Is there anything worse than “networking?” The word itself connotes labor and duplicity—painstakingly crafting nets with which to ensnare unsuspecting prey is the image that comes to mind. Or to my mind, anyway. We’ve all been to those events where the person we’re speaking to is gazing over our shoulders, searching for someone more important. The experience, on either end, is transparent, rude, and most likely will not lead to any fulfilling relationships. How can we do better?
Networking can be a lot more fun if we don’t expect instant results. Even though it’s related to your career, it’s not a task on your To Do list. If you think about networking as an ongoing process of making and sustaining relationships, supporting fellow artists, and learning about your industry and your art form, you will not only have more success in expanding your network, you’ll enjoy it more. That said, there are ways you can become better at networking, and ways to put yourself in situations where you can meet more arts professionals and artists.
These situations include theater conferences, such as the Last Frontier Theater Conference in Valdez, AK, the Sewanee Writers Conference in Sewanee, TN, or the Great Plains Theatre Conference in Omaha, NE. You can also attend or participate in fringe festivals all over the world, which can be a great way to expand your artistic network and get your work out there. Artist residencies are another way to meet fellow artists of various disciplines, and there are too many to list here. A quick web search will turn up hundreds of residency opportunities. Finally, the best networking happens at home, in your local theater community. Volunteer as an usher, see plays, attend readings, stay for talkbacks, join or form a writers group, or take a class. You will build the strongest connections with the people you see and work with regularly. They will be your best advocates, and you will be theirs.
Now for how to get better at networking:
Approach people. As long as you’re being friendly and polite, you will be welcomed. We aren’t in middle school anymore, thank god.
Pay close attention to cues from the other person. If they seem distracted or if you feel like the conversation is winding down, graciously thank them for their time and excuse yourself.
Ask thoughtful questions. It’s a great time to ask a prolific playwright about their newest play, or an artistic director about the challenges facing regional theaters these days, or a literary manager about their role in managing their theater’s emerging playwrights group. Use the opportunity to learn more about your field.
Talk about your work in a positive, self-assured, and respectful way. It’s important to show others the very best of your relationship with your work. Sure, we all struggle. Writing is hard, and the business of writing can be even harder. But the guy whining about how nobody likes his work (or, conversely, dominating the conversation with grandiose claims of his own genius) is the guy nobody likes to talk to. Don’t be that guy.
Exchange contact information, and follow up. Keeping in touch with people you meet in your field is important. If you had a longer meeting with someone who put the time into reading your work, send a thank you note.
Create relationships with all kinds of people, at all levels of experience. Actors, directors, designers, producers, agents, professors, middle school teachers, lit managers, artistic directors, composers…you never know who will be responsible for giving you an opportunity somewhere down the road, or who might become a lifelong friend. You can’t predict it, so don’t bother trying. If you like someone, get to know them better.
Don’t pitch your plays unless someone asks.
Don’t take it personally if someone doesn’t want to talk to you. Some people really dislike these events, and are not good at hiding it. Do not immediately assume it’s because he hates you.
Don’t ask a lit manager or artistic director something like, “I sent you my play last year and you never wrote back. Why not?” or “How come you never produce any women/black/queer/emerging playwrights?” Networking is about meeting people, not about confrontation. Maybe you’ll become best friends someday, and you can yell at them then.
Don’t expect anything but a pleasant encounter. Follow the natural flow of conversation; don’t try to force the topic back to yourself and your work.
So! You networked, you were charming, everyone loved you. Now what? People aren’t going to produce your play just because they’ve met you once. How do you turn those relationships into opportunities?
The short answer is you don’t.
Now that you’ve made these new contacts, cultivate those relationships. Invite them to your readings or shows, but don’t get upset if they don’t make it. Keep inviting them; eventually they’ll be able to come. If they have asked to read your work, then feel free to send them a script, but be considerate of their time. Don’t expect them to read more than one play, or more than one draft of a play. Keep track of where they are and what they’re doing. If they’re arts administrators, it’s good to be aware of their professional developments and congratulate them on their accomplishments. If they’re artists, go see their stuff. If you love their work, tell others about it!
Theater is a collaborative art form, and an equally collaborative business. You will need help. Some of my closest friends and biggest supporters have never produced my work, but they help in other ways by attending my shows and readings, writing me recommendation letters, giving me feedback, encouraging me when I’m frustrated, keeping me abreast of submission opportunities, and advocating for my work with other theaters. Although I started out hating the idea of networking, I’ve come to view it as one of the delightful perks of this challenging field.
Anna Moench is a Playwrights' Center Affiliated Writer.