Over the past year, I’ve spent a fair amount of time on Twitter, playing writer hashtag games. What’s a hashtag game? you may ask.
We all know what a hashtag is. It’s that # sign, followed by a word or phrase that’s used to identify social media messages on a specific topic – #wedding, for example, or #ihatemondays. People interested in that topic can search for the hashtag and see the latest messages.
A hashtag game takes things a step further, by establishing a central theme and then inviting others to use the hashtag to share their own message on the theme. #5WordsToRuinADate is a popular one (typical response: “I don’t think it’s contagious.”) Twitter is the main social media outlet for hashtag games; I haven’t found many elsewhere on the web.
A writer hashtag game establishes a central theme (often a single-word prompt such as “dream” or “fire”) and invites writers to search their WIP (Work In Progress) for lines containing the theme. Participants then share their lines with the online writing community by using the hashtag. Because tweets are limited to 280 characters, the game forces brevity – a useful asset when writing.
Since I’m writing this blog on a Wednesday, I’ll use today’s #1lineWed theme of “secret” and a selection from my just-released book Ragis as an example. Here is how my game entry appeared:
You may notice I’ve stuck some other hashtags on there. This is so the post can be seen not just by fellow participants in the #1linewed game, but by writers in general, writers who write fantasy, and people who like epic fantasy (which is my series’ genre). What you can also see from this screenshot (taken just a minute or two after I posted it) are the reactions to the post – those who liked it my deathless prose, and one person who retweeted it to her followers (in this case, the retweeter is my editor for Ragis).
Ah ha! you may be thinking. So this is not just a game – it’s a promotional tool.
Ah ha – you would be correct in thinking that. It took me a while playing the various writer hashtag games (and reading, liking and retweeting others’ tweets) to come to that realization. And it wasn’t until September of last year, when Twitter increased its post limit from 140 words to 280 characters, that writers were able to share not just a substantive quote from their work, but increase its visibility outside the game.
Once I had this revelation, any guilt I felt over wasting time playing hashtag games was allayed. Not only was I having fun playing the games, I was actually working! I was DOING PROMOTION! I was NETWORKING WITH OTHER WRITERS! So I played even more of the games: the weekly ones like #musemon, #tuesline #thurds, #fridare #SlapDashSat and #sunwip, and the daily ones like #wiptruthordare and #authorconfession. I found some very specific games like #martialmon (fight lines!) and #salacioussun (smexy lines!), #WhoNeedsAHero (antagonists!) and my current favorite, #TrickyTues, which asks you to find unusual words like “paroxysm” in your WIP (to my surprise, I actually had THREE usages of that word). Some of the games have rules, like “no buy links,” but in general they’re run in a pretty relaxed fashion.
And their promotional impact is fleeting. Your post in the game sinks down the page pretty quickly, especially in the more popular games., so unless a fair number of people like/retweet it, it’s largely gone after an hour or so. Reactions to my example post above, about an hour after posting – yes, it takes me that long to write a blog – seem to have stalled out at eleven likes, three retweets and one comment. That’s about average for my posts. There are writers who get a lot more responses to their game entries and end up on the “top” page for that particular hashtag, so their posts will have a little longer Twitter life.
I don’t really care about the reactions – although they’re nice to get. I don’t spend a lot of time trying to attract followers; if people like my work and want to follow me, that’s dandy, and if they seem interesting I’ll give them a follow back. But I don’t play the game to get followers. I just like sharing my stuff and reading other writers’ work.
There is one extra thing I do, particularly when I’m super-focused on the promotional aspect of the games. I often create a graphic to feature my quote – because 1) a picture is more eye-catching than just text, and 2) I get a kick out of designing them, and 3) I always like to zhush things up.* I can usually put an effective graphic together in about 15 minutes. I use Canva to create my graphics; the site has lots of free content and it’s very user-friendly. I made the “paroxysm” graphic above yesterday, not just because it was Tuesday but also because it was Release Day for Ragis, hence the extra language in the text portion of the tweet. (And well…because paroxysm.) It only got 4 likes and 3 retweets, but that’s okay. Occasionally I’ll post the graphic on my Facebook page, although my FB friends tend to be more focused on my theatrical work. And as I said, I do this more for my own enjoyment than for its promotional benefit.
Here’s something weird, though, and what prompted today’s blog. I don’t share material from first drafts, or even second drafts. I always pull my excerpts from completed but unpublished works. With the publication of Ragis yesterday, I am suddenly without a completed work to draw from. And that realization was kind of a kick in the head.
For the past several years, at any given time, I have had at least one novel completed, and at least one in the works. For example, when I signed with my publisher in July 2016, I had completed Kinglet, was polishing up Fiskur and had started work on StoneKing. That pattern continued until the end of last year, when my output began slowing. At that time I was in NYC understudying the Broadway musical War Paint – a stressful and demanding job that sapped much of my writing energy. What little I had left was going into blogs, interviews and other promotional material for Kinglet and Fiskur (which came out in August 2017 and November 2017, respectively). When StoneKing released in February 2018, I was back home and Ragis was waiting in the wings, and but I was only just starting the first draft of the fifth and final book in the series.
I confess I’m having a bit of a timeline issue with Book 5. The action of the Gemeta Stone story has been largely continuous from Kinglet all the way through Ragis, but the fifth book’s plot begins after a considerable passage of time. Events that occur in that timeframe, while not important to the plot per se, have effects that impact the existing characters, so those effects have to be factored in. I’ve also recently re-thought two of the major characters who will be introduced in the fifth book, and those new characterizations also impact the plot. And of course, the time-suck of promoting the existing books, plus some other factors I won’t go into just yet, are contributing to my slowdown.
But never fear. The fifth book IS coming. It’s just coming slower. And there’s another little project sitting on the back burner: a prequel that I wrote a couple of years back. I never intended for it to be published; I wrote it because, prior to starting the StoneKing/Ragis portion of the storyline, I needed to sort out exactly what happened the first time my protagonist (Kristan Gemeta) and my antagonist (Daazna, the Wichelord) actually met. I also wanted to explore how certain events in their youths shaped their personalities. What I wrote ended up being pretty interesting, I think – especially as an insight into how Daazna got to be the way he is.
