Ramping up for the biggest project I’ve ever undertaken has inspired me to look back at the beginning of my career to really assess what I’ve learned along the way. I often find the difference between marginally successful people and extremely successful people is an ability to really integrate their life lessons to avoid mistakes they’ve already made and build on successes they already understand. You may ask, ‘What does producing a play have to do with producing a feature film?’ Although the tasks seem very different, some important similarities stand out. They are both long-form creative projects with a beginning, middle and an end that require a team of storytellers and crew to pull off.
I wrote “Fate of the Monarchs” as a 24-year old battling severe depression after a romantic let-down. I basically didn’t leave my studio apartment in Koreatown for about a month. After a couple days straight of watching ants take over my kitchen, I decided – for almost no discernible reason – to head to my local library branch. A striking image of a monarch butterfly wing on the book cover of “Four Wings and a Prayer” by Sue Halpern grabbed my attention. Within a few hours, the depression had started to shift as I learned that creatures with a one-inch body and three-inch wingspan traverse literally thousands of miles for reasons even scientists do not fully understand. The monarch migration served as the symbolic landscape of the journey of five interconnected men in search of spiritual meaning in my very first original play. I’m still extremely proud of the writing and what our team pulled off.
That said, I did some stupid stuff. And some smart stuff. Let’s start with the stupid.
Five Stupid Things I Did Producing my First Play:
1. Not Giving My Director Enough Credit – Back then, my manager-at-the-time Al Trombetta referred me to Cody Bayne when I started looking for a director for the piece. Cody started a theatre collective in his home state of Tennessee and still creates amazing themed events for different bars around town in addition to working as a painter, writer and film producer. He came onboard the project and had a brilliant idea to include a multi-media element into the piece (more on this in the smart section). Anyway, let’s cut to when the show came out. Cody – very reasonably – asked me to make it explicit in the press release that he came up with the idea for the multi-media aspect. I drug my feet on it out of pretty much sheer ego. Then a brilliant review came out which basically gave me credit not only for great writing and acting, but also for the multi-media aspect of the show. I immediately felt so much shame. Later that day, I changed the press release per Cody’s request and apologized to him. Luckily, Cody’s an amazing man and forgave me and we went on to share a great friendship as well as working relationship. Even in doing a spiritual piece, I’m not excluded from a rush of ego wanting more, more, more. All artists should be aware of this. It is a dark aspect of being an artist that most of us need credit and validation, especially because our job is so difficult and – very often – so underpaid. But making sure other collaborators get their due is part of being a responsible artist. This is one lesson I learned the hard way by messing up and overreaching.
2. Not seeing enough other one-man shows/alternative theatre – “Fate of the Monarchs” was one of the biggest career successes I’d had. Yet because I framed it as an artistic venture, I wasn’t prepared for how to capitalize on it and grow my career. I had seen very few other one-person shows before mine premiered and I didn’t have very strong ties to the alternative theatre community in Los Angeles and beyond. If I had to do it again, I would stop in and watch an alternative theatre piece in each town I visited to meet more artistic directors. I would’ve patronized more shows by other artists to be part of a community so that when my show was well-received, I would have more knowledgeable peers to support any potential expansion.
3. Not getting clarity from a co-production deal up front – The show was produced a total of six times and I had a great experience with all the co-production deals we struck, especially with Highways Performance Space and the Ragged Blade theater group in St. Louis. However, one time, I did have to scramble for a solution based on a misunderstanding. I believed the theatre was supplying the space for free in exchange for a split in ticket sales. Turns out, they expected me to pay a (somewhat reduced) rental fee, although they did provide production support, a press agent and a producer to help out. It was still a great deal and I would’ve gone forward no matter what. But not being clear that I was going to need to pay for rental space sent me scrambling to my checkbook and living on the edge financially for a few months. Had I been more clear up-front, I could’ve handled that money situation better. Even when you have a verbal offer with a promise of a contract, you might want to shoot an email with the main points of the contract to make sure you understand. But don’t be overbearing about it!
4. Not keeping up with those “close calls.” – After our initial run, I sent a 10-page dialogue sample to the Public Theater and – to my astonishment – they wrote back and requested the full manuscript. Sundance also ran a competition for plays and I received a handwritten note from the programmer saying he enjoyed the piece but had to pass for now. Sadly, the Public Theater also ultimately ended up rejecting my work, but listed some contact information and asked me to send more writing in the future. Stupidly, I never have. If I could do it again, I would send Sundance and the Public Theater project updates for all the productions of ‘Fate of the Monarchs’ and should have kept applying with new, original pieces. After all, it’s a huge risk for these places to support an unpublished author so it makes sense that it’s an uphill climb to get in on the first shot. But my mistake was not building on the close calls from the past as my career progressed. Now, it’s been a number of years since I applied to the theater circuit and many of the names in the game have changed, so the potency of re-introducing myself is probably not as strong.
