Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Q-And-A with Timothy Mooney - Part 2

Tim Mooney in his solo show Lot O' Shakespeare

Tim Mooney is a solo performer and playwright who makes his living traveling most of the year around the United States presenting his roster of ten different one-person shows to educational institutions and fringe festivals alike.

This is part 2 of a two-part interview with Tim. Read part 1... HERE.

Tim began his touring in 2002 and his solo performance career has parallelled the development and proliferation of the Web 2.0. In this second part of the interview we get into some of the nuts and bolts of Tim's operations. We'll cover how Tim communicates with his followers, how he set up his company, the Timothy Mooney Repertory Theatre, and learn how he has used new online technologies as they have risen to his advantage (and in some ways not so much).

Here's part two...

TSP: As your career as a touring solo performer has developed over the past seventeen years, you have used a lot of online resources. You are good about adopting new tools as they arise. Over the years, you have moved from one kind of software to another as technology upgrades. Can you walk us through how you have evolved in your technology use to market and communicate your work since the early days?

Tim Mooney: Wow. You have really stalked, I mean “researched,” me thoroughly!

That may be a part of its own answer to your question. First, I’ve made the conscious decision to live life in public, and trust that, even though I can be tracked/stalked, that erring on the side of MORE information rather than less makes me accessible to people who want to hire or work with me.

Actually, life was pretty easy back in the day when I was just sending to my own personal email list of family and friends. I started out reaching back to the people that I had left behind, and would simply send out an update to the 30 or 40 people who may have been worried about me adrift in the universe.

TSP: “Left behind?”

TM: I have some family in the Chicago area and a fair amount of friends. They worried about me. At least, back then. And over the years I think they’ve gotten accustomed to me being that guy who lives on the road.

TSP: But then your email list evolved?

TM: More people signed on to that email list, and I forget how many people I was sending to when I had the sense that my email program was going to stop me from sending to a number so high. It seemed like I was going to need to migrate everything onto a Yahoo! list, so I was insisting that my friends sign onto that. Many did and many didn’t.

That’s probably an important point. When you change your point of contact or upgrade to a new program or whatever, people don’t automatically change with you. Perhaps they have lost interest, or maybe they just don’t see the need to sign onto this next, new thing. So, there is always a risk when upgrading.

And so, I was sending out a bifurcated newsletter blog: some via email, some via Yahoo Groups.

Yahoo! Groups didn’t offer me much in the way of layout, and photos and videos and links were becoming a more and more important facet of my updates, so it was probably just a year or two when I went over to “Blogger”, where I could actually play around with the look of the thing more than just plain text. And, by this time, I was no longer just reaching out to 50 or so friends, but perhaps 500-1000 people who just signed on at one of my workshops, or at my booth at a conference. I may have crept up close to 2000 people on my list.

TSP: Your newsletter, A View From Here, is one thing that has evolved. It was sort of an "inside baseball" touring log. You went from distributing it via email to close friends and family, to posting updates on a Yahoo! Group. Then you moved to a Blogger site and recently you have taken to videoing monthly updates and sending it out via your YouTube channel, Facebook page and to your Patreon patrons. How important have you found these points of contact in connecting with your fans and supporters?

TM: From a financial/marketing standpoint, I have absolutely no way of knowing. I do not keep metrics on these things.

There are people who will write back to me after EVERY new posting, and others who I never hear from, and some who will just write back asking to be “removed” from the list. Mostly, I find that the students who are so excited to sign on after seeing me perform at their school simply disappear from their school email system and never think to reach out to make sure that they’re still on my list.

TSP: The newsletter, in particular, is about your journey and a neat little behind-the-scenes glimpse at your life as a touring artist. What did you hope to do with this piece of content? What was the intended effect on your readers and supporters?

TM: Mostly, the newsletter reminds people that I’m still out there, that I have a fun perspective, that I have an ongoing life, and maybe they feel a little bit proud of what I’m doing. I’m sure it gives some teachers the occasional “ping” of how much they want to book me, or the reminder that I have a LOT to say on the topic of theatre, one-person shows and touring.

