Wednesday, March 17, 2004

IWOALUTC Part 2: Shameless Self-Promotion

(For part one, click here.)
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“So, based on his sales-pitch, do you think I should go see your show?”

The woman was in her mid thirties to early forties, blonde, attractive, Swedish or Norwegian, definitely not Danish and clearly having some fun at my expense. The above comment was directed at Demos, associate producer of FYB as the two of them had just watched me try to parry every different reason this woman (who I’ll just call The Blonde) had given me as to why she wouldn’t want to see the show. The Blonde’s reasons included that it was too serious, that it was too funny, that it wasn’t intellectual enough, that she wasn’t Danish, that I wasn’t Danish, and that we weren’t doing it with Scandinavian actors. My responses included that it was a comedy, that it was a comedy based on serious issues that asked Great Big Questions, that it had at its core a real existentialist soul (the Danes being the parents of Existentialism), that anyone from anywhere could relate to the play as it was set in an apartment building not a country, that I had been to Denmark on a research/travel grant and had been studying the culture and the country thoroughly to prepare, and that we had avoided casting native Scandinavians due to the aforementioned universality issues, but that I had asked a Norwegian friend of mine to do the show but unfortunately he is otherwise engaged.

She smiled, playfully, turned to Demos and asked about my sales pitch. My heart sank into my shoes, and I tried to keep my smile from going with it. I turned to Demos, dipped my voice into the gravely “aren’t I a funny little Jew like Jon Stewart” range and asked, “yeah, Demos, would I be FIRED if you were The Donald?” one of the worst jokes I’ve ever told. But hey, she took a post card.

Welcome to the world of shameless self-promotion.

This past weekend, the FYB producing team set up a table at Nordic Expo, a small trade show of Scandinavian-American artists. I got a two hour window sitting at our table using lovely postcards, placards with information about the show, brochures, mailing list forms etc. in the gym of the MLK Jr. High School over by Lincoln Center to try to promote the show.

Tabling next to us was another US premier of Playwright-and-Play, this one is Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse's "Night Sings Its Songs". NSIS had a large staff of producers, all of whom were about my age and enthusiastic, nice and gracious. They also had an iBook playing a continuous loop of a Norwegian News Segment about their US production, featuring their director. Their other clear advantage was that over half of them actually spoke fluent Norwegian! They even had a little service bell they rang whenever a Norwegian came by their table to summon a Norwegian speaker to help them.

Add into this the fact that not one Dane (or Icelander or Fin, actually) materialized during my two hour slot, and you’ll understand why we went into furious sales mode. Demos walked around the room confronting people at random saying “I haven’t seen you at our table yet! Let me introduce you to the director of the show!” and gregariously tugging hapless Swedees over to the FYB station. And thank god for Demos! As a director, I get incredibly queasy around self-promotion. It feels, well, honestly, it often feels degrading. Something about the frustration of begging for the table scraps of an off-off-Broadway audience coupled with how people get treated whenever they’re selling something.

It reminded me of my several brief stints doing phone surveys for an optometry trade magazine. I called people who subscribed to the magazine in order to gather the information that they rely on in the magazine’s monthly surveys, but no one wanted to talk to me. Similarly, I’m at a small trade show with a very specific demographic of art-seekers, and I still get looked at like I’m a leper for wanting to get people interested in my art.

And, to be honest about an ugly little internal conflict, there’s a part of me that feels like I shouldn’t have to do this because, well, “I’m the artist, goddamnit!”. I think artists (especially in the performing arts) are somehow taught that business tasks are for the plebes and we shouldn’t sully our dainty little hands with them. Actually, it goes beyond that, it’s almost like if you’re good at self-promotion, at business, at talking about yourself in a way that makes people want to see your work, you are somehow less legitimate as an artist. Shouldn’t, like your art speak for itself? Shouldn’t you toil in obscurity until sheer objective quality launches you into the Olympus of the Art Gods?

There are a lot of problems with this mentality. First of all, no matter how good you are at self-promotion you’ll still be toiling in relative obscurity for a long time, if not forever. The mentality also keeps artists of all kinds from developing the necessary skills to create opportunities for them to be artistic, and this kind of creation may very well be the most creative act we ever commit on a regular basis. In other words: I need to get over myself. Fast. This is a big lesson I feel every director needs to learn and relearn with every show: no matter what, the play is more important than your ego. This is true in terms of serving/interpreting the text, and it is also true in terms of what you do to get the play done and get an audience in front of it.

So how to resolve this conflict? I don’t know if it can be resolved, honestly. The only solution I’ve found is to force myself to talk about the show all the time, to anyone, bartenders, book-store clerks, dog kennel workers, my partner Mary, and you people out there watching in the blogosphere. I mean, I care about this play deeply, it’s the most high-profile project I’ve ever done, and I’ve worked on it for two years. Isn’t that worth swallowing my pride and telling The Blonde whatever it is she wants to hear? I think it’s in AA where they say you have to fake it until you feel it. I’m trying the same thing here: faking that I like talking about myself, that I’m good at it, and that I’m hot shit in the hopes that one day all of that will come true. And low and behold, it gets a little bit easier every time.

PS: We’re getting a little bit of attention here at Parabasis from the gracious George Hunka, Venal Scene and Laura Axelrod. Thanks, folks, I’ll try to keep it interesting for ya!

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