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The Peculiar Joys of a Bad Script

Dramaturgy is a tough game to play. It's never been a particularly well-understood field in the wide world of theater and that, combined with all the belt-tightening going on these days, has made it increasingly susceptible to marginalization. Consequently, those in the game know that a dramaturg's most valuable trait is an unyielding willingness to hustle. Hustle up work, hustle up contacts, hustle up a need for a dramaturg to be present. My own particular hustle, the street corner I slang from, is called coverage. This seems like a pretty polished bunch here at HowlRound so I'll assume most of you know what coverage means and keep the exposition short. Basically, I read scripts for theater companies that can afford the luxury of paying me. For each of these scripts, I write up a little synopsis and a little evaluation and I give each a little grade. Sometimes it's on a numerical scale. Sometimes it's pass/fail. It's almost totally like the book reports you had to do in elementary school.

I started to read scripts in the fall of 2005. I don't keep exact numbers on this sort of thing because it would be crushingly depressing but I'll say that for the first year and a half, I averaged about ten scripts a month. By the spring of 2007 however, I had started to read for a few more places and so my average went up to fifteen scripts per month, which is conservatively where I've been at ever since. Doing the math, that puts the grand total of scripts I've read for coverage purposes at just over 1,000. And that's not counting the two years I spent as an intern doing roughly the same thing. Now, you might assume that this number is par for the course when it comes to dramaturgs and literary managers and those in the business of separating the script wheat from the script chaff. You would kinda be right. The difference is that I've never held a real literary manager position and so one of the joys I have yet to experience is the ability to pick and choose the scripts I read while passing the rest off to bored co-workers in the box-office, wide-eyed interns and hustlers like me.

Actually, given how despondent everyone in theater is about our future relevancy, it's kinda heartening to see how many plays are still being written by such a wide variety of people. But no one really wants to actually read them. And that's my cue.

"The rest" that I refer to is a pretty heady mix. There's work submitted by agents and work that other companies are already doing. But the true bulk of it comes from playwrights themselves, those who have somehow managed to skirt the industry-standard, no-unsolicited-submissions rule to get their work into the pile. Maybe they know the literary manager. Maybe they know a board member. Maybe they're related to a board member. Maybe they simply bothered everyone at the theater enough that they were able to weasel the slightest wisp of a solicitation out of them. These scripts come from everywhere. Actually, given how despondent everyone in theater is about our future relevancy, it's kinda heartening to see how many plays are still being written by such a wide variety of people. But no one really wants to actually read them. And that's my cue.

My sketchy research suggests that I've deemed around one in ten of the scripts given to me to be good (good in the sense that I recommended that someone else read it). Interesting sidenote: I recently discovered that for the first time, a play that I read and graded favorably is going to be produced by the theater that I read it for. So thank you Geffen Playhouse for doing Yes, Prime Minister and briefly validating my existence. Small victories aside, this still means that I have read over 900 bad or mediocre scripts. And not only have I read these 900 scripts, I've also written 900 short evaluations detailing exactly why in my opinion these particular scripts were bad or mediocre. I've devoted an unholy amount of time to the study of bad scripts. I lead a sad, sad life y'all. In order to combat this sadness, I've recently begun to imagine myself as the script-reading equivalent of a World War II grunt, a heroic foot soldier covered in blood and mud and ink from the Xerox machine, crawling out from the trenches to report to my field generals, themselves busy back in the tents, smoking on their pipes and pushing their little plastic pieces around their giant, colorful maps.

So, generals, three trends I've noticed from my spot on the front lines, amid the carnage of a thousand bad scripts:

The Law of Packaging: I made this law up. It states that the amount of secondary material that comes with a submitted script is inversely proportional to the script's quality. This isn't hard-and-fast of course. Just because a script is nothing but printer paper and a binder clip certainly doesn't mean it's going to be good and vice versa. Nevertheless, you'd be surprised how often the law holds up. It's hard to really hate too much here though. You can't really blame these writers. Most of them are at least savvy enough to know that their opus is going to inevitably land on a giant, teetering stack of similar long shots before ending up in the hands of a reader who could probably pass on everything he reads for an entire year without anyone noticing (an experiment I've dreamed of trying out). So they're going to put on the hard sell and cram their glossy folders with glowing reviews and bubbly audience testimonials and CDs and DVDs and lollipops and homemade coupons for a free hour of yard work. It's depressing to think that if they'd taken all the time they spent assembling these packets and instead used it to work on the actual script, they'd probably be better off.

