This is the fourth in a series of “behind the scenes” posts about the stuff that really goes into producing a show in NYC. You can check out our previous posts here and click here to be notified when the next one goes live.
Recently, I sat down with Jenny Paul and Lynn Spector to talk about what it means to be a self-produced artist. Jenny comes from the theatre world and is currently an actor and producer on That Reminds Me… (www.ThatRemindsMeTheSeries.com), a new web sitcom coming out this summer.
I thought there would be some interesting overlap between our work producing 210 Amlent Avenue and Jenny’s work on That Reminds Me…, and we brought Lynn in as a dramaturg to help facilitate a conversation (or for some “Lynn-terference,” as Jenny put it). We hope you enjoy—or learn something?—from the condensed version of our conversation that follows.
Translatable skills & wearing many hats
Karl: I wanted to talk a little bit about translatable skills. Do you feel like there is stuff that you’ve brought from your theatre experience or a day job that has been surprisingly useful in self-producing?
Jenny: People managing. I was a manager on the Upper East Side for the 2010 Census. I had to manage truckloads of people with all different agendas and needs—it’s important in theatre, too, but in film—at this point hundreds of people have worked on our series. People are invested on the smallest scale to the biggest scale; it’s a lot of people to involve and excite.
Karl: That’s something that I’ve taken from college theatre as well. I was involved in my school’s student-run theatre group, so that sense of, “Okay, we’re all on a team, so even though we’re all peers, we have to learn to give and receive orders from each other. We may be colleagues, but in this area I’m in charge, and in that area you’re in charge, and that’s okay.”
Lynn: How you balance those roles? Do you separate those two, do you find that they’re intertwined? Do you sometimes get off-balance and say, “I need to be the artist right now”?
Karl: I think so, definitely. It comes in all flavors. There are times where I feel like I’m operating on all pistons at once, but—for example, a few weeks ago I had a family member react negatively to one part of our show, and suggested we change it (which I knew we weren’t going to do). Someone else asked, “Well, isn’t it useful to know that some people will have that negative reaction, even if you don’t change it?” and I said, “I feel like, to Producer-Karl, that’s useful, and to Marketer-Karl, that’s useful, but to Writer-Karl that’s not useful, because it doesn’t make me want to go back and write.” I had to say: here is what part of me is reacting in which way.
Jenny: Yeah, definitely. I’m directing the edit of That Reminds Me…, so I’m watching myself all day long, every day. And sometimes I say, “Yeah, that’s not my best performance on that particular take, but it’s the one that will best serve the piece!”
Lynn: I was working on a show with a friend of mine, and at one point I said, “you know, this is friend-Lynn” and we talked as friends, then I said, “okay, well, as co-producer Lynn…” and we actually verbalized that. Do you have that? Is it a matter of, when you are in front of a camera or at the piano, you are not allowed to be talked to as a producer?
Karl/Jenny: *lots of laughter*
Lynn: Is there anything you do to set those boundaries? Or is it all free-for-all?
Karl/Jenny: *laughter dies down*
Jenny: You go first…
Karl: I think, um… that sounds really smart. *laughs* I cannot think of a time that I’ve ever been able to actually do that. For me, it’s much more common to be trying to rewrite a song, and oh, an email just popped up about the budget that I need to address, and then I got a text about casting that I should respond to, and I was going to work on that song, but also here’s someone wanting to know about contracts or whatever… yeah.
Karl: Occasionally I will just turn off my phone, close my computer, and write… but yeah, “free-for-all” feels more on point.
Jenny: We did this thing called Actor-Hat and Producer-Hat, and boy, did this fail miserably, but we really tried. Three of the four producers on the show are also actors in the show, so we’d have our pre-filming meeting as producers and then say, “okay, Producer-Hat off, Actor-Hat back on” and we’d all go back onto set. And then, boom, something would happen that we would all want to address. None of us could find a way to verbalize “Don’t ask us now,” because we didn’t want to say no to anybody. We couldn’t as actors-trying-to-be-actors say, “we need to get the work done, talk to us at lunch.”
Karl: That’s what I don’t envy about what you guys are doing—Becky and I are not actors, but we’ve had similar moments of being writers in the rehearsal room, and watching something being rehearsed, and thinking, “Oh! We need to fix that line,” or, “Oh! You’re misunderstanding something…!” But the really good thing about rehearsing, as opposed to filming, is that in rehearsal, our wise director was almost always able to say, “We can fix it later. That note doesn’t need to be given right now.”
Divide-and-conquer or divide-and-be-conquered
Lynn: You both talked about how you’re not working alone, this is not a singular endeavor. Are you at all able to split the work? Do you work sequentially, or divide-and-conquer?
Jenny: When an actor wasn’t on set, yeah. We had a lot of flashbacks in our show, when not everyone was on camera all at once, and those days went really well! You can see that in the footage, having a producer on set means there are fewer takes, we got everything quicker, and just a more relaxed atmosphere because of the faith that everything is being taken care of, to some degree.
