The Best New Works Festival in the Galaxy

I write plays. One of my comedies would be great for community theatre. It has been selected for readings in five new works festivals held by community theatres. But, these theatres never actually produce new work. The seasons of these community theatres holding new play contests have standard, known fare: Once Upon a Mattress, Arsenic and Old Lace, Lend Me a Tenor. Even though they hold new play contests, they never actually produce new work.

For thirteen years I ran a playwriting group. During that time I encountered a steady stream of playwrights who had written “just a comedy” or perhaps a light-hearted and “sweet” play. These playwrights were frustrated because they didn’t know what to do with their work—certainly the majority of regional theatres will not produce something that is reminiscent of Neil Simon. There are, however, thousands of theatres that will produce such a play. These are community theatres. But unfortunately getting a play into the vast community theatre network is daunting.

The overwhelming majority of people in America experience the art of theatre at their local community theatre. Many of these audience members are in rural communities where this is the richest art form they experience.

The World of Community Theatre 
Most community theatres do not have an artistic director; they have a board. As a playwright, it is nearly impossible to figure out how to approach community theatres, even in the rare instance that their producing history includes world premieres. Unfortunately, because of the structure of the vast majority of community theatres—all volunteer, shoe-string budgets with no grant support, run by a board with no artistic director—the programming tends to be safe, tried and true work that has been published and has a track record.

The overwhelming majority of people in America experience the art of theatre at their local community theatre. Many of these audience members are in rural communities where this is the richest art form they experience. They do not have a dance company, a music hall, or an art museum—but they have a theatre.

Last year, according to data from the American Association of Community Theatre, an estimated eighty-six million people attended performances at about 7,000 community theatres, more than twice as many people (34.9 million) as attended performances at professional theatres.

I, and thousands of other playwrights, have something to offer—fabulous new plays—that community theatres desperately need. And community theatres have something to offer—unparalleled production opportunities—that playwrights desperately crave. But how to bring the two together?

From 1960–1980, the average number of new plays on Broadway was twenty-nine annually. Now, the average number of new plays on Broadway is fourteen annually.

A New Play Festival for the Community Theatre Network
I wrote to Rod McCullough, the president of the American Association of Community Theatre, describing the quandary.

Once upon a time, plays were done in New York, often Broadway, and they would eventually trickle out into the community theatre circuit. From 1960–1980, the average number of new plays on Broadway was twenty-nine annually. Now, the average number of new plays on Broadway is fourteen annually. And most of these plays are not appropriate for community theatres. New York is not producing Neil Simon-style comedies anymore. So, where is the next Steel Magnolias coming from?

I was expecting a pat on the head and to be politely ignored. However, this guy wrote about my letter in his “president's column” in the AACT magazine, and proceeded to form a task force to address my concerns—and he asked me to serve on it. If only the rest of the universe could be so responsive!

The AACT playwright’s task force was charged with countering the stagnation of the community theatre canon. Following hundreds of hours of conference calls and sub-committee meetings, we recommended that AACT sponsor a nationwide play writing contest and festival. Christened “AACT NewPlayFest,” this festival was to introduce fresh, bold, new work into the community theatre repertoire.

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AACT is historically a theatre-focused organization. Creating a festival for playwrights was new territory for them. Being on the task force meant that I had a wonderful opportunity to fashion this festival in such a way that it addressed several concerns I had about writing for theatre.

The First Production Problem
I think it likely that every playwright harbors paranoid conspiracy theories regarding how plays get produced in the American theatre. My personal conspiracy theories vary, but usually involve:

1. The Yale School of Drama
2. New York City, in general
3. Hot-looking twenty-something playwrights
4. All artistic directors

I am certain that the above four forces are conspiring to keep me from being an emerged playwright. Other playwrights may have different theories about the forces conspiring to keep success out of their grasp. But the result is the same—no productions.

So, to address these concerns, the submission process to AACT NewPlayFest is blind. No resumes, no indication of where the playwright lives, no photos—nothing. The scripts are judged on their own merits.

In “The Gates of Opportunity,” David Dower’s report about the ecosystem of new work in this country, he states, “In every community, the generative artists said that what they need most to continue their artistic and professional development are production opportunities.” We hear you, David. So, instead of the usual “reading” that accompanies most play contests, the winner of this contest is awarded a full production.

But if a contest gets 200 submissions, is there really just one script that is “best?” Acknowledging that “best” is extremely subjective, AACT NewPlayFest selects seven winners.

The Homogeneous Aesthetics Problem
Unfortunately, there is a problem with selecting multiple winners if they are selected by the same person or committee. The problem is that while multiple winners may be selected, the same aesthetic yardstick is applied to all the plays. To solve this problem, AACT NewPlayFest allows the diverse array of producing theatres to select the play they want to produce from a pool of finalists.

Compared to most contests, the odds of winning and getting produced are seven times greater. And those seven plays will not be dictated by the tastes of a single person, but rather by seven different theatre companies. I know of only one full-length play contest in the country that produces more than one winner—The Humana Festival. But many playwrights—myself included—cannot submit to the Humana Festival because it requires that the playwright have an agent.

The Second Production Problem
As outlined in Outrageous Fortune, a huge concern for playwrights is a play losing its shine after it premieres. The only thing harder than getting a first production is getting a second. This problem is exacerbated by the policies of the funding community.

Getting produced in the community theatre circuit presents an equal but opposite quandary. Community theatres avoid risky world premieres. As already stated, they avoid unpublished plays. But typically, you can't get published without a production history. Catch 22. AACT wanted to guarantee a life for the winning plays beyond the world premiere. In community theatre, that means publication Therefore, this contest includes publication as part of the prize.

