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Everyone Wants You to be Great

Thoughts on Play Submission from the Other Side of the Desk

Emily and I (Jess) were collaborators in Chicago before we each went to different grad schools. Now, we are both in residence through the National New Play Network at two different NNPN theatres. While Emily is a playwright, and I am a producer in the program, we’ve both been brought into the literary workings of our theatres: Curious Theatre Company in Denver for Em, and Kitchen Dog Theater in Dallas for me.

Emily was involved in choosing Curious’s upcoming five-play season and has been the primary point of contact for writers and agents submitting work to the company. I took the lead on Kitchen Dog’s submissions process for our annual New Works Festival, which used NNPN’s New Play Exchange for the first time this year. That call netted nearly 1,000 scripts, well over twice the number of plays KDT has received in the past, and all of them looking to fill one of just six slots in our Festival reading series. For both of us, these roles have meant interacting with playwrights in either a new way or a new volume. Over the past few months, we’ve noticed some troubling trends in the submissions and communications we were receiving from playwrights and were both curious about their origins.

This experience reminded me how I felt when I first began moving from acting to directing and saw what life was like on the other side of the table. As an actor, I was sometimes bewildered by what happened in the audition room, and I spent a fair amount of energy trying to decipher why the same monologue netted a callback in this scenario but not that one, or why a great callback in a lively room didn’t guarantee I’d land a role. Actors are told to develop a thick skin, but when what you have to offer is yourself, it’s difficult not to take things personally. What helped me more than a thick skin was seeing what the process was like from the other side. I immediately learned that most of the time, casting decisions truly are not personal. There are so many variables, and actors can only control a few of them. I don’t think I could have learned that if I’d never seen an audition from the other side.

It’s also nice to realize that sometimes it really isn’t you.

As playwrights, there’s even more mystery around getting your work out there. In an audition, you can get a read of the room and have an intuitive sense of how it’s going. That’s more difficult when you’re sending out a script, especially if you’re submitting to a large national call. It can feel like sending flares up into the void. Just like every actor should sit in on auditions, every playwright should work in a literary office, at least for a little bit. Learning how it works from the opposite side provides unique insight. There are innumerable variables that go into choosing a season or selecting a showcase or development conference slate. This was one of the biggest lessons we’ve learned, and it’s oddly comforting. Sometimes your play—or the play you’re pitching to direct—is brilliant and funny and moving, but the theatre recently produced a similar play, or there just isn’t the budget, or we have too many dramas slated and really need a comedy. At first, this was rather depressing and frustrating, but it’s also nice to realize that sometimes it really isn’t you.

While there’s a lot that playwrights can’t control, there are things you can do to ensure that you and your play are seen in the best possible light, as well as some common missteps that are easy to avoid. This is our effort to share our experiences on the other side of the proverbial table and shine a little light into that script submission void. Hopefully, this can also spark our thinking about how we, as a community, can increase trust, kindness, and transparency in this process by removing some of the mystery and remembering the human beings on either side of the call.

Don’t Skip the Homework
Choosing where and when to submit your play is key, and there is a lot to consider with each submission. Make sure you understand what kind of opportunity you’re applying for: is this a place for development, a showcase, or a production? Development opportunities are looking for scripts that have some real work to be done, something that needs other collaborators in the room to see its way ahead. Some development opportunities will pass on scripts that feel too “finished.”

Showcases and production drafts are less about development and more about sending your “shovel ready” script out into the world. This is not the place to send first stumbly drafts. These scripts should have already had a bit of development. Send it to colleagues you trust to get their feedback. Even if you simply pay your friends in pizza to sit around and read the play out loud with you, taking the time to do this pays huge dividends.

Get to know the places that you’re sending work. One of the gifts of being a playwright is that you can send your plays all over the world, but just because you can doesn’t necessarily mean that you should. If you’re local, go to the theatre or attend the conference to get to know the vibe, aesthetic, and culture. If you’re not local, do some due diligence on the company website and social media. See what your friends and colleagues think about working there. If you’re traveling to a new city, research which companies are doing interesting work and see if their AD or a member of the artistic staff can go for coffee. Regardless, ask yourself if this is a place that lines up with your aesthetic and artistic values. If there’s a cover letter or statement of purpose involved in the submission, doing your homework will only help you write more compellingly about your desire to be selected for the particular opportunity. Be strategic and specific.

