5 Top Takeaways from the “How to Write a Musical” Workshop

5 Top Takeaways from the “How to Write a Musical” Workshop

The World & The Want

 

Yesterday I taught my favorite workshop, the “How to Write a Musical That Works” Workshop through Theater Resources Unlimited (TRU) in NYC. Along with the Executive Director Bob Ost and a stellar panel composed of Dramaturg/Producer Ken Cerniglia (Disney Theatricals, Hadestown), Tony Award winning Director/Lyricist Richard Maltby Jr. (Ain’t Misbehavin’, Fosse, Big, Miss Saigon), Kleban and Larsen Award winning Librettist and Lyricist Cheryl Davis (Barnstormer, Maid’s Door) and former Artistic Coordinator of the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, Skip Kennon (Herringbone, Don Juan DeMarco, Time and Again), we hosted seven new musicals as they presented select song-scene presentations from their projects.

 

In this safe incubator environment, the teams came from all over – New England, Atlanta, Upstate NY, Long Island – to participate in our workshop and solicit feedback about their early developmental work. Some of the songs had just been writen the week before; most had never been performed. 

 

This is a three part Workshop, roughly divided into the “beginning,” “middle,” and “ending” of a script. This first Workshop, “The World and The Want,” spoke about the need for clarity in your storytelling in the very beginning of your script and the presentation of the “I Want” song.

 

Everyone had surprises that day. One person learned that her beginning to her musical didn’t work at all – she is headed back to the drawing board with lots of ideas now on how to make the opening number work. Another writer learned that his I Want song communicated something very different to the audience than what he had thought, and is revamping the beginning of the song. Another writer was happy to learn that we were excited by his presentation, but confused by a few points – he now will be editing his opening for greater clarity.

 

Top 5 Takeaways: The World and The Want

 

Here are the top five things that we learned from the Workshop on October 27, 2019:

 

1. Clarity of storytelling must be established from the very beginning of the show

  • Establish WHO these characters are
  • The audience wants to know who we’re going to watch, and what they’re about
  • SHOW don’t TELL. If you describe your lead character as “the Lady Gaga” of that time period, don’t tell us – SHOW US.

 

2. The Opening Number

  • Why is this day different from any other day?
  • Set up your world and tone immediately, and keep it consistent into the next scene (and the next)
  • Can characters we “know” be used in a different way to tell the story?
  • Don’t refer to pronouns like “this” in a song without having established what “this” is.
  • An opening number should immediately get us into the ACTION of the story

 

3. Don’t Betray the audience into creating the expectation of a group I WANT in your opening number by introducing different characters, and then explain that we never see them again.

  • If you introduce specific voices in the opening number, your audience expects to see them again.Your audience wants to learn whose journey we’re on from the very beginning.
  • Don’t set up the expectation of A CHORUS LINE if we will never see these characters again.

 

4. Every song must have a complete arc – a complete beginning, middle, and end – to it

  • A song must travel and push the plot forward
  • We need to learn something within the song – the ending idea isn’t the same as the beginning idea.
  • By the end of the song, we must be in a very different place than we were at the beginning of the song.

 

5. The style of the song must reflect the action and intention of the character singing it

  • The tone of the song must serve the character in that moment
  • A laid-back, jazzy rhythm doesn’t serve a moment when the character has a driving, insistent intention to her action.
  • Instead of a ¾ time, a driving 4/4 may be more active a choice.Sometimes it helps to read the lyrics of the song as prose to discover the intention behind the action.

 

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Pitching Your Show to Producers: The Elevator Pitch

Pitching Your Show to Producers: The Elevator Pitch

Pitching Your Show to Producers

 

Learning to pitch your show to potential producers is a skill set that can be developed like any other skill set. The secret is in learning to see your show from the producer’s perspective.

Recently I was the pitching coach for eight writers in Theater Resources Unlimited’s (TRU) Pitching Workshop, part of the TRU Writer/Producer Speed Date. The event is an intense experience, where twelve writers pitch to eleven producers within one hour. Like regular speed dating, you’ve got approximately seven seconds to make a great impression and two minutes to perfect your elevator pitch, engage in a quick conversation with a producer, then move on to the next producer and start the process all over again.

Needless to say this demands focus. Both parties are hoping for “instant attraction,” and sometimes that does happen. Options have resulted from our Speed Dates. But more importantly, writers get better and better at pitching their projects to producers and learning to discern what producers are looking for, what is most interesting about their own work and how to sell their ideas.

Your Elevator Pitch

An elevator pitch is a quick introduction to your show to a potential producer or investor, geared toward creating interest in the listener. It is more of a marketing skill than anything else, and like any skill it can be learned and gets better with practice.

