Have a Voice: Or at least a point of view. This industry is hard and you’ve got to believe in what you do and know how to express those beliefs. Certainly your style can evolve, but if you’re just trying to get rich or copy others that’s no way to create anything you or others will ever care about.
As a part of our series about creating a successful career in theatre, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Annie Pulsipher.
Annie started writing short plays in high school that were primarily an excuse to make cheesy puns, rant about feminism, and use excessive amounts of stage blood … she is still quite fond of this. Annie received her MFA in Dramatic Writing from Carnegie Mellon School of Drama. She’s had productions and readings of her work across the country most notably with Kensington Theatre, the Kennedy Center through KCACTF, and the Tribeca Film Festival. Her screenplay, The Glowing Gene, won the Sloan Student Grand Jury Prize from the Tribeca Film Institute. She is a proud member of the BMI Librettists’ Workshop.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up as one of over fifty first cousins in a theatrically inclined Mormon family (though luckily one of the less culty branches). My great-grandmother Ruth Hale founded Hale Center Theatre, a once family theatre that has become rather prominent in Utah and Arizona. This meant from toddlerdom onward I was frequently tossed on stage and there were mandatory skits and talent shows at every family gathering. As I grew older, I decided some of the skits could use freshening up, so I wrote new ones and recruited the band of cousins to bring them to life. As I moved into adolescence, this thrill of creation and collaboration remained strong. However, a burgeoning awareness of my identity as a queer woman dampened my fervor for Heterosexual Christian God (though I’m still fascinated with religious themes in my work). Thankfully, my family has remained steadfast in their support of my writing nonsense and continue to provide endless fodder for my imagination.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
When I was in high school, my drama club had a play festival called “Take 5” where students wrote, directed, and acted in five short plays. I always fancied myself an actress first and foremost, but my sophomore year I decided to shoot my shot and write a play. The play was called “Angst and Birthday Blood Pudding” and was a thoroughly silly medieval melodrama. Towards the end a minstrel sings a ballad that is both a recipe for blood pudding and an extended metaphor about losing one’s childhood sense of wonder–surprisingly, the audience ate it up! And I found listening to their reaction backstage even more thrilling than being in the spotlight myself. Though I still dabble in many areas of theater from that moment on I considered myself first and foremost a playwright.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I want to thank my mother first and foremost. She’s an incredibly brilliant and busy historian, yet, despite her numerous research trips to dusty archives unknown, she’s always found time to read my work and give insightful feedback. She’s also never wavered in her support of my writing. I’m a very anxious, self-doubting sort but she’s my bedrock.
You probably have a lot of fascinating experiences. Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
In 2019 I wrote a parody musical called Aynnie the Lil’ Orphan Objectivist, which was essentially the plot of Annie but with the plucky orphan swapped out with a 12 year old Ayn Rand attempting to stop FDR from creating The New Deal and destroying the USA’s glorious unregulated capitalism. We put it on at the People’s Improv Theatre and it was very much meant as a parody. Maybe our marketing targeting was off though because one night we managed to pull in a large group of people from the Ayn Rand Society, a group of Randian die-hards. At the bar post show I was a bit terrified of their reaction. This 6’3’’ solemn faced man walks up to me (I’m 5’2’’), puts a had on my shoulder, and gruffly whispers, “she would have liked it.” Then walks away … To this day I’m still torn on whether he missed that it was a parody or whether he’s saying Ayn Rand would have appreciated me seizing my artistic freedom to skewer her ideas.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Sure … so, in 2017 I was in grad school for Dramatic Writing at Carnegie Mellon. This program teaches both playwriting and screenwriting and all students were required to write a screenplay for the Sloan Science Screenwriting Award. I’d always fancied myself a playwright first and foremost, so the screenplay I threw together about a scientist in India using genetically modified mosquitoes to fight Dengue Fever was my first try at the medium. Unexpectedly, it ended up not just winning Carnegie Mellon’s prize but the Sloan Student Grand Prize for all the participating universities. This meant I was flown to New York, put up in a fancy Tribeca hotel, and whisked off to a ceremony in my honor. It was a very surreal experience to win a prestigious award for writing that frankly I wasn’t that deeply invested in. I’d given it my best effort but had thought of it much more as an assignment than a passion project. In my naivete I didn’t realize that this awards ceremony was both a BIG DEAL and a wonderful chance to network. Instead, when I arrived and was told it was an open bar, my poverty-stricken-grad-school brain thrilled at the chance for free booze! This meant that I got problematically drunk. My memory of what follows is a tad hazy, but I believe I had several conversations with fancy movie executives praising my work, which I told them was CRAZY because it was just a meh sorta screenplay that I didn’t even like that much. I was then called on to give an acceptance speech for the award (without advance warning!), which I believed devolved into a drunken rant along the line of: “Science … isn’t science just the best. Yeah, we should all support science.” In short, I blew this opportunity and ended up looking like a fool all because I couldn’t believe my work had any value. The lesson? I suppose first, don’t get drunk at networking events, and second, believe in your work even if you don’t think it’s the best thing you’ve ever done.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Well, I’ve been working on The Trouble With Dead Boyfriends, a musical that’s basically a gift to my high-school YA-monster loving self, since 2016. It’s a very campy, heartfelt, and frankly hilarious piece that uses monsters as a means to explore toxic relationship tropes … and also make a lot of jokes about periods. I’m very proud of this piece and so thrilled that it’s getting an Off-Broadway production at the Player’s Theatre from June 15-July 16th, 2023.