Give the People What They Want
Make sure you’ve read and considered what the theatre or development opportunity is asking for. If you have to become a narrative contortionist to make your play fit the call or the mission of the company, it’s probably not the best place to develop your work and sending it anyway may do more harm than good. As much as we want your work to be amazing (see below), if it’s clear you’ve disregarded what we’ve asked for, you’ve gotten our relationship off to a rocky start by not being considerate of your reader’s time.

Additionally, if a theatre says it only takes submissions from agents, do not send them your play anyway. Based on the number of unsolicited scripts that come to Curious, playwrights often choose to ignore this statement. For those writers who do not have an agent, this can be a bitter pill to swallow. Again, this is where it pays to take the time to get to know the theatre. See their shows, put in the face time, do the work to build that relationship. Then ask if you can send them a play. You’ll be surprised what building a relationship can do.

You are your play’s first advocate and because submissions are being evaluated by humans who themselves are complex, emotional beings, your kindness, compassion, and polite demeanor go a long way toward the reader being even more excited to crack open your work.

The “Gatekeepers” Want Your Play to be Good
Just like directors in a casting call, the lit department and artistic director have a problem that you can solve. They want your play to be good, to be exactly the thing they’re looking for. There is a mythology around the “gatekeepers” at any given institution and a prevalent  notion (especially on the internet) that those people want your play to be bad, they want to keep you and your voice and your experience out of the club because they don’t want to share the power. We’re not about to speak for every literary manager or director of new play development in the country, but we’re pretty sure that image is false. While it’s true that there are bad apples in every industry, why not assume that everyone has good intentions? This might be a little Pollyanna-ish, but it feels like a shift in expectation that we could all benefit from believing.

Remember that you are your play’s first advocate and because these plays are being evaluated by humans who themselves are complex, emotional beings, your kindness, compassion, and polite demeanor go a long way toward the reader being even more excited to crack open your work. Snippy, flip, or downright rude messages (and yes, we both have gotten plenty) don’t bring the more generous angels of a reader’s nature to the fore. Understand that it takes time to read and consider plays—especially if you’ve submitted to a big, open call. Most theatres are short staffed. Remember that the people who work in them, the “gatekeepers,” love this art form, just like you. They want your play to surprise, delight, and transform them.

a pile of scripts
We want the scripts to sing! Photo courtesy of Emily Dendinger and Jess Hutchinson. 

All We Know is What’s On The Page
Especially when dealing with a large influx of scripts, despite our true desire for your play to be amazing (see above), little (avoidable) things can make your readers cranky. Typos are a big one. Grab a friend and ask her to proofread your draft. Make sure that what’s on the page is what you really mean.

Formatting counts. If you’re going to do something unconventional on the page, be sure it is enhancing the reader’s understanding and isn’t something you’re doing to “stand out” from the pile, whether it’s your margins, font, or cover page. Here’s another place where getting someone else to take a look can be helpful. Ask a trusted friend or colleague to tell you how she’s receiving the information you’ve laid out. What’s sparking her imagination, where does she get a sense of what it would feel like to see this play in three dimensions? Does that feeling come within the first few pages? If not, is there a way to infuse that feeling earlier? This is especially true for plays that rely heavily on stage directions where your reader is going to have to work a little harder to see the play in her head. Being as clear as possible is imperative.

Keep Communication Simple
Sometimes submission calls or processes aren’t as clear as we’d like them to be. If you need to get in touch with the organization soliciting scripts, get in, ask your question, and get out. Be sure to contact the person listed as the primary contact in the call, unless you have a prior personal relationship with another relevant party in the company. Artistic directors who have assigned the job of contact to another person on staff don’t do so idly: it’s to keep the project in the purview of that staffer. Going “over the head” of the literary manager to the AD to ask your question when you have no prior relationship doesn’t ingratiate you to either person. Don’t worry about crafting a funny or otherwise memorable email. A succinct, pleasantly toned note that provides or asks for necessary information is all you need.

Don’t Discount, Denigrate, or Demean Yourself
The KDT New Works submission opportunity was one of the first major calls to utilize the New Play Exchange. While many writers sent emails of praise about how blissfully simple the process was for them, that was not the case for 100 percent of users. New systems, especially those in development, take time to adjust to, and won’t be totally intuitive for everyone. Yet the number of emails in which writers called themselves everything from techno-impaired to luddites to idiots was shocking. This was a behavior exhibited by men and women and of a seemingly broad (from a very unscientific anecdotal understanding) range of ages. And it was completely unnecessary. We’re not sure when exactly it became fashionable to write ourselves off as incompetent, but we would love to turn this particular car around. It’s okay to ask for help, and it’s best to do so clearly, concisely, and without degrading yourself in the process.

