Contributed by Stephen Bittrich
I’ve been writing plays for Off-Off-Broadway theatre for about 26 years, and I love it! But sometimes … like when you can’t cajole the artistic director (no matter how much you grovel) into producing your play, or when you’re having trouble rallying the troupes because it’s primo catering season, or (as in my case recently) when you’ve been hanging out with your mom in Tennessee for a year because she’s doing chemo and radiation … sometimes you just need to diversify your creative portfolio.
As a playwright and lapsed actor, I’ll share several different ways I’ve tried doing this.
1) Play to Screenplay
Opening up a play filled with minimal locations, big ideas and lots of dialogue into a screenplay told with images … and a lot less dialogue … is one route. Still, it’s a tough road because you always seem to be begging people to read your stuff … or paying them to. After much coughing up of entry fees, pleading and imploring I’ve had a few exciting chapters on that front – like getting rather close in the first Project Greenlight contest and shaking hands with Harvey Weinstein’s golden boys (Ben and Matt) and on another occasion having a play turned screenplay optioned by a prolific production company (the deal’s still in progress).
If screenplays that don’t get made start to get you blue, you can always try a more DIY route -- the webseries. I went that route creating a series called Off Off about 5 guys in their 40s to 50s creating free theatre … perhaps past the age when it’s still sexy. I had to cut the production of the series short to be with Mom, but we’ve got 7 episodes in the can thus far, and we’ve had about 10,000 views to date. Do you realize how many Off Off Broadway plays I’d have to do to reach that size audience? Of course, it’s a little depressing when our most popular episode (by FAR) features a beautiful woman in a tight jogging outfit. We smartly cast someone who already had a big Internet following, and her episode significantly out performs the episodes which feature the mugs of us crusty old guys. Still, it is cool to know that basically I own the “network” (a.k.a. the website) and can cancel the series whenever I want … or never! Ha! (Oh, the seductive allure of power.)
Monetizing a webseries (beyond little dribbles) and building a substantial audience is really challenging. It’s near impossible to predict something that will go viral. It takes a lot of relentless work on social media bothering your “friends.” But I can happily report that the greatest boon is this -- I learned so much about how to tell a story each time we made an episode; in some episodes we were more successful than others, but I always learned and improved. And I got the opportunity to return to acting in a low-pressure environment with friends.
Sometimes with a webseries it starts to get exhausting to rally the troupes. There’s usually one person who is the engine behind it getting made or not getting made. That’s about the time when the podcast is your friend.
When I was in Tennessee I needed a creative outlet where I didn’t have to rely on anyone else, and by chance, around this time I started listening to the addictive WTF. Marc Maron delivers a riveting interview, and I was particularly drawn to the format – long substantial conversations. Not like the tired late night talk show formula – joke, joke, roll the clip.
I think podcasts lend themselves most easily to comedians or artists who are promoting some sort of ongoing show (perhaps a one person show) because it’s a great way to build an audience. Marc Maron goes to do stand up in say, Des Moines, and now he’s drawing not only those who like comedy in general, but also those who are fans of his podcast. And the podcast show can be whatever you imagine for the auditory palette, from straight interviews, to improv, to radio theatre, to current events.
My podcast is an extension of the Off Off world – titled Off Off Pod, and it’s an interview show where I have free flowing conversations with artists of different levels and disciplines. No matter how high we’ve risen, a part of us is always “Off Off” … the place where true artistic freedom dwells.
The podcast is so much more within my control than anything I’ve ever done. I can always find someone to talk to for an hour, but their commitment is minimal. I’m the one in the driver’s seat whose job it is to capture the interview, edit out all the “uhs,” add music or effects, write the website entry, send out the newsletter, and promote on social media.
The challenge, as always, is building audience. But the appeal is, I can make it what I want. I’m thinking of adding in short video segments where I start dabbling with something akin to stand up and calling it “Off Off Topic.” It is, after all, my world to create!
Stephen Bittrich is a playwright, actor and web designer who recently moved from NYC to Austin. He currently helps web clients who want to set up their own podcasts achieve their goals, including the soon to be released podcast All Things Being Equal which will help cross promote a one woman touring show by actor/writer Gioia De Cari. [http://unexpectedtheatre.org]