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.

Hi-Ho The Glamorous Life: Once More Unto the Breach

Marissa Skudlarek is very busy, but she still has time to share.

As a postscript to my last column, written as I was about to go on the Theater Pub retreat, my editor added, “Tune in next time to find out if Marissa survives the weekend!”

An easy joke to make, I suppose, when you consider that twenty of us were going to be holed up in a remote house in the Marin Headlands during drizzly weather, and that the favorite pursuits of theater people are reputed to be drama, gossip, and backstabbing. Really, though, there wasn’t even the slightest hint of violence or anger in the air. In fact, being theater people, what we really possess is an endless capacity to entertain ourselves. When the apocalypse hits, come hang out with us. We’ll be the ones seated around a campfire, sharing a bottle of strong liquor and telling off-color jokes late into the night. (That’s basically what we did in Marin, anyway.)

The official Theater Pub postmortem of the retreat is well worth your time to read: it contains our lovingly crafted new mission statement, and information on ways you can get involved in the coming year. And thanks again to the person who commented anonymously on my last column; we used your remarks as a jumping-off point for a lengthy discussion on diversity and inclusiveness at Theater Pub. Our resolve to improve in this area has found its way into our revised mission statement.

So yes, I survived the weekend. More than that, I came back inspired to make art. (I’ll be submitting a proposal for a 2013 Theater Pub project – will you?) However, I will say that I’ve had such an incredibly busy few weeks that the retreat almost feels like it happened in a different lifetime. The Olympians Festival is kicking into high gear, along with the holiday season, so I’m entering another one of those stretches where I run around town like mad. I feel more glamorous and active and alive than usual, but also more run-down and confused. Was it really only twelve days ago that I was in the Marin Headlands discussing the directions that Theater Pub should take in 2013?

I was going to write that, like a good theater person, I thrive on stress. At its best, stress can bring a kind of ruthless clarity: when you have so many demands on your time, so many things that need to get done, it’s easier to know exactly what to do when. But here I am, coming to the end of my lunch hour, tap-tapping away at my laptop, stealing WiFi from Starbucks, and I realize that I have no idea how to bring this column to a thrilling conclusion. Perhaps stress only muddies my thinking, after all.

But, in the interests of clarity, I should let you know exactly why I am so busy. I have a staged reading of my screenplay Aphrodite, or the Love Goddess coming up on December 7, as part of the Olympians Festival. It’s a sexy 1940s interpretation of the Aphrodite myth, and will be paired with Amy Clare Tasker’s existentialist take onPhoebe & Theia. Please RSVP at our Facebook event if you are interested!

Beyond plugging my show, the only thing I can think to do is borrow the words of another when my own fail me; to think of the hectic two weeks I have just experienced and the hectic two weeks that lie ahead; and thus tell myself “Once more unto the breach, Marissa, once more!”

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. Check her out elsewhere atmarissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud – or in person on December 7 at the Exit Theater, for the staged reading of Aphrodite.