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.
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.