Minimalist Settings For All The Wrong Reasons: Here's an example of a type of writer's note that I see in a staggering portion of the scripts I read: "This play is designed to be performed on a minimal set. Transitions should be seamless and scenes should flow together." Sometimes, the sparsis sparsityeness is appropriate for the story being told. Often, it is not. Often, it is an attempt to make the play more appealing by cutting down on the production elements, thus making it cheaper to produce. The play can be set in Caligula's throne room and apparently the writer still only needs a table, a chair, and a door. This means that writers are now actively denying their own imagination because they think it will help them get produced. This is perverse and it's leading us towards a future of bland, anemic plays.

Meanness: This is the hands-down, runaway winner of Most Popular Behavior in the scripts I read. Now, stories are built around conflict. Conflict often makes people behave poorly towards one another. I get that. But this is different. This isn't meanness as a result of conflict. This is meanness as conflict. These are plays where, when the writer has finished burrowing deep down into the meaning of his or her story, they arrive at this root conclusion: people are mean to each other. Maybe this is the result of an increasingly and inexplicably mean world. But remember that these writers are the same ones who are actively shutting down their instinct towards creating big, elaborate, beautiful worlds for us to realize and instead asking for a chair, a table and a door because they think it will help them. They are consciously designing their plays to please us. They think meanness is what we want.

There's a creepy inevitability to my job sometimes, this mechanized sense of giant factory wheels turning, the scripts churning through, everything cold and implacable. You can't then blame the playwrights for streamlining their work, outfitting it, trying to game this system. You've got to tell your story and you've got to have someone to tell it to. And while their efforts may make the work safe and simplistic and predictable and it's usually completely indicative of why it's bad in the first place, there's also urgency there and that urgency is worth something. I've learned that through 900 scripts.

One other trend I had noticed in my reading is this tendency towards Death plays. It's the hands-down, runaway winner of Most Popular Subject among bad and mediocre plays. Parents dying, kids dying, siblings dying, strangers dying, it kinda doesn't matter who is dying as long as the people left behind are left confused and unsure of what to do with themselves. Frankly, it's kind of a bummer. But the totally grueling way these plays face this subject head on, the way they are just nakedly playing it out, trying to make sense of it all, it's a little cathartic. It's that need to tell their story. They want it heard so bad in fact that they'll twist their plays in knots trying to get them seen. They'll strip them down to make them cheaper, or throw them in glittery folders to make them prettier or rough them up to make them edgier. And I'm not saying this makes them any better. It doesn't. It just makes them worthy.

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Dylan: "... my piece's criticisms aren't directed at writers as much as they are directed at my fellow literary managers and dramaturgs." "Us lit managers and dramaturgs need to fix this system." -- If you wrote a column on this subject, it would be fascinating. Do you think HowlRound would post it if you did?

Well, I’m afraid that Mr. Southard represents the typical perspective of a lot of literary departments. But it’s not his fault per se. It really is part of the theatre culture. It’s like Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros”. People get poisoned with this kind of mind set without even realizing it. I’m sure Mr. Southard thought he was trying to be helpful when he wrote this article. But in doing so he has actually revealed his own disdain for the playwrights whose scripts he has been forced to endure reading lo these many years. The truth is that it is a ruse. It’s a big lie. Rarely does a submission lead to a production. Most playwrights get produced through networking. They know people at the theatre company, which is why I find Mr. Southard’s dismissal of playwrights who know board members so bizarre. But I don’t think the blame should be placed only on people like Mr. Southard. Playwrights are responsible as well. They have allowed themselves to be marginalized over the last half century as the director has taken center stage in the creation of theatre. This is really a new phenomena in the last 2,000 years of theatre making. The playwright used to have the more dominant role. Ibsen, for instance, was an artistic director. I think it is time for playwrights to take back their central role in the theatre. I personally no longer submit. It’s a massive waste of time. I get more out of self producing. So, I’m not writing any of this out of bitterness. I’m actually one of the more satisfied playwrights I know because I have quit participating in the ruse perpetuated by cynical literary departments. And I think more playwrights should do the same. Directors won’t give up their role in American theatre easily, but I think it is time for a paradigm shift like the one we saw at the beginning of the last century.

