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.