and speak to that person in every bit of copy you write about your show.

Ask yourself:

  • What does my audience member value? What do they want?
  • What type of job does my audience hold?
  • Where does my audience live (for the most part). Search any demographic Information online that will tell you more.
  • What challenges does my audience member have?
  • What types of products does my audience member buy? Where do they shop, Whole Foods or McDonalds?

Find Your Audience Online

Hopefully you’ve been building an email list of people that have contacted you about your show or about other shows. This is an important list to cultivate, nurture and grow.

How? Get on Social Media. Begin to talk to people that are interested in your show, or who like theater. Facebook groups and LinkedIn groups are also helpful.

Planning a reading? Write a Press Release and send it to Broadway World to be published. Push the press release on social media, and put it on your website.

You Need a Website. That’s not a choice either.

More on that next week! Have any questions? Post below.

How to Succeed in Theater

How to Succeed in Theater

Success is a Choice

I need a constant daily strategy to focus on what needs to be done to achieve my top priorities. Meditation and a daily practice of reviewing my top goals for my business (and life) are the only ways I’ve found to manage constant distraction, and to move forward with what I know is my main mission: to help develop and create new plays and musicals and then get them on stage.

If success is a choice, what does success look like? If you don’t know what it looks like, how do you know when you achieve it?

For me, the simple answer of ‘I’ll be successful when I get a Tony’ is too far off. I’ve come to know that my success means helping writers first get their scripts to “work” and then to guide their projects through development to a production on a stage somewhere.

Can you answer the question “I will be successful when …..?”

I’ve found my own success by doing the following:

  1. Defining what success means to me and relentlessly moving forward
  2. Constantly be selling myself, my ideas and my shows
  3. Addressing our big issues through theater in order to be a catalyst for change
  4. Constantly investing in myself as an artist and as a human being

Maybe these will help you as well.

Name It and Claim It

If I just held myself to a far-away measurement of success like receiving a Tony then I would be a mess for years thinking I was a no-good failure. But, as I teach my students and writers alike, if you’re not failing at something you’re not trying. 

In reaching for a goal you’re first defining what your BIG GOAL looks like and then figuring out how to consistently move toward it. There’s no such thing as failure if you learn from it.

What do you desire enough to keep you moving toward it daily, weekly, yearly? What keeps you motivated over the long haul? Find it.

Name it and claim it as yours, and don’t let anything (or anyone) stop you. Not family, not money, not even time. (Well, death will certainly stop me, but as long as I’m alive and kicking I’ll keep producing theater.)

Find your motivation.

Constantly Be Selling

I hate this one. I’m a theater artist, not a salesman! But I constantly have to sell myself, my writers and my projects (your projects) to get our shows on stage.

No man is an island, and we all need people (who need people) to move ahead. Theater is the most collaborative art, and it’s not just in the creation of a script. We need other people in the creation of our production, in the creation of our artistic business and in the creation of our lives as artists.

Constantly be selling yourself and your shows. Constantly be submitting and pitching. Memorize your pitches, and learn how to pitch better. Constantly network so you can do the first three more often. Develop those relationships until you can call them a friend.

No one said it would be easy, and if it were easy there’d be more people doing it. Uncomfortable but necessary.

Speak to our Problems

In business the way to success is to address people’s problems and then solve it with your products.

In the arts, people’s problems – are ALL our problems. Society’s problems. As a theatre artist I constantly try to present stories that make us better human beings. I would like to think that I have made the world a little better by my being in it and doing theatre.

Can you solve society’s problems with theater? The Exonerated was able to overturn the death penalty in Illinois. It saved many innocent people’s lives. The Laramie Project helped overcome prejudice and intolerance by telling and retelling Matthew Shepard’s story on stageMany of the most financially successful plays and musicals highlight serious contemporary social issues – and they always have, dating back to the Ancient Greeks.

The Ancient Greeks were pretty smart; they knew an explosive platform when they saw one.

One of the quickest ways to get noticed is to address a significant contemporary problem and then to dramatize it for us. (Please do this – we are sorely in need of inspirational storytellers.)

Be a significant storyteller for our times, and you will get on a stage. It’s impossible not to.

Invest in Yourself

Remember the meaning of “priming the pump”? You have to pump the well vigorously enough to get the water flowing “effortlessly.” I constantly invest in myself by learning new technology, trying out new ways of storytelling, and opening myself up to new ideas and perspectives.

Writers also need to “invest in yourself.”

You may need to self-produce to build your “product.”  You will definitely need to invest time and money to build “assets” like the following:

  • Your website
  • Readings (for photos and video clips)
  • Demo recordings
  • Showcase productions for promos, videos, reviews, audience testimonials
  • Sizzle reels and producer pitch decks and reels

Invest in yourself  first in order to get noticed, and then to allow someone else to invest in you. 