Well then, allow me to retort: The first thing I'd like to say is that the piece isn't meant to be some kind of mean-spirited attack against playwrights (all of whom I love and none of whom I have any disdain for). Frankly, the piece's criticisms aren't directed at writers as much as they are directed at my fellow literary managers and dramaturgs. I couldn't agree more with Mr. Tarker when he talks about how the submissions process is a total waste of time. It is (and this is coming from someone who is paid to help keep it going). The system is broken. And he's absolutely right to have given up on submitting and instead focused his attentions on producing his work through other means. He's got a way, way better chance of his plays seeing the light of day that way. But there's a million playwrights who don't yet see this and they continue to run up against the brick wall that is the submissions process. Doing so has led to increasingly desperate moves like minimizing their imaginations in order to appeal to the theater's financial bottom line (which is a very different thing than cutting stage directions because they know a director will do so anyway). I'm not saying these playwrights aren't creative enough to imagine beautiful, evocative, elaborate worlds for us to realize. I'm saying they have consciously turned off that part of their brain. And we all suffer as a result. This proverbial brick wall has other consequences too. It's created a system where the best chance you have to get your script read by a theater has nothing to do with whether or not it's good but instead with whether or not you know someone of influence at that theater. This is why I won't pat someone on the back for perseverance. Not because they don't deserve the praise but because it would only promote a system that rewards the wrong kinds of efforts. And they should know that this kind of effort, just like filling their submissions with positive reviews from people whose opinion we simply don't care about, is not going to get their script any closer to production. At best, it's just going to get it into my hands, a lowly script reader. Us lit managers and dramaturgs need to fix this system. This is a really big problem and I don't have much of an idea how to solve it but maybe that fix could start with the "gatekeepers" actually reading some of these scripts that they're so quick to pass on to the likes of me. Because doing so at least reminds us that there are many voices that are dying to be heard and that desire unto itself is very, very valuable.One last thing: if my post came off as flip or bitter or dismissive, then so be it. In my opinion, the number one problem facing theater today is that we aren't willing to be honest with ourselves. Maybe it's because the rest of the world loves to make fun of theater for being prissy or pretentious or whatever and so we've taken shelter in this protective bubble of well wishes and rah-rah spirit and A For Effort but we're getting our asses kicked, guys. I try to spend some portion of my time away from theater people and with those who don't really consider theater to be a part of their social, cultural, artistic life. But it's gone beyond that for these people. Theater is very, very, very close to being totally irrelevant to them. And if we want that to change (and I hope we do), we're going to have to start being brutally honest with ourselves.Anyway, thanks for your responses everyone. Howl on.

I just finished reading Tracy Letts' play August, Osage County. All the meanness, all the death, my goodness itl's a wonder it won the Pulitzer!!

Talk about meanness, Mr. Southard. But it's a necessary eye-opener for playwrights. So thank you for your honesty.And thank you, Dan Tarker for expressing the reaction I expect most playwrights would feel reading this. I have to say that the information that's coming in over this site, in blogs and livestreams and in various commentaries as to the way literary departments and their readers view playwrights and their work and what happens (and doesn't happen) to our submissions is more than disheartening. It's all starting to feel like a collosal ruse. It's becoming very hard to imagine a reason to submit a play to a literary department. And I suppose, from what I am reading as to how they view playwrights and plays, that most theatres and their seemingly beleaguered literary manager's would breathe a a sigh of relief if plays stopped coming in. Okay... And, then what? Where do we go from here?

Dylan, interesting article, and thank you for the tips you list. I've been a reader enough to have an inkling of the frustrations you've experienced.

One thing doesn't make sense. How can the "true bulk" of the plays you've read come from playwrights "who have somehow managed to skirt the industry-standard, no-unsolicited-submissions rule to get their work into the pile"? If the theaters you read for don't accept unsolicited submissions, the numbers you mention don't seem right.

Also, you sound flip and dismissive of most of the playwrights whose submissions you've read. Are you? Or has there been some misunderstanding somewhere?

Enjoyed this. As I writer I feel pressure to create what seems to sell, though it's not my voice. There's the Political Consciousness play (Time: day of the fall of Berlin's wall) , the Someone-Else's Culture play (should I milk my Lithuanian ancestry though I know nothing about the place?) the Name Dropping play (Matisse, Marx and Magellan wait for a late bus) and the Lyrical Language drama (her metaphors were like coleslaw.) So much feels like formula-on-request.