An elevator pitch takes approximately two minutes. That’s it. You’ve got a mere two minutes to make the producer lean in, smile and ask for more information.

Many of my writers, in this recent workshop and in others I’ve coached over the years, spend way too much time on their synopsis. Others undersell themselves, leaving major awards from their other work left unspoken, or merely get so flustered under the pressure to persuade someone whom they perceive has the power to make or break their show that they repeat themselves or stumble over their words.

Relax. You’ve got this. It’s all in the preparation ahead of time. 

Just as an actor has to always be ready with a couple of great monologues to perform in an instant to showcase his talent, you as a writer should always be ready with a prepared elevator pitch “just in case” you are introduced to someone with the potential to move your show forward.

It’s a Conversation

Always remember that your pitch is the beginning to a conversation, so make your style conversational. Some writers are such good wordsmiths that they try to memorize their pitch word for word and recite it as a speech, or worse, have the pitch written down and then read it verbatim. They then sound “market-y” and artificial, which is definitely not in their best interest!

I recommend that you write your pitch on index cards using bullet points in the beginning. This keeps my writers on track and focused, yet still maintaining that all-essential eye contact and smile during the conversation.

The Pitch Template

A good organization strategy for your pitch should follow this template, written by TRU founders Bob Ost and Gary Hughes and used in our workshops and in my own personal coaching.

1. The Attention Grabber

The first thing necessary is to grab the producer’s interest in those first seven seconds. You want to give them a reason to remember you and to engage with you in a conversation.

Sometimes this is most effective by asking a question:

  • “What do you do when …”
  • “What happens when …”
  • “Did you ever have an experience where …”

Sometimes you can make a statement to move your listener and get them on the same emotional wavelength:

  • “Imagine yourself …”
  • “How would it feel if …”
  • “What would you do if you were faced with …”

Some writers make a statement that is surprising in some way, or use a quote, a song title, or anything the listener can readily identify with that describes the content of their show. Especially helpful is when you can help the producer make comparisons with something they’re already familiar with, for example, “This show is Once meets Torch Song Trilogy…”

The important thing to remember is that at the beginning you must engage your listener and start a conversation, not talk at them. This is a brief – very brief! – introduction to you and your work, useful for marketing your show to someone. Your goal is to get them to smile, lean in, and want to hear more.

2. A Brief Synopsis

As a writer you’ve spent months, perhaps years, writing and rewriting your plot to get the structure right. It’s natural that you would want to share the entire story with someone, since it’s so doggone interesting and engaging.

It probably is, but this is a two minute pitch so time is of the essence. You want to choose your words carefully and leave out anything that doesn’t absolutely need to be said.

Often a concept synopsis is more helpful than a true plot synopsis. A producer wants to hear the essence of your show, not a play-by-play retelling of each detail in every act! And don’t tell them what they’ll feel in the show; instead, evoke the feeling itself through the careful choice of your words in the pitch.

What can be included in this brief synopsis?

  • The 5 W’s (who, what, where, when and why)
  • The 6th W (want), which is the main characters’ wants and why they can’t get it (the obstacle)
  • The major conflict
  • The universal theme
  • What the audience will see when the curtain goes up (the world)
  • An overview of the dramatic arc of the show, or the emotional high point (climax)
  • Don’t forget to tell the genre of the show and the sound of the music (if it’s a musical), or if it’s a dance-heavy production, the style of dance.

Remember, less is always more and time is crucial here. You don’t have to address each of the above bullet points, but know which ones are most pertinent to communicate the idea of your show. Know your basic dramaturgy and be prepared to answer the above questions if they come up.

Also, you may not be the best editor of your own synopsis. Try it out on a few friends and listen to what they find engaging or unnecessary.

Both steps 1 and 2 should take approximately one minute or so of your time, in order for you to really sell your show during the last minute.

3. Benefits

Don’t tell ‘em, sell ‘em! Show why your show has significant advantages and why they should produce it:

  • Timely and relevant – this show must be produced now! There is a recognized audience for this material
  • Premise – illustrate how your premise is unique or special in some way that will make it stand out
  • The show is based on a pre-existing property or well-known source material, which has recognized branding
  • Stars associated with the project (directors, actors, composers, etc.)
  • Previous production history (share photos, reviews, audience quotes)
  • Give other benefits that producers find attractive:
    • Cast size (if it’s on the small end – otherwise don’t mention it)
    • Unit set, minimal set requirements
    • Developmental steps or awards
    • If there’s money behind your project, please mention it during the pitch (no need to be specific yet)
  • Always give your brief bio, especially if you’ve won awards or have other work that’s been produced.