One piece I’m developing is a farce about mismanagement and tragically overworked educators in New York Charter Schools (based on personal experience)! I’m thinking of calling it Unchartered but haven’t quite settled on a title. I’m also working on a new musical about Figure Skating in Russia that explores themes of how to balance art and athleticism, the destruction of young girls’ bodies, and performative femininity as a means of national propaganda. It sounds really dark but like most of my work it will probably end up living in a dark comedy space.
You have been blessed with success in a career path that can be challenging. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of rejection, lack of support, or failure?
My chief piece of advice is find collaborators whose work you believe in and who believe in you. Rejection is inevitable but when you’re working with others they can commiserate and bolster you through it. Also, apply, apply, apply for everything. Many of the opportunities I ultimately got accepted for felt like total shots in the dark, but proved invaluable chances to try out the work and meet new people. Also let the rejections wash off you. Many opportunities don’t send a rejection at all or a rote form letter. Don’t take it personally and just keep creating and applying until something sticks.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in the live performance industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Again, collaborators help. It’s much easier to burn out if you’re working alone. It also helps to have several different projects going at the same time and move between them. I always try to have a bizarre passion project that may be too weird to ever find an audience going at the same time as a few more commercial things. When I lose steam on one I can try to reignite imagination by jumping to another project. Try never to pin all your hopes on one thing. That’s an easy way to burn out if it faces rejection.
Thank you for all that. This is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career in Broadway, Theater or Live Performances” and why? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
- Have a Voice: Or at least a point of view. This industry is hard and you’ve got to believe in what you do and know how to express those beliefs. Certainly your style can evolve, but if you’re just trying to get rich or copy others that’s no way to create anything you or others will ever care about.
- Collaborative Mindset: Find people who push you to create and inspire you. I have pretty crippling ADHD and anxiety and without the support of others I would never have finished a single script. When I have directors, co-writers, and amazing actors pushing me to finish things I can find the fuel. Seeing your work come to live is a profoundly satisfying feeling but you can’t do it alone.
- Problem Solving Skills: When doing theatre expect crises. An actor drops. The set design doesn’t work in the space. A prop goes missing. An ability to problem solve and think on your feet is invaluable. Sometimes supposed problems can even turn into unexpected revelations. In one of my shows a missing prop resulted in an incredible bit of pantomime that proved hilarious and became a long-running gag in the show.
- Willingness to Learn: Another invaluable trait when making theatre is having a willingness to learn about all aspects of the business. I may identify primarily as a playwright but at this point I’ve painted sets, made props, run lights, managed social media, and more. Every multi-hyphenate skill you can pick up makes you a stronger collaborator. For me, I’ve found learning about the technical side of theatre has also been an invaluable boost to my writing!
- Endurance: You’ve just got to stick with it. Sure some folks stumble into quick success but that’s not the path for most. Keep trying and find ways to be happy will every small success. It can be brutal but it can also be beautiful.
For the benefit of our readers, could you describe how the skill-sets you need in a theater performance are different than the skill-sets you need for TV or Film?
Well, as mentioned above, I’m much more of a theatrical animal than a film and TV person. However, with the screenplays I’ve written, it was exciting to storytell in a much more visually driven medium. On stage the audience agrees to buy into the obvious illusion and magical unreality of theatre, but in film you get to play with perspective and what the audience can and can’t see in a much more controlled way.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Ha, I wouldn’t say I have enormous influence, but if I had a magic wand and could immediately change something in the theatre industry I’d start with eliminating the unpaid internship pipeline and “paying with experience.” I know many exceptionally talented early career theatre artists who’ve been driven from the industry because so many of the pathways towards advancement refuse to actually pay anything near a living wage–or anything at all! This often means that the people who eventually rise to become the heads of programming at prominent theatre companies are only those who can afford to take unpaid internships early in their careers. In other words, we’ve created a system where only those born rich can advance to the top and diversity is crushed.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Though I’m neither a deeply religious person or in Alcoholic Anonymous (yet) I find the Serenity Prayer deeply meaningful. We only have so much energy, so the invocation to have the “serenity to accept the things you cannot change, courage to change those you can, and wisdom to know the difference” is so essential. I’ve wasted a lot of time over the years trying to change things that were out of my control. I’m much happier as an artist creating work I actually care about and putting it up within my wonderful network of collaborators.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Well … as far as creators I’m obsessed with I adore Rachel Bloom and Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Both have unfiltered, hilarious feminist voices. In particular when I first started watching Bloom’s show, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, back in 2015 it felt like a revelation. This show is talking about all the glorious, icky realities of being a woman–periods, UTIs, yeast infections in such a hilarious relatable way. If I were able to have a meal with Rachel or PHoebe or both I’d just thank them for their amazing work and paving the way for dark, feminist comedy going forward.
How can our readers continue to follow your work online?
My website is pulsipherplays.com, though it’s currently under a bit of a revamp because I’m a luddite, lesbian hedge witch and am bad at the internet.
As far as things that are getting updated much more frequently you can follow my show The Trouble with Dead Boyfriends @twdbofficial on instagram.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!