From Submission to Searching

A Paradigm Shift in Connecting Plays and Producers

Of late, there has been a great deal of conversation in the new play sector around the need to apply technology to solving the problems of both playwrights and literary departments: to address the question of how playwrights and theaters connect. What’s the real challenge here? And what’s really getting in the way, in practical terms? I’ll begin with three assumptions:

  1. That there are about 10,000 playwrights living and working in the United States.
  2. That each of those playwrights is generating what he or she believes to be one “finished” script per year, on average.
  3. That nationwide, theaters are producing approximately 1,000 new plays per year.

(More accurate data for all three of these criteria is needed, but these rough numbers are good enough for speculation.)

The problem
With those three assumptions in mind, a challenge becomes clear: how do we collectively filter the most appropriate 10 percent of those 10,000 plays into those 1,000 production slots? Forgetting for the moment how deflating that “placement percentage” might seem to playwrights, and how overwhelming the thought of sorting through 10,000 scripts a year to find one or two to produce might seem to theaters, I think it’s a fairly accurate assessment.

How have we been trying to solve that problem until now? Historically, we’ve relied on playwrights submitting scripts to theaters, who worked tirelessly to review and consider each one and respond. It hasn’t, to be blunt, worked.

Theaters tried to clarify what kinds of plays they were looking for so that playwrights didn’t just send them whatever was new. They started using submission “windows”—brief months during which they’d open the transom—rather than reviewing plays all year. They replaced script submissions with query packets and script samples. They began relying on agents as submission intermediaries, asking them to find the most promising among the 10,000 playwrights. And if those filters weren’t enough, agents started applying their own: relying on certain credentials, like degrees from the right graduate programs, to decide who to represent.

One unintended consequence of this outmoded system is playwright/theater alienation, which is, we should not forget, the problem we are trying to solve.

One fix from one theater
In the last twelve months or so, I’ve had conversations about technology and playwright/theater alienation with many of the institutions across the country that have been publically thinking about it, from the Playwrights’ Center to the National New Play Network. I’ve also talked with countless individual artists and arts administrators in venues both virtual and brick-and-mortar. I’ve seen people trying to create plug-ins for Arena Stage’s New Play Map. I’ve seen enterprising software developers building customized systems for script distribution and sales. I’ve met with groups working on standardized back-office script-tracking software for regional theaters. I know of at least a half-dozen ways in which various folks have tried to crack the same nut from different angles using different tools. And here’s the problem: none of these people are talking to each other. None of them are collaborating.

The problem that needs to be addressed, however you look at it—the alienation between playwrights and theaters, or the need to filter 10,000 plays into 1,000 production slots—is everyone’s problem. It doesn’t belong to playwrights. It doesn’t belong to theaters. It belongs to the whole new play sector. Because of this shared ownership, I would suggest, we are only ever really going to solve it by working together.

And yet, we’re reluctant to admit that we really do have a problem. In fact, when one prominent organization came out and said “This isn’t working, so we’re not doing it any longer,” they were roundly criticized. I’m speaking of course, of Arena Stage. Frankly, I credit them immensely for being willing to say that the emperor has no technology. The first step to solving any problem, after all, is admitting you have one. Moreover, I think they also deserve some credit for clearly outlining the technology they plan to use to find their one or two new plays a year: putting playwrights on staff (and committing to produce their work) and attending new play festivals and reading series around the country.

My guess, though, is that Arena’s solution will probably only end up working for theaters of Arena’s size and scope. Arena’s methods are likely not replicable for smaller institutions.

From submissions to searching
I believe one solution to addressing our problem is to build is a centralized new play database: one master repository of information that serves a variety of distinct purposes and user groups. Let’s call it the New Play Oracle.

Many new entries in the New Play Oracle would be made by those 10,000 playwrights: one entry every time a play gets created. The entry would contain all the standard components we expect in association with a script: a synopsis, a character breakdown, a development history, a sample of the dialogue, and even (assuming the right level of security) a copy of the full script. Fairly straightforward, no?

A playwright would also have the option of assigning a script to a variety of categories (genre, for example, and running time), and tagging each entry with any number of script-specific keywords. Playwrights would be able to update every entry at any time, too: adding a production history after the play gets produced, for example, or even production-specific images and links to online reviews.

At the same time, anyone whose job it is to review scripts for a theater would also have a window into the New Play Oracle. They’ll be able to enter your coverage about the plays you’re reading, update a detailed history of the theater’s relationship with the playwright in question, “forward” the script on to others for review, and so on.

So if the New Play Oracle has an entry point for theaters, there’s really no reason it can’t have one for development programs and reading festivals and contests as well, right?