Sometimes it’s helpful to remember the acronym SAFE (Stars, Audience, Financials, Environment) as a way to think of possible benefits your show may have.

4. Concept Recap

At this point you are almost out of time (I hope you’re still relaxed, smiling, and not out of breath! ) and you need to summarize your pitch.

Briefly recap your original concept with only one or two sentences. Remember, you’ve got a really great show here that you’re presenting to someone!

Ending Your Pitch 

After your two minutes are up, thank the person for listening and offer to follow up with them by sending them an invitation to a reading, sending them the script or music files, forwarding them to your website, or leaving behind a packet of information for them to read later.

Then BE QUIET and LISTEN.

Have a Conversation

Now it’s the producer’s turn to ask you questions. Hopefully there are a few, as that shows your pitch has successfully engaged his/her attention and interest.

Answer any questions they present honestly, and again offer to follow up with more information and then do so. Speak with passion and confidence, and always leave them wanting to hear more.

Your job is to create both a favorable impression about yourself and your work to a new contact that may be interested in your show. Get them to want to read your script, to come to a reading, to advise, to recommend to a friend – or even to produce or invest in the show personally. It happens all the time.

Don’t be caught off-guard. Be ready with your practiced pitch.

Need some help with YOUR pitch?

Contact Cate to schedule a practice pitch session or ask about group coaching: cate@createtheater.com

 

 

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The Need for Creative Producers

The Need for Creative Producers

Why I’m a Creative Producer

 

On May 13, 2013, in a speech at the Theater Communications Group (TCG) Gala, Emily Mann, longtime Artistic Director of the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ, stated that the nonprofit movement was started because the commercial theater was “destroying theater as an art form.”

What??

This was an odd statement for Ms. Mann to make, having just received an honorary Tony award for the McCarter Theatre for its contribution to the vital function in the health of American theater, and having VANYA & SONYA & MASHA & SPIKE – developed at the McCarter – nominated for best play. Many in the commercial theater were offended by her comments, feeling that regional nonprofit theaters should be grateful to Broadway for allowing them to actually make a profit on occasion.

This in essence is the ongoing debate in the American theater.

 

Commercial Producers Help Drive NPD

 

In this era of almost nonexistent support from government and private foundations, sometimes regional nonprofit theaters are financially compelled to form partnerships with commercial producers to create new work – often works of significant value that, once having appeared on Broadway, provide enough necessary monetary success to allow the nonprofit theater a financial cushion it wouldn’t otherwise have.

Yet, while grateful for the funding, nonprofits are ever cautious about accepting money from “the dark side” for fear of loss of control of the artistic product, and for fear of betraying the mission under which the organization must adhere.

Commercial producers are usually driving these partnerships, lured by the opportunity to develop new work away from New York at a reasonable cost. However, as Ms. Mann’s comments show, everyone isn’t always perfectly happy with the arrangement.

That was in 2013. Has anything changed today?

 

Regional Theater and the History of New Play Development

 

During the 1930’s and 1940’s there was a feeling that there were important stories to be told that wouldn’t and couldn’t be produced by the commercial theater, because of the economics of Broadway.

The resulting Regional Theatre Movement during the 1930’s and 1940’s, led by its three founding matriarchs of Margo Jones, Nina Vance and Zelda Fichandler, proposed a new nonprofit model supported by and created for local communities, which would have the artistic mission to create new work and produce new interpretations of the classics, to bring about a “new renaissance” to the American theatre in the twentieth century.

These participants of the Regional Theatre Movement felt that it was their mission to create “art” as opposed to the mission of the commercial theatre, which they often perceived to be merely to generate income.

Somehow, developing “art” made their plays more “noble” than the work that was developed in the commercial sector.

Even today, in the eyes of the nonprofit theatre, Broadway sometimes still is an entity not wholly to be trusted; it is the “other”, a center of crass consumerism.

Founding leader Zelda Fichandler was burned once in an attempt to bring an Arena Stage production of The Great White Hope to Broadway; forever after her response to such partnerships was “Broadway: no.” Some nonprofit artistic directors feel the same to this day.

 

Commercial Producers Can Be Artists, Too

 

Commercial producers take offense at being perceived as merely “money men” (and women) – they consider themselves to be just as creative, smart and “hands-on” as the nonprofits, investing in the life of the play for the long haul.

Here’s the deal: a commercial producer must look beyond a single production to guide the entire life of the play from conception to (hopefully) an enduring life in the regional, educational and community theaters.

A producer’s enthusiasm and belief in a production is the fuel that drives the play forward. Many new plays are driven by a commercial producer who receives permission to produce the play from the playwright, or the playwright’s agent.