So here’s a question for those of you who’ve been keeping up with the series: is this something you’d be interested in reading – maybe between Ragis and the fifth book? You can answer in the comments below, or drop me an email at email@example.com.
Do let me know – I’d love to hear your thoughts.
*And, I must confess, because a graphic lets me circumvent Twitter’s 280-character limit. I can share a longer excerpt and use the text portion of my tweet for additional hashtags and other information.
I’ve been having deep thoughts lately on the importance of speaking up. They’ve been triggered by two recent instances, one based in my acting life, and the other in my writing work.
In the first instance, I was performing in a theatrical production and a technical glitch caused an unsafe situation on stage. To be specific, a large, center-stage trapdoor that allowed access to an elevator shaft had jammed in the open position during the transition into the show’s final scene. As a result, there was a gaping hole in the middle of the stage as the final scene began. The actors entering the scene were unaware of this hole.
I happened to be in the stage right wing, waiting for an entrance, when I heard someone – either a crew member or an actor exiting the scene – say “the sun roof is open.” (We called it the sun roof because it worked like one: that section of the stage deck lowered slightly and then slid beneath the deck, clearing the way for the elevator to rise.) I could see the opening in the stage as the lights came up, and both the crew and fellow actors in the wings were hissing to each other about the situation, but no one seemed to be doing anything. I turned to the assistant stage manager and said “We need to hold.” The ASM was on headset and didn’t seem to hear me, so I called her by name and said, “Tell the stage manager to call a hold.” *
Meanwhile, in a fairly dim lighting cue, the actors onstage were moving toward the hole. I repeated that we needed to hold, keeping one anxious eye on the onstage activity. I was ready to call out, but just then the actors noticed the hole and adjusted their staging to move past safely. A moment later, the trap door slid shut.
All told, the trap was open for about one minute, but it seemed like an eternity. At the show’s conclusion, I headed down to the dressing room, stewing about what had happened. Since I was the actors’ union representative (or “deputy”) for the production, I knew I would have to speak up. My opportunity came when the stage manager put his head into my dressing room to give us the next day’s call time. When he was finished, I asked him why he hadn’t called a hold when there was a dangerous situation on stage. He told me he was aware of the situation and was poised to call that hold, and reassured me that no one had been in any real danger.
I disagreed, but rather than pursue the issue with him, I decided to take it to the next level. When I got home, I emailed both the theatre’s artistic director and company manager, apprised them of the situation and asked them to take action. Their response was both prompt and gratifying. The upshot was that when we had further issues with the trap door during the final week of the run, those issues were dealt with in a much more safe and satisfactory manner.
So – long story short – I spoke up. First, it was my job as deputy to look out for the safety of my fellow company members, both union and non-union. Second, I have been involved with productions where people didn’t speak up, and accidents occurred and people got hurt – some seriously. And in those situations, people didn’t speak up for one of two reasons:
- They weren’t thinking proactively. They noticed a potentially dangerous scenario, but didn’t think to take the next step; i.e. letting someone know so the issue could be dealt with. In a stage production, this can be something as minor as not asking a crew member to put glow tape on a protruding set piece, or something more serious, such as the lack of safety rails on escape stairs.
- They were afraid to “rock the boat.”
Reason #2 is the one that’s harder to deal with. Everyone fears repercussions for speaking out, and those fears are sometimes quite real: in another production in which I was deputy, I had to go to the union over a safety issue that the theatre was refusing to address. Under union pressure, the issue was resolved, but I was the unhappy recipient of a pretty nasty email from the director as a result. Did it upset me? You bet it did. In the show biz world, no one wants to be labeled as a “difficult” actor – meaning someone who complains, is high-maintenance or just doesn’t go with the flow. If you’re labeled as “difficult,” that means you might end up on someone’s DO NOT CAST list (and if you in the business think those lists don’t exist, you’d be wrong.) Every actor is always looking ahead to the next potential gig, and if they think speaking up might hurt their employment chances, then they won’t speak.
But in situations like this, deputy or not, you MUST speak. Sometimes you must speak loudly and repeatedly, but you MUST SPEAK.
On the writing side, the situation was a bit different. On Twitter a few days ago, a post about a short story competition was showing up repeatedly in my feed. (It’s a “promoted” post so that’s probably why.) The sponsors of the contest were offering sizeable monetary prizes – from $5,000 to $125 for the top ten winners – and they were getting an enthusiastic response to their Tweet from writers eager to enter, so I took a look at their website.
I was not surprised to see an entry fee of $17. That may sound like chump change to some of you, but for writers (who are often as impoverished as actors are – wonder why I’ve chosen two careers with that attribute?) it’s a fairly sizeable sum.
It’s a fairly sizeable sum for the contest sponsors, too. Take that $17, and multiply it by, oh, let’s say 1000 eager writers, and you’ve got $17,000 – which will cover your prizes with a good bit left over. In other words, your contest is actually a revenue stream – a stream coming from your willing target audience.
This kind of contest is rife in the writing world. It has the same attraction as a multi-million dollar Powerball drawing, with about the same odds of winning. There’s also the added enticement of getting your story published. More experienced (and grumpier) writers generally shrug these things off and go about the real business of writing, which is to write your thing and submit it to a publication, which will then maybe buy it from you and publish it. You don’t pay them, they pay you. But for writers without a lot of publication experience, contests like these can be like a siren call: Money! Publication! Fame! Look, Everybody, I’m A Real Writer! And all for the low, low price of $17!
So – I was cynical already as I read the contest details. But as I dug deeper, I found (in very small print) a link to the contest’s Terms & Conditions. And look what I found there:
The somewhat oddball syntax aside (I believe the contest sponsor is based overseas), this is what this clause means: SIMPLY BY ENTERING THE CONTEST, you are giving the contest’s sponsor the right to use your story, change your story, and generally do whatever they want with your story, for free, in perpetuity.
