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Careers Clinic: What is good ‘follow-up’ etiquette for a theatre project?

John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher

In a recent Careers Clinic you responded to an actor who had what they thought was a positive agent meeting but then the agent never followed up [1]. I haven’t experienced anything as stark as that but like most theatremakers I have certainly had meetings (sometimes several in a row) about potential shows that seem to be going well and then fizzle out for various reasons.

A play I wrote and performed for a recent new writers season had a very positive response. On the back of that I now have several meetings lined up with potential producers and backers. I’m grateful for all the interest, but one or two in particular could genuinely enable me to ‘give up the day job’ if they go as well as I hope.

I wondered if there are any particular things I should do (or perhaps even more importantly, not do) to follow up once these meetings are done so that the projects keep moving forward?

Every industry meeting that goes nowhere can be a source of frustration. I recall a talented up-and-coming young comedian phoning me virtually in tears, having just realised that a TV comedy series he had been discussing at length with a major network was never going to happen. The project went cold because in the interim various key commissioning people moved on to other channels that weren’t in the comedy business. In the meantime, he had put his own career on hold in anticipation of the green light. It was almost a decade before he made his TV debut. I hear variations on this sorry story all the time.

In the moment there is not a lot that can be said to make things better except to extract the lessons for next time. I often describe business meetings as sowing seeds. You can’t guarantee they will blossom successfully, but you can do the watering required to create the best conditions, while avoiding the weeds and pests that might ruin the project.

One essential piece of post-meeting ‘watering’ is often neglected. It seems very old-fashioned to send a thank you email or a card shortly afterwards, but it can be really effective, not least because it sets you apart from the many people who don’t bother. It doesn’t have to be a litany – just a sincere thanks for the person’s time, a brief recap of what was discussed and a polite enquiry as to anything you can be doing in the meantime.

How long should you wait for the other party to follow up? There is no hard and fast rule, but – assuming there are no deadlines and you haven’t already been given a timescale – three weeks or so seems reasonable. At that point a quick follow-up should be fine. If you have some positive news to add while following up that can help too. It doesn’t need to be directly related to the project under discussion, just something to remind the other party that you are busy and your time is also valuable.

Unsurprisingly, the ‘weeds’ in our garden analogy are behaviours that are the opposite of those suggested: obsessive and increasingly strident ‘reminders’ that put potential collaborators off and make it less rather than more likely that the project will move forward.

The basis of all good seed-sowing is to do so abundantly. Rather than putting your career on hold, no matter how attractive the potential opportunity, keep sowing. At worst, it fills the time rather than obsessively checking voicemails and inboxes and, at best, it leads to several projects coming to fruition rather than just one.

Contact careers adviser John Byrne at dearjohn@thestage.co.uk [2] or @dearjohnbyrne [3]