Behind the Curtain

PlayPenn, The Ground Floor, and the National Playwrights Conference

Sarah Rose Leonard (Literary Manager at Berkeley Repertory Theatre), Paul Meshejian (Artistic Director of PlayPenn), and Anne Morgan (Literary Manager and Dramaturg of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center and National Playwrights Conference) discuss their jobs, their organization’s selection processes, thematic trends in new American playwriting, and advice to writers for sticking with it.

Justin Taylor: Walk us through the selection process from your end. What are the steps from open call to final yeses?

Paul Meshejian: PlayPenn received 750 plays this year, a record for us and a sign there is a clear need to write in our culture. A pool of 80 people—actors, directors, designers, and dramaturgs with backgrounds that mirror those in the applicant pool—read the plays, all blinded and dispersed randomly. Each reader covers at least three plays and each play gets two reads—about ten to twenty pages, as much as the reader needs to make a call and write a brief review. PlayPenn Artistic Associate Michele Volansky and I read all the evaluations and choose 125 to 150 plays to read in full. At this stage, we also look at the development history. If the play has had substantial development and the writer is getting nowhere we see a red flag. (I personally encourage writers with plays stuck in “development hell” to stick the play in the drawer and write the next one.) Michele and I cull the list, still blind, down to thirty semi-finalists. This list has about half shared yeses and half yes/maybes and maybes. We reread each other’s maybes. We talk it out. We get to thirty.

Next, we invite six panelists gathered from across the country from a group of folks who are active as AD’s or Lit Managers in the new play world to go over the thirty semi-finalists with us together. We invite these panelists to help us select the plays we’ll invite because we want to expose individuals who are engaged in choosing new plays for production to become aware of strong, undiscovered work. Everyone reads all thirty plays, blindly. We bring the group to Philadelphia and we sit in a room and we talk about the plays in alphabetical order. We encourage first comments from those who want to advocate for a play, then invite critical response. When a panelist knows the writer from previous exposure, we ask them to disclose the fact so that there’s transparency about personal knowledge of the play or the playwright. Ultimately, we narrow the field to twelve to fifteen finalists. I guide the conversation and I vote, but I refrain from commentary as much as possible. After the finalist list has been established, we unblind the plays and ask the panelists what they may know of those finalist writers. The panel, at this point, has selected twelve to fifteen finalists from which Michele and I choose six plays based on a range of criteria including, but not limited to, variety in theatricality, voice, language, ideas, and a diverse range of experiences.

Criteria:

Playwrights from the local community get a plus.

A range of writers across gender, race, and generations (early-, mid- and late-career) to encourage cross-fertilizing.

A season with a balance of ideas, genre, theatricality, and experience.

Percentages of applicants from different backgrounds matches our percentages invited to the Conference.

Sarah Rose Leondard: Berkeley Rep doesn’t have an open submission policy for scripts, but the application to The Ground Floor Summer Residency Lab is open to all. This year we had around 465 applications for the Summer Lab, half of which came in last four days. The reading committee is a small in-house crew: Madeleine Oldham, the Director of The Ground Floor and Resident Dramaturg, myself, the associate managing director, artistic associate, and artistic and literary fellows. The application is six simple questions that aim to get a sense of you and your project. When reading we use a review chart in which we check off yes, no, or maybe and make notes. We ask ourselves: do I want to know more? Does the project give me any excitement, or good questions? Our responses tend to break down as follows: Yes! I can’t get this project out of my head, I want to meet this person, Maybe! I’m curious; I want to know more, No! Low interest. Everyone reads every single application.

We talk about what's too good to say no to, and what makes a balanced, exciting lineup: is this an interesting cross-pollination? Is this an inclusive and diverse lineup? Is there a balance of geography? Is there a variety of form and content? Are these theatre makers all different from each other?

Then, we all go to Madeleine’s house and talk through them all in one day (with snacks, of course). If a project garnered a unanimous yes or no we don't discuss it too much. If a project garners a mixed response we talk thoroughly. At the end of the day Madeleine is faced with a stack of projects that we want to know more about.