Think about that. You’re giving this sponsor $17 to TAKE YOUR STORY FROM YOU.
Now, being a grumpy experienced writer, upon this realization I could have just rolled my eyes, closed out the contest website and stepped away. But I kept thinking about all those sweet, naive writers who had responded so eagerly to the Tweeted contest announcement – not only that they were going to enter, but tagging fellow writers so they could enter, too.
So I spoke.
I went back to Twitter, found the contest announcement, and Tweeted this:
And then I went to the sponsor’s Twitter page and posted this:
The individual I tagged in the second Tweet, asking for her opinion, is Victoria Strauss. She runs Writer Beware, an entity sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), a watchdog organization not just for SFF authors, but for writers of every genre. Victoria then had a look at the site, found other warning flags and will be writing a blog about the contest next week. She has a much bigger reach on social media than I do, so I’m glad she’s getting involved.
The other, more unexpected result of the first Tweet is that it’s been getting a lot of retweets by other authors – so the word is getting out that this contest may not be such a great opportunity after all.
Who knows what the upshot of this kerfuffle may be? I don’t have a dog in this race – I certainly wasn’t going to spend $17 to enter the short-story contest, and part of me also feels like people dumb enough to enter without reading the fine print deserve what they get. But I couldn’t stand by and watch others potentially lose their “wonderous hard-worked stories.” I didn’t HAVE to speak up – I’m not a deputy for the writers’ union (even if there was such a thing, and oh, how I wish there was). But I spoke up nonetheless. Because in this instance, speaking up was the right thing to do.
This has been a particularly long blog post (probably what the late, great Ursula K. Le Guin would have called a “bung puller” – I haven’t blogged in a long time and was overdue for one). I may post updates once Victoria’s article comes out, but meantime, I’m going to conclude with this quote from Eckhart Tolle:
To complain is always nonacceptance of what is. It invariably carries an unconscious negative charge. When you complain, you make yourself into a victim. When you speak out, you are in your power. So change the situation by taking action or by speaking out if necessary or possible; leave the situation or accept it. All else is madness.
So be brave, y’all. SPEAK UP.
* In stage jargon, to “call a hold” during a performance means the stage manager will make an announcement over the theatre’s PA system to “HOLD.” This announcement is audible to both the onstage company and those backstage, as well as to the audience. The company knows this means to stay where they are and wait for further instructions. Usually these problems are technical in nature, especially in this era of automated sets, but sometimes a hold can occur if someone has been hurt, either onstage or offstage. No one ever likes to hear the word “HOLD.”
ADDENDUM: Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware weighed in on the questionable clause in the contest’s Terms & Conditions (and found another sketchy clause as well): CONTEST CAUTION.
As the run of War Paint continued, I settled deeper into my routine. A week or so after I went on for Ms. LuPone, the company had its first official “put-in” rehearsal – this one for the show’s four offstage understudies. It was a run-through of the show with full tech (although not with full orchestra – just a rehearsal piano). For me it was a bit like shutting the door after the horse had already escaped from the barn, but it was nice to step through the show in a little less stressed atmosphere, and to perform the piece with fellow offstage understudies Patti Cohenour (in the Elizabeth Arden role), Tom Galantich (as Thomas Lewis, Arden’s husband) and Tally Sessions (as Rubinstein’s associate Harry Fleming). The entire company, with the exception of the four leads, was called for this put-in, although they were not required to be in costume as we were.
Here are two photos as a “compare and contrast” exercise. Most of my Rubinstein costumes were finished, or nearly so, for the put-in rehearsal. First is the only photo I have approximating a “production photo” of me in the role; it was taken by our head of wardrobe during the put-in. I’m singing “Forever Beautiful,” Rubinstein’s amazing eleven o’clock number, which the elderly Madame R. sings in her boudoir surrounded by paintings and sculptures of herself. The costume still wasn’t completely finished at this point; in fact, as I was getting into it Lyle and I discovered that it hadn’t been put together properly at the waist. Lyle quickly ripped out a seam and fastened me into the thing with a big safety pin – fortunately this change happened during the Arden eleven o’clock number, so we had a bit more time than usual for the change. The jerry-rigging held during the number and the offending seam fixed afterward.
Next up is a photo taken much later in War Paint’s run. This one is in Ms. LuPone’s dressing room, and I’m wearing the completed costume. As you can see, there’s more embroidery over the bust and shoulders, and the gown has been fitted with a proper waistband. By that point in the run the wig master had also adjusted my wig style so it wasn’t scraped back quite so severely and was bit more flattering.
(NOTE: Included in the company’s contracts with the producers was a rider forbidding us to post photos on social media of ourselves or any company member wearing the show’s costumes. It was a detail either missed or disregarded by some members of the company, but the producers REALLY REALLY didn’t want photos of anyone wearing the Rubinstein or Arden costumes floating around on the internet. My guess is that they worried about losing control of the show’s “brand.” By the same token, any time a lead was out sick, the understudy going on in the part was prohibited from posting on social media that they would be performing the role, the rationale being that this would affect sales. You could post that you were going on if it was a scheduled absence – someone taking vacation or a personal day, for example – but not an unscheduled absence. (You could post after the fact all you wanted, though.) Since neither Ms. LuPone nor Ms. Ebersole had any scheduled absences from the show, Patti Cohenour and I were always flying under the radar when we went on. It was a bit of a disappointment, not to be able to announce when I was performing the role, but I understood. When Ms. LuPone or Ms. Ebersole went out, the producers handled disappointed ticket purchasers well, I thought – attendees who didn’t get to see the two stars were offered vouchers to see the show another time when the ladies were back on. I don’t know how many people actually took advantage of the opportunity to see the show again, but as a good-faith offer it was very smart.)