Once in a while, I’ll hear a complaint that my blogs/updates are too long to read through. But some are still feeling like they are with me there, out on the road.  I don’t know how to reconcile that. I’m not making anybody read what I have to say, and I’m laying myself open to their thoughts and their judgments. Of course, I would love to think that people are sending me their love from afar, but like any theatrical performance, we NEVER KNOW just how profoundly somebody out there might be touched or moved by the experience. We are throwing pebbles into a lake, never knowing where those ripples might carry.

TSP: Patreon is not always an easy fit for performers. You seem to be making it work. I know it is relatively new for you, but how’s it working so far?

TM: The decision to shift to Patreon was a major change, and it meant saying goodbye to a bunch of people, hoping that they might join me on the other side. At the moment, it meant leaving behind an audience that was almost 2000 strong for an audience that is currently 35 strong. (Oops! 36! Someone just joined last night.)

TSP: Saying goodbye? How so? Because you no longer are posting updates via the blog? You didn’t just ditch your 2000-strong list completely, did you?

TM: The list is still there on my computer. But it will evolve into something else. I may break it up regionally as best as I can, and send reminders that I’m available to perform in a given area. For the moment, I’m using the threat of no more newsletters to remind people to jump onto Patreon.

TSP: Okay. Back to Patreon…

TM: That Patreon audience of 36, however, is providing me an income of what is, as of today around $200/month. Which is a fraction of that I make from any given performance. And yet, my Patreon page is only about 4 months old at this point, and that base of support only continues to grow. (only one supporter has withdrawn over the course of these four months, and I assume it was someone who didn’t quite “get” that Patreon was an ongoing monthly subscription.)

On the other side of that, though, Patreon has gotten me more engaged in providing content for my “patrons.” And so, I’m putting out more updates with video and an ongoing lottery (for a free performance in your living room!) and I don’t let my communication lag for long periods of time, if only because I feel responsible to the people who are supporting me.

Also, my hope is that the offer of the “free living room performance” will open me up to a bunch of people who might not otherwise have come across my work: teachers, librarians, directors, enthusiasts who might see my work and have new ideas about venues or contacts. (This is still slightly theoretical at this point, as those “free performances” are just now beginning to find their way onto the schedule.)

TSP: Does Patreon beat Kickstarter and other kinds of online fund-raising?

TM: The problem with Kickstarter/Indiegogo, etc. is that it’s a SPRINT, focusing all of your fundraising efforts into a 5-week period of spreading the word, posting and reposting to friends and family and professional contacts who may or may not be enthused about this next new project. And I may, very well, raise some $5,000-$11,000 to support this next new project… which is awesome. But then we go into a kind of a hibernation as we work in our garden to develop bookings and/or create next new incarnation of the next big thing. And then we develop a new generosity/kickstarter/indiegogo event for the next new big thing and try to rally support for that new big thing…

But the energy is less palpable than it was the last time around. And the $11,000 fundraiser now brings in $6,000 or $3,000, and you hate going back to that well, not knowing just how much you may be annoying people to support this next project.

However small Patreon may start out, though, it heads in the opposite direction, as each new month may bring in new supporters. Each new crop of supporters may bring in an added $50 per month. And those people who sign on for the long term, are more than likely to STAY signed on, enabling us to continuously build a foundation of support that is somehow count-on-able.

I look forward to the time, perhaps in the coming year, in which the Patreon support might actually bring in as much as a single performance might earn, on a monthly basis. Which would mean that I’m not so dependent on the whimsy of the bookings or the economy, or the stupid legislators in any given state that might cut off funding to their own schools.

Which might mean that someday I can afford to offer up a show for half price or maybe even for free in any given month, and not live or die on the question of whether some Republican legislator wants to starve their own constituents of a budget for programming.

TSP:  Your Patreon features, as an incentive prize to donors, a drawing for a free "Home Performance." Have you done this yet? Is this something you have done before? Tell us about it.

TM: Still working on that one. I’ve got three currently in motion, with the first performance coming up on April 19! The host has secured a venue with some 40 seats in it north of Indianapolis and we just (today) decided on a performance of Lot o’ Shakespeare for the event. There will be other performances coming up in the Cincinnati area (in late May) and in Minneapolis in July. The fourth drawing is coming up right about the time this interview is posted!

