First: in a theatrical ecosystem that fails to judge work simply on its own merits—that assesses us by our credentials and connections as much as by our creations—playwrights who can articulate the value of their artistic vision to institutional gatekeepers are more likely to get produced.
Second: in an American landscape crowded with stories and with storytellers, playwrights who can build their own brands with theatergoers—who can engage audience members (with brio and personality and intelligence and energy) in a conversation about their work on their own terms and, most importantly, outside of an institutional context—are much more likely to stand out.
Being that articulate is damned difficult… and for some of us (for a wide variety of societal and personal reasons) it’s nigh on impossible. I have great sympathy for those who struggle with it. I’ve had to teach myself, often by failing badly, how to attempt it.
Recently, though—and this is decades after I started writing, mind you—I’ve actually started to enjoy it. And the last few years have convinced me, beyond a shadow of a doubt, of the necessity of the skill.
So my first bit of advice is this: learn how to talk about your work. Take some of the hours you devote to developing yourself professionally and put them toward learning this one very essential skill. You’ll be very glad you did.
Write blog posts about your plays… and ask for comments about what you’ve written. Talk to your close friends about your work—people you’re more comfortable speaking with—and ask them for their thoughts. Trade synopses with fellow playwrights and give each other honest feedback.
Practice, learn, revise, fail forward, try again. Gin up some confidence. Screw your courage to the sticking place. See a therapist if you think it might help. Even those who are naturally shy or introverted can, I believe, get good at this. Or at least good enough to get the job done.
The job, by the way, is NOT self-promotion. It’s engagement. There’s a very important difference between the two.
Self-promotion is about being louder than the next person. Engagement is about making real two-way connections. So first and foremost: abandon your megaphone.
Self-promotion is about asking—or, in its worst moments, begging—to be seen. It’s about showing off. Engagement is about offering to show somebody something. Something valuable.
Self-promotion is about getting. Engagement is about giving.
Self-promotion is about shouting at a broad, undefined audience: talking to everyone and no one at the same time. Engagement is about reaching out to specific audiences with intent and clarity and purpose.
So… what does it look like, specifically, to engage instead of just promoting yourself? Here are a few examples:
Let’s say you’ve got a reading coming up. Do you invite every single theater artist you know? No: that’s self-promotion. Do you reach out to a few individual theater artists whose work you admire and ask them to come and give you feedback? Or do you ask one or two of your best theater artist friends to come share in your joy or support you? Yes on both counts: that’s engagement. (Better yet: invite a few artistic directors and literary managers who you really think might have interest in your work. That’s really engagement.)
Suppose you find yourself to be a finalist for some prestigious award. Do you post the news on The Official Playwrights of Facebook group? Nope: that’s self-promotion. (That group in particular, for all it has to offer, sometimes dissolves into an endless stream of “Look at how awesome I am!” posts. I love it despite itself. So much so that I’ll even share this blog post there and risk some blow-back.) If you crow about your successes on your blog, however, or send notes to your personal email list? That’s engagement, between fan and artist. Post on your own Facebook wall? That’s engagement once again… this time, between friends.
How about if your new play lands at a really exciting theater? Do you submit it to the Dramatists Guild or the Playwrights’ Center for their e-newsletters? Once again: self-promotion. (The “News from Members” sections of those email newsletters are—I know this directly—consistently ranked as the least-read sections; only those who submit to them consider them valuable.) Engagement, by contrast, might mean reaching out to communities that are local to the theater in question—groups whose missions might relate to the subject matter of your play—and sending personalized emails inviting them to your show. It’s a very different effort.
And with that, one final note of sympathy. I know this work can be brutally hard. It’s incredibly difficult to know what’s effective and what isn’t. Since the advent of social media, furthermore, the rules of marketing have changed drastically. We’re all trying our hardest to keep up and to learn new rules as we go. So don’t expect to figure it all out in one day. Give it time… and don’t give up.