In addition to those two-a-week understudy rehearsals, I also had to be at the theatre by half-hour prior to every performance (I was usually there at 45 minutes to curtain, which would come in handy – more on that in a bit.) During the performance, I could either watch from the house – in a seat in the mezz or the rear orchestra if one was available; standing in the back if one was not – or watch/listen to the show on the backstage monitor in the ensemble ladies’ dressing room. One night I tried to shadow one of my ensemble tracks backstage, but it was nearly impossible because there was so little room in the wings and you were always in someone’s way. I discovered a third place to watch: the stage right fly space, where I could look down on the stage far below. It was a good place to track traffic patterns in the group numbers.
After the offstage covers had their put-in rehearsal, focus was shifted to getting the onstage covers ready to go on. During understudy rehearsals I was relegated to my ensemble tracks, and I can say now, without fear of reprisal, that it was an unmitigated pain in the ass. I was required to do the staging for one track per rehearsal, but was also called on to step in for the “specialties” (the solos and small speaking roles) for the other two tracks during the same rehearsal. Because of this, I never got a strong sense of each individual track – I was always having to factor in some portion of another track. Keeping the specialty lines and music separate for each track wasn’t hard (after all, I could run that stuff outside of rehearsal), but I had difficulty picking up the individual staging in the big numbers. With three tracks to remember and only three or four bodies to deal with instead of the twelve or so I’d have in performance, getting the traffic right was always a struggle. And because I was alternating the three ensemble tracks along with the Rubinstein track, weeks might pass before I’d have the chance to rehearse a particular ensemble track again. And there was really no place in the building to run the staging outside of rehearsal. Patti C. and I would sometimes step through numbers in the dressing room – Necessity Is The Mother of Invention, a big march number, lent itself most easily to this – but we’d have to squeeze between dressing tables and costume racks to do it.
(NOTE: If you were to look at the program for War Paint or even pull up its page on IBDB.com – the Internet Broadway Database – you’d see that there are only two people listed as ensemble understudies: dance captain Barbara Jo Bednarczuk and me. Everyone else is listed as understudies only for principal parts. This does NOT mean some of those people weren’t also “swinging” ensemble tracks – it just means they chose not to be listed as “ensemble understudies,” and negotiated that as part of their agreement with the producers. Protestations to the contrary, there is a certain “low man on the totem pole” stigma attached to swinging, especially if the actor in question has formerly played featured or principal roles on Broadway. Prior to War Paint, I wasn’t even aware this was a “thing.” Live and learn.)
A couple of weeks later the onstage covers got their put-in rehearsal, and during that rehearsal I covered the ensemble track of Joanna Glushak, Ms. LuPone’s onstage understudy. Not surprisingly, some of my costumes were not completed for that track, and due to a misunderstanding about wigs, my pin-curled head was exposed in several of the scenes. Afterward I spoke to the wardrobe department about the hat/wig issue and thought a speedy solution would be in the offing. Alas, not long after Joanna became ill 45 minutes before a performance, and as I was frantically trying to get prepped to go on for her, Wardrobe was still struggling to solve the exposed pincurls problem. It made for a terrifying experience, both backstage and onstage. It so happened that Patti Cohenour was on for Elizabeth Arden that same weekend (Christine Ebersole was out with a bad head cold, and Patti C. was fighting the same cold herself), so it was a rough time for all concerned.
And things were about to get rougher. Ms. LuPone had been fighting hip pain since tech, and that situation was rapidly deteriorating. There was also that damned company head cold, which would disappear for a week or two and then flare up again, first among the stage crew, then among the dressers, then among the actors and back again. Then the Tony Award nominations came out, with only four nods to War Paint (one each to our leading ladies, one for costume design and one for lighting design). Passed over for Best Musical – you can bet there was no joy in the Nederlander that day. And then the Tonys came and went, with no wins for War Paint and nothing to crow about in the publicity department. Sales began to lag. Spirits, too. In late September we were due for a one-week layoff so the two stars could have some time off; just before that break the producers assembled the company to tell us we’d be closing December 30th. We returned from our layoff with everyone rested but Ms. LuPone’s hip was no better; in fact it was worse still. Adjustments were made to her staging to limit the amount of sitting down and getting up, many of her costume changes were moved into the wings so she didn’t have to walk so far, and she was put into lower heels for certain scenes, but it didn’t help. She needed hip replacement surgery.
I was on twice more for Joanna (her other two absences were scheduled days off, so those performances were less frantic than the first one) but was spared having to go on in the other two ensemble tracks I covered. I ended up going on for Ms. LuPone six more times: another three-show spurt (that damn head cold again) and three single performances as her hip got worse. (And yes, notes and notes and notes afterward, every single time, and so many of the nitpick variety that it made me want to shriek.) It was hard to watch Patti suffer, but she’d throw her shoulders back and limp onto the stage and beat the hell out of her vocals and scenes. She was game, and amazing, but in the end, the pain was too much. The producers finally assembled us again and told us we’d be closing on November 5th.
Those last weeks were hard. Tempers grew short as unemployment loomed, hand-in-hand with the holidays. There had always been a certain amount of competition between the onstage and offstage covers, and that began to ramp up as opportunities to go on in the principal roles got fewer and fewer. (NOTE: Not only is there prestige in going on in a major Broadway role, but there’s financial benefit as well. Under the Equity Production Contract, when an understudy performs a principal role, s/he receives an additional one-eighth of her/his weekly salary for every performance. Or, as my fellow understudies were fond of saying, “Cha-CHING!”) Fortunately, I wasn’t on the receiving end of any of the ill feeling that resulted, but I was constantly on tenterhooks in case I had to go on for Ms. LuPone. One night an assistant stage manager came to me 20 minutes into the first act and told me to get into my Rubinstein prep because Patti wasn’t sure she’d be able to continue (she did). Another time I was walking into the theatre – I started arriving at the theatre an hour before curtain instead of my usual 45 minutes – and was told Patti was in pain and to get ready in case she couldn’t go on (she could, and did). I was struggling with my housing situation as well. I had to give up my 45th Street sublet on November 1st and had initially lined up another place that would take me through the original December 30th closing date, but had to let that go (along with the non-refundable deposit I’d made on it) when the producers moved the closing date to November 5th. I couldn’t find another sublet for just five days, so I ended up staying in the hotel right next to the theatre for the final week of the run. Company management helped me get a less expensive rate – only $250 a night (!), and John came up to spend the final week with me, so it wasn’t so bad. Still, my overriding emotion when the curtain came down on that final show was relief, and gratitude that I was going home.