Ask for Feedback—If You Really Want It
Sometimes playwrights will ask literary staff—especially at the biggest institutions—for feedback on their scripts. One of my favorite literary managers in the country says he won’t give feedback if his institution isn’t going to produce the show. He doesn’t think it’s fair to the writer (it could inspire writers to change a script to “please” him thinking that then it might get produced). It’s also a fairly intimate act to give honest critical response on a play, and it is something best entered into in an environment of established trust and understanding,

If you are actually, honestly interested in building a relationship with that person, say why, and see what happens. If what you really want is to keep the door open at this institution, there are other, far more effective ways to build and nurture that relationship, and few that can sour them more quickly than asking for feedback you don’t actually want.

Get to Know the Process Personally
Actors should sit in on auditions; playwrights should work in a literary office. There is a plethora of excellent theatres producing new work in and beyond festivals across the country—and most of them need readers. Volunteer your time, talent, and taste as a script reader. Just like actors sitting in on auditions, there’s something about being personally, viscerally involved on that side of the process that can’t be replicated in any handy how-to guide.

Lace Up Those Trainers: This is a Marathon, Not a Sprint
Look, you don’t need us to tell you that having a career in theatre is all about playing the long game. But with the ever-increasing pace of our lives, and the constant pressure to Achieve Right Now, it’s easy to forget. The “laying the groundwork / building relationships” times aren’t near as sexy as the “getting produced like a boss” times, but remember the waters of this field ebb and flow for everyone. The relationships we nurture with other artists and institutions we admire are the floaties on our arms that help buoy us in the good times and the bad. Being someone that others want to work with pays more dividends than you know. Being patient is hard. It’s also perhaps the most necessary tool for us all to craft.

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The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

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Thank you for a most informative article.

Bless the theatres that put their production history (play, playwright's name, and season) on their website.

And triple-bless the theatres who not only put their production history, but also add cast lists (so I can see how big or small a cast to target), brief synopses (so I can see what sorts of story lines fit for them), and production photos (so I can their level of production). If they have a acting company, company photos are nice, too. It replaces painful, often fruitless, Google searches with a fun exploration picturing which of my plays might fit.

Good points, Chas. It's on the theatres, too, to give folks the information they need, espeically when first establishing a relationship. If production histories aren't on websites, it can be near impossible to find those records elsewhere unless you're talking about the biggest houses. Thanks for reading and posting these thoughts!

This was a very helpful and informative article. Thank you both for the time you took in writing and sharing it. Many practical, useful suggestions. I'd like to see more articles like this on HowlRound. There are a few things I'd like to address and comment on.

Your comment: "Development opportunities are looking for scripts that have some real work to be done, something that needs other collaborators in the room to see its way ahead. Some development opportunities will pass on scripts that feel too “finished.” - I'm relatively new at playwriting (6 years). I see many more opportunities for 'development' submissions than showcases, let alone what are considered 'finished' scripts. I find it a little confusing. Don't misunderstand, I'm not anti-collaboration. For me sending out a script that hasn't been worked through several drafts toward perceived completion is like taking out of the oven a half baked casserole and serving it to guests. Why would a playwright want to send out something that has 'real work to be done.' Some work, of course. That's why there are playwriting groups where one brings in their work, gets feed back, or pizza gatherings with friends for the same purpose, so ideas and insights can be chewed on and feed the refinement of the play. Something that needs other collaborators in the room to see its way ahead, is like saying the playwright has no vision of what their piece is about. I'm left with 'then why are they writing it?'

'If there’s a cover letter or statement of purpose involved in the submission, doing your homework will only help you write more compellingly about your desire to be selected for the particular opportunity. Be strategic and specific. - I'd like to see a separate article just on this topic. Specific examples of 'strategic' and 'specific' would be useful, along with a more detailed clarification of what is meant by 'homework'.