My biggest concern is to make sure these performances happen within 1 year of their respective drawings. I don’t want to develop a backlog of performance obligations that remain unfulfilled until a dozen or so folks want to claim their free performance all at the same time. 

TSP:  Your mailing list, it would seem, needs to serve many functions, one of which is keeping track of and being able to contact potential clients at educational institutions you are hoping will book you. And these are spread out in, what, all of the lower 48 states? First, what web-hosted email platform do you use (iContact? Mail Chimp? Constant Contact?) and how, specifically, do you organize it to facilitate all these separate contacts?

TM: My mailing list covers 48 states (plus Washington DC), and the occasional venue just over the Canadian border. But here’s the big difference:

This is not an automated process. I do everything “the hard way.” Probably, if I were two years younger, I’d see the advantage of Mail Chimp and Constant Contact, but I personally send out about 17,000 emails four times a year (more-or-less) “by hand.”

TSP: No, Tim, no. Are you kidding? You mean, you use your personal, say, Earthlink account or Outlook to send out loads and loads of emails?

TM: Yes. And no, I am not kidding. If anybody is reading this to learn about hyper-linked, super-fast short cuts, that’s not me.

TSP: Okay. I mean, it is YOUR system. Live your life.

TM: I DO have my shortcuts. The body of my emails are fairly consistent. I figured out how to paste the body of an email that I’m sending out to a given state into the “Signature” function of my Outlook program. Thus, when I click on somebody’s email address, the email opens with the message already in it. At that point, I adjust the salutation to the new person, decide if I want to add any personal message to the note. I often add parenthetical commentary to remind them that this is a REAL email that they are getting from a REAL person. People do double-takes when they realize that “oh! This is coming directly from the guy!” I want them doing that double take, and realizing that I am writing directly to them. I then proceed to paste in the email subject line and hit send. I think I generally average about 6 emails a minute. I change them over for each new state, with new dates of availability to apply to that particular state.

The one time I gave in to try to write a fancy email to a LOT of people at the same time (with photos and graphics and nice layout in the body of the email) I got ZERO response.

I couldn’t let myself risk doing that again, so I went back to doing it the hard way. I write straightforward emails, each with a particular selling point about the new show, the new discount, the new book that I will send them a copy of (it’s like an elaborate business card), and the new dates that I’m available to come to their state.

TSP: Let’s stick with the educational client email list for a second. How do you collect emails? Is there one tactic that works the best for you?

TM: I have a couple of tactics, but the most reliable is probably to look them up on the school’s website.

Quite often I will get folks to sign in at a show, or at a workshop, or in some conference exhibit hall, and that’s great. But I’ve developed a technique to find out ways to look up (or to guess at) the email addresses of the folks who teach acting or directing or theatre history, or French, or European History or English, or Shakespeare… I usually assume that the folks who have the power to advocate for booking me are Assistant or Associate or Full Professors. Or they may be chairs of their respective departments. I’m looking for the person who has the vision to see the value for their individual classes, and the initiative to chase down the discretionary funding to make it happen.

Many times I may have written to these people 2-4 times a year with my latest proposal over the course of TEN YEARS, to have them finally write back to me to say, “I’ve been reading your emails for a long time but never had the budget to make something happen until now…!”

So, while sending out 17,000 emails may often sound like 16,900 “no’s”, my job is to hear those as being perhaps 100 resounding “no’s” with another 16,900 “I wish we could make this work.” And that’s hard to envision when you only actually hear back from those people on those rare occasions when the stars align and they’ve got the budget and the time to make something happen.

TSP: You have potential audiences in many places as well, for fringe fests and the like. Do you keep a mailing list for general audiences in places you travel to over and over again, like Minneapolis or Orlando?

TM: I probably should work that up. Right now I mostly do that through Facebook, sending event invites around. But I think these days that people get so many of those e-vites on Facebook, that they’re just used to either deleting the notice or hitting “interested” and forgetting about it.

