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.

GUEST BLOG by Tim Donahue: What a strange 100 years it has been for theater prizes!

In 1918, the first Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama went to a forgotten—and forgettable—comedy entitled “Why Marry?” Two years later the prize went to a female playwright, because the Jury thought it would be a “handsome” thing to give the prize to a woman, although they wrote, “It is not a great play but it is original and interesting.”

The Pulitzer Drama Prize was so often laughable that in 1935 a group of Broadway reviewers formed the New York Drama Critics Circle expressly to give better awards. One of the founders, Brooks Atkinson, summed up the Circle’s accomplishment almost thirty years after its beginning, writing, “The average taste of the Critics Circle is no more discerning than the average taste of the Pulitzer judges. Neither the Circle nor the Pulitzer prizes can be intimidated by genius; both of them have on occasion preferred commonplace plays to classics.”

In the late 1940s, the Tony Awards began as a small event for the theater community sponsored by the American Theatre Wing, a charitable group from the war years. The presentation happened at a banquet with dancing in a hotel ballroom, with the prizes chosen by an ad hoc handful of people. In the first year, a Tony was given to Vincent Sardi, Sr., in thanks for Sardi’s Restaurant!

Twenty years later the Wing was in financial trouble and it joined with the Broadway League to continue the Tony Awards. Within a year, the ceremony morphed into a big television event. That changed everything about the Tonys and a lot about Broadway theater.

Still, being on television hasn’t prevented the Tony Awards from making major gaffes.

There have been past seasons when the resulting prizes, Tony Awards and others, can still provoke healthy argument. For example:

Harvey won over The Glass Menagerie
Hello, Dolly! won over Funny Girl
The Music Man won over West Side Story
Nine won over Dreamgirls
The Sound of Music won over Gypsy

These competitive years make one wonder what best play and best musical awards mean.

Today, there are six major, very different organizations giving best play and best musical awards, for diverse reasons, chosen by very unalike procedures. It feels great if your show gets one, but does it have any sure, lasting meaning?

In short: so many prizes; so little to celebrate. Even after 100 years.

—–
Tim Donahue is the author most recently of Playing for Prizes: America’s Awards for Best Play and Best Musical. He is the co-author of Stage Money: The Business of the Professional Theater and three other books on theater.

Podcast Episode 153 – Tony Winner & Pulitzer Prize Finalist and Showrunner Warren Leight

My wife and I spend a lot of time with Warren Leight.

You probably do too . . .

Because we, like you (admit it), watch a lot of Law & Order SVU and Warren was a writer and showrunner for years.

Before that, though he was a finalist for the big P for his fantastic play, Side Man.  

Warren is one of the few playwrights that can go so easily from stage to screen . . . and that’s all about how he started writing in the first place.  See he started because he wanted to be a sports writer, and then . . . wait . . . I’m giving it away.  Just listen to the podcast and hear Warren talk about:

  • How a lie about loving horror movies led to him writing one . . . and why you might want to fib a little too.
  • Why he binge writes.
  • The importance of joining a Writer’s Group and how it helped him.
  • Why the deadlines of TV help make him a better writer . . . and how you can use deadlines to accomplish your goals, whether you have a TV network demanding a script or not.
  • How he wrote Side Man without realizing he was writing it . . . and what it was like after he won The Tony (and it’s not what you think).

Warren’s path to success is such a lesson in the grind, creativity and flexibility it takes to be successful in this business and in any business, and this podcast could give you a map for your own.

Click here for the link to my podcast with Warren!

Listen to it on iTunes here. (And if you like the podcast, give it a great review, while you’re there!)

Download it here.

 

Podcast Episode 151 – Tony Nominated Lyricist, Michael Korie

Last week I wrote about how so many fantastic musical theatre writers come from the advertising world, and one of the primary reasons why I postulated that they do was because they learned how to write for an audience, instead of just writing for themselves.

Well, advertising ain’t the only training ground for writing for an audience.  You know what another one is?

Journalism.

And guess what this week’s podcast guest did before he started writing lyrics for operas and getting nominated for Tony Awards for his Broadway show?

Michael Korie, the lyricist of Grey Gardens, War Paint, and more, talked about the similarities between writing for the theatre and for the papers, as well as . . .