The producer then spends years (typically 7-9 years) on the development end for the play, hosting readings and developmental workshops to help each play find its own signature voice. Thousands of dollars are spent gathering a committed team of professionals in preparation for rehearsals to begin.

They do this all without being paid, without drawing a salary on the project for years – all because they believe in the work, just as much as the “art-driven” nonprofits do.

 

Commercial Producers Develop Work

 

Commercial producers with a dramaturgical sensibility can creatively bridge the gap between the nonprofit and commercial theater and encourage partnerships between the two that are beneficial to both.

Producers skilled in dramaturgy can bring to life the voices and images that accurately reflect our American experience at the beginning of the twenty-first century – and secure their future in the American theatrical canon for posterity.

Jill Rafson, then Literary Manager of the Roundabout Theatre in New York City, called for 2013 graduates from The Commercial Theater Institute – an organization that trains new producers – to become “Creative Producers.” She said that “Creative Producing” was the most underdeveloped skill in the industry, and that only through the insight and leadership of Creative Producers would emerging playwrights be challenged to develop more innovative and original work.”

 

Another successful guest lecturer in the program, commercial producer Kevin McCollum, pointed to a dramaturg in the class (me) and told the rest, “You all should know what she knows.”

 

Producers breathe life into a script. Playwrights need producers to mount their plays and to project their voice into the larger culture for them.

Creative Producers, using the skills and knowledge of dramaturgy, are necessary to help develop original new plays and to contribute significant new work into the American theatre canon.

 

Make Friends with a Non-Profit

 

If you’re a writer, make friends with a regional non-profit. Make connections with directors and producers who have contacts at theaters everywhere.

Submit everywhere. In reality, it’s a numbers game.

Learn dramaturgy – it’s an essential skill set.

Are you affiliated with a regional theater, I’d love to hear your side of the debate. Email me at cate@createtheater.com, and I’ll feature you on another blog post.

How do YOU feel about commercial producers working with regional theaters to develop new work? Let me know your thoughts..

 

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The Fine Art of Collaboration

The Fine Art of Collaboration

What are the steps to finding and maintaining a great creative team?

 

Putting together a collaborative creative team is more of an art than most people realize, especially for a musical.

After having experienced both good and not so good collaborations, it all boils down to a commitment to the process and an inherent respect for the other’s contributions.

 

Ask for Referrals

 

First, look for someone who is not only experienced but also capable, knowledgeable and dependable. Many experienced people are so overbooked with projects that they don’t always have as much time and energy to contribute to yours as they would like.

I strongly suggest that you first seek word of mouth recommendations from people you know and trust. (Putting out a request for referrals on Facebook is fine). You can also check out resources from professional associations, do an internet search, or use other available sources like those found on MusicalWriters.com or Theater Resources Unlimited.

 

Do Your Research

 

Before you contact anyone, make sure you do your own research.

Ask yourself questions like:

  • Has this person worked on shows similar to mine in the past? Do your own due diligence and find out all you can about their experience. Ask others in the industry about them if possible, or check their contacts on LinkedIn.
  • Does this person have a network that may be interested in and may help my show’s progress? Do they work with key level producing organizations or directors that may be interested in my work? They may be willing to introduce you.
  • Do I believe they have the level of experience that I could trust to help me move my show forward?

 

Schedule an Interview

 

Narrow your possibilities down and start communicating by email, and set up an interview in person or over Skype or Zoom.

Always trust your instincts. Some things to discover:

  • Does this person have passion for your project?
  • Do they listen to your ideas eagerly, or politely?
  • Do they offer what they believe is a “better” idea, or jump on board with your ideas?
  • Are they prepared for the interview, and bring in their visions or ideas to you?

 

Twice when interviewing a potential director, candidates came in with a book of images and other printed material to show us that excited them. This preparation got them the job, and they were terrific.

Finally, remember to make this first step a short “coffee date,” not a LTR. Have the goal to collaborate with them for a specific reading, workshop, etc., not the goal to get to Broadway together. That’s too huge a commitment! Start first with the intention of, “I like you pretty well, let’s see how it goes.”

Take it step by step.

 

Be Part of a Community

 

Theater is all about community and relationships, and authentic friendships sometimes create wonderful collaborations. Keep networking online here at CreateTheater, go to theater conferences and galas, join your regional Dramatist Guild chapter or participate in local theater events near you. Meet people and talk about your work.

In the end, it’s all about the work. Remember the improvisation mantra, “Yes, and…..?” Always respect each other’s creative ideas, get excited about adding in your own and stay focused.

The art of the theatre is all about creative collaboration.