What are your dreams? Did this help you?

Please comment below!

Life is Improv

Life is Improv

Okay, truth time.

Who was it that put *GLOBAL PANDEMIC* on their vision board for 2020???

<sound of crickets>

Lesson: Sh*t happens. Keep moving forward.

When You Can’t Change the Situation, Change Your Mindset

I can’t change my outer situation. This is a global pandemic. People are dying, especially here in New York. This is a real thing. I can either a) freak out and react to my fear or b) control my mindset and stay strong. There are no other choices for me.

Because I choose not to become a basket case hiding in a corner, I choose to control my mindset. I choose to stay strong. I choose to keep moving ahead on promises I made to myself when I did my own 2020 vision board – and I assure you a global pandemic was not on it.

“Nothing’s either good nor bad, but thinking makes it so.”

In Act 2 scene 2, Hamlet famously says to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “Why, then, ’tis none to you, for there is nothing either good nor bad, but thinking makes it so.”

I guess Shakespeare knew a thing or two about keeping a strong mindset. It’s all on how you frame your perspective on something. Denmark was indeed a prison to Hamlet because he thought it was; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, also residents of Denmark, did not feel the same way. To them, it wasn’t a prison at all.

You can choose to view this quarantine as a prison sentence, or you can view it as an opportunity to write, to clean, to meditate, to exercise, to complain, to become mad. Suddenly, your time is your own again. You do what you choose.

Yes, and……

 

The first lesson of Improv 101: to everything thrown at you, say, “Yes, and…..”

The “yes” is your acceptance of what IS. The “and,” and everything you say and do after that, is your choice of action. Everything that follows depends on your acceptance of what is, and what you choose to do afterward.

YES. We are in lockdown during a global pandemic.

And … I choose to stay true to who I am. I choose to move forward with the plans I’ve made. I choose to create theater and to produce theater, because theater (and art) is good for our souls.

The “and…” is my response to how I view the situation. Although I acknowledge that bad things are happening around me, I control my environment. Externally, I stay safe and do all the things necessary to keep myself and my family healthy. Internally, I see this as a time for global healing (the planet is healing itself) and personal growth.

CreateTheater is my response. The Monday Night Reading Series is my response. Connecting with friends and family more is my response.

Acceptance – then, response. Life is Improv.

What’s your response?

 

What I Know About Theater People

 

I think Theater people are the best ones to understand that life can be unpredictable. I mean, theater is filled with ups and downs, right? Early on we learn to ride the waves by remembering the lessons used in our improv classes.

For every curveball life throws at us, there is our response to it. Our “yes, and…”

Vary your responses. Experiment just for the fun of it, to see what happens. Often in improv we’ll plan to fail just in order to see what happens.

Remember: life is a game. Life is improv.

Be creative. Be who you are.

Life is neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it so.

___________________________

Make friends in the industry online. Join the CreateTheater village.

Cate Cammarata is an excellent coach who has helped and encouraged me every
step of the way, since I first worked with her, when she was the dramaturg for the
developmental reading of my show, CRUDE-The Musical, at the 2016 New York
Musical Festival. This past year, CRUDE-The Climate Change Musical premiered at the Cape Cod
Theatre Company, Oct. 10 – Nov. 10, 2019. The show ran for five weeks, with 17
performances, and generated great publicity. I can’t thank Cate enough for her
expert coaching, over the past 3 years, as I worked to improve the arc of the script.
She’s taught me so much about the industry, about producing and about networking.
Cate has also helped me with specific networking opportunities.
I highly recommend Cate Cammarata as a fine coach for any writer looking to
succeed in the theater industry.

— Maureen Condon, Playwright & Composer

I believe a Mastermind group is essential – for the support, ideas generated, the encouragement, the accountability, the important friendships formed and for a sense of belonging in the theater, whether or not we’ve been produced. Cate’s Mastermind, in particular, is extremely helpful.  Cate knows her stuff and gently pushes us forward, stepping in to help when needed.  She is passionate about getting work onto a stage. She makes you believe it’s not “if” but “when”.”

— Jarlath Barsanti Jacobs, Librettist

Join the Online Theater Community at CreateTheater.com.

Something Bigger

Something Bigger

“Something’s coming, I don’t know what it is, but it is gonna be great!” – Tony, West Side Story

It’s Coming!

 

It’s a new decade. 2020.

We find ourselves here, in the present moment. For me, and perhaps for many of us, it looks different from what we expected. The state of our industry, our country, and the world, are suddenly different. How’d that happen?

I know we all look toward 2020, and the new decade in general, to be something bigger. And better!

Where are you now, as a writer, as an artist, as a person? Where are we as a country, as a republic, as a democracy?