TSP: You must have an excellent way to keep track of all your gigs (times/dates/ on-site contacts info/ ways to send invoices/ etc.). Do you use a big spreadsheet program like Excel or some kind of online calendar? How is that set up?

TM: I do everything “the hard way” in Microsoft Word.

TSP: Damn it, Tim.

TM: I emphasize that I do everything the hard way, if only to scare those people off who think there is a magical short cut waiting for them.

TSP: Well, yeah, there is probably an easier, more user-friendly way to do it…

TM: Anyway, I collect all of my names, titles, email addresses, along with a growing history of correspondence, into one single document for any given state. And so I have my Maine (I always start with Maine and end with California) document with College and high school faculty, from Theatre, French, English, History, as well as various special events staff. Random contacts from theatres and venues get squeezed in wherever. I collect notes on any given response that I may receive over the years (including “remove me from this list”… often SHOUTED), and bend over backwards to respond to their needs and wishes and to provide them with the info or options that might make an event possible.

I do this for all 48 contiguous states and the biggest effort goes into the biggest states: New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and California. Those documents are all over 100 pages long. I move from east to west, adjusting the dates of availability to fit the particular state. (New England is easiest, because they’re all within a day’s drive of each other and any New England booking can be bookended with any other New England booking.) Any response gets pasted into the document and quite often the collected responses from certain individuals grows to pages of interaction over the years. Quite often I will draw from our previous interactions to make some salient reminder which will assure them that they are dealing with an actual human being at this end.

TSP: I am impressed with your knowledge and performance skills with the work of Moliere and Shakespeare, but the most inspiring thing to me about your work – and what I feel would be most beneficial to the readers of this site - is how you have managed to create an infrastructure to allow you to 1.) create your own work, 2.) tour with it and 3.) make a living doing so. I am amazed how your operations puzzle-piece together into a sort of machine. You have published a bunch of your scripts, the bulk of them being adaptations of Moliere. These scripts, besides selling passively online, prompt gigs at colleges and universities. Bookings to do your solo shows often lead to you also conducting workshops. You have become pretty good at marketing, branding and administrative work, using social media and email and Patreon and Instagram and YouTube and your website and so on. You have bridged the indie world of doing fringe fests with the more steady and better paying world of educational gigs. You keep all of these under the banner of the Timothy Mooney Repertory Theatre. Can you talk about how you put the pieces together to get this whole infrastructure in place?

TM: Not sure if I need to repeat that I do this all the hard way.

TSP: Damn it, Tim.

TM:  If you haven’t guessed already, I’m a workaholic, driven by my need to prove my parents wrong, or to prove myself right. All of that other stuff is the product of me seeing a new way to be seen, or to be heard, or to create something. A book, for instance, brings in some revenue, but it also serves as a very impressive, elaborate business card.

People need the sense that they are talking/working with someone who is “legit.” And I do what I can to reassure them that they are working with the real deal, and that I am capable of coming into their circle and present them with the same honesty and (hopefully) inspiration that I am sharing here: to say, “here is how to act in classical theatre; here is what is great about Moliere; here is how to make a career out of your own initiative.”

I started from my series of Moliere plays in rhymed iambic pentameter. I felt the need for the typical undergrad actor to have THIS PARTICULAR sense of theatrical style to make MY plays work to the modern audience. I came up with some exercises and metaphorical constructs to help explain the performance needs of these plays. I teach workshops to explain this and it is also spelled out in my book, Acting at the Speed of Life; Conquering Theatrical Style

That sense of what they needed to perform my plays gave me a secondary offering to earn me an extra $300 on the road when I was in town to offer a play. I earned a few extra dollars with my workshops, but I also was developing a larger body of actors who were able to make me look good, if and when they performed my scripts.

TSP: The Timothy Mooney Repertory Theatre is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit, but you’re pretty much the only company member. You use the words “we” and “us” a lot in describing TMRT. Are there other members? You contract in freelance help with fund-raising, graphics and so on as needed, it seems. Is that right?

