Do I Need a Star?

Do I Need a Star?

The Need for Stars?

 

 “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” – Steve Martin

 

Writing a play and then staying the course to see it produced is a daunting task. It requires tremendous focus and 100% dedication to each step in the developmental process.

 Once you think your play “works,” the next step is to have a staged reading to introduce it to the public, either in NYC or elsewhere. A reading is the step before a workshop or a production.

 So if a staged reading is the step before a workshop or production, what is our goal for the staged reading? Getting people to see the reading. And not just ANY people – specifically, people who could help us get to that next step, a production or a workshop. (We also want to get smart, experienced people to the reading for them to give us feedback as well, but for the purpose of this blog post let’s stay with the people who can help us move the play forward.)

 So, who are these people? How can I get them into my reading?

 

 It’s All About Relationships

 

Since everything in this business is about relationships, you should be developing relationships and networking like crazy as soon as you realize that you want to be a playwright. Specifically, you want to cultivate relationships with Artistic Directors, directors, producers, and generally, almost anyone in the industry.

 Sooner or later you realize that everyone in the theater lives or dies by their network of friends and friends-of-friends. And it’s helpful to be friends with or in close association with someone who knows or has access to a “star.”

 

Getting a “Star” Interested in Your Play

 

 I can hear the plaintive cry from many of you: “I don’t have access to a star, and don’t know anyone who does!”

 Sigh. That’s where most of us start, but if you’re in this industry for any length of time and make an effort to network, you’ll inevitably meet someone (or hire someone) who knows someone to make a connection for you. And if your work is good enough (and your price is right), you’ll probably be able to hire someone that’s worked on Broadway before to be in your reading. Often it’s not as expensive as you think.

For a quick answer, you can contact your intended celebrity by signing up for the IMDbPro, which is what most people use. You can also try contactanycelebrity.com.

 BUT the real answer is that quality work shows up very early, in the writing and in the score (if we’re talking about musicals). Sometimes I start to read a script and quickly become riveted to the story. When it’s this good, I smile and say to myself that “the magic is starting to happen.”

Losing yourself in a theatrical world established by a talented writer is a completely magical experience. The “magic” is found on the page long before it makes its way to the stage, and if you’ve read a few hundred scripts or so like many of us have, you know it doesn’t happen all that often.

“Star” actors see the “magic” when they read your script; the same with “star” directors, music directors, and yes, theaters and producers. The cream always rises to the top. Eventually.

 Unfortunately it usually takes its damn sweet time getting there.

 

I Don’t Have a Star – Yet

 

Notice the operative word here – YET.

In order to find that “star” you think you need to attract the theaters and producers that you think you need to help move your script forward – the most important thing you need to remember is that the first star of your show is …. your script. 

Let me say it again.

Your writing should be so good that your SCRIPT is your very first “star.”

 So, while you continue to network and develop each of your plays, remember it’s the constant fine-tuning to your scripts that is the real work.

No amount of networking or self-producing expensive staged readings can substitute for the nitty-gritty down-and-dirty daily work of meeting with yourself every day to sit down and write.

  •  In order to make your writing the true star it needs to be, remember to acknowledge the daily discipline to write (or re-write) every day.
  • Remember to recognize the need for real craft in your work, and
  • Understand the need to constantly keep learning.

You must be a constant student of life and of the craft of writing to master the craft of writing.

 

As Steve Martin quipped, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”

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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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What Do Producers Look For in a Script?

What Do Producers Look For in a Script?

What Do Producers Look For in a Script?

From Page to …

You’ve finished writing your script, held a few readings and incorporated the feedback, and worked with a dramaturg. Maybe you’ve even had a showcase production of your show and have a website up with clips to prove it.

Now you need someone to help you take it to the next level!

Where’s a producer when you need one?

The Writer-Producer Relationship: First Steps

 

The writer-producer relationship is a special marriage of business savvy, creative vision and aesthetic resonance. Somehow your play must powerfully connect in some way to the producer’s psyche, to his “mission” as a producer, in order for him (or her) to go out and raise the kind of money that is needed for production. A producer must BELIEVE in your work and in your voice as a writer.

How do you as a playwright connect with producers?

  • Get to know producer’s tastes by studying what s/he has already produced and email them a synopsis of your script
  • Study regional theaters to find out the personality of the artistic director, and look for patterns that emerge when you compare their past seasons
  • Network through local theaters, the Dramatist Guild, Fringe Festivals, theater meetups, and CreateTheater masterminds, courses and Facebook Live groups.
  • Attend readings and workshops as much as possible, then stay and talk to people. Their connections can become your connections.

What Are Producers Looking For?

All producers are different and look for different things. I’ve asked a few of my friends what they look for in a new script.

Patrick Blake, Off-Broadway producer (The Exonerated, In The Continuum, Play Dead, 39 Steps) and Founding Artistic Director of Rhymes Over Beats Theater Collective

There are only so many stories, and they have been told dozens if not hundreds of times. What I look for is how fresh or stylistically interesting they are.

Daryl Sledge, Off-Broadway producer (Fried Chicken and Latkes, My Father’s Daughter)

 

What attracts me about a script is how well-written and how “produceable” it can be. For instance, what I look for are projects that have very few actors, very few settings and costume changes. That way you can keep your budget down … and it should be commercial. It should have acting opportunities for superb actors. I’m looking for things that challenge us, that set the mark for today, that say something about the type of society that we live in today. I’m looking forward to producing scripts from new writers that we’ve never heard from before that challenge us – that challenge us to be better people, better Americans, better citizens of the world. I’m looking for projects that really resonate with people today that will also bring in a new audience.

 

Jeremy Handleman, Tony Award-nominated Broadway (On The Town) and Off-Broadway producer (Fking Up Everything, White’s Lies)

 

The first thing that’s important to me is that I have to be emotionally affected by the material. That sounds rather basic, but not every script is going to move me and maybe something that doesn’t move me is going to move somebody else. So it has to be the right fit between the material and the producer. I also have a couple of other initial filters that are specific for me, which is that I tend to be drawn to character-driven work. Since I am a commercial producer, there has to be some gut level feeling that I have that there is a commercial path to this even if I don’t quite know what it is at this point. My third filter is whether the writer or the writing team a person or a group of people who I feel good about the possibility of working with, because possibly this is a relationship that could go on for years and years and years, so that relationship has to be strong.

 

Michael Alden, Tony Award winning Broadway (Come From Away, Disgraced, Grey Gardens, Bridge and Tunnel) and Off-Broadway producer (Not That Jewish, Becoming Dr. Ruth, Bat Boy, The Last Session)

 

First of all you want to find good writing, but the thing that intrigues me the most is stories about misunderstood outsiders. People that are having a hard time either finding themselves in their own community or being understood by their community. So the shows that I’ve done in the past speak to either about a child or the child inside of you that’s seemingly isn’t being connected with what’s going on around you, or not being understood by what’s going on around you. So that’s why I like Grey Gardens or Bat Boy the Musical. That’s what speaks to me.

 

Cate Cammarata, Off-Broadway producer (The Assignment) and Associate Artistic Director of Rhymes Over Beats Theater Collective

 

As a producer I’m looking for a script with a strong female protagonist that challenges an audience and inspires them and gives them some kind of a fresh idea, a new thought that maybe they never had before.

 

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