Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Zen and the art of publicity (how I became my own theater publicist)

I am my own publicist.

This is a relatively modern phenomenon.  It began, really, during Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  For about 15 years I had used a variety of publicists, some skilled, some less so.  When you had one who was very enthusiastic about a project, it could make a big difference.  Many, however, took the money, sent out the emails, and never bothered to attend the show.  And they are, as a whole, a major show expense, usually 5 – 10% of the overall budget.  Sometimes they have even been more.

So I started to break down what a publicist does.  Three things.  One, they give time.  They spend the time to call, to follow up, to write a press release, to do all the things that a publicist does.  Definitely, it the middle of production, you don't want that extra stress.  Two, they give expertise, in terms of publicity strategy, experience writing a press release, etc.  And three, and most importantly, they give access.  Publicists never gives out their contact lists, and for good reason.  They have spent years accumulating those contacts.  And most people not only don’t have the contact info, the would not be able to find it.

With Androids, however, I realized a few things.  One was that, in 15 years of working in theater, I had actually met a lot of the people who work in journalism.  Before Androids, I was finding that half the press came through my own contacts.  There were still a lot of people I didn’t know, but on the other hand, the more I did publicity myself, the more I would get to know them.

Two, I wrote press releases as well as many of the publicists.  Not that mine were perfect either, but I had seen enough that I had a sense of what worked.  The best and most revelatory exercise in writing a press release I had learned years before, when Kirk Bromley helped me write one for Richard Foreman’s My Head Was a Sledgehammer, which was playing at Nada.  I had taken a workshop on writing press releases that had been helpful, but he broke some of the rules I had learned.  We got great press.  I realized that the rules of press releases that I had heard were less relevant than the main goal of the press release: interest the reviewer, or the editor in the project, however you can.

Three, was that Androids was an interesting project in itself.  I knew that it would get press, whoever sold it and however it was sold.  With a less interesting project, it wouldn’t matter if I had the best publicist in the world.  Hopefully, with Androids, I would do.

So I contacted every press person I knew and started asking for emails, phone numbers, etc.  Some I was able to get.  Some I needed subterfuge to get.  Many publications guard their phone numbers carefully, and even the names of the editors are less than obvious.  You need to find the name.  You have to find the number.  And often, the publicly listed number won’t lead you to your goal.  After a year and a half of doing publicity, I’m still finally finding ways to contact some of the most elusive of the reviewers.  In one case, I had to call a California office, ask for a random employee, pretend I had made a mistake and meant to call someone else in New York, then offhandedly ask for the number—and thus I got the number the New York office had refused to give.

Funny thing is, once I actually reach the reviewer/editor, all I really need to do is make sure they get the press release.  In that way, I am less than a salesperson than a publicist.  In rare cases, I have seen a publicist truly push a show.  But alone, I don’t feel comfortable about pushing myself.  So I depend on the press release to do the talking for me.  Which, with Andorids, it did.

Simultaneously, Tom Berger, my assistant at the time, went for the blogs and the indie theater review sites, which don’t have quite as big a firewall.  But still, they required time and effort

How did it turn out?  For Androids, very well.  We got major papers in, we had a lot of blog reviews, and we sold out.  For Pangs of the Messiah, it was less exciting—but we still got some major publications to see the show: The New York Times, Time Out and Backstage  all dropped by.

In fact, it's gone well enough that I have thought about hiring myself out as a publicist, at times.  After wall, all these contacts I've gathered over the years are worth something...

And for Lathe of Heaven—well, we’ll see.  We’ve had some promises of reviewers, big and small.  But you never know till you get close.  Fingers crossed.

And for future projects?  I don't know.  There's still the time factor, I don't even know how I manage the time.  Someday, I may revert to having a publicist again.  But for now, I'll see how it goes.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Tao of Adaptation

            What is the essence of The Lathe of Heaven?  This is my third stage adaptation of a science fiction novel, and I have adapted and translated numerous other works (I connect the two, in my own work, for all of my translations have been adaptations of sorts as well).  My first question is always what is the essence, and my second is, how do I convey that essence theatrically?

