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.


Using Technology for Theater?

Using Technology for Theater?

Every year I try to update my vision of how to create more theater, and what that theater should look like.

What exactly is my role this year as a theatre-maker in the 21st century? What can I personally do to develop, produce and promote more theater?

Is theater dying? Or is the way we make theater today dying?

The old Danny Newman subscription model doesn’t work anymore. Regional theaters and downsizing, or closing their doors. All of this has of course been accelerated by nearly two years of shutdown in theater.

Theater isn’t dying – it will always be around – but we need to examine how to build new audiences, to speak to those audiences and to market them off the sofas and into theaters.

Can we use technology to help us create more theater?


Strengths of 21st Century Theater


Let’s review at the beginning of the year what we’re doing right:

  1. We were a diverse society from the beginning. Thus, we are and must continue to be a diverse and inclusive theater if we are to develop new audiences.
  2. Theater takes the invisible idea, the invisible thought, and makes it visible. Today theater is doing it more creatively than ever, utilizing technology, “game theory,” and innovative performance techniques (immersive, site-specific, experimental structures, etc.)
  3. We all acknowledge that staging performing arts performances in a community accelerates the economic growth of that area and leads to a revitalized community. The arts are good for local businesses.
  4. The arts have a positive impact on academic achievement and personal growth of young people, as well as other marginalized groups and the elderly. The arts are good for society in general.
  5. The “live” component of theatrical performance create social engagements that build social empathy and understanding that can help heal fractures that are increasingly dividing us everywhere.

All of the above are true, but apparently we’ve done a terrible job communicating these strengths to the public. How can we entice new audiences in when ticket prices are stratospheric, yet thanks to technology, movies and videos are everywhere?

Surely we can use this same technology to promote theater.


Technology Makes Entertainment More Accessible


We are now surrounded with more entertainment options than any other time in human history – accessible any time on the little device we all carry in our pockets. YouTube is free, and paying for entertainment is over (except for live concert and sporting events) for many people.

Why not use technology to build an appetite for live theater?

Streaming theater is a viable option, if for no other reason than to serve our audiences. Allowing my college students to view bootleg videos of past musicals on Broadway or great plays at the National Theatre creates more of a desire to see theatre, not less. I love watching students discover HEDDA GABLER or SPRING AWAKENING for the first time, and getting excited about the work and the ideas.

Also, audiences are reluctant to buy expensive tickets for shows they don’t know. Familiarity with Harry Potter drives a desire to buy a ticket to that show, or a ticket to the parody musicals  of “The Office” or “Friends.”

How can audiences become familiar with your show? Where and what can you post online to drive a desire to see your show?

Here are some ideas that I see working:

  • Record bits of your play or musical being rehearsed (even if there’s no planned production yet) to post on social media
  • Create a promo clips or sizzle reel and post on social media and on your website (a necessity now).
  • Grab your friends and shoot a video of your show scene by scene. Edit and post on YouTube (this works especially well if you’re a millennial or Gen Z creator)
  • Go live and play your musical one song at a time, with an introduction. Post on YouTube to create a playlist, and on your website
  • Writing a play? Record a monologue or an especially dramatic moment, and post online
  • Have a local staged reading? Hire a videographer to record it. Don’t forget to capture the audience’s reactions at the end. Post it on YouTube for a short time (if allowed).

Social Media is the new word of mouth. I’m not a “digital native,” but hey, I can learn. So can you.


Always Promote Yourself


The end goal of all this promotion is, of course, to get your show onstage. You’ll still have to do the traditional activities to make people aware of you and your work:

  • Continually submitting to every play submissions contest you can find
  • Networking with Artistic Directors, producers and literary managers, in person and online
  • Volunteering at your local theater, or attending their galas – and donating
  • Be active on the New Play Exchange and participate in the community
  • Designing a modern website and keeping it updated
  • Maintaining an email list of friends, family and followers
  • Participating in online communities like CreateTheater, The Playwrights Center, the Dramatist’s Guild, and the BMI Musical Theater Workshop (to name a few) where you can network with other industry professionals.

Yes, it is exhausting to build an audience for your work, and to invest time in your social networks. It takes time, consistent effort, and passion. It. Is. Exhausting. I get it.

I am exhausted, too. But I’m always learning new ways to promote good work and stage good work. I will continually adapt our storytelling onstage to allow new audiences to experience theatre in new ways (look for an immersive show coming soon to a Brooklyn restaurant, and the resurrection of our 2020 Monday Night Reading Series online).

Because we’re theater people, and this is what we do. We adapt, and go where the audiences are. We don’t stand there and shout at them to come to us. That’s so “twentieth century.” We go to them.

Write good stuff and send it to me. I’m looking to develop new musicals and plays in the 2024 CreateTheater New Works Festival in NYC, and beyond.

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 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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