The play-publishing powerhouse, Dramatic Publishing, will produce an anthology of the winning plays. They will also handle the licensing arrangements—an incredible benefit to the playwright.

The best way to learn play writing is watching a group of actors bring your play to life. So, we felt it important to include travel for the playwright as part of the award. Thanks to the generosity of one of the members of AACT, this is part of the award package. The playwright is also paid a small royalty for the performances of the play.

AACT NewPlayFest has a two-year cycle. The first cycle is coming to a close, and we are embarking on the second round of this amazing festival.

And if there is a hero in the tale, it has to be the community theatres that made the leap of faith to include a spot in their seasons for some yet-to-be-determined unknown play by some yet-to-be-determined unknown playwright.

a cast of actors on stage
Cast of Exit Laughing by Paul Elliott, Springfield Little Theatre. Photo by Gerry Averett Photography and Digital Imaging.

First Round Response
Both theatres and playwrights from the first cycle of AACT NewPlayFest are enthusiastic. “The AACT NewPlayFest has quite literally changed my life,” declares playwright Paul Elliott of Los Angeles. His play, Exit Laughing, produced by Springfield Little Theatre, was one of the six winners of AACT NewPlayFest’s inaugural season. “The play has been slated into many other theatres for their next year’s season. And funding is already in place for a fall opening in New York with an all-star cast. As a result, my other new plays are taking off as well and I owe it all to AACT.”

Producing theatres, many of which have never tackled new work, are likewise transformed by the experience. In 2012, from the pool of AACT NewPlayFest finalists, Hickory Community Theatre selected The Seamstress by Florida playwright Cece Dwyer. “By the end of the three-week run, Hickory Community Theatre gained more regional and statewide recognition than we had had in years,” enthused artistic director Pamela Livingstone. “This impacted our box office, making The Seamstress one of the biggest selling straight plays in our history.”

And AACT NewPlayFest is impacting the culture of community theatres, which is one of the objectives of this festival. “Hickory Community Theatre has now committed to producing new works,” states Livingstone.

And so, in the true spirit of community theatre, a group of volunteers operating with no budget created an unparalleled national new play festival. Blind submissions, open to all, with multiple winners selected by multiple theatres receiving world premiere productions and publication. And if there is a hero in the tale, it has to be the community theatres that made the leap of faith to include a spot in their seasons for some yet-to-be-determined unknown play by some yet-to-be-determined unknown playwright. And the other hero is Dramatic Publishing, which services many of these same theatres, committing to publishing these plays, sight unseen. Along with AACT, these organizations have shown tremendous spunk, courage, and faith in the support of American theatre.

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At first glance, it seems Humana won't accept un-agented submissions, but if you read a little further (under "Don't Have an Agent?"), you'll see that you can still submit a letter of inquiry, synopsis, and 10-page selection. If they're interested, they're supposed to let you know within 6 months. Send a SAPC for acknowledgment of receipt. Otherwise, you may never know...

So heartwarming to read this - and congrats to you for speaking up and then doing something about it. Lots of people complain, but many don't act. You are a shining example of how to get things done. And bravo to all the others who jumped on your bandwagon.

This is fantastic! Not only the results, but that you went ahead and wrote and sent that initial letter. We do a lot of complaining, but every now and then a simple action can start a real change. I grew up in the community theater world, and I remember how passionately committed to quality so many volunteer, amateur theaters can be. I also remember that we flat out didn't know about anything but Shakespeare and Broadway. I can imagine there's a whole world of community theater actors, directors, and designers out there that would love to work on new plays if they had any clue they existed or how to connect. Bravo for helping to create that connection.

Steve Lyons and Rod McCullough have made an immense difference with the development of AACT NewPlayFest. I would like to add one thing to Steve's report - there is another project that produces more than one winner, and that is Texas Nonprofit Theatres' TNT POPS! New Play Project, whose model was used to create the inaugural AACT NewPlayFest. Beginning in 2008, TNT selected, through a rigorous reading process, four plays to be produced by member theatres in Texas. We are now entering our fifth biennial cycle of the POPS! with submissions being accepted this coming May 2015. TNT is proud to have provided a springboard for AACT's project and applauds the success of their first cycle!

As I "graduated" from my term as AACT President, I predicted that AACT NewPlayFest might turn out to be the best achievement coming out of my two- year term. It's becoming clear that I should go back and change that "might" to "will." And it's the result of Steve's willingness to put his work where his words were, along with an amazing group of volunteers who came together to make it happen and are continuing to support it. It's great to see these comments and the festival's results..

If the AACT was truly interested in supporting new playwrights, they would get rid of the requirement that submissions be unproduced. Why should my success in obtaining a local production disquality me from this contest? It doesn't make me any less in need of national exposure.

Mr. Lyons, your action's like a lightning bolt that breaks open the barrier to a hidden river of opportunity. It all started with your letter, and continued with people working in good will who sincerely want to improve opportunities for playwrights and the quality of community theater offerings. You just smacked my cynicism out the window. I'm grateful for it. Thank you for doing this wonderful thing.

This is an incredible opportunity and i was fortunate to be a top 20 finalist first time around, and even that, I think, has helped me garner two community theater productions for my play--community theaters know about this contest. I also think the tide is turning, perhaps in large part because of this contest. I've been approached about a commission by one community theater in my area, another is producing a suite of short plays of mine and having me in residence with its actors and director, and another has asked me to curate a new play reading series in order to test the waters for new work. It's wonderful to think that community theaters think that they're "running out of work"!