This week, I sat down with Mark Snyder, a playwright and performer whose work has been performed and developed in New York, Chicago, Portland, and Los Angeles. His solo work will tour the United States in 2014, and his play A Decent Stretch will be part of Available Light Theatre's Next Stage Initiative this January in his home state of Ohio. Mark is the Executive Assistant at the Freelancers Union and he writes, reads, and runs in Brooklyn.
Here's Mark's advice about creativity, self-confidence, and how to turn a collection of gigs into a career.
1. We create alone. But making it happen in the world requires good people skills!
Well, it’s this strange duality - you have to be alone with your thoughts and ideas to write, but then you have to go out and team up with a lot of people in order to share the work with your audience. It has the same duality as freelancing: on the one hand, you say "Go away, I have to get work done," and then on the other hand, you have to go out into the public and get other people to say "Yes, I’ll work with you."
Going from intimate and personal to your public self is something all working playwrights and freelancers need to master.
2. Be kind.
I go into every project saying, “I’m going to make sure everyone has a good time.” If you work with me, you’re going to have a wonderful experience.
This can mean follow-up thank you notes and/or gifts, or the way I communicate with colleagues in order to foster a team-like vibe. I try to learn the name of every person in the building and I think it really makes a difference - certainly can help you get asked back!
Whenever the chips are down and timing is crucial, everyone has the potential to be of assistance. You just don’t know who your savior will be sometimes.
3. Show up (physically). Be present.
Our culture has started placing a premium on a.) time and b.) human connection. That’s why theatre remains so important - you have to physically be in a space together with actors telling a story in order for it to happen. Creative experiences by people done for people right there in the moment. Very different than when you’re watching a film. You’re aware of other people. When actors enter you can smell their perfume. Those are things that’ll be with you forever.
Freelancing can be very isolating. Never forget that you need to connect with other people, and that connecting in real life is so much more valuable that the way we normally connect to one another now - social media and texting. Take the time to grab coffee.
4. If you need to, be who they want you to be...but never lose yourself.
When I walk into an interview situation, I wear what you have to wear - something dark, plain, professional. But I always include something personal for me, even if it’s just a fun, colorful pair of patterned socks. I’m not beige and I don’t believe anyone should sell themselves that way.
In the job market, I notice that more and more companies want you to work more hours and accomplishing more tasks for way less money. Know your value, own who you are, and take it from there. A sassy actor (in an audition) is much more memorable than a polite, deferential one.
Theatre, like freelancing, is a hard and unpredictable business that changes on a dime, and it is rooted in a tenacious belief in yourself. As I get older, I’ve gotten more comfortable as a man and an artist, and that ease has made the work more pleasurable and more fun.
Repeat after me: “This is who I am, this is what I can offer, and what I offer has tremendous value.” The rest is just noise and circumstance.
5. If you’re on the “outside,” own it.
All artists, all people really, want to feel like they belong and have a home. Writers are always the ones knocking on the industry doors: let us in! let us in!!
Freelancers can feel like outsiders in an office environment, either because they don’t have a permanent desk to work from, or they are ceremoniously disregarded when invoice time arrives. Remind yourself that those shenanigans are a reflection of the client and not your value or work product. Do a great job on your assignment and the spoils will follow.
Own your work habits. Realize what and what you can’t control in a project situation. Enjoy the sense of freedom that it gives you. You belong because you add value.
6. Help other people whenever you can. It’ll come back to you.
I tend to embrace people - theater ushers, grocery store checkers, subway attendants. Most people are fine with this. I’m not saying it’s for everybody, but it’s been great for my writing life. People tend to share secrets with me, and writers thrive on secrets.
The truth is that I keep writing plays because I’m fascinated by other people - they constantly surprise and inspire me. And I try to be a big advocate for other writers - always screaming from the mountaintops about this play or that. You have to participate in the conversations in order to shape and direct them to what’s important.
7. You’re going to get anxious between gigs. Keep your eye on the long-term.
I know a lot of actors, and they always have this fatalistic belief that when every gig ends, they’ll never be employed again. As a freelancer, you need to keep your eye on the big picture - not about the individual gigs but on your long-term goals. Over time, saying yes to all those random opportunities adds up to a career. It’s hard to recognize that when you’re unemployed or applying yet again for a role that may have been closed to you in the past, but you need the opportunity in order to have the career.
8. Even when you’re desperate, don’t have a “pick me!” attitude.
Knowing your strengths should empower you to generate your own projects, so that you have work and momentum to help keep you focused even when you aren’t “working” in a formal way. I resisted and resisted committing to a solo show for years (despite numerous requests for one from past collaborators), but now that I’ve premiered Since You Asked Me To and have plans to take it on the road in 2014, it’s much more motivating to have that to work on instead of allowing the “please pick me, please pick me” attitude to sneak up on me.
The goal is to have more autonomy. Don’t wait for other people to say yes to create.