TM:  Mostly, I guess, that’s the “Royal We.” But as a NFP corporation, I also have a board. (We “meet” once a year.) And I have a friend back home who’s been very helpful in checking my mail, faxing out contracts, mailing out books. She’s also the treasurer on the board and keeps the books. She’s begun the process of tracking down and writing out grants.

TSP: So, you have help with the administrative stuff?

TM: I do get some help with administration. But I think my use of the term “we” is mostly intended to extend the illusion of a larger company, rather than just one guy racing around the planet doing shows.

Promo photo for Tim's show Breakneck Hamlet
TSP: Ever consider bringing on a tour manager? Or an agent to get you bookings and organize your tours?

TM: I would love to get a stage manager/driver so that as performances pick up I’m expending my energy on the stuff that has the greatest impact. I’ve looked for agents on a couple of occasions (both performance agents and literary agents), but I’m such an odd duck, I don’t think they know how they could make me sell. And, once I did take them on, I’d inevitably lose some of the connection that I’ve established between myself and the person at the other end booking the plays.

TSP: So, you have a bit of help, which is great, but you are still the main actor and the driver of your enterprise. You strike me as a sort of a modern-day actor-manager of a theatre company composed of basically one person. I think this is a wonderfully novel idea for solo performers to consider. Indie authors do this nowadays, founding a small-scale publishing company to release their own work. How did the TMRT come about? Do you find it more useful to have a company behind you than being an independent artist (especially with stuff like insurance, fund-raising, bookkeeping, etc)? Where do you see TMRT going in the future?

TM: First of all, I DO, actually, have a separate “publishing arm” of the “TMRT Press.” That’s where I self-publish most of my one-man plays and my acting book. I have defined that as distinct from the “Tim Mooney Rep” if only because I hope I might actually earn a profit off of my books some day.

Also, the Tim Mooney Rep started out as a joke: I was one man (Timothy Mooney) performing a repertory of one-man plays (a total of 10 plays over the years). It was the longest possible title for the smallest possible company you can describe.

But, over the years, people started to support what I was doing, the mission. There was a brief period around 2015-16, during which I’d raised about $11,000 to produce “Breakneck Hamlet” and a major foundation had “discovered” me at a late night Indy Fringe Festival performance (a foundation that proceeded to donate a healthy chunk of change in subsequent years) that made me realize that this was something that people cared about, and might want to support, in such a way that it might make a difference if I was a not-for-profit organization, making any donations tax deductible.

That seems to have turned a major corner for us. I’m not by any means wildly successful. In fact, I believe we are still digging out from the recession of 2008, when the austerity measures that the United States imposed on its charities and states and schools made it harder and harder for the kind of programming that I offer to survive. But the support of those people who believe in this work has closed the gap, if only slightly. We have survived this “down time” largely intact. And as long as I have the energy and the stubbornness and the enthusiasm to carry on, this silly dream of a one-man adventure may well remain afloat.

TSP: You look much younger than your actual age (which I we will not post here, but let’s say you have a good half century and some change, under your belt). Ever thought about hanging it up and quitting the TMRT/solo performance thing?

TM: There was a brief moment, about 5 years back, when I was overwhelmed with a long drive bringing me back from Oregon to Chicago. And I decided, I’m done. The sun is glaring in my eyes, there are bugs on the windshield and I am ready to wrap this up.

And I got myself an apartment in Chicago, and sent out resumes and applied for teaching gigs and was ready to be done with it.

And, maybe the only serious “nibble” I got was from a school in a remote area of Texas. For a one-year visiting professor gig.

And I found myself contemplating that one year in Texas, not really pushing forward on my career, but making a little bit of bank to support whatever else might be next in my career, that moment when I’d be ready to take a risk, throw myself off of the edge of a cliff… come what may.

And as I contemplated that, I realized… Wait. That’s what I’m doing now.

I am taking that risk. I am doing that which I dream of doing. Today. Now. Every day that I continue with this adventure, while not signing my life away to some theatre/school/corporation to dictate my behavior.

I am living that dream now. Interrupting that dream to do something ELSE is only going to set my dream back a year or more…

I threw myself back into my tour, and sent off another 15,000 emails…

20.) Last of all, Tim, where can folks learn more about what you do? Links galore, please…


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