            I tend to think that the essence lies in the ideas that behind the content—not surprising, as I run a Theater of Ideas.  Obviously, Taoism is a major influence on Lathe, the title is based on a (somewhat mistranslated) Chuang Tzu quote, and in the novel Le Guin punctuated the chapters with other quotes from Taoist sources.  Buy beyond mere quotation, the ideas of balance, of nature, of inaction versus action, of the value of uncertainty—these are all Taoist ideas.

            So I knew I wanted to drop those ideas in, with a minimum of exposition and a maximum of emotional content.  Music seemed the obvious medium.  The poetic, elliptical nature of Lao Tzu’s writing seemed very much to lend itself to the style of art music that our composer, Henry Akona, often enjoys writing.  So I used Le Guin’s translation of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching as a major inspiration for the lyrics. And stillness while in motion—what better way to convey that than a static set, put in motion by video images?

            Music and video also answered a practical matter, the complex question of how to portray a dream onstage.  I wanted a set that was a canvas, on which dreams could be painted by video, and music that evoked dream logic and implied a connection to something beyond itself.

            I was particularly drawn by the idea of uncertainty, especially in a work like Lathe that references one of my favorite topics, neurology.  I have been reading a lot about our irrational, neurological imperative towards certainty (I particularly recommend Robert Burton’s On Being Certain).  As Haber says in the play, “The brain craves certainty,” and indeed we are drawn to those who seem to possess it.  How long would a political candidates last if, when asked for a cure for the economy, they simply shrugged their shoulders and said: “I don’t know.  I don’t fully understand money, and I certainly don’t know for sure what to do about a recession.  I don’t think anyone does, and only fools pretend to.”

            And yet, what true, justifiable certainty do we possess on any topic?  Is the answer then to struggle for understanding, or simply to realize that some of the most important questions we have don’t have any knowable answers?

            The belief in our own ability to understand and solve these unsolvable questions has led humanity down many paths, one of the more extreme being failed utopianism.  It is those with the greatest convictions who often can do the most harm.

            That, at least, was my initial connection into this work, and when I found that, all else flowed. The word “flowed “of course evokes water, one of the symbols used often in Lathe and in Taoism. And indeed, when I am connected to a work, it can sometimes feel like a I rafting through a river of words, not exacting guiding the raft but learning how the river moves and how best to look elegant while keeping my balance.

            I hope I will manage to look elegant.  Though I would be thankful if, at least, I can keep my balance.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Ursula Le Guin, Kickstarter, and The Lathe of Heaven

One of my favorite peculiar benefits of working in theater is that I have had the opportunity to work with artists I have admired from afar.  Ursula K. Le Guin is an author I admired even as a child, for I began reading her Earthsea trilogy (it was but a trilogy then...) at the age of nine.  Little did I imagine at the time that one day I would be adapting one of her books for the stage (we present The Lathe of Heaven in June at 3LD), corresponding with her, and flying out to Portland to meet her so that she might, graciously, help on our kickstarter campaign.

This is especially kind of her, knowing, as I do, that she hates the whole idea of kickstarter.

For me, it was a wonderful excuse to meet her in person, to visit her home, and to interview her.  The interview was for the kickstarter video, but of course it gave the opportunity to have a structured conversation about The Lathe of Heaven and her work as an author.  I have to say, I was in no way disappointed.  My only regret is that the kickstarter video allows only a small part of the interview to be shown.  She was charming, good-humored, and sharp in her responses, much as I would have expected.

Her house was cozy, complete with cat and her husband Charles, who was equally welcoming.  Afterwards, we had lunch and visited the Japanese Gardens, along with another guest who was adapting The Left Hand of Darkness for a small two-person production in Japan.

And my nine-year old self has to stop and marvel, as we strolled past the waterfall, the flowers, and the sculptures, that here I was, not only spending some time with the author of the Earthsea books, but discussing my plans for our production.

Anyway, the kickstarter campaign is up and running, and we have entered rehearsals!  More updates from the front soon.