"Being original doesn’t require being first. It just means being different and better." - Adam Grant, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World
For the last two weeks of June, I got to participate in Berkeley Repertory Theatre's Ground Floor Summer Lab. What's great about Ground Floor is that they offer playwrights freedom to work on and explore their plays as needed; they do not require any kind of presentation. Some writers end up sitting in a room and typing away. Others hold public readings of their work, like I did for my play Calafia: A Reimagining. I haven't been able to finish a first full draft of the play yet, but I learned so much from discussions with my director, dramaturg, and actors -- as well as from audience feedback after our reading. I'm excited to see what directions Calafia will take as a result of the exploring, churning, and learning that happened during Ground Floor!
I spent the last week in NYC on the advice of Playwright Foundation Artistic Director Amy Mueller. Since one of my goals is to gain more national exposure, she suggested I find agents I'm interested in working with so that she could make a formal introduction. Then, I should book a trip to New York to meet with those folks. My honest reaction to this suggestion was "I know I have to, but I kinda don't want to." I think I have this impression that the "New York elite" is very insular and tough to penetrate. It felt intimidating to begin knocking on doors for face time. So, while I went through with the steps and booked my flight, I would tell people with a bit of a shrug and a dismissive sneer, "I'm just going to New York to shmooze."
When I actually met with these industry folks though, I was so pleasantly surprised. In addition to agents, I met with an artistic staff, an educational director, a theatre publisher, a book publisher, a playwright who is further along in her career, and a composer who is further along in his career (in addition to catching up with a whole slew of actor friends). All of these individuals (save for maybe one) turned out to be quite generous and kind. Sure, a few of them were very matter-of-fact, but I appreciated candor over beating around the bush. All of them also gave smart and welcome advice. None of them had to meet up with me, none of them had to give me any advice, none of them had to get to know me. But they chose to.
I've come away from the week with a new perspective on "shmoozing." First - yes, it is hard to penetrate a bubble if you don't have a connection, but it only makes sense then to make the most of your existing connections. And for me, I had Amy Mueller and other folks who recommended people to meet up with, as well as people who I had already met previously and just needed to reach out to. People are busy, and they can't tell which cold e-mails or calls are from people who are worth their limited time. So a professional recommendation or introduction from a trusted colleague gets their antennae up. Second - theatre people are theatre people. There may be some jerks in the mix, but really we're all just wanting to contribute to the performing arts scene in whatever way we can. Most of us would rather make a genuine connection than "shmooze." In fact, I think I need to stop using that word entirely, because it has such a slimy, self-interested connotation. I was on a networking trip where I made many great connections in my field. I hope I never have to "shmooze" again.
"The perfect is the enemy of the good." - Voltaire
Last week, playwright Brad Erickson and I participated in the TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Writers Retreat to work on our project Lowcountry (assisted) Living. Our main goal for the week was to get a draft of Act One complete. I'm happy to say we met that goal (though, of course, we are already thinking about revisions to be made). I last took part in this special retreat four years ago when I wrote the first ever words and music The Four Immigrants. We, the writers, are basically given resources (a room, a piano, access to wi-fi and printing, etc) and actors to work with, and aren't given any specific instructions for the week, other than to create and to present some bit of our creation to an audience of donors at the end of the retreat. I cannot stress how helpful and crucial this "open playing field" is to the creative process. Our time was split between solo work, dramaturgical discussion, and running new drafts of songs and scenes by actors. Two magical moments in particular stand out to me.
One evening, I stumbled upon a core idea for a song and decided to stay later to work on it. While writing it, I had a moment of emotional connection to the song, which is often a sign to me that I'm on the right track. In short, I was crying. The next morning, I played and sang the song for Brad at the piano, with him sitting behind me. While singing it, I could tell that Brad was also crying, and I purposely avoided turning to look at him, because I knew I wouldn't be able to finish the song. Afterwards, we had a laugh about it, but also noted that this song contains something powerful and central to one of the character's plotlines. That was magical moment number one.
The other occurred after we did a run-thru of our rough Act One and received feedback from the artistic staff at TheatreWorks that the focus of WHO the story was about didn't seem consistent or clear. I started to see that the opening number I had written was perhaps a culprit. Only four characters sang in the opening number, but Brad and I definitely wanted all eight characters to have equal weight in the story. I proposed the idea of expanding the opening number to include and introduce all eight with interweaving parts. Brad liked the idea, and I felt strongly that I should try to complete this expanded version in time for the presentation on Sunday (this revelation came Friday afternoon). So with only one day and two hours to work with the actors, I worked like a madman on Saturday adding in all of the new parts and creating an opening number which I felt painted a fuller picture of what the story was about. I was running on adrenaline and risk. Hats off the the amazing group of actors who took on the challenge of the revised song like the pros they are. After our first sing-thru, I think we all felt like it was a much stronger opening for the show, and with some adjustments, we were able to perform the piece on Sunday.
I'll forever be grateful to TheatreWorks - their staff, donors, and volunteers - for creating this environment for magical moments to arise. What might have come about slowly on our own time seemed to bubble up to the tops of our minds thanks to the space and freedom the Writers Retreat afforded us.