SO…what was my big takeaway from the War Paint experience? That it was the hardest single theatrical job I’ve ever had. Yes, I made a lot of money, and yes, I have a nice fresh Broadway credit on my resume, and yes, I got to take the final bow in a major Broadway musical nine times – but I feel like I aged five years in those nine months. It was a LOT of pressure, made worse by the fact that I always felt like I was operating blind – that there was stuff going on behind the scenes that influenced actions and decisions affecting me, but I was kept in the dark about them. The constant nitpicking and notes, notes, notes about the most picayune stuff got to me, too. I found it impossible to get out of my own head during performances because any time I was a bit out of position or fluffed a line (said “the” instead of “a,” for example), I’d think oh God, I’m going to get a note about that. And I would.
And I got so tired of being at the bottom of the company heap. The understudies so often got little respect, and so often were an afterthought when it came to company events. (“Oh, and you guys are welcome, too” was the backhanded way we were invited to these things.) I think my lowest moment during the run was when I made a remark about my sciatica flaring up from so much sitting, and having one of the dressers tell me that I could do her job and she’d do mine and “just sit in a chair.” She was young and new at the job, and I know it was supposed to be a joke, but it still stung like hell.
So…would I do it again? In a word: no. Oh, I might understudy again, if it was a major star in a rewarding role, but I’d be damned sure I negotiated standby status, so I’d not only cover just one person, but also be guaranteed that I’d be the first choice to go on in that role. But I would never, EVER swing again. I wasn’t good at it; in fact, I think the people who ARE good at it are actors with a strong dance background – people who are good at picking up movement simply by watching, who can navigate from point A to B to C onstage without the benefit of motivation, who find satisfaction in that kind of work. I am simply not wired that way. Those actors who are can have all those roles…along with my endless admiration.
From the very first day of rehearsal, the company of War Paint had been warned not to get too attached to the generous proportions of our church basement studio space. The production’s home would be the Nederlander Theatre, on 41st Street between 8th and 9th Avenues. The Nederlander is one of the oldest theatres on Broadway, dating back to the early 1920s, and was not originally built as an entertainment venue. (Wikipedia states that it was a carpenter shop; War Paint company lore disagrees, claiming it was a stable.) For a show that had its out of town tryout in the much more modern and expansive Goodman Theatre in Chicago, it was going to be a very tight squeeze.
To begin with, the Nederlander is taller than it is wide, and as is frequently the case with all but the most modern Broadway houses, that translates to very narrow wings. War Paint‘s set included a massive staircase, two big restaurant banquettes and a huge bed, as well as desks, glass-fronted department store display cases, rolling salon chairs and a bar. In addition, there were a number of very fast costume changes in the show, which would need to take place in those very same, very crowded wings. As the company moved into the theatre to begin tech, there was understandable apprehension over just how we were going to fit into the space.
Fellow understudy Patti Cohenour and I met up early on our first day in the Nederlander so we could explore our new digs together. On signing in, we discovered we’d be housed on the fifth floor (remember: no elevators). Not only that, we’d be sharing one large dressing room with the female ensemble: eleven women in one space. We trudged and gasped our way up to the fifth floor (the topmost dressing room space – at least the stairs were padded) and got our first view of what was to be our home for the foreseeable future.
A long counter with mirrors and a single shelf overhead ran down each side of the room, and each actress had been allotted a space about 30 inches wide and roughly half as deep. On the right hand counter, at either end, was a mini-fridge. At the far end of the room was a single window, with two sinks located just beneath it, and a pair of showers to the right, with a water cooler in between. (The single toilet for the eleven women was, fortunately, located just outside the dressing room.) The middle of the dressing room was taken up with a long row of rolling racks, stuffed full of costumes.
The “Character Women” (the three older ensemble ladies) occupied the left-hand side of the room; the “Arden Girls” (the five younger ensemble ladies) had the right hand side, and Barbara Jo Bednarczuk, our dance captain and swing for the Arden Girls, had her own counter at the front of the room, which she shared with a video monitor. Patti C. and I were assigned the last spaces on the right-hand side, beyond the Arden Girls, next to the showers. Patti had the farthest station, with a bit more counter space, but with the refrigerator right next to her and a foam fold-out mattress (like this) stowed under the counter just under it. (That was our required “Equity cot.”) My station was just to Patti’s right, and it had a couple of problems right from the start: its shelf space was unusable because a giant, elderly speaker, like a tin lollipop punched full of holes, had been hung there, and the metal support for the counter-top was beneath my station, which meant I either had to sit sideways or straddle it. I had just enough time to register this (and whack my knee on the support) before we were summoned to places – which for the understudies meant the Nederlander’s mezzanine. We descended five flights to the stage door level, dodged through the stage right wing and out the pass door into the house, and then climbed another flight of stairs to the mezz. On the house left side, approximately halfway up, we discovered our table.
It was actually a long, heavy tabletop, parked on trestles that straddled two rows. It was so high that you could barely see over it if you sat in a theatre chair – which you could barely do anyway, since the table had almost no clearance between its edge and the seats themselves. “Are we going to have to sit on the edge of the folded seats?” I complained, but after a few moments of combined outrage and bafflement, a few rows back I found a long vinyl bolster. It fitted down over the folded theatre seats, providing a kind of perch behind the table. There was just enough space for three people to sit (if you could call it that) side by side, with their binders open before them. Patti, Tom Galantich and I sat there most of the time; Tally Sessions usually elected to sit elsewhere in the mezz, along with Barbara Jo.