Karl: Between the three of us—Becky, Sami, and I—there’s definitely a lot of divide-and-conquer, but I think what’s interesting is it doesn’t always feel like divide-and-conquer. Sometimes for me it’s easy to feel like, “Oh my god, I’m doing 80,000 things, I’m completely alone,” and then we’ll touch base and I’ll say, “Oh, I forgot that you were doing those other 85,000 things”, so actually we are all dividing, but sometimes you can get in your head too much and feel like, “why am I the only one dealing with this particular little thing that I’m worried about?!” whereas actually there’s a whole bigger picture that other people are helping to manage.
Art is a team sport.
Karl: I was talking with a friend the other day about what I was up to, all the plates that were spinning, and he said, “that’s so incredible—did you, like, read a book about this?” and I said, “…no…” *laughter* “If you know of a book, please tell me.”
Jenny: There’s not a single book that could ever pretend to cover any of this.
Karl: A lot of it is stuff that you could never imagine doing, until you’ve done it. Having a team helps. Having someone who has done this or that piece of it before.
Jenny: You also end up finding out what you team members are amazing at. That’s one of my biggest takeaways from this process: Everybody’s got some undiscovered thing. One of my business partners used to be a union president for a teacher’s association—“whoa, okay! So somebody knows how to negotiate contracts!” It’s finding everyone’s strengths, and utilizing those different strengths. And then there’s also the other end where you gotta pick up the pieces—nobody wants to do taxes, nobody will ever want to do taxes.
Karl: Or scheduling.
Jenny: Nope, nobody likes scheduling. Some people are better at it than others—
Karl: But nobody actually enjoys it, yes.
Jenny: This art is a team sport, and the more excited and creative and invested people that you have, that are working in alignment with each other, the more exciting the project is, the more exciting the chemistry is.
We started an LLC and opened a business checking account because smart people we trust told us it was a good idea.
Karl: I was thinking about that too, there is so much to know, and to know how to do, and to do—but because you are building this community, this team, this family, it becomes more manageable. Whether or not you want to, you have to break it up into steps. A year and a half ago, Becky and I had written this show that we thought was pretty good, and we got a chance to do a reading. So we said, “Okay, right now we just need to know enough to get ourselves a director who can help us with the next step.” And now, for instance, this week, “We just need to hire a general manager who will bring that next chunk of knowledge” and it’s like you’re building a cinnamon bun of layers around you.
Jenny: If anybody had told me what was really involved with this a year and a half ago, I don’t think—I mean, I might’ve still done it because I’m crazy like that—but wow, would I have been overwhemled.
Karl: And I think that’s the hard part of having all those hats, is, I go out with my friends, and they ask, “How’s it going?!” and I’m thinking, which hat are you asking? Are you asking Marketer-Hat, where it’s like, “Everything is awesome?” or Writer-Hat that’s fretting over some creative task? It’s a lot. But—I know this is so cheesy—but it’s art, and there’s love at the core of it… otherwise we would’ve gotten out a long time ago.
Jenny: It makes things more complicated and much more wonderful, the love at the core of it. The fact that I love everybody that I work with makes things so much better and so much worse. *laughts* Because I’m not just looking out for the project, I’m looking out for the people involved in the project. It’s not just business, it’s never just business with this kind of thing.
Karl: Well, exactly, and it’s because these are projects where, I am never going to see you only from 9–5. If you are in this project with me, you are going to see me in my pajamas, we are going to be up all night working and then wake up and do something else… because it becomes that sort of intense summer-camp/college family, you have to care about people in that way, otherwise you would kill each other.
Why do we do this
Jenny: I’ve always thought about self-producing, but I never had an idea that was worth doing. This was the idea that made sense in a way that wasn’t just about me. I’ve had ideas for dozens of “vanity projects” but haven’t felt right doing them. Once I found a story that was worth telling, all of a sudden it was easy to get behind it.
Karl: For me, that’s the crucial thing about these sort of projects: they’re not top-down projects where someone says, “We need a show about this, someone go make it,” it’s bottom-up, with us saying, “this is a story that wants to be told, and we think we could be the ones to tell it.” So even though we didn’t plan on self-producing, we are going to learn those skills and build that team because the spark of what is underneath this, and what is in this story, is worth doing that work.
Jenny: Yeah. And this is a way that people in our generation can invest in themselves, in their own artistic tracks, and it’s an opportunity that hasn’t existed before. I think about A Chorus Line, that sense of “I have to get a job” and everything rides on somebody else accepting you, and thinking that you’re good enough, talented enough, tall enough, skinny enough, leggy enough…
Lynn: It’s the Zuckerberg era of “you can make your own.”
Jenny: You can do whatever the hell you want, it’s start-up time!
Jenny: Self-producing is the artistic version of being a start-up. Our production company is a start-up!
You can keep up with Jenny Paul and the whole That Reminds Me… team on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. You know Becky and I are also representing 210 Amlent Avenue on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram too. (So much social media!) Thanks to Lynn for moderating this lovely conversation—there were plenty of laughs and silliness that we edited out for length. We’ll see you next time!
Have you been involved with self-produced projects, or a start-up? Do you have the book we all should’ve read before starting these endeavors? Comment below and let us know! 🙂 Also, click here if you’d like to know the next time we post a “Behind the Scenes” exclusive.