January 6: Playwright Jeremy O.Harris pays it forward and theatre publicists face their own PR battle

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Charity, they always say, begins at home. And for 31-year-old Tony award winning playwright Jeremy O. Harris (pictured below), he has taken it truly to heart. The playwright’s Slave Play made a big impression on Broadway last year, and he was due to make his UK debut with a production of his 2019 play Daddy in March, but it was postponed when it was already in rehearsal (pictured above) when the first lockdown arrived.

In an interview in the New York Times that ran on December 23, the paper’s theatre correspondent Michael Paulson wrote that, “After years in which he earned very little making theatre — he said his total commissions over four years amounted to about $22,000 — this year he made nearly $1 million, primarily from collaborations with the fashion industry and an HBO deal. (Fashion and television pay better than Broadway.).”

So, since March last year when theatres across America were shut down by Covid, Harris funded, with New York Theater Workshop, two $50,000 commissions for new works by Black women playwrights; helped produce streamed versions of the plays Heroes of the Fourth Turning and Circle Jerk using a portion of the $250,000 annual theatre production fund HBO gave him when he signed a development deal; donated a collection of plays by black writers to to one library in each of the 50 states, plus Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and Guam; and pledged fees and royalties from Slave Play to fund $500 microgrants to 152 U.S.-based playwrights; and gave proceeds from the Heroes production to a Playwrights Horizons relief for theatre artists.

That’s properly paying his own recent good fortune forward. As he commented,

“I’m not so deluded as to say something like ‘The money I made this year is inconsequential money.’ It’s a great deal of money. But I also know that amongst the elites of the New York theatrical community, my bank account pales in comparison. The fact that I made just under a million dollars this year after literally making no actual income for a decade feels like a really complicated thing for me to make sense of. I don’t know if this money will be the only money I make for the next two years — I don’t know what the decade will bring for me. But I felt no qualms about giving this much of it away, because it is more money than I ever imagined I would make, and it’s also more money than I need. And so it feels imperative for me to work and imagine new ways to take care of the people around me.”

It’s also really encouraging to hear him say: “I want to make sure that we have a really fertile artistic landscape when we return to the theatres. And I think its been pretty evident that I’m really excited about work that’s challenging, that’s scary, that probably wouldn’t get support otherwise.”

We’re used to late career artists, like Andrew Lloyd Webber in the UK, becoming major arts philanthropists: they’ve made more money than they’ll ever be able to spend, after all, and are giving back to the profession that has enriched them. But to find someone so early in his career already doing so is incredible: “Some might call it philanthropy, but I call it upkeep or maintenance”, he also commented.

We seldom hear of similar initiatives in the UK, certainly by younger rich artists, though many use their media star power to help launch fundraising initiatives amongst their peers and the wider public, like the Theatre Artists Fund set up in July last year by Sam Mendes (pictured above) to help theatre freelancers hit by the impact of COVID19. In an interview in The Guardian that month, Mendes said the fund “had received donations from actors and writers including Michaela Coel, Armanado Iannoucci and Imelda Staunton with £85,000 in donations coming – in part – from members of the public.”

We already know that the world we return to after COVID19 is going to look significantly different to the one we left behind in March when the first lockdown arrived. An early casualty of the funding crisis that engulfed many theatres — before arts recovery funds and the like were put in place — included Southampton’s NTS Theatres, a re-branded version of the Nuffield that had only recently opened new city centre premises, and went into receivership. Smaller, unfunded theatres like South London’s Bridge House also won’t be there anymore, recently announcing that it would be closing after seven years. Artistic producer Rob Harris told The Stage, “Covid has been a terrible time for many industries – the arts in particular,” but that the artistic team would continue operating as “an independent producing company in the future”.

But it’s not just places; its people, too. On Monday came news that Corner Shop PR — the biggest independent publicity firm dedicated to theatre and performing arts companies (whose logo is above) — was shutting down its London operation, which once employed 23 people there (though it plans to continue operating its Edinburgh office). Corner Shop’s co-founders Ben and Claire Chamberlain have been joined by former staffers Maisie Lawrence, Kate Hassell, Sam Montague and Hannah Osborne in setting up Bread and Butter PR.

Others of its departing staff have also announced their intention to set up their own micro-businesses: Chloe Pritchard-Gordon and Laura Myers have announced a new agency called About Grace PR, while Hannah Clapham has also emailed to reveal news of her own solo outfit www.hcpublicity.com.

PRs are an essential tool in the theatrical toolbox, working alongside marketing teams in spreading the word about shows and theatres, and managing their messages. Some PRs, it sometimes seems to me, are uniquely poor about representing themselves in their best light, preferring to be obstructive rather than helpful and using their role as gatekeepers at press nights to wield and demonstrate their power over humble theatre journalists.

But the world is changing, as I already noted. When one such press agent (none of the above named, I hasten to add) recently denied me tickets for a press night — given that I was no longer representing a “national” outlet, she said I didn’t qualify for access to her limited inventory — I simply bought my own ticket, for the very first preview, and paid her client the courtesy of telling him that I was duly coming to see it then and would be reviewing what I saw immediately afterwards. He was in the midst of the first day of rehearsals for the show and quickly replied from the rehearsal room that he’d rather I didn’t. I replied I’d been given no choice: as the production and its appointed press agent had refused to accommodate me, I’d had to make my own plans.

He offered to refund me the single ticket I’d bought and give me a pair of tickets to any other performance I chose to come to. I duly moved my tickets. But in fact, the show never opened after all — the press night was cancelled when the second Tier 3 lockdown arrived — so now I wish I’d gone to the preview I’d bought a ticket for after all, as I’d have at least have seen it.