Madeleine then spends time with the projects that made it through that marathon day (usually around 100). She will often ask for scripts—either current or past work—in this next round. She then pairs down to a finalist list of thirty and takes those applications to artistic director Tony Taccone and the artistic staff. We talk about feasibility for the Summer Lab, what's too good to say no to, and what makes a balanced, exciting lineup: is this an interesting cross-pollination? Is this an inclusive and diverse lineup? Is there a balance of geography? Is there a variety of form and content? Are these theatre makers all different from each other? Madeleine then sends invitations to roughly fifteen to eighteen projects.

Anne G. Morgan: This year, we attracted nearly 1,500 plays and each was read by one of our 200 volunteer readers—anyone who has spent time at the O’Neill or at the National Playwrights Conference and has seen our process, or has comparable professional experience. Each script gets one full read, and about half get two full reads in the initial read. The ultimate goal is to get each play read from cover to cover twice in the first round; until that’s possible, scripts are read twice if the reader has never read for us before, and then randomized. (Our full reader list is available on our website.) In addition to a summary of the play and a brief response, readers score on a scale of one to ten:

1–4: It’s not (yet) a play 

5–7: It’s insightful and fresh, but still not fully a play; or it’s fully realized, but the content doesn't show anything fresh; or it’s fully realized and original, but the play displeases the reader (triggering further investigation). 

8–10: It’s definitely a play with something sharp or insightful—a story we haven’t heard, or a familiar story told in a new way.

This scale is not written in stone and is widely interpreted by each individual reader. Additionally, we tell our readers that 20–25 percent of the total pool become semi-finalists and encourage them to bear that percentage in mind when moving work from their individual batch forward. First round reports come back in early January. Plays with a score of eight through ten definitely move to semi-final round. Scores of six and below do not. Sevens get a second look and if they are not moved on they get a PS on the notification letter saying the script caught our admiration. This year about 300 plays went on to the semi-final round, whose writers were invited in February to send an updated draft which is read by our artistic council. The artistic council is made up of industry professionals including directors, dramaturgs, and playwrights. These are people who spend much of their time working on new plays. Each script gets read by one artistic council member. As we already have reports on the plays from the first round, artistic council reports are a bit simpler—a few sentences on what works or doesn’t about the play and a rating on a scale of one through three. Scripts that are recommended by the artistic council are read again by literary office staff. Artistic council and literary office recommendations narrow the pool down to finalists.

The list comes down to forty-five to sixty-five finalists in March. Finalists are invited to send an updated draft, if there is one. By April, the final invitations are made to five to seven playwrights. Selected playwrights are chosen by NPC Artistic Director Wendy C. Goldberg. We do try to promote non-selected finalists with a recommendation letter that they can use for professional submissions, a recommendation on the New Play Exchange, and a listing on our website.

Justin: How much does “feasibility” play into your selection process? Would you take a play with a cast of twenty and a live donkey?

Paul: Yes. We have invited plays that with large casts that have taken us over budget. If a play excites us and the panel responds positively, then we want to support its development. I’ve come to believe that if an organization like ours identifies and devotes resources to a play of size and scope, it can have the effect of attracting the attention of producing theatres that might not otherwise have paid it attention. I never look at cast size until we have arrived at the finalist group of twelve to fifteen plays. We have always found a way to make our budget conform to our artistic responses, rather than the other way around.

a reading of a play outside
The cast of Mike Lew's Tiger Style! rehearse at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. Photo by A. Vincent Scarano.

When we are reading for the season, feasibility is talked about after artistic merit. If a project that has a cast of twenty and a live donkey gets everyone so excited that they can’t talk about anything else then chances are we’ll do it. If that same play garners a more lackluster response then we won’t.

Sarah: When we are reading for the season, feasibility is talked about after artistic merit. If a project that has a cast of twenty and a live donkey gets everyone so excited that they can’t talk about anything else then chances are we’ll do it. If that same play garners a more lackluster response then we won’t. It’s also about artistic and financial balance: if we are doing an ambitious musical, then chances are we can’t also do that play with a donkey. The same things goes for The Ground Floor Summer Residency Lab selection, but with a way smaller budget to tend to.

Anne: Feasibility has a very small role in the selection process; we tend not to even look at cast sizes until the finalist round. Ultimately, we’re unlikely to have a season that’s eight plays each with huge cast, but that has as much to do with stylistic and tonal variety of storytelling as it does with feasibility.