5. Over-marketing to friends – Most beginning artists feel like their immediate family and friends are a natural first audience to build a solid base of support for our creative work. And, indeed, there’s some truth in that (who else is gonna see your band’s first gig at a coffee shop?). But I overdid it a little with “Fate of the Monarchs.” On the one hand, I was pleased with how many people turned out for the show. On the other hand, I sent out an email, a follow-up email and a reminder email to practically all my friends…and acquaintances…and people I’d met once a few years back. I got one email response whose subject was, “Email Etiquette.” Ouch. While I commend the younger me’s go-get-’em spirit, I do now feel that it’s better to build your audience based on mutual taste/experiences rather that first degree friendships. That’s not to say I would never send out a mass email ever again. But I probably won’t. And if I do, it would be once during the entire life of the project. So don’t Spam Folder, me…please…
Okay, so I’m totally glowing red from revealing how stupid I was in many ways, but younger Hunter was pretty smart about some stuff, too.
Top Five Smart Things I Did Producing my First Play:
1. Signing off on multi-media element and limiting the budget. Aside from the mini-drama of credit over the multi-media idea, it was a good idea for me to say, “Yes” to Cody’s flash of inspiration to create a video element of the show. Also, I was smart to give him a fixed amount of money – $300 in cash – and let him know that was all I could afford. I made the decision to trust him with this element and not micromanage. I didn’t even show up when they shot it or sit in on editing sessions. By being hands off, Cody felt secure that I believed in him as a director and invested in the project in a deeper way. And I got to spend more time developing the acting and writing.
2. Hiring Patrick Kennelly as our videographer/editor. Cody did need a collaborator to help pull off the video element of the show and I facilitated hiring Patrick Kennelly, at the time a 20-year old wonder kid of sorts who interned at Highways Performance Space (he’s now co-artistic director there). At the time, artistic director Leo Garcia highly recommend Patrick, an extremely talented youngster without a huge track record (largely because he was, like, 20). It was a win-win-win-win situation for everybody involved. Patrick served Cody’s vision on the video elements, but he also helped our artistic director become even more excited by the piece. And the show was a boon to Patrick too because he got some hands-on experience creating a video installation-type element without being 100% responsible for the piece as a whole (Patrick has gone on to create very unique installation pieces and theater experiences, such as the upcoming religious rival PATTY). Patrick’s work shooting the video and then editing it was incredibly time-intensive and crucial to the success of the piece as a whole. So bringing him on-board was a smart move all around.
3. Creating a piece that required little outside help. Despite the crucial efforts of Cody and Patrick, “Fate of the Monarchs” didn’t have a whole lot of moving parts. It was a one-man show, so there were no other actors to coordinate. The crew was extremely limited. This worked out terrifically well because I was able to focus on developing the writing and acting, while keeping the logistical challenges to a minimum. Once you add even a couple more actors and a couple more crew people, things get complicated quickly. Someone cancels for a key rehearsal. Someone else quits. Someone shows up drunk and takes off all their clothes (just kidding on that one…sort of). For a first effort, it was actually super-smart to choose a one-man show, not only to expunge any demons in a raw and personal way, but also to keep the producing task to a manageable level.
4. Taking advantage of co-production deals. I’ll always be grateful to Leo Garcia at Highways Performance Space for allowing us two runs of ‘Fate of the Monarchs.’ The piece simply wouldn’t have been accepted at the same level without patronage from Highways’ built-in audience and support from Leo and his staff. I went on to strike several more co-production deals with highly positive results (the blip described above about one incident notwithstanding). My advice to up-and-coming theatre artists is to get connected to spaces in their area that might curate or support new work…and patronize them. If you’re at all into the LGBT theatre scene and live in the Southern California area, that means supporting Highways, who’ve broken more than a few new artists, thankfully!
5. Producing something out of urgency rather than intellectual curiosity or people-pleasing or the pursuit of money/power/prestige. I find that today’s young artists obsess far too early on about whether or not their work will be accepted by the “right people” (who exactly are they anyway?). So, sometimes, they create their first works from the ethos of “trying to look super smart” or “giving the art world something completely new and original” or “creating a hit in the marketplace.” Of course, the specifics of the material applied to those mindsets vary, depending on whether the work is intended to gain favor in the indie filmmaking community or the alternative theater community or the fine arts community or even the traditional Hollywood community. But a result-driven point of view can be very damaging to artists especially if it hardens into the bad habit of valuing external approval over personal authenticity. ‘Fate of the Monarchs’ came from my urgent personal need to explore the spiritual meaning of a so-called “alternative” sexuality and its particular slings and arrows as applied to romantic love. Indeed, getting out of that severe depression depended on it. By nurturing the paradoxical image of fragility and endurance inherent in migrating monarchs synchronistically given to me, I started my journey as a content creator connected to my own core questions and concerns about the human experience. It’s only from there that real growth as an artist is possible – at least that’s what I believe.
Okay, so that’s it for the stupid/smart things I did with regards to my first play. Next time, I’ll share whether or not I learned anything by the time the second play came into existence (you might be surprised). Thanks for reading and sharing!
Hunter Lee Hughes is a filmmaker living and working in Los Angeles and the founder of Fatelink. His current feature film Guys Reading Poems is touring film festivals and this blog is dedicated to the process of making his second feature film, “Inside-Out, Outside-In.” If you enjoy the blog, please support our team by following us on Facebook, Twitter (@Fatelink) or Instagram (@Fatelink).