(In fairness, I should mention that the folks down below in the orchestra seats had the much the same setup and were really no more comfortable than we were. They – the direction team, stage management, creatives and all the designers and their staffs – had a bit more light and were closer to the coffee and snacks, but at least we didn’t have to climb the stairs to access the theatre’s restrooms – which were on the mezzanine level with us. And since the understudies were usually the only people in the mezz, we were able to move around a fair amount without disturbing anyone.)
Throughout tech, the company worked a “10/12” schedule. This meant that our span of day was twelve hours long (from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., for example), with a two-hour meal break somewhere in the middle. Sometimes we’d do a slight variant of this schedule, and work from noon until 11:30 p.m., and take only an hour and a half meal break.
The usual drill during tech was this: generally the entire company, with the exception of the two leading ladies (and often the two leading men) were called for “half hour” at the start of the rehearsal day. “Half hour” is a somewhat fluid period during tech, particularly at the beginning of the process, since actors and crew alike are still learning their backstage prep and timing. “Half hour” can sometimes be an hour long, or longer. During “half hour,” while the onstage company were in their dressing rooms, getting into costumes, mics and wigs, the understudies were given five minutes to get into mics and report to the house. (To save time and avoid both the climb up to the fifth floor and the madness of the ensemble women’s dressing room, Patti and I took to leaving our mic belts and mics in the sound department, located in the Nederlander’s basement. Since this was also headquarters for the entire run crew – wardrobe and wigs especially, and eventually the orchestra – there was not a square foot of space to spare. More on this later.)
Once we were in the house, we could use what remained of “half hour” to incorporate any new material into our binders (yes, the script and score changes continued apace), but more often we were called to the stage, to stand in for the principals while lights were focused, set changes sorted out and new lines and music folded into the mix. This was helpful to the director and designers, as it let them get some of the grunt work out of the way before the cast was called to the stage, but it was also helpful to the understudies. Since we would not be starting understudy rehearsals until well into previews, this gave us an opportunity to run lines and staging on the actual set. These were usually truncated runs, though – much of the time we were working on transitions between scenes – but still, they got us out of the mezz and on our feet. Once the onstage company was in costume and ready to go, the official rehearsal “clock” would be started. (Under Actors Equity rules, the cast must be given either a five minute break after 55 minutes of rehearsal, or a ten minute break after one hour and twenty minutes of rehearsal.) The downside of this schedule for the understudies was that we’d already been “on the clock” for half an hour or more. If we weren’t needed onstage we could usually grab a couple of minutes to pee or get coffee before heading to our table in the mezz, but Patti C. and I were often still needed onstage to rehearse with the company (the two leads were usually not called until later in the afternoon), so it was rare that we got our breaks in a timely fashion, at least during the morning sessions. (The other difficult part of this process was a carryover from the studio: the ensemble’s staging in group numbers was usually being altered and rehearsed while I was standing in for Ms. LuPone, so I didn’t have the chance to write down and work that staging in real time. I don’t think I ever stood in for any of my three ensemble ladies in a musical number – not in the studio, and certainly not once we started tech. There just wasn’t time.)
Of course, there were occasions during tech when we had to stop and sort out some problem, usually having to do with the automation (it’s rare to see a crew member onstage these days; set moves all seem to be automated now) or with trying to sort out how to get one scene’s worth of set pieces out of the way while getting another scene’s set onstage. This involved the crew having to “fly” set pieces up into the rafters of the theatre, fitting them together like some sort of super-sized Tetris game, while knifing the next batch of set pieces into their tracks on the deck so they could be swooshed on during transitions. The cast would be dismissed to their dressing rooms while these changes were mapped out, and it was a welcome opportunity for the understudies to relax: get up, walk around, make a cup of tea or step outside for a breath of lovely fresh midtown Manhattan air. My special spot during these break was in row H of the mezzanine, where I could lay on the floor out of sight, stretch my back and ease the sciatic pain from sitting on that damned vinyl bolster. (I am probably smiling in this picture because I’ve also gotten out of my microphone rig, which could be downright painful to wear for hours at a stretch. I should also point out that I’m wearing black, the de rigueur color choice not just for crew people, but for understudies as well.)
The most heart-stopping moments during tech were when we’d hear a crash backstage. As careful as the crew tried to be, there were times when things didn’t move as they should, or something or someone was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Most of the time it was nothing major – maybe someone dropped a prop – but once or twice the situation was more serious. Once a dresser got caught between two moving units and ended up with a badly bruised leg; another time one of the big Arden makeup counters got crunched and its glass front broken. These incidents had a sobering effect, and hammered home just how little margin for error we had, putting this great big show into the little Nederlander space.
Next up: Onward to Opening
It was a year ago today that I moved to New York City to start work on the Broadway transfer of War Paint, a musical about the rivalry between cosmetic titans Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden. The show starred Broadway legends Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole, and I’d been hired to understudy Ms. LuPone and swing three ensemble parts as well.
(Before I move forward, I should clarify what understudying in general means, and the different levels of understudy jobs. An understudy (also known as a “cover”) is an actor who steps into another actor’s role when necessary – in the case of illness, vacation or other absence. A “part” or “role” encompasses all spoken lines and onstage movement (also known as “blocking,” which includes any prop or set moves assigned to a particular actor) and, in the case of a musical, any sung lines or dance moves. In addition, an understudy must also learn the covered actor’s backstage movement: i.e. where that actor goes after an exit, whether it be to drop off a prop, change a costume or wig, or just to get out of the way of a scene change or another actor’s path. This entire package is called the actor’s “track.”
There are several levels of understudy work. An “onstage understudy” is someone who is appears regularly in the show (often a member of the ensemble or someone in a smaller role), who is additionally employed to understudy a principal role should the need arise. An “offstage understudy” has the same kind of assignment, but is not a member of the regular onstage cast. An understudy who is listed as a “standby” does just that; he or she “stands by” to replace a principal should the need arise, and has no other duties beyond that assignment. A “swing” is an offstage understudy who covers multiple ensemble roles and can be “swung in” to replace a regular ensemble member in case of illness or absence or when an onstage understudy is “swung out” to observe the show from the house and take notes about the role(s) s/he is covering.