Justin: How much does your personal bias play into the final selection?

Paul: It would be foolish to assert that personal bias doesn’t play a part in final selection. I’m a human being and I have lived a life. My personal experience plays a large part in how I think and feel and act. I am of the mind that if I am alive in the world, if I read and look at art and am open to the world in which I live, my responses to the material that comes in front of me will be influenced by the fullness of those awarenesses. I see no reason to apologize for bias. Other people leading other organizations have their particular biases and I’d like to think that if you put us all together there would be a universe reflecting the range of responses to the world and the expressions of the people in it. I'm interested in stories that have heart, that are written from the guts. At PlayPenn, we actively look for voices on the margins. Our hope is that from an open application process with no impediments for writers we will find playwrights who are not necessarily products of the MFA world. We are elated when a voice speaks to us unexpectedly and we embrace those writers with excitement. I think it’s fair to say, the position I've staked out for our organization has nothing and everything to do with my personal bias.

More important to me than my personal bias is the bias that comes with commercial consideration as a writer is bringing a play to full fruition. When playwrights have the thumbs up or thumbs down of a producer in mind, it’s our feeling that it interferes with their full personal expression. There is always plenty of time for commerce to play its part in asserting itself in what a play finally turns out to be. We simply feel that if that pressure is present too early in the process, the play will suffer. It’s one reason why we haven’t made any effort to organize an industry weekend. Once writers know there is judgment on the horizon, it changes the way they work. We never tell playwrights what is “wrong” with their play. We want the writer to have a direct relationship with collaborators and with audience. That is where learning takes place. Writers learn the most from direct audience experience.

Sarah: Bias is real. Some bias is conscious and some isn’t, and I do my best to accommodate for both. Joy Meads, Literary Manager/Artistic Engagement Strategist at Center Theatre Group and cofounder of the Kilroys, talks brilliantly about this. Something as simple as the time of day I read a play—at the end of the day, or after lunch, for example—can have an effect. On top of that, I try to read with many different hats: Madeleine Oldham’s, Tony Taccones’s, our audience, Berkeley, California, and the US. Then, at the core, do I like it? Or am I just being an asshole today? It’s a little crazy making.

Anne: Bias is super real and super hard. It’s why I am working to have all our plays read by two readers. I do check every reader review to see if a reader is dissing a play based on personal taste. There are truly great plays that found success that we passed on. There is no foolproof way to stop it. August Wilson was rejected twice before being accepted [with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom] and Christopher Durang was rejected four times before being accepted [with A History of American Film].

Justin: What thematic trends are you reading in the work that’s coming across your desk in recent years?

Paul: Occupation with gender and race. There are the occasional spates of plays with super heroes, vampires and zombies (a trend I have never understood). Over the past few years the number of plays with ghosts has been surprising.

Sarah: Gender has come up a lot this year and all I can say is yes! Love and death are constants too, as they should be.

Anne: I’m seeing lots of plays about the issues facing our country today—race, guns, political discourse. Plays about families will always be in the mix. I’m seeing great variety in structure and style and form. And every year there are a few plays with talking or magical animals.

The odds are stacked so high against a writer making headway in the submission track toward consideration for production. … Produce your own play. It’s a way for writers to take things into their own hands. … It's the best form of learning there is.

Justin: What would you say to a serious and devoted writer who has been sending out work for years and not getting any doors to open in the profession?

Paul: Produce your own play. The odds are stacked so high against a writer making headway in the submission track toward consideration for production.

With the proliferation of MFA programs there is an over saturation of "qualified" playwrights who've had a life built on the idea of support. But there is no mechanism for young writers trying to make their way. It comes down to how clever you can be in getting your play up in front of people. In a conversation I had with Lisa Kron, she was passionate about young writers needing the support of a community, an environment that supports development and for their work to be produced in however rudimentary a fashion. There are a number of collectives forming in the model of 13P. It’s a way for writers to take things into their own hands. I respect writers who produce their own work. It's the best form of learning there is.

But if nobody wants to produce or see your work, then maybe find something else to do. Unfortunately, this country does not provide the kind of support for individual writers that it does for institutions. We live, after all, in the United States of Capitalism, like it or not. And in this environment, the theatre is not for the faint of heart.

