GUEST BLOG by Kait Kerrigan: The Myth of Being Discovered

What do Title of ShowCrazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Hamilton have in common? Writers as stars? Sure, but it’s way more fundamental than that: they started out as writer-driven, underground hits way before they ever reached their commercial potential.

 

In each case, the goal of being a writer-performer wasn’t necessarily a feature, it was a bug in the system. Whether they were trying to be actors first or writers first, they were making their own projects out of necessity. Here’s the thing. Young actors and writers face lean times these days. It’s cheaper to make your own work than it is to get someone to make it with you and it’s hard to get someone who isn’t you to believe in untested you. I know, I know, Lin-Manuel Miranda already had In the Heights under his belt at that point, but that did not mean that anyone was going to pay attention to his mixtape about the forefathers. Until they did.

 

We’ve all heard the fabled Hollywood stories of ingenues getting discovered at Schwab’s and the Top Hat Malt Shop and there’s a certain romance to it, a serendipity. And wouldn’t that be lovely? You’re sipping your milkshake, pouring over your first draft of a script, when none other than Daryl Roth walks into the diner, and sees you toiling. Something about the opening line of dialogue catches her eagle eye and she asks you what your show is about. Somehow, you blurt out an elevator pitch that is better than you could have planned, and she says she’s been looking for a show exactly on that topic and asks to read it on the spot. The rest, as they say, is history.

 


But that’s not how things work. At least in my experience.

 


I’ve been writing musicals (with what some might call success) since I was 22. I’ve been making my living as a musical theater writer since I was 26. Occasionally I teach, often I script doctor, but my primary living has been made off of my own writing. I wouldn’t call it a great living. Let’s just say I’m still waiting for my J. K. Rowling payday (she was in her 30s when she was “discovered” after a record number of rejections so I feel like I’m still on track).

 


So how do you make a living in theater without making a killing? The answer is surprisingly simple: find your tribe and make things for them. Where do you find your tribe? The same place you find anyone else: the internet.

 


My writing partner Brian Lowdermilk and I have built up a stalwart following of performers and musical theater lovers who have  little-to-nothing to do with the New York musical theater scene who we can count on. They want what we’re making. Some of them are in the tri-state area, but an increasing number of them are in the Philippines, South Korea, Australia, Argentina, and Germany. I can tell you that with confidence because I know who they are. I know many of their names and even more of their favorite performers. Some of them have done PA work for us when they’re in town, and some of them have become incredible performers and writers in their own right.

 

 
Have you ever read about the 1000 true fans theory of artist support? I remember reading it in 2008 when the article was written and I felt liberated. You see, there are a very small number of people who make decisions about what’s on Broadway and most of them are not interested in stories about young women written by women. I am. Turns out, outside of Broadway, there’s plenty of interest in this. In fact, there’s a hunger for it because it’s not being represented on Broadway.

 


Of course, I hope that some day, I too can count myself among the ranks of people who were making some really weird things on the internet who suddenly hit the zeitgeist, but in the meantime, I can tell you – making your thing for your tribe is gratifying and can also be lucrative. Here’s a few easy ways to get started:
 