Prior to War Paint, I had only understudied twice: I was an onstage understudy for the U.S. premiere of Dempsey & Rowe’s The Fix at Signature Theatre, and I stood by for Claudia Shear in the West Coast premiere of Dirty Blonde. I’d had other offers to be an onstage understudy, but I always turned them down. Understudying is hard, hard work, and at the regional theatre level you usually end up tripling your workload in exchange for a very small bump in pay. (And at the regional level, you’re rarely going to see a union actor hired as an offstage cover; that’s because union understudies have to be paid the same base salary as the onstage company, starting from the first day they’re called to rehearsal. Hence, at the regional level, most understudies are non-union. Not so on Broadway, where everyone in the cast must be a member of Actors Equity.) I had never, ever swung a show before, but that didn’t keep me from seeing just how difficult the work is, and how hard swings have to work to stay on their game.
I was already nervous enough about covering a major star like LuPone, and the pressure of learning three ensemble parts into the bargain really made me sweat. In addition, the vast majority of the cast had done the Chicago tryout of the show back in the fall, and I knew I’d be something of an outsider when I joined them. But I comforted myself with the knowledge that Patti LuPone was a real pro who rarely called out of a show – and anyway, her onstage understudy (who’d also covered her in Chicago) would probably be tapped first in the unlikely event Ms. LuPone called out.
On Day One of rehearsal, one of the first people I met was Patti Cohenour, who was standby for Ms. Ebersole. I was in awe. Patti Cohenour had originated the roles of Eliza in Big River and Rosa Bud in The Mystery of Edwin Drood (for which she received a Tony nomination), so I felt outclassed right from the start. Patti C., however, could not have been friendlier or more encouraging, and she was my anchor in the swirling melee of the rehearsal studio. I received my script and score that first day of rehearsal, so I didn’t even have the opportunity to familiarize myself with it before we dived in.
God, there was so much to learn! We started with music, and I was in panic mode right away as I tried to sort out which of my ensemble ladies was singing what. I quickly determined that I’d need different-colored highlighters for each of the parts I covered (I marked the Helena Rubinstein material in yellow, and doled out blue, orange and green to the three ensemble tracks). Patti C. warned me that Ms. LuPone and Ms. Ebersole would not be called for rehearsal for a couple of weeks, and in the interim director Michael Greif would be using the two of us to “stand in” for the stars. This made things difficult when it came to staging the big production numbers. I wanted nothing more than to sit at the understudy table and scribble the staging for my three ensemble ladies, but instead I was on my feet, script in hand, stumbling through the Rubinstein staging, trying to simultaneously write down that blocking while keeping an eye on the ensemble tracks. Impossible. Not enough eyes. Not enough brains. Don’t worry, I told myself; when the stars get here, then you’ll be able to watch.
Meantime, though, it was watch, watch, watch, scribble, scribble, scribble, stumble, stumble, stumble. There were a few times that the ensemble was called late or released early, but often that meant I was still called, either to work with the assistant director on the Helena scenes, or for a fitting (not only did I have all the Helena costumes to be fitted for, I had my own set of ensemble costumes, with additional costumes for the specialty roles each of my ladies played). So I had a solid eight hours of rehearsal most days, after which I walked home to my Hell’s Kitchen sublet, ate some food and fell into bed. Sometimes I stayed up late, trying to memorize lines and music and staging, but more often I’d get up early to cram in some study time before I went to work.
Next up: The Stars Arrive
Back in July of last year, I was headed to the beach for a family vacation when I got The Call from Cynthia, my literary agent: we’d received an offer for my fantasy novel KINGLET. In fact, we’d received two offers.
To say I was gobsmacked would be putting it mildly. I had been anticipating a quiet week of sun and sand but instead, my stress level began to ramp up. I was excited, of course – who wouldn’t be? – but how can one relax at such a time?
Two offers – both from small, independent publishers. Publisher #1 was a brand-new outfit, based in Atlanta, with a real go-getter attitude and waving a contract that included a nice advance and a generous royalty split.
(For those unfamiliar with the world of publishing, an advance is a sum of money paid to the author up front, in anticipation of book sales. Royalties are the monies – usually a percentage of the book’s cover price – paid to the author from those sales. If an author receives an advance, their book must “earn out” its advance before the author receives any additional money – in other words, if Author gets a $1k advance, their royalties are withheld until Publisher recoups that $1k from the book’s sales.)
Publisher #2 was based in Alabama, with a two-year track record, offering a decent but less-generous royalty split and no advance. On the face of it, this looks like a no-brainer choice, right? Choose the one offering the most money, right?
Actually, nope. Further study of Publisher #1’s contract revealed that their royalties were based on net profit – meaning that certain expenses had to be recouped before royalty payments began. This is a business model one sees fairly often in new, undercapitalized publishers. It’s a bad deal for the author, because in this scenario the author ends up paying for the publisher’s cost of doing business. I’ve seen some publisher business models wherein the cost of cover art, editing, printing, marketing and distribution are all creamed off the top before the poor author sees a dime.
In the case of Publisher #1, they wanted to recoup the cost of printing the paperback edition of my book. They were planning on using offset printing rather than the more common small-publisher print-on-demand (POD) process. However, while it results in a higher-quality book, offset printing is far more expensive than POD, and in this case, was projected to cost more than double the advance Publisher #1 offered. This meant that the book would have to make more than three times the advance before I’d be paid a cent of that generous royalty split. This, coupled with the publisher’s lack of real experience in the business, made me leery of the deal.
I should add that all these negotiations were ongoing via email and phone calls while I was supposed to be relaxing in the sun (ha), and I complicated matters further by first cracking the screen of my laptop (I closed it on one of my headset’s earbuds) and then dropping my brand-new HTC 10 cellphone in the toilet (I was carrying it with me everywhere in case of phone calls from my agent, and had it in the back pocket of my jeans when I went to answer a call of nature). The phone immediately died, which resulted in a near-meltdown from me – thank goodness for my husband John, who took all the appropriate steps to activate the phone’s “Uh Oh” warranty (was ever a contract clause so aptly named?).