  • Why he does so much research for his shows and why you should too.
  • The biggest mistake beginning songwriters make . . . and it’s an easy one to fix.
  • Why he never speaks his lyrics out loud when working with a composer on a song.
  • Rhyme . . . and the purpose of it, and how to use it for the greatest impact.
  • A secret method to making sure a song that you love stays in your show.

Michael is an artisan of words, and the only thing this podcast left me wanting . . . was more musicals with his name on them.

Click here for the link to my podcast with Michael!

Listen to it on iTunes here. (And if you like the podcast, give it a great review, while you’re there!)

Download it here.

 

3 Reasons Why Ad Men & Women Make Great Musical Theatre Writers

Quick . . . riddle me this . . . what do Tony Award winners Rick Elice, Lynn Ahrens and Joe DiPietro have in common?

Answer?

Before they wrote the books/lyrics/etc to shows like Ragtime, Jersey Boys, Memphis, Once On This Island and more . . . they all worked in advertising.

That’s what I call a trend, my friends.

And where there’s a trend, there’s me, trying to figure out why it is the way it is.

I dug into this idea with each of the above writers on my podcast (click the links above to listen), and a few other writers who also worked on Madison Avenue (including School of Rock and Little Mermaid lyricist Glenn Slater).

My research led me to three reasons why working in advertising is a great foundation for writing musical theater.

Here we go.

1.They learn to write fast. If you have a job, and your boss says an assignment is due tomorrow, you do it, right?  It’s not so easy when you’re your own boss (even though the rewards can be so much bigger than a weekly paycheck). When you’re an advertising writer, you have a certain period of time to write copy, a jingle, etc. and then you have to present it to the client.  It’s an assignment.  You have a deadline. All of the musical theatre writers I spoke to said that learning to write quickly (instead of writing to be perfect) helped them not only get their personal projects done faster, but it also . . . and here’s the big one . . . prepared them for the “preview process.” One of my more widely read blogs talked about how I believe the true judge of a creative team is how they handle the preview period. Because writers who write fast have a much higher chance of turning out great material under pressure.And writing for advertising teaches you just that.

2. They learn to write without ego. I work with advertising agencies all the time on my shows and some of my small businesses.  When designing a campaign, the first drafts usually look or sound nothing like the final.  Commercial edits, radio copy, website layouts, etc. all can change 180 degrees after a client gets a hold of it. I’m constantly sending stuff back and saying, “No.  Not right.  Try again.  Use this.  Bigger.  Softer.  Do it over!” In fact, just this morning I was working on a Broadway TV commercial and we asked for a change . . . when it has to be delivered to stations later today! (Remember that write fast thing?) When you’re forced to change your work so often, you get numb to people telling you they don’t like it.  (Notice how I said “they don’t like it,” which is much more different from “it’s not good.”  HUGE difference.)Learning to write without ego, and just write, write and write without self-judgment or worrying about other people’s judgment helps Authors be more productive, which gives them greater opportunity to better their material.

3.They learn to write for others. Ok, this is my favorite. What’s your goal when you write to advertise a product? You write to sell that product.  You write to communicate a message to other people.  You write to get emotion out of your customer, not to get emotion out of yourself.  And if you’re successful, those people who hear your message will act on that emotion and make a purchase.  That’s the goal. Don’t accomplish that, and you won’t work in advertising very long. Too many musical theatre writers I know write only for themselves.  They sit in a room, write tome after tome and say, “Oh!  This is brilliant!  I love it!  Look at what I’ve done!”And maybe it is brilliant.  But it actually doesn’t matter what you think.  It matters what an audience thinks.  Yes, love what you do, be proud of what you do, but your sole goal as a writer is to communicate a message to your audience, and get them so riled up that they act . . . and after seeing your show, they tell other people to do the same.Training in advertising reminds you that all writing, from musical theatre to novels to poetry, is about the customer.  Because yes, theatre is art, but it still has to be sold (at a very high price).

If you want to pursue a career as a musical theatre writer . . . study the greats, take writing classes, join a writer’s group . . . but also consider a marketing class.

Because there’s no doubt that the success of the above Tony Winners has something to do with the fact that all of them know how to sell.

 

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