Having a classically trained actor for a dad, my whole life has been riddled with stories and long evenings of discussing the fine points of the particularly good ones.
Before I even knew what marketing was, acting in musical theatre was my passion. This often entailed being used as a singing "puzzle piece" in developmental shows to help the writers tell the best story they could. In my youthful ignorance I believed that musicals were the only good stories to be told and that I'd be telling them the rest of my life. But then I was introduced to marketing. This spawned a love affair twelve years in the making, as I discovered that the business of marketing is also all about telling stories.
Which is why I love it so much.
Through the course of my marketing career, I have sat across from dozens of passionate entrepreneurs who are ready to bring their project into the spotlight. We spend long hours discussing their product, how it was conceived, what roadblocks they are facing, and what their goals are--helping me figure out the best way to tell their brand's story. Many times, I see the story differently than the entrepreneur and we have to collaborate to find some common ground.
I have heard (and helped to tell) some amazing stories during my years of marketing, but a while back, I decided I missed musical theatre. Being an actor again didn't fit my lifestyle, as I run a marketing company and couldn't devote the time to pursuing it. So I decided to write musicals in my spare time, which is a little more flexible.
If you're looking for a side hobby that relaxes, writing musicals might not be the best choice. Telling a good story can come at a cost. Three years ago, I wrote a musical based on a very bad time in my life--a story that hurt, humiliated, and depressed me to tell...it was so very personal. I was urged to write the show after opening up to some close theatre friends about a terrible situation I had gone through. Rather than giving them some overly dramatic sob story, I recounted the tale as if it was a stand-up comedy routine for three reasons: 1) to get the words out without reliving the emotional impact, 2) to show them I was okay, and 3) because when I thought really hard about it, it was actually pretty hilarious. Whether I liked it or not--it was a story that needed to be told and could quite possibly help other people impacted by similar situations.
After presenting our piece to several venues in Los Angeles, my composer and I were lucky enough to be accepted into The New York Musical Theatre Festival as part of their developmental concert series. The process was certainly fulfilling, if not always the super-fun.
Developing a musical goes a little something like this:
- You write your first draft in ink that feels like your own blood.
- You cast actors and singers to read / sing it. During rehearsals, you start realizing what works and what doesn't work and you stop getting precious about the script real quick.
- You present the reading in front of a test audience and gauge the response. Certain scenes or songs that took you forever to write are swiftly chucked out the window. And sometimes it hurts. Bad.
- After your beat-down, you go back and rewrite with a renewed feeling of both hope and determination.
- Repeat the last four steps about a million times over the next five years.
Does this process sound familiar to anybody?!
Our first day in New York, we met with the dramaturgs to go over the nooks and crannies of the script--who spoke clinically and in great detail about the details of my life. All at once I thought about the entrepreneurs I worked with in my marketing job and had a surreal feeling that the tables had been turned on me.
I began to see my entrepreneurs in a different light. Their products are not simply created to make a lot of money or prove something, but rather the products are extensions of the entrepreneurs themselves. They thought of an idea and brought it to light to make the world a better place. They were giving themselves--sitting in the same vulnerable position as I was in that writer's room. In an instant, I became more understanding of those times when my entrepreneurs see their story differently than me.
As the days of rehearsals turned into days of performances, I learned just how much being an entrepreneur is like writing a musical about your own life.
During the development process, you need to be open to the possibility that a cherished idea might have to be discarded.
There are 21 songs in my show. Some of them took me years to write, some of them took me minutes to write. One of the sick feelings you get when you see your musical put up on its feet is that a song that you love and took forever to complete no longer works in the scope of the show and needs to be cut. Them's the breaks.
As any entrepreneurial artist has experienced, having to throw away a piece of work can feel like you're having your guts yanked out. But sometimes to move forward, you have to let go of something that doesn't work, even if it took you forever to create.
Speak from the Heart
Your audience is smart. And they can spot bullshit a mile away. But fortunately, I've found that extreme honesty is usually very rewarding.
The final song of the musical took me approximately thirty minutes to write. It doesn't rhyme. It doesn't have a chorus. And it's almost half spoken. And it's all anyone could talk about after the show. Why did they like it so much? Because it was real.
I basically sat down and wrote what I was feeling that day and my very adept composer put it to music. We've played it for people who haven't seen the musical and don't know the context and it still strikes a universal chord.
So many of the most effective entrepreneurs created their products out of personal need. When they know firsthand the ins and outs of the problem they are solving, they are able to effectively communicate that message to their target audience--which is what moves people to buy.
Never Water Down Your Message
My grandpa always used to say, "You might be the best peach on the tree, but some people don't like peaches." A sobering, but useful message.
We all get our fair share of criticism. Sometimes it is valid; if you keep hearing the same note over and over again from a wide range of people, you probably have a problem to address! But sometimes, criticism might boil down to the critic not being within your product's target demographic.
My musical has been described as "off-beat," "edgy," and "darkly funny." That's not everyone's bag. It just didn't do it for some people--and that's valid. But across the boards, it strongly resonated with women (mostly ages 20-40), so I had a definitive core demographic! When I was first developing musicals, I used to take everyone's criticism to heart and tried to accommodate all of them. But the result is a watered down piece that doesn't really resonate with anyone. I had to learn how to filter out criticism and amp up the story to hit home for my target demographic...just as I would have advised in my marketing plan for my entrepreneurs.
As an entrepreneur, you also need to know when to take constructive criticism and graciously apply it. Stand your ground when you receive criticism on something that matters (after you've made sure you're not just being stubborn). Never water down your message to accommodate the masses.
Working in this collaborative theatrical environment has made me respect the bravery of entrepreneurs--the unicorns of the land of business. They are sharing a piece of their soul by offering their product to the world, and that can be a very scary and emotional thing--well, like writing a musical about your own life! It is a great reminder to me and other marketing professionals that entrepreneurial stories should always be handled with care.