The upshot of all this drama was that I opted for Publisher #2, Fiery Seas Publishing. I signed with them for both KINGLET, the first book in my fantasy series (to be released in August 2017) and its sequel, FISKUR (to follow three to four months after KINGLET). The ink was barely dry on the contracts before the publishing process started. I was assigned an editor, filled out a lot of paperwork to assist in the marketing and promotion of the books, and spent several days writing and rewriting what would eventually become both the back cover copy for KINGLET and the meat of Fiery Seas’ October press release announcing the acquisition of the books. The publisher provided me with some nice art to accompany my own social media blast on announcement day, and meanwhilie my editor Vicki forwarded her first editing pass on KINGLET to me, along with her compliments on how clean and tight the manuscript was. It was small comfort as suddenly everything I’d written seemed awful and I was sure I was a talentless hack. Vicki was incredibly patient as I made a number of tweaks and returned the m/s for its second editing pass.
For once I was grateful that my 2016-17 theatrical slate was pretty bare, with only a summer show, a holiday production and a few miscellaneous gigs on the books. Even though that meant I wouldn’t be making much money, it translated to more time for both the publishing process and to continue writing on the series. As the holidays approached, I finished the third book, fired it off to my trusty beta readers, finalized Vicki’s second pass on KINGLET and her first pass on FISKUR.
And then I booked WAR PAINT.
Suddenly my time was no longer my own. In the space of a few weeks, I had to complete the run of my holiday show, negotiate the WAR PAINT contract, travel to NYC to look at potential sublets, and upend my life in general, while trying to enjoy Christmas and New Year’s (ha). I signed a one-year contract for the show and prepared myself for the move to NYC, all the time driving myself crazy with worry over how I could learn and rehearse a Broadway show AND maintain my commitment to Fiery Seas AND keep writing the rest of the series.
Once again, the upshot of all this drama is that I could, and did. Because Vicki had kept us so far ahead of schedule, I was able to complete the second round of edits on FISKUR and review the galley proofs for KINGLET without undue pressure, as well as work with my publisher and cover artist on the covers for both KINGLET and FISKUR. (If you float your cursor over the “Writing” tab above, you can click on KINGLET to see that beautiful cover, but you’ll have to wait a while for the FISKUR cover reveal. Trust me, it’s equally gorgeous.) I’m currently working on the final draft of STONEKING, the third book in The Gemeta Stone series, with book #4, RAGIS, already in rough draft form.
Everything continues on track for WAR PAINT’s April opening and KINGLET’s August 2017 release. I’m still overwhelmed by it all, but so grateful for both opportunities. As tiring as it’s been, and often nerve-wracking, I know how lucky I am to be experiencing not one, but two huge life events at the same time.
Two years ago, if you’d told me that I would be simultaneously working on a Broadway show and getting ready for the release of my first novel, I would have laughed at you. Nay, guffawed. I had no plan to return to The Great White Way, was happily ensconced in regional theatre, and had barely begun looking for an agent to represent my book. But the world whirls on its merry way whether you like it or not, and I keep wishing there was some way I could put the brakes on both projects just long enough for me to sit back and appreciate the bounty of riches that has landed in my lap. I decided I’d blog about them, as a way of stopping time a bit.
So I’ll start with Broadway first. I’m currently understudying the legendary Patti LuPone and swinging three ensemble roles in WAR PAINT, now in previews at the Nederlander Theater. I’ve had a number of non-theatrical friends ask me “what does a swing do?” and I can now tell you from experience that it’s one of the hardest jobs in show business (right up there with stage management, in my opinion). A swing’s job is the same as an understudy’s, except that a swing covers multiple tracks (a track being a particular performer’s journey through the show, including their spoken lines, sung material, entrances and exits, set or prop moves and costume changes). The swing must be ready to “swing into” any of those tracks when a performer is absent or otherwise unable to perform.
What this translates to in real life is that I spent most of my rehearsal time sitting and watching and taking copious notes. In the studio I was parked at a table off to one side with the other swings (there are five of us), but once we moved into the Nederlander our table was up in the mezzanine, which afforded a great view of the stage and made it a lot easier to observe specific moves. We also had the freedom to move about the theater and watch the show from different angles.
As Ms. LuPone’s understudy, I was (and still am) occasionally called on in to step into the role of cosmetic titan Helena Rubinstein during our daytime rehearsals. It’s a taxing role, and in order to give Patti plenty of time to rest (especially if there’s a show that evening), she isn’t called when we’re focusing lights or running transitions from scene to scene or doing other tweaks and adjustments to the show. Last week, prior to our first preview, we did a run with our wonderful orchestra, mostly for the sake of timing the show. I had the great privilege of standing in for Patti that afternoon, and even though I was not in costume and occasionally had script pages in hand, it was still thrilling.
Costumes – can I just say the costumes for this show (by the amazing Catherine Zuber) are absolutely stunning? I had my first fitting with her last week, to try on “emergency” costumes for the Rubinstein track. My own set of Rubinstein costumes are being constructed as I write this, but the “emergency” ones were pulled from stock against the very slim chance I’d have to go on before mine are completed. Even so, the care that Ms. Zuber and her staff took with fitting those costumes and choosing all the attendant accessories was just awesome. I’ll also have a set of costumes for the ensemble tracks I’m swinging, so a lot of fittings are in my immediate future. (I’ve already been fitted for wigs; I’ve seen a couple of them in the wig room but haven’t had a chance to try them on yet. Stay tuned.)
Once the show has its official opening (April 6th), then I’ll rehearse four hours a day, twice a week, with my fellow swings and the other understudies.( “Other understudies?” you may be asking. Yes, indeed. Typically, in a Broadway show, each major role is covered by two people: a swing and a cast member who performs in the ensemble.) Meanwhile, I’m required to be in the theater for every performance, “standing by” in case I’m needed. I hope I’m not. But to quote the Immortal Bard, “the readiness is all.”
Next up: A Bounty of Riches – Part 2 (Getting Published)