  1. Create a YouTube channel and post content every week. 
    We have been horrible at this actually – mostly because we don’t like performing. We’re trying to be a lot better in 2018. Guess what that means? We’re performing our own work more. If you want to see our YouTube channel or if you want to see the newest experiment we’re doing in serial content, check this out.
  2. Build up a social media presence. You don’t have to be great at every social media. You don’t have to even do all of the platforms. Choose one that you like and really work at building that one up. Once you understand one, you might find yourself curious about another one. I recently started using Tumblr because I wanted to understand what the hell had happened with the Be More Chill album. Most importantly, find a platform you enjoy enough where you’re willing to spend enough time on it that followers will see a glimmer of yourself. Try to use the 80/20 rule where only 20% of what you post is purely self-promotion.
  3. Find something you can sell NOW. We sell sheet music and that’s an important part of our livelihood. We make almost no real money on album sales and assume that any album we make is really just a marketing tool. Figure out what you’ll give away for free as “marketing / promotion” and what feels worth money to you. The answer is probably directly connected to what you can charge a premium for. The main reason I recommend this is because it feels good to make money from your work. The secondary reason I suggest this is because it makes you value your work in a different way.
  4. Treat your collaborators like family and your fans like friends. 
    Your collaborators are going to be doing you favors left and right. They’re hoping that someday you’ll be able to take them with you. You hope the same thing. They have put faith into you that is akin to the faith your mother has in your talent but it’s even more valuable because they’re putting their resources into you at the most critical juncture. Treat them with more than respect. Treat them with love and honor. Treating your fans like friends might be a little more counter-intuitive. I’ve had several people in the last year – while we had THE MAD ONES running off-Broadway who expressed shock to me that I took the teenage girls who told me about the friend they lost into my arms and talked to them like they were my friends – that I thanked them for being there and told them how much it meant to me. I’ve thought a lot about it because it is the only way I can imagine responding to these people who have poured their hearts out to me – who have honored me with their darkest sadness, who looked into the show I made, and saw something that made them feel kinship and less lonely. Here’s what I’ve come up with: I’m making something and I know that it’s not going to be for everyone. It might not get a great review in the New York Times every time (or any time) but because of these teenage girls who line up to see the show 15 times in a row, I don’t care about that. I am privileged to have something that I built that is bigger than our sometimes limiting New York theater scene. And I have those 1000 fans who will travel from the Philippines just to be at the immersive house party I made, or a girl whose parents have heard her talk about the little off-Broadway show that was only running 6 weeks so much that they got her a plane and show ticket for her birthday present.
  5. Never lament your luck or lack of connections. Make your own.
    There is definitely such a thing as luck. And if you’ve been around the New York theater scene, you know that nepotism is alive and well. Who cares? Everybody envies somebody. Stay in your own lane and make your own thing. Work hard. And someday, maybe you’ll be sitting at a diner sipping a milkshake – or let’s be real, at Sardi’s eating free cheese spread on Ritz, and Daryl Roth will come in and because you’ve created your own brand, because you have the confidence of knowing that your work has had millions of international eyeballs on it, you’ll feel galvanized to go up to her and tell her about the international property you have on your hands. Chances are she still won’t have seen it. But her assistant will have, which brings me to my final piece of advice.
  6. Always be nice to assistants. 
    If you’re taking this gonzo route, they are your best allies. One day they will rise up and become your great hope for ever making a legitimate paycheck. 

Kait Kerrigan is a playwright, lyricist, and bookwriter. Off-Broadway: THE MAD ONES, HENRY AND MUDGE, and upcoming ROSIE REVERE, ENGINEER AND FRIENDS. Other musicals with Brian Lowdermilk include: THE BAD YEARS, REPUBLIC, UNBOUND, and two top-charting albums OUR FIRST MISTAKE and KERRIGAN-LOWDERMILK LIVE. Plays include DISASTER RELIEF, IMAGINARY LOVE, and TRANSIT. Work has been developed at Goodspeed’s Norma Terris, Aurora Theatre, Theatreworks/Silicone Valley, Chautauqua Theatre Company, Lark, Primary Stages, La Jolla, and others. Awards: Kleban, Larson, Theatre Hall of Fame Most Promising Lyricist. Alumna of Dramatists Guild Fellow, Page 73’s I-73 writer‘s group, Barnard College, BMI Musical Theatre Writing Workshop. Co-founder with Lowdermilk of the start-up NewMusicalTheatre.com. www.kerrigan-lowdermilk.com and www.kaitkerrigan.tumblr.com.

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Comments
  • Carlton says:

    Watched you grow up under the hood of a warm community theaterfamily
    Nice to feel and see it take wing!
    In your own way/lane

    I just came from Zion
    And they post small signs for hikers that say
    Stick to the Trail
    To help people like me who wander off
    I found myself saying it out loud
    Everytime

    Comforting yet direct

    Your story reminds me to stick to my creative lane and don’t wander off
    And it sounds like your message is helping others keep to their path .
    Thanks kait and Brian !!

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