Sarah: Keep writing, keep learning, try on new forms and styles and hats, push yourself to grow as an artist and human.

Go be in the in world. Read, get involved in your community, travel, find passions outside of the theatre that feed you. And meet people! Relationships are central to making theatre because collaboration is at the heart of the art form. Don't be afraid to ask for informational coffees, and please make them honestly informational, no need to sell yourself. Produce your own work once or twice. It’s hard. But making theatre is hard. When I see a writer’s production I know what they want and who they are. It often opens more doors than sending a script because a production is based on collaboration. If I had to put my advice on a t-shirt it would read “Meet people. Produce your own work. Don’t be annoying.”

When it comes to applications and submissions, being personal is great. I often get more information about you and your work from hearing about why you wrote this play than from a synopsis.

Also, please don't hound a theatre or push the question "have you read my play?" Trust that we remember who you are and that your play is in our pile. We are overwhelmed, but we are on it. Don't reach out to more than one person in an artistic/literary department in the same org. Trust that we talk to each other.

Anne: Resilience is key. Say yes to yourself and your peers, to producing collectives, to self producing. Use the New Play Exchange. Don't give up if you really want it.

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I enjoyed the article, really I did, and it pretty much said what I thought it would say. It is clear to me as a new playwright that the organizations represented above put in A LOT of work and dedication to the process of selecting plays for their various reading series, conferences etc. I've submitted to O'Neill and PlayPenn a few times and will continue to do so. I found it somewhat humorous with the suggestion of produce your own play. First, for any professional that might possibly come to see it, I would need to present it in Manhattan, as they would more than likely not venture outside the city. So we're talking costs. Had a playwright friend who produced one of his own shows for a four week run and even with finding free resources (for set pieces and lighting designer), and he directed it himself,it was still $30,000. He had some investors but definitely put in at least $15,000 of his own money.I don't know about most playwrights who are having a challenge in 'getting known' but I do not have any where near $15,000 to put into a self-produced show in hopes that maybe someone from an agent's office, producers office, or theatre company might come and see. I have produced and directed a few of my short pieces for various festivals, including NYC, but that's a totally different ball game. So when I hear that a theatre professional say they can get a better idea of whom I am by seeing a production of my play than in just reading it, my initial response is 'then perhaps you don't have a sufficient visual sense to imagine it on stage as you are reading it.' In other words it's annoying, and perhaps lacks a certain amount of reality awareness in terms of finances involved in mounting something. I saw a brilliant, BRILLIANT one man production a few years ago at the annualNYC Fringe Festival. Written, directed, and acted by the same person, who had a impressive resume as an actor (Broadway, Off Broadway, tours) as well as writing. I wish I was savvy with the professional producing game as it was ready to be mounted for an Off Broadway production. I talked to the writer and his father about how this was the third mounting they had done of the piece, all in hopes of having someone express interest in it for further production. As far as I know it's gone no where.

I was a winning playwright for a nationally recognized new play festival. While there, one of the other playwrights plays blew me away. Luckily a theatre company in NYC that he was somewhat affiliated with wanted to mount a production of his play. It was a modest production, but a solid one, with excellent acting for the most part. However, seeing the show mounted did NOT provide me with any additional significant insight to the play (although it was of course interesting to see how certain aspects of it played out in the flesh) than what I had basically IMAGINED when just hearing it read.

Basically hearing 'we live in a Capitalist society so buck up and deal with it' while true, in the senseof the lack of sufficient support resources for individual writers, does not do much to make me feel supported and welcomed as a playwright. I also don't get the addiction to 'development programs'. If a play needs to go through development after development then something is wrong. It may be with the play, or the playwright not trusting that the piece finally works as it is, or a theatre not willing to bite the bullet and take a risk.

So with all this discontent, where it seems the only thing more crazy and ludicrous than being an actor is being a playwright (in terms of actually getting seen on a stage) why the heck do I bother to write plays, or attempt to write plays. Because, something in me needs to.

Fantastic article - thanks HowlRound and thanks to Paul, Sarah and Anne for your insights. It's been a few years since I had a new play to send out and this gives me great food for thought on how to do so.