'What’s sparking her imagination, where does she get a sense of what it would feel like to see this play in three dimensions? Does that feeling come within the first few pages? If not, is there a way to infuse that feeling earlier?' - REALLY GOOD SUGGESTION!
I recently had a enhanced staged reading (meaning blocking, lights, sound) of a play I have been working on for five years. So much work having gone into the research and actual writing, reading scenes at my playwriting group, rewrites, etc. A major editing of getting it more streamlined from a three act to a two act. Then finally the staged reading. It was of course very exciting to see the culmination of this work in a very well executed presentation and to hear the positive audience responses during the presentation itself and later during the talk back. And the talk back did contain insights, thoughts, questions, and perspectives that while not all were easy to digest, were valuable to consider, and a few very helpful. It was interesting how infused with excitement I was in going back to restructure, clarify, edit more (taking one scene out) and adding a new scene, to make the play even stronger. A part of me wished I had not sent it out to 15 different submission opportunities over the past 6 months when I thought it was ready to go out. But it's all gist for the mill. What's important is to keep on keeping on with as much dedication, perseverance, patience, inspiration, discipline, graciousness, and . . . oh yes, humor, as possible. Thank you all contributors for the assistance you provide in the journey.

Hi Michael - thanks for reading and for sharing your thoughts!

I have to disagree with your statement that reaching a point of needing other collaborators in the room is tantamount to a playwright not having a vision. This is a collaborative form, after all, and no play is really finished only on the page, is it?

In your example, the way that working on your play with collaborators energized you is an illustration of what we're saying. If we think of plays like soup rather than casseroles, a development conference would be more like offering folks a taste of what you're making, and using their responses to help you know if you need to add more salt, more garlic, or if it's time to take that bay leaf out rather than feeding them something that might result in a trip to the hospital.

Thanks again for reading!

Your soup analogy brought a smile to my face. I recognize how my example of collaborators illustrated what you were saying. So my point and next question is: If I am already receiving what I consider intelligent and valuable feedback from others I respect (which for me is different than collaboration) then what does the development process really offer me that I'm not already receiving, outside of connection and possible relationship building with a theatre company (and yes I do realize that in itself is valuable). For myself, I define collaboration more as an equal co-partnership, in the creation of a project. Perhaps someone who has had several experiences with development projects with different companies could write an article that provides some details on the process they went through, how they differed, and what one might expect should they submit and be accepted. Also, financial compensation is often very minimal for development projects.

Yes, I think hearing from playwrights about the value would be great. It seems that many of those opportunities (while some offer an honorarium and/or cover your travel, room, and board), offer time and space to work, which are resources that are often far too scarce in the field. Many of them ask the playwright to bring or suggest collaborators with whom they'd like to work in that time.

Thanks, Emily and Jess! This is so spot on. I'm thrilled you are using the New Play Exchange as well. This is the kind of nuts and bolts advice playwrights and those who love to read, produce and develop their work can really use! As a former "gatekeeper" I can honestly say my favorite part of this article is the the bit about relationship building on a grassroots level, especially when geared towards your local theatre or theatres you believe are a good fit. Busy lit offices are so overwhelmed, but reaching out on a personal level that doesn't break "the rules" or volunteering to become involved as a reader are such important things that many playwrights don't consider. Cheers to ya!

Emily and Jess- Thanks for taking the time to write this. What a helpful guide - and great perspective from NNPN resident artists - seeing it first hand and sharing it. I will share with our Horizion Theatre Company Playwriting Apprentices and our upcoming New South Young Playwrights Festival winners and keep it in my archive of great articles for developing artists.

The point made about auditions is so true. I've spent far more time directing than acting, or even writing. There are many considerations that the actor simply can't control. i chose the season at the college where I taught theater, and my focus was on providing my students with the best experience while they were in my program. I think about these things when I submit a play to a theater.

Thanks for all this great info! It's always good to hear from the other side. I'd like to call attention to the RIPP (Real Inspiration for Playwrights Project) I completed about two years ago, which I talked to 52+ ADs and LMs on this very topic. It ended up being a compendium of how to get your work produced, and addresses many of these issues in detail. Though it's been done for a while, the info and advice still holds, and it's all still available to read. http://blog.donnahoke.com/f...

I applaud anyone who has taken the time and energy needed to finish their play – because that’s huge – but it’s still only half the battle. You spend years working on your plays so it’s no surprise you have to spend years marketing them. As you said, this as a marathon and not a sprint. Thanks for this terrific article. It contains plenty of great insights and good advice that I know I’ll use for my future submissions.

I think it also can take time to find the BEST home and family for your play. I have plays I love by writers I believe in on one side, and theaters I adore on the other, but in some cases the combinations would be like oil and water, you know? It does good work a disservice to force a collaboration that isn't at least a little intuitive. Thanks for reading, James - I'm glad it was helpful!

I know, right? I feel that pressure, too. As a director a year out of grad school, I'm still very much in the "laying groundwork" phase of my post-school career. It's frustrating sometimes, but I have to remind myself, too, that it's all about playing the long game. Thanks for reading!

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