Make Your Own Work, Be Your Own Producer

by Teresa Reilly on July 8, 2009

I am the youngest of three children, all of whom have made their careers in the entertainment business, and our shared childhood is pretty indicative of the choices we’ve subsequently made as professional performers.  My sister, the oldest, directed my brother and I in every version of “Cinderella” she could brainstorm and film on my mother’s old camcorder, including “Cinderella: The Musical,” “Cinderella: The One-Woman Old-Time Vaudeville Revue,” “Cinderella: The Claymation Tragedy,” and, last but not least, “Cinderella: The Stop-Motion Melodrama Starring Barbie.”  My brother wrote and performed all the music.  I was lights, props, costumer, and, when I was allowed to act, diva extraordinaire.  (I liked to keep my sister on her toes with my obnoxious yet witty ad-libs.)  Challenging and ridiculous as the process was, Do-It-Yourself  filmmaking (as well as DIY theater production, DIY neighborhood newspapers, and DIY cover performances of Barbra Streisand’s “Hello Dolly!” done entirely on roller-skates) taught me an invaluable lesson: DO IT YOURSELF.  In between community theater projects?  School’s out for the summer and no creative outlet?  No one casting in your cul-de-sac?  Make your own!

I strenuously believe the same mantra is true for adults (whether they roller-skate or not.)  You could spend years of your life waiting beside the phone for Your Big Break, so why not make your own opportunities while you do?  I just read a great article with Nora Ephron, screenwriter and director, who said of artistic creation, “Just do it.  Just do it!”   Meaning, don’t sit around for 12 years thinking about that amazing script you want to write…write it!  Some of my favorite artists (and probably yours too, whether you know it or not) have done just that.  For example, the ever-famous story of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck writing the screenplay for their breakout hit, “Good Will Hunting.”  Um, remember when they won Oscars for that bad boy of collaboration?  Mindy Kaling, writer and actor in “The Office,” just produced, wrote and starred in her own web series, “House Poor.”  How about writer/comedian Tina Fey?  She makes her own work all the time! And what about actor/playwrights Steve Martin, Carrie Fischer, and Wallace Shawn? And then there are all those actor/creators who work onstage in one-man shows like John Leguizamo, Lily Tomlin, Will Ferrell, Robin Williams, Lisa Kron, Sarah Jones, and Anna Deavere Smith.  “Wow,” you might think, “I know most/all of those people’s names!”  That’s right.  They’re working actors.  Even when they’re the ones hiring themselves.

One of my favorite writer/creators is Joss Whedon, because he always puts together uniquely interesting shows filled with compelling, adventurous, brave actors who are also always really funny.  His three-part webisode, “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog,” is another example of great work self-produced.  He came up with the idea during the writer’s strike because, as he wrote on the show’s website, he was “…frustrated with the lack of movement on that front, I finally decided to do something very ambitious, very exciting, very mid-life-crisisy. Aided only by everyone I had worked with, was related to or had ever met, I single-handedly created this unique little epic. A supervillain musical, of which, as we all know, there are far too few.  The idea was to make it on the fly, on the cheap – but to make it. To turn out a really thrilling, professionalish piece of entertainment specifically for the internet. To show how much could be done with very little. To show the world there is another way.”  Oh, isn’t your inner producer tingling with agreement?!  Joss sums up what self-producing is all about: making the work you want to do, on your terms, with your people, the way you want it done.  Once you do, you can submit to festivals, send it to casting directors, add the footage to reels, put it online, garner fans and get your career the exposure you want and need.

Furthermore, there’s no right way to self-produce.  What follows are some suggestions, based on my past experience.  As you can see, it really helps to have great co-actors helping your creative genius out.

HOW TO START PRODUCING YOUR OWN WORK:

1.    A WEBSERIES:  Get a bunch of friends together.  Brainstorm an idea for a story with characters you could each play.  Get a camera.  Film it.  Put it up on a media content site like youtube.com or even facebook.com.  Share it with the world.  And maybe even some favorite casting directors.  (I’m way into web content right now as my web series, which I co-created, co-produced, co-wrote, and co-starred in, is premiering our next episode this month at Comic-Con in San Diego.  I’m telling you, self-producing is paying off!)

2.    A READING: Find a play you love.  (HINT:  Don’t worry about rights for a reading.  You’re not fully producing it, as long as you don’t charge anyone to come in and see it.  You can, however, ask for suggested donations to pay for any production costs.)  Get a bunch of friends together.  Advertise.  Perform.  If interest is great enough, produce the darned thing!  (ANOTHER HINT:  If the playwright is still alive, let them know you’re doing a reading of their play.  We all love our work being honored, and who knows?  Maybe they’ll show up!)

3.    A COMPETITION:  Ask friend’s for short plays, skits, and sketches.  Perform them all in one night.  Ask your audience to vote for the top 5.  Perform the top 5 again the next week, with 5 new ones.  Repeat.  (My favorite theater company in the Bay Area, PianoFight Productions, does just that.  And the winning playwright of the entire shebang gets to have one of their full-length plays produced by PianoFight!  Awesome.)

4.    A COMPANY: Get a bunch of friends together.  Pool your cash.  Produce a show.  OR, produce a short film and call yourselves a production company.  Repeat.  (This is how my sister’s theater company started off.  Guess what she grew up to be?  A director/producer, and by creating her own work, her networking blossomed and she’s now an Equity, award-winning actress.  I taught her everything she knows.)

5.    A SHOWCASE: Get a bunch of friends together.  Write (preferably) or find some funny, obscure short scenes, and perform them for a select group of agents, managers, and casting directors.

6.    A FILM: Heck, go big or go home!  Get a bunch of friends, get a camera, get a kickass script, and make your own film.

I’ve moved beyond the “Cinderella” phase of my life, but I’m still a passionate proponent of making your own work.  Don’t wait for someone else to realize you are a fabulous actor, show them!  In the end, follow your bliss, do good work, be good to yourself.  After all…you’re the producer, right?

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