How to Suck Less at ... Starting a Theater Company
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because like Stella Adler once said, the play is not in the words, it’s in you!
By Lydia Parker
The “How to Suck Less” series wasn’t a series until we realized that to suck a little less, we should make it one. And so we have. Chess, crafting Halloween masks, skateboarding, monsters and nude stand-up comedy are just a few of the activities we’ve covered so far.
I’m a New Yorker, born and raised. I started writing plays and directing my siblings in them when I was a child. In high school, I studied at the Stella Adler conservatory and then at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts before finally ending up at the Drama Studio London.
People first gave me the stink eye in London as I was American, but I got more of that in Puerto Rico from expat Americans. My sense was that they didn’t like newcomers, which is the same anywhere in theater, I think, though for sure the folks in the Puerto Rican theater community were intrigued and enthusiastic when we put on a production with some of the finest Puerto Rican actors — in English.
I do still feel like the London theater community looks down on Americans in the U.K., though, so I was in the U.K. for maybe a year or two before I started Over Here Theatre Company with a bunch of North Americans. It’s how I met my writing partner, Maureen Oakeley, with whom I went on to write comedy for BBC Radio 4, among other things. We never took over a building as a theater company; we worked in different theaters around London, like hermit crabs.
When I was young, my favorites actors were Ingrid Bergman and Jeanne Moreau. Now I would say Steve Carell, Octavia Spencer (who I actually did a radio play with for the BBC’s The Help), Lucian Msamati, Imelda Staunton, Song Kang-ho and Bob Odenkirk. I love people who are versatile, intelligent and move me to tears or laughter.
When I had my daughter Tamsin, I decided to focus on directing, as I didn’t want to be onstage anymore. I found that I loved it. It felt natural to me.
If COVID’s got you curious about playing out your fantasy life under the klieg lights when the restrictions lift, here’s how I’d advise you to do so.
HOW TO SUCK LESS AT … STARTING A THEATER COMPANY
1. Have a unique selling point. What makes you different? What do you need to tell the world? Why should people pay attention to your work? Once you have that, be a shameless self-promoter.
2. Don’t listen to naysayers. I’ve started theater companies in Puerto Rico and London, both places where I was a foreigner and had no funding, and succeeded because I didn’t listen to people saying it would never work. Be fearless!
3. Find some supporters/allies. Specifically, those who share your beliefs and love your ideas. You will probably still end up doing all the work, but they’ll be there applauding and spreading the word.
4. Find your passion … Whether it is a great play that you must see onstage or a brilliant script that you wrote yourself, or just a mission that you have to share and won’t stop until you’ve brought it to fruition. You won’t work hard unless you feel completely passionate. And you will have to work hard!
5. “Never put your own money in!” Just like they say in The Producers. Nine times out of 10, you’ll lose it. Be as frugal as you can, call on favors, fundraise, apply for funding. It’s great to pay everyone, but not if it comes out of your bank account that you need to pay the rent! Pay people in kind, do favors for them. Many people are happy to help when you’re starting out, especially if you then recommend them for paying jobs. When you’re a bit established, you really need to pay everyone.
6. Work with people whose company you enjoy. You’ll probably work with them many times. Even if someone is talented, they may be difficult and not worth the trouble. Stick to those who are reliable, get the job done and are talented.
7. Treat people well! What goes around comes around. Kindness can never be overrated. But that also means be good at your job: Plan well, be efficient, don’t ask for too much, be gently persuasive rather than demanding. That goes for everything in life.
- Lydia Parker, OZY Author Contact Lydia Parker