This article really made me mad – so mad, in fact, that my first comment was not posted. This time I’m going to try and explain in more civil terms why this piece is symptomatic of the toxic atmosphere surrounding new work in the American theatre. First, we have the gatekeeper mentality as exhibited lines like this one: “But the true bulk of it comes from playwrights themselves, those who have somehow managed to skirt the industry-standard, no-unsolicited-submissions rule to get their work into the pile. Maybe they know the literary manager. Maybe they know a board member. Maybe they’re related to a board member”. What a negative statement? Why don’t you instead say the playwright showed perseverance, initiative, and determination in getting their script in your hands? The negativity persists all through this article. While I understand the packaging thing, what is wrong with sending positive reviews along with your scripts? Playwrights know readers are coming at their scripts wearing cynical spectacles. Maybe the reviews are a tool to overcome some of the cynicism. Next, I don’t think the analysis about why writers provide skimpy stage directions gives them much credit. Most playwrights know the director is going to cross out their set specifications and stage directions, so why bother much with that end. I’m sure there are more reasons than this as well, but I think the author’s explanation once again reveals a negative predisposition toward writers. Finally, the arguments about death and meanness is also not developed enough. Can you give examples of meanness? What’s the difference between meanness you don’t like and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”? Also, how can you imply death is a bad subject matter for a play? By your criteria, a kitchen sink drama about parents overcoming the loss of their son to a hit and run driver would be “mediocre” or “bad”. It has become sport in American theatre to beat up on new plays and playwrights. It has become part of our calcified culture. As someone who has worked in the literary department of a regional theatre and who works closely with playwrights on the development of new scripts, I’d like to challenge the theatre community to a grand experiment. Stop talking about new work as a negative. Start talking in the positive.Wouldn’t an article about the positive things he found in new plays be much more informative and useful?

Thanks for naming part of something that has been bothering me for quite awhile in the theatre that I was unable to describe: the meanness. I'm weary of chronic: mean-ness; conflict for the sake of conflict; and the celebration of bad behavior. Trying to dig deeper...

As a former script reader, I remember pumping pages the moment the playwright allowed a character to describe a dream they had the night before.

As an old script junkie, I empathize with you, Dylan. I don't think it's changed much since I started reading "so-called new so-called plays" back in 1975, especially the cyclical nature of some subjects. When I started, the US Bicentennial scripts had just begun to arrive. A colleague at another theatre told me that she and her assistant used to find scripts about the conflicts between Europeans and First Nations in the slush pile, then read them aloud until they arrived at the inevitable line, "Many moons ago ... " at which point they'd stop. Still, cynicism aside, there's nothing like the thrill you get when you hold a real play in your hands, one that transcends its genre and exceeds your expectations. It's happened to me. May it happen to you, too.

Hmmm. Considering that YES, PRIME MINISTER was a hit in London and is based on one of the most acclaimed TV series in BBC history ... All credit to you for recognizing its quality, but this is hardly the breakthrough discovery a dramaturg or literary manager dreams of making, like being the one insightful person to recognize the quality of WIT ... or, for that matter, one of my scripts.

Thank you for a wonderful read! My only concern here is the suggestion that writers are creating a bland aesthetic (and you do mention towards the end that you can't blame the playwright; but at the same time, the blame feels implicit). According to the study OUTRAGEOUS FORTUNE, GATES OF OPPORTUNITY, and Douglas Anderson's DREAM MACHINE: THIRTY YEARS OF NEW PLAY DEVELOPMENT, there are any number of reasons why plays/playwrights are losing 'imagination.' One has to do with development in place of production (or, development-as-production); the second has to do with the work actually being produced: minimal sets and small casts. There's an entire system in place which is counter to the imagination. While I agree that there is a problem vis-a-vis a streamlining of the aesthetic of the new American play, I wouldn't necessarily blame the playwright, but consider the pipelines which lead plays to production. It is a conversation, I know, which many have been having. I tend to applaud groups such as 13P, The Workhaus, and Playwrights 6 in which a band of playwrights get together and start their own production companies/models.

Again, many thanks for a great post!

Cheers,John

What a fun read - and yes, I have read a similar number of plays and agree with your findings! I'd add one of my own: the cyclical nature of adaptations of classics. One season, floods of hip, sexed-up, flashy, modern-politics-relevant Antigones will cascade over my desk; the next season I face a deluge of Molieres - set in the Deep South, in 1920s Chicago, in Vegas, in short, any- and everywhere but France in the 1600s. Does the world really need someone to write the 11,675th dance remix of Le Misanthrope? Maybe. The pwt doing the adaption may be a complete genius. But it's a big, big, big sea of similar scripts to be a small fish in.