The second question may be out of our hands, beside our participation in the upcoming elections. But the answer to the first and more important question lies totally within yourself.

 

How Big Can You Be?

 

I’m challenging myself to be bigger this year, to set bigger goals and step up to the plate more often. I know that my mission in this life is to create theater – theater that expresses where we are at this point in history. When I teach theater to college students, I like to point out that although our discussions center around a play, we’re really looking at a piece of history reflected through an individual writer’s perspective. When we study a play, it’s a reflection of one individual’s viewpoint of what’s happening around them during that point in time.

Therefore, while studying dramatic literature, my students get immersed in the study of history as well. And they love it.

Many of us find it fascinating to study history through personal stories. You and I, by writing and producing plays and new musicals, are creating the theatrical canon of the 21st century.

I think that’s BIG.

My personal 2020 challenge is to help you put more of your stories on stage. Your challenge is to write the best plays possible that reflect the experience of living in this time, in this culture, at the beginning of this new millennia. And when those stories aren’t produced or published, they disappear.

So, how big can you be? Another Chekhov, Kushner, Sondheim, or Miranda? Why not?

 

Believe in Yourself

 

No one does theater because they think they’re going to get rich. And if that’s what you think, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.

You write stories, musicals and screenplays because you believe you have something important to say, to contribute, to the culture. You need to express your own perspective in your own way. And it gives you joy like nothing else when it works, when people stand and applaud your work.

When you know that your play changed something or someone, that makes it all worthwhile, doesn’t it? My favorite example is Jessica Blank and Erik Jenson’s Off-Broadway play The Exonerated, a play about six people who were exonerated after years on death row for a crime they did not commit. After watching a “command performance” in the Senate days before the final vote, the Supreme Court overruled the death penalty in the state of Illinois.

It doesn’t get any bigger than that. Yep, a piece of theater saved people from death and changed government policy.

Believe that your gift of storytelling can change lives and impact this world for the better.

 

It Takes a Village

 

Our plays are very much our children. Like our children, it takes a village to make them grow.

Your village are your connections, your theatrical friends and supporters who have nurtured you and encouraged your work all along. And it’s also the new people you’re meeting all the time, through your networking, pitching, and writers’ groups and classes.

I challenge you to go bigger this year – network more, submit more, learn more, write more. And don’t let the money blues, or the not enough time blues, get you down. Know that at a certain point it really is a numbers game, and if you keep at it you’re improving your odds all the time.

Just keep showing up.

Your real enemy is your own insecurity, your own sense of lack, your own depression or even despair. Sometimes it’s so damn difficult to keep submitting, to keep smiling, to keep trying. Despite yourself,  you are tempted to agree that theater is too hard right now to do.

That’s when you need to lean on people who truly know you and like your work – your Village. People who are in the same place and understand the struggle.

And by the way, a village isn’t a town or a city. They’re too big. Some online theater sites feel like cities,  so crowded and big. You want people to know you, who want to journey alongside you as you move your work forward. A village is your small group, your peers, your peeps.

 

CreateTheater is a Village

 

I’ve envisioned my CreateTheater.com community as a village where people can connect online, take classes online, and network online, to make meaningful ties with other writers and theater industry pros who are part of my theater community in NYC. It’s a village, not a city.

But if you’re a person who likes that “small town” feeling of knowing others and being known, then subscribe to our newsletter. Join in our community and take free classes that will come with the membership opening soon. Meet people along the way who are dreaming as big as you are.

I’m planning more for you coming soon.

Make friends in the industry online. Join the CreateTheater village.

Cate Cammarata is an excellent coach who has helped and encouraged me every
step of the way, since I first worked with her, when she was the dramaturg for the
developmental reading of my show, CRUDE-The Musical, at the 2016 New York
Musical Festival. This past year, CRUDE-The Climate Change Musical premiered at the Cape Cod
Theatre Company, Oct. 10 – Nov. 10, 2019. The show ran for five weeks, with 17
performances, and generated great publicity. I can’t thank Cate enough for her
expert coaching, over the past 3 years, as I worked to improve the arc of the script.
She’s taught me so much about the industry, about producing and about networking.
Cate has also helped me with specific networking opportunities.
I highly recommend Cate Cammarata as a fine coach for any writer looking to
succeed in the theater industry.

— Maureen Condon, Playwright & Composer

I believe a Mastermind group is essential – for the support, ideas generated, the encouragement, the accountability, the important friendships formed and for a sense of belonging in the theater, whether or not we’ve been produced. Cate’s Mastermind, in particular, is extremely helpful.  Cate knows her stuff and gently pushes us forward, stepping in to help when needed.  She is passionate about getting work onto a stage. She makes you believe it’s not “if” but “when”.”

— Jarlath Barsanti Jacobs, Playwright

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