Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Branding Upon the Brain

Marissa Skudlarek contemplates picking her own brand.

“You can’t write songs if you’re thinking about Where Does This Album Belong In The Universe,” says a character in Rob Handel’s play A Maze. “You’re trying to fit it into, like, our life story as a band before it exists. You’re overthinking.”

This line wrung a wry smile from me when I saw Just Theater’s excellent production of A Maze last week. Because I can fall prey to this kind of overthinking (as well as many other kinds). I can be more concerned with Where Does This Play Fit Into My Oeuvre than with, you know, actually sitting down to write it – more preoccupied with “does this feel like a Marissa Skudlarek play?” than with perfecting the plot or characterization.

But we live in an era of “personal branding,” which makes it easy to get caught up in such thoughts. The market for playwrights is oversaturated, so we think we must develop a unique angle to make our work stand out. Literary managers and producers always say that what attracts them to new writers is “their fresh creative voice,” so we worry that our voices aren’t fresh enough, original enough. Besides, whenever I tell people that I’m a playwright, their first question is “What kind of plays do you write?” So I ought to have a smart, memorable reply.

I used to hedge when asked this question. I’d make excuses. I’d say, with a winsome bright-eyed smile, “Oh, I think I’m still probably finding my voice.” But what’s charming when you’re fresh out of college becomes far less so when you’re a mid-twenties adult who ought to know better. (See Frances Ha for a cinematic depiction of this.)

I’ll be thinking about my personal brand a lot in the coming weeks, as well as other facets of my writing career, because I’ve been selected for Theatre Bay Area’s ATLAS Program for Playwrights. Along with 19 other writers, I will attend classes in setting professional goals and taking my writing to the next level; I will also draw up a career roadmap. As such, I will probably need to come up with real answers to “What kinds of plays do I write?” and “Where do I belong in the universe?”

Some of my fellow ATLAS writers seem to have better-defined personal brands than I do, at least judging by the statements they supplied for their bios. Paul Heller “writes plays to make sense of cultural and political differences and how other people perceive the U.S.” Theo Miller’s work “pays tribute to historical business dealings and economic phenomena” and “credibly dramatizes entrepreneurialism.”

I think I would love to have such a strong sense of purpose; I would love to sense that there is a through-line that connects all of my plays, and sum it up in twenty words. But what would happen if Heller suddenly got the urge to write a sci-fi drama, or Miller got the urge to write a romantic comedy? Would they follow that impulse, or would they say “No, that’s off-brand for me, I shouldn’t write it”?

Indeed, as much as I want to have a recognizable brand and voice as a writer, I also worry about constraining or limiting myself. For instance, I realize that I often explore different historical eras in my writing: several of my full-length plays are set in various decades of the 20th century (The Rose of Youth in 1934, Aphrodite in the early 1940s, Pleiades in 1971). But after writing all of those, I am really looking forward to writing a full-length play that takes place in a contemporary setting! And one reason that I scaled back my involvement with the Olympians Festival this year – I’m writing two ten-minute plays, rather than anything more elaborate – is because I don’t want to become “that girl who always writes plays based on Greek mythology.”

A brand can make you stand out – but that means it can also make you a target. The playwrights who have the most recognizable brands tend to be the most polarizing writers, and the ones who are easiest to stereotype and parody.

And, you know, originally, a brand was what you seared into a cow’s flesh with a hot iron in order to mark your ownership of it. It sounds painful and alarming and not something that any cow would choose for itself. Maybe, therefore, we should let the world brand us, rather than working to brand ourselves. (I’ve never even wanted to get a tattoo!) I’d like the freedom to be full of contradictions and possibilities, rather than limiting myself to a narrow brief. If I write well and honestly enough, I will develop a voice and, therefore, a brand of my own. But, as Rob Handel suggests in the unclassifiable, un-brandable A Maze, it’s not something that I should overthink.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer (is that enough of a brand for you?). Find her at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

4 comments on “Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Branding Upon the Brain

  1. So… you’re saying we need to brand, then sacrifice a cow to the Theatre Gods?

    When I hear the “What kind of plays do you write?” question, I think of a scene from the film Contact with Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey. The two have just met and are scribbling in their respective notebooks.

    McCONAUGHEY: “What are you studying up there?”

    FOSTER: “Oh, the usual. Nebulae, quasars, pulsars, stuff like that. What are you writing?”

    McCONAUGHEY: “The usual. Nouns, adverbs, adjective here and there.”

    Personally I think the concept of an artist “finding his/her voice” has less to do with pigeon-holing oneself into a genre and more with refining their skills in general. Maybe that’s honing your skills with instantly-recognizable dialogue (Aaron Sorkin, David Mamet), maybe it’s a particular topic (women’s identity – Wendy Wasserstein, Black identity – August Wilson), or maybe it’s telling stories of various genres in one particular fashion (as Sondheim does musically).

    But the problem with that is that in those cases “your voice” is being defined by others. If you write it with sincerity, it’s your voice. That might change if you’re creating something by commission, but it’s still your voice.

    • Oh, Charles, don’t tempt me to make some kind of extended cow-based metaphor as strained and pretentious as Maureen’s in “Over the Moon,” from RENT.

      Also, I’d quibble with your claim that Sondheim writes all of his shows “in one particular fashion,” as he is very adamant that “content dictates form” and he changes his musical style to suit the story he is trying to tell. He’s refined his skills to an awe-inspiring degree, but he’s never pigeon-holed himself and he constantly strove to do new things.

      Everybody should read his FINISHING THE HAT and LOOK, I MADE A HAT, by the way. Featuring his honest thoughts about what works and doesn’t work in each of his shows, and very little ego or navel-gazing about his “personal brand.” We can all take inspiration from it.

  2. I think this question is a natural result of the typical privileged education in the USA: non-prodigy high-achievers are taught to excel in a broad range of interests, retaining individuality as the most valuable commodity for exclusive colleges. This inevitably produces an existential crisis whenever successful individuality is confronted with the consumer society that surrounds, sustains, and knows us.

    For me, personal brands are very tied into subscriber models which value year-over-year consistency and programming as a conversation between the promoter and the subscriber, the originating artists valued guests inside: “You might not like this <> but our <> will win you back over in time for our <>.”

    These models aren’t intrinsically flawed but they have too much consumerism in them for me to consider producing for them specifically.

    Meanwhile the Russians had a great phrase during Soviet rule, “writing for the desk drawer.” Part of creating is deciding what to put out into the world and what to hold back. At what point does avoiding trouble/sustaining profitability become the only actual thing you are doing?

    • Oh boy, your comment about how “the typical privileged education for non-prodigy high-achievers” really resonates with me. We are encouraged to be really good at lots of things (whatever we set our minds to!), but also to find that one particular “hook” that will distinguish us on a college application or a Twitter profile. This combination of breadth and depth is well-nigh impossible to live up to.

      I agree that the writing plays merely to fill a certain niche in the market is distasteful. But, even if you are writing without any concern for the market, you’ll find yourself drawn to certain topics, themes, and styles, and without any interest in other (equally valid) stories/subjects/styles. I tend to believe that self-awareness is a good thing for a writer, but perhaps the danger comes when self-awareness slips into self-pigeonholing, or becoming a caricature of who you once were.

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