Whatever you do, don't ask Jeremy Shaffer about his strengths as a theatrical publicist. "Oh, I hate that question," he moans. "Being a publicist makes it about somebody else. I spend my energy pushing the good things about somebody else. It's about them. It's not about me."
Now 27, Shaffer has worked as a professional publicist since the day he left school. He actually started his career while in college.
Shaffer grew up in a small western Pennsylvania town, far from the lights of Broadway: "I learned about theatre through movie musicals. I first fell in love with movie musicals, not knowing much at all about the stage." That changed when he got to high school. Among other roles, he played Peron in his high school's production of "Evita." Still, "I knew that I wasn't enough of a performer to ever want to take it beyond high school or community theatre."
Instead, he got a work-study job with the public events department at his college, Indiana University of Pennsylvania. His job was to publicize the school's live performance events: "That's when I learned I could build on my love for theatre by publicizing these events, working alongside the actors. Performing wasn't for me. I knew that shows open and close, but there was always something for me to publicize." He switched his major from business management to journalism, with a concentration in public relations, "so I could eventually come to New York and become a Broadway publicist."
The fact that, except for a high school class trip, he had never been to New York didn't deter him: "I went straight through college in three years so I could get here. I didn't do any summer vacations. I didn't take time off."
In the spring of 1999, he needed an internship to complete his degree: "I looked in the back of all the cast albums I liked to see who the press agent was and sent letters to their offices." He got a job with Pete Sanders, press agent for "Chicago" and, that spring, the Broadway revival of "Annie Get Your Gun" starring Bernadette Peters. The day of his commencement, he got into his parents' van and drove straight to New York. That Monday he started work at the Pete Sanders Group. Three weeks later, "Annie Get Your Gun" and Peters both won Tonys. It was a heady beginning.
On his days off, Shaffer passed out flyers at the TKTS booth: "That's a great way to learn what's going on in the industry, too." Through this second job, he found out that a new press office was about to open, and just five weeks after he arrived he was working for John Barlow and Michael Hartman, both veteran press representatives, at their new agency, Barlow-Hartman.
Shaffer worked on such shows as "Thoroughly Modern Millie," "Little Shop of Horrors," "King Hedley II," "The Scarlet Pimpernel," "Minnelli on Minnelli," and "Bombay Dreams." In early 2002, he joined the press representatives' union, the Association of Theatrical Press Agents & Managers.
As a press representative, he sees his role "as an extension of the overall marketing initiative. We sit with the producer, the general manager, the advertising agency, the marketing agency, and we all lend our expertise to sell the show. It's tough, and every show needs a hook. Our role is really developing and pushing that hook." Shaffer adds, "A publicist has to be able to evaluate the performance—evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of an actor or a production—to know what's going to sell."
When I ask him what his favorite experience has been so far, Shaffer is quick to respond: " 'Millie.' It's been the best experience of my professional career. Everything about it. From the producers to the doorman at the Marquis Theatre, everybody was in it for the good of the show. They were smart producers. They didn't get the reviews they wanted but they pushed past that. They got a great advertising campaign together. They spent wisely. They got the Tony nominations. They got the Tony Award. Sutton Foster became a revelation to the Broadway community. As proud as those producers are of the work they did, I am equally proud of the work I was able to do for them."
Shaffer admits it was his idea to cast Delta Burke as a replacement for Tony winner Harriet Harris: "You get to a point in a [long-running] production when you need to turn a show around and get audiences interested again, to infuse some new blood." They tossed some names around and Shaffer threw out Delta Burke, of the long-running sitcom "Designing Women." "To take this woman who's received national exposure for a decade and a half and put her on Broadway for the first time seemed like such a good marriage. Mentioning Delta Burke and saying, 'Let's give it a shot,' and for it to work out as well as it did—she was fantastic!"
Another idea that worked involved ABC's "Good Morning America." He pitched to GMA the idea of taking its outdoor audience in Times Square and, in real time, walking them up Broadway to the Broadway Theatre, home to his show "Bombay Dreams." Once there, GMA brought its audience and cameras inside for a live performance of the show's splashy production number "Shakalaka Baby." "You had technicians and stagehands working at the theatre since 11 p.m. the night before, getting the camera angles set up and relighting it for 'Good Morning America.' They did the whole number live. It was actually cheaper to do than a full-page color ad in The New York Times. That was a great moment for me as a publicist."
I asked Shaffer to put himself in the shoes of someone considering a career as a publicist and to share what skills are most needed: "First and foremost, you have to know how to write. The basis of what you do is communicating information in a clear and concise way to the public." He also thinks it's important "to relate to people on their level. You have to know who you're talking to and adjust accordingly. You're an ambassador for the show."
This winter, Shaffer and fellow publicist Bill Coyle opened their own office, Shaffer-Coyle Public Relations. It is the next big step in a career that Shaffer acknowledges has been a remarkably smooth ride so far: "There haven't been many bumps, honestly." As for the future, Shaffer says he has no other career aspirations: "I have such a love for the industry. This is where I know I belong—and where I want to be."