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“Marketing Plays”

Marketing Plays

Cynthia’s Column Feb 2009

As I sit here writing, it’s just after New Years.  This is the point at which I like to sum up the best movies, plays and books I’ve come across this year.  Unfortunately this year I haven’t seen a single film that I’d want to watch again.  Some of them were good, but none were great.  If you’ve seen one that blew steam out of your ears, please let me know asap.  The best book I read this year was Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers which I wrote about last month.  So I will indulge in finishing the story you’ve been following here of one screenwriter and one novelist who have become playwrights.  Writers are narrative junkies, right?  So I’m betting you want to hear the end of the story.

Holidazed at Artists Rep got hit by the same blizzard that iced in the rest of us.  Amazingly the show went on without missing a single performance or performer.  Sometimes they played to only 30 people in the audience, while 190 sold seats were empty.  Sometimes they had to order in pizza between performances and then turned the whole theatre, offices, dressing rooms and shops into a huge game of Hide and Seek or even better, Sardines.  One of our actors, Todd (who played Nicholas the drag queen and Grandma) couldn’t get home to Sauvie Island for a whole week and had to camp out at a hotel.  Allen Nause, the artistic director of ART finally managed to get him home at midnight on Christmas Eve so Todd could spend Christmas with his wife.

By the end of the run as the ice and snow turned to slush, audiences returned in huge numbers.  By the last performance more than 50 people were being turned away at the door.  Closing night the cast, crew, director and writers gathered in the green room after the final curtain for champagne toasts and blinking back a few years.  When you have a play run for several months (including rehearsals) a new family is formed, this one with a lot of kids.  When it ends and that family is no more, it is sad.  So the next night Marc and I threw them a big cast party at my house with all the Christmas decorations still up.  And everyone got to hang out and hug and joke around.  And feel like a family at home for Christmas.

Now what?  We created something wonderful together and then it suddenly vanishes.  No video.  The set has been struck and the costumes put into storage or given away.  Is it the end of this creature called Holidazed?  Our first thought is, of course, ART should do this again.  So we are encouraging this and we don’t know yet whether it will happen.  I concocted a “Holidazed Recipe” of the ten reasons they should do it next year and sent it to the triumvirate of ART.  Time will tell.

In the meantime what are a playwright’s options?  We are armed with great quotes from terrific reviews.  The Portland press was very kind to us.  The worst review we got, which was only slightly snarky from Willamette Week, gave us the quote:  “Hilarious and touching.”  And the best in The Oregonian said the play was, “that rarest of pleasures: a fresh creation as well formed and finely tuned as an old favorite.   No doubt, a favorite is what it’s destined to be.”  I don’t think we could improve on this one if we’d written it ourselves.

What do playwrights do once the curtain has come down on a world premiere?  We’ve got several options.

Try to get the play published so that other theatres can find it.  There are a handful of good play publishers out there that print plays and then handle performance permissions and royalties.  Samuel French, Dramatists, Broadway etc.  This will ultimately be a good thing, but interimly, we are still hoping for another first class production in a LORT level regional theatre.  Once a play has been published it gets snapped up by community theatres and college and high school drama departments.  This is fine, but not now.  A Guthrie, Goodman or Yale Rep is never going to do a play that is also playing simultaneously at the Podunk Playhouse in Tiny Town USA.

We could try to get a theatre agent to submit it for us to the best theatres.  Yes.  Good idea.  But there are only a handful of good playwriting agents.  Most of them want to handle serious (as in live in New York) playwrights who are already established with a lot of grants and commissions.  We would love one, but if this play has a shot at a 2009 holiday production we need it to happen fast.  It could take months to get a response from an agent.  So hopefully this will happen later.

We could try to sell it to Hollywood.  This could happen at any time.  And if it does, we’re for that.  It’s at a couple of places and people are liking it.  Marc insists that the pagan stuff stay in.  And we’d want to write the screenplay.  But as always this is a long shot, so what do we do now to keep our creation alive?

First we research the field.  We get the smartest most connected theatre people we know to sit down with us and we pick their brains.  We go through the entire Dramatists Guide list of LORT theatres (those like PCS and ART that are professional, quality mid-sized theatres, which every city in America has.)  We find out what our experts know about which theatres would be open to this, we look up rep companies seasons to see who goes dark in October and who has holiday productions.  We find out which have produced A Christmas Carol thirty years in a row and are totally entrenched in Dickens’ tradition.  And who has burned through It’s a Wonderful Life, The Best Christmas Pagaent Ever and A Tuna Christmas and is desperate for a new alternative to a very short list of Christmas plays.  And we find out who knows whom.  And then, guess what, places that say they accept no unsolicited manuscripts?  It’s often just a screen to lighten the load.  We sent emails to a long list of theatres, with people running them that know people we know, and we queried them by e-mail.  (When I say “we” I mostly mean Marc’s partner Floyd who took on the task of Holidazed marketing director.)  And the e-mail heading would be something like “Allen Nause suggested I write to you.”  Then we pitched our play, quoted a few reviews.  We actually sat in the lobby during a few performances and tabulated the number of laughs that were audible from sitting in the lobby.  We averaged more than two laughs per minute for the whole 84 minutes.  Laughs, it turns out, are a marketable commodity.

So far, sixteen of those theatres’ artistic directors have asked for a copy of the play.  This is good.  But we don’t leave it at that.  Next we ask those who recommended these theatres to us to write follow up e-mails.  “Did you get the play?  Read it immediately.  You’ll love it.”  Well, that’s me talking, but I’m hoping these follow up e-mails will be along these lines.

So now we just sit around and wait?  No.  We keep thinking.  We keep scheming, plotting, making lists, making plans, imagining the future of Holidazed and feeling the joy.  We move on to writing other things, but a corner of our minds is still dedicated to that baby we birthed this winter that needs nurturing and care in order to learn to walk and run and hopefully eventually, to fly.

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