Years ago, I emailed the amazing EM Lewis (SONGS OF EXTINCTION, THE GUN SHOW) and asked her how, as a not-fresh-out-of-college, female, late-starting playwright not living in New York City, she’d managed to get her work noticed. Typically, she was very generous in her reply and said, among other things, that each year, she saves her shekels and attends a conference. (Sadly, I can’t find her email for some reason, which only underscores the significance of me remembering this thing most of all.) At the time, I didn’t really understand why attending conferences was important unless she was talking about—ew—networking. And because I still had youngish children at home, shekels notwithstanding, attending a conference seemed out of my reach (or at least I told myself it was, because it seemed like a scary thing for an introvert). So I convinced myself that I didn’t really need to take that advice (yet still remembered it) but, of course, Ellen was right. And I was very, very wrong. Here’s why:
You need to build your playwright community.
In June, at Citywrights (a wonderful, intimate conference that really allows you to meet people easily simply because you can’t avoid them! I mean that in the best possible way), somebody said that it was nice to see me in my human form. And I realized that while I “know” a lot of playwrights via my blog, the Playwrights Binge, and Official Playwrights of Facebook, it’s all in my virtual form–and that’s not enough. When we meet each other in human form we learn so much: where we live, work, about families, but most importantly what it’s like to have a conversation with us, who we are, and what we care about. We become friends, and while our next meeting will likely be online, it will be richer, more nuanced, and with more knowing smiley emoticons. I cannot emphasize enough: this is the BEST part of being a playwright. For all my #365gratefulplaywright entries, it’s being among these kindred spirits that has nourished and fulfilled me in ways I thought unimaginable a few short years ago. Productions are wonderful, but these relationships are the real bread and butter and what matters most in our time on this planet. And you just aren’t going to meet better tribemates than playwrights. You’re not.
But… I know you’re thinking but something. For me, it was “But I’m horrible at being thrown in a group with strangers.” And I am. I truly am. And to make it worse, I have bitchy resting face, and a couple people actually told me at the recent Dramatists Guild conference that whenever they saw me, I was frowning. (If you ever see me at a conference, know this: it’s not a frown!!! I’m happy to meet you! It’s just bitchy resting face! Please approach me!) Granted, I was sick, but I was never unhappy! Quite the opposite; I was having the time of my life, surrounded by my people. So never assume… but anyway, back to how you overcome being overwhelmed by new people. Here are a few tips:
1) Don’t spend the whole event only with people you know. If you’re going to dinner with one friend, grab a few others; literally just start asking random people if they have plans. Some won’t and will be so glad you asked. Some will, and might ask you to tag along. Either way, you meet new people in the easiest situation in which to do that—dinner. Even if you’re an outgoing smiley person, rest assured that many playwrights are not; make it easier for someone. If you’re at conference like Kenyon Playwrights Conference, where you eat in a dining room every day, sit with different people at every meal: meals are the easiest time to start conversations, because you’re all in a fixed place.
2) Say something to anybody alone near you—in line for the bathroom, the buffet, before a session starts—and when you see them later in the conference, make the connection again. If it takes ten times putting vegetables on your kid’s plate to get them to eat them, it might take at least that many times to get playwrights to engage.
3) Tell presenters what you liked about their programming. You’ll be surprised at how much more they have to offer.
4) If you’re not thoroughly exhausted at the end of the day’s programming, head to the bar. Guaranteed, there will be some attendees there, and social lubricant–either for you or them–always helps.
5) If there’s a group sitting together during a break, ask to join them. NOBODY will say no. And, again, it’s easiest to converse in a small group setting.
6) Ask questions, but try to avoid “What are you working on?” Questions are the easiest way to start a conversation, and remember, you’re trying to get to know a person, not a resume. Probably among the playwrights I know best are the other regional reps for the Dramatists Guild, and we often marvel that we almost never discuss our work.
7) Remember that everybody is there for the same reason; nobody is going to think you’re weird for trying to engage.
8) Know that you can’t bond with everybody. If I leave a conference having really connected with one to three people, and maybe met a bunch more with whom I can continue to connect with online or in the future, I consider that a win. Time well spent with a few people is better than trying to meet everybody (hmm… seems to me that’s a strategy we are advised to use with theaters as well…)
9) When you get home, remember to take the NPX Challenge (what? You’re not ON NPX? Get on there!!), and go read some plays by those folks you just met. That will help you get to know them even better in a super significant and meaningful way—through their work.
So these suggestions are all in the way of making friends, and, of course, Ellen was talking about that with her advice, but yes, she was also talking about that dreaded N word. I really hate that word, because it sounds so calculated; I won’t even say it again, but will note that if you’re making friends, it happens naturally. And if you’re thinking that “associating” (that’s a little better) with playwrights isn’t going to help your playwright career (which, AGAIN, is NOT the be-all end-all of this wonderful playwright community we’re a part of), you’re mistaken.
*When you’ve got friends in every city across the country, you also have a source of information about the theaters there, and which ones might be right for this play or that one.
*You might even have an introduction to that theater via a playwright in that city.
*Many playwrights wear more than one hat, and may be interested in your play for a theater with which they’re associated.
However, none of those things should be on your mind when you’re meeting someone at a party that is full of people who UNDERSTAND you. Let that commonality be your guide and your joy.
Finally, and all this talk about meeting people and being social doesn’t mean this should get short shrift: conferences are unparalleled learning opportunities for playwrights. At the recent Dramatists Guild Writing for the Changing World Conference (read tweets at #writechange), there was a master class led by no less than Marsha Norman, panels featuring Lisa Kron, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, John Weidman, Stephen Schwartz, Charlayne Woodard, Julia Jordan, Winnie Holzman, and a host of other knowledgeable and talented playwrights. If you don’t talk to a single soul (but you should, you should!), the programming is reason enough to attend. (And that’s not even considering the amazing keynote speakers, and the things that happen you could never expect, like the celebration to Stephen Schwartz, an ephemeral surprise worth the cost of registration.)
I promise if you go to a conference, you will come away exhausted, but with renewed energy and purpose for this thing we can’t stop doing, a new friend, a new idea, inspiration, and a sense of community in knowing that we are not alone. We have a tribe, and you are part of it. And while connecting virtually is wonderful, it’s not enough; we can only commune with a peace pipe when we are together.