What I Learned from Kevin McCarthy About Being a Successful Playwright

by Kitty Felde

I should be writing about THE LIST. The Kilroys’ list of plays by female writers that have so far gone unloved. There have been multiple rants on Twitter and Facebook and I suppose I should add my voice to the wailing and gnashing of teeth. But it won’t help my plays to get added to the list.

Instead, I was distracted for most of the week by my day job. The unexpected primary loss in Virginia of Republican Eric Cantor set off a backstage campaign for his job of Majority Leader worthy of any Shakespeare play.

And then it occurred to me: what could I learn about PROMOTING my plays from this 49 year old kid from Bakersfield’s amazing rise in power?

1) Research

Kevin McCarthy loves technology. And data. He finds out – and keeps notes on – the birthdays and anniversaries of his colleagues. He sends cards, even flowers. Back in the days when he was in the state legislature, one California lawmaker’s wife called her husband to gush about the bouquet that had been delivered. He had to sheepishly admit that he hadn’t sent them: McCarthy had.
I may not be calling Jacob Maarse for a floral delivery, but I can certainly do some theatrical homework.
How much research do I do before I pop a play into the mail? What shows from earlier seasons reflect my work’s sensibilities? What’s the background of the literary manager? Artistic director? How much intelligence do I have ahead of time? Do I perform a Google search before heading off to the theatre? Since the pre-curtain speech about unwrapping candy and signing up for season tickets seem to be delivered these days by the AD or some other bigwig at the theatre, it would be helpful to at least introduce myself to them before finding my seat in the theatre.

And when I open yet another rejection email, I don’t see it as a “no.” Instead, it’s an invitation to have a conversation with that literary manager, intern, dramaturg, etc. I add the name to my data list. I send invitations to readings and postcards with a note when there’s a production. My carefully kept notes in Excel allow me to add something personal.

2) Find Out What They Want
McCarthy is famous for taking his GOP colleagues on long bike rides through Rock Creek Park, chatting them up in the House gymnasium, hosting movie nights. He finds out what issues are important in their neck of the woods and has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of factoids about each member’s district. He finds out what they want and is often able to help out – in exchange for getting something he wants.

What does a theatre really want?

Certainly most regional theatres don’t want my nine actor war crimes drama. Too expensive and too depressing to sell to season subscribers. But it’s perfect for college campuses where “A Patch of Earth” has found a home. College drama teachers love it because the cast can grow or shrink according to available actors. There’s plenty of good, rich female parts. Most of the characters are the same age as college students. College kids feel they’re doing something important, telling a true story that few know about that happened in THEIR lifetime. The play has been performed from Pretoria to Sussex to Detroit and Costa Mesa. It’s what college theatre departments really want.

3) Play Nice
Kevin McCarthy’s current job is the #3 leadership position among the House GOP: Whip. It’s the same job Frank Underwood had in the first season of “House of Cards.” Kevin Spacey even tailed McCarthy on his rounds of the Capitol as research for the role.
McCarthy is just as good as Frank Underwood at working the deals behind the scenes. But he’s never going to push a reporter in front of a passing subway car to get what he wants. McCarthy’s a nice guy. People genuinely like him.

People usually like me, too. But like Frank Underwood, I have a dark side. I’m not going to get a literary manager drunk and lock him in the garage with the SUV’s motor running. But when I see lousy plays get full productions, I admit that I think about it.

But what does it get me?

I’m tired of being an angry playwright. I’ve figured out what I really want is some quite writing time in the morning and the opportunity at least once a year to be in a rehearsal room with actors and a director working on one of my plays.
I may not ever become the Majority Leader of produced plays in America. But you never know, do you?

4 Comments

  • By Nancy Beverly, June 22, 2014 @ 9:03 am

    Super insights — thanks for this post!

  • By Robin Byrd, June 22, 2014 @ 10:21 am

    Love this, Kitty.

  • By jenniewebb, June 23, 2014 @ 11:09 am

    This is fantastic, Kitty. Yes, consider me schooled.

  • By Anna Nicholas, June 26, 2014 @ 6:44 am

    Thanks for this post, Kitty. You said it all very well!

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