I recently spoke to a group of MFA playwriting students looking for direction as they leave school and start to build careers in the theater. In a field without a linear trajectory, where job stability will pretty much always be uncertain, even after you win your Pulitzer, it’s striking to remember how many of their concerns are also ours. They want to know how to keep taking themselves seriously as artists, how to keep writing, how to listen to their work, how to get their work seen and produced – and how to make money.
The one question that really irked me: should I brand myself?
I know I’m supposed to tell them yes. Of course they should approach their work with this media savvy awareness, with a business model—why not? But I couldn’t do it. The notion of branding oneself as a writer, approaching one’s work as a writer with a marketing plan, turns my stomach. I don’t believe in that way of thinking about oneself or one’s work, not in the theater and not in independent film. And I don’t practice it myself.
A brand is a set of identity markers meant to communicate to prospective clients and consumers what they’re getting when they “buy” your “product”. Coke is a brand. Pepsi is a brand. Miranda July is also a brand. To some extent, I suppose, so is David Mamet. When you go to see a Miranda July movie—or book or art exhibit—or a Mamet play, you know what you’re getting.
But I might argue this is less about brand and more about possessing a singular voice. “Voice”—the way an artist speaks—and “brand”—the way they sell themselves—aren’t the same thing. Brands create products; artists create.
Many playwrights and filmmakers have recognizable voices—David Mamet, certainly. You know his plays by the short, staccato rhythms (influenced, I believe, by his early training in Meisner technique in Chicago). You can recognize a Sarah Ruhl play by its lyricism and witty leaps into meta-reality. Similarly, a Kia Corthron play is loaded with political resonance and attempts to locate its argument within a vast network or community. But there is a difference between honing one’s voice and building one’s brand. I like to think of Mamet and Ruhl and Corthron as artists exploring the edges of their voice. I can’t imagine Sarah Ruhl, who I came up with, deciding to label and build her brand—instead, I think she just writes the way she writes. And people happen to like it. The most exciting thing about an artist’s retrospective—whether it be Picasso at the Met or five Lucy Thurber plays in rep—is the opportunity to explore the beginnings of his or her themes and the shifts in the voice. But Lucy Thurber didn’t set out to write five interconnected plays dealing with yearning and substance abuse—these just happen to be her themes because she’s an artist working shit out. This is the best I could wish for these young writers, to explore what Marsha Norman used to call “your content”—and there, in their unique content, unpack and unravel their unique voices. And Shakespeare, for example, defies brand altogether. He wrote comedies, tragedies, sexy plays, boring plays, provocative history plays—he just wrote. We can define his brand by historical markers—it’s Elizabethan, they speak in verse, there’s a lot of cross-dressing—but was he consciously thinking about brand identity, or was he just writing?
I would be very, very careful about adopting business and marketing models ESPECIALLY early in one’s career. If one starts out as a brand, where and how does one break out of that brand? Doesn’t it limit what one can write about? I worry that in being consistent to the brand, an artist will betray his voice. A brand is consistent. An artist is not.
And yes, Miranda July has a sexy career. But Brooke Berman has a body of work that accurately reflects her appetites and arguments, her content and structural examinations. At the end of the day, that’s good enough for me.