Imagine that a development program, for example—one that takes submissions—could create its own entry in the New Play Oracle. The New Play Oracle would allow each development program to indicate what submission materials it wanted to see from playwrights—synopses, character breakdowns, bios, and so on.

And this is where the real magic happens: given that development programs will be selecting from the same contents that playwrights will already be uploading, the submission can actually happen via the New Play Oracle itself! The playwright can search for upcoming opportunities, sort them by a variety of criteria, find one that seems appropriate, and submit one of his/her/their plays with the click of a button, given that all of the necessary submission materials are already in the database.

But what if instead of relying on submissions, or only on submissions, the folks who run development programs did a few searches as well? Imagine the director of a new play development program consulting the New Play Oracle and looking for unproduced scripts that meet a variety of criteria: playwrights residing in a certain state, playwrights of a certain gender, plays on certain subjects, plays of certain lengths, plays added to the database within the last year, and—this is particularly important— plays that have been tagged by their authors as “needing development.”

The consultation might look like any other search; results could be filtered in a variety of ways. The program director could skim synopses and descriptions and tags and read sample and then, with the click of a button—thank you, New Play Oracle—ask a playwright or two (or more) for permission to consider their work for an upcoming program.

The New Play Oracle would facilitate a sector-wide paradigm shift from submissions toward searching.

Instead of the old technology we’ve used to funnel some subset of our 10,000 plays into (far fewer) annually available slots—playwrights and their agents submitting their work far and wide—the holders of those slots will begin using new tactics and technology (like the New Play Oracle) to seek and find appropriate scripts and artists.

(Isn’t that largely what Arena has done, by the way? Switch from submissions to searching? The new paradigm may have arrived already without us realizing it!)

Theaters intent on maintaining an open-submissions policy could use the New Play Oracle to accept and consider scripts. My guess, though, is that the increasing ease of submissions enabled by the New Play Oracle would result in an overwhelming number of playwrights sharing their work with theaters. I predict that if we had a working New Play Oracle, almost every single theater would abandon the concept of open submissions entirely (though agented submissions might continue) and embrace a searching-based model.

But what would that mean, exactly? For starters, it would transform the way in which responsibilities for bridging the playwright/theater divide are assigned. Instead of reactively responding to inquiries, theaters would be proactively looking high and low to ensure that they found the best work for their audiences and communities and artists. Instead of proactively sending work around, playwrights would react to inquiries and ensure that their work is accurately represented and “discoverable” by the world at large. More importantly, they’d be freer to focus on making their work better.

In a submission-based paradigm, playwrights are incented to find agents to represent them in the submission process. Agents hold special keys that open certain mail slots into which only agented scripts can be dropped, and they earn those keys by having a reputation for only representing plays and playwrights of “merit.” Agents work for playwrights, and get paid by playwrights, but they really serve the submissions-based system: they act as filters, funneling a small subset of those 10,000 plays into the 1,000 available production slots.

But if the new paradigm is all about searching, are agents even necessary? Or do we really need search consultants instead? Their job would be to consult the New Play Oracle with a particular theater’s creative needs and aesthetic preferences and community interests in mind and return a filtered, qualified set of results for review and consideration. Does that sound a little bit like a literary manager’s job, or part of it? It does to me, too, but I think it’s really a new position that deserves a new title.

It may be true that agents still have a role to play. We may enter a period in which submissions and searching models operate side-by-side, and that period might last forever. But we cannot continue to rely on the ability of Arena Stage and every other theater to travel around the country finding plays and playwrights. Working to develop The New Play Oracle or a similar technological system would offer an opportunity for field-wide collaboration on the problem of script selection. (This may be the time to mention that we already have a kindred system in place: the New Play Map. The map does a great job of focusing on and solving one key problem—making visible the enormous new play infrastructure in the United States and thus addressing the culture of scarcity in the sector.)

So, what else might the New Play Oracle do for us? A great deal, I believe. The next major shift it could enable would stem from the ability of the system to handle blind submissions—or, to be true to what I’ve suggested, blind searches. Imagine if theaters looking for work could choose to hide certain criteria from search results, like age and gender and race and degree status, or any other personally-identifiable information. They would easily be able to consider work on its own merits, at least on the first pass, which might help minimize concerns about elitism in play selection.

At the same time, theaters could actually use those data points to proactively find work by historically under-represented artists. Set “women playwrights only” or “playwrights of color only” as a search criteria and BOOM. No one need ever say again that they couldn’t find diverse work. Because the real secret genius behind the New Play Oracle—the thing that would make it really transformative for the sector—is that it serve as a low-cost way to expose playwrights who are currently hidden and make their plays more broadly discoverable.

The absolute best thing about the New Play Oracle, though, is that it would be shared by virtually every member of the new play sector. With a few tweaks to make some of its information public, directors could consult it when looking for new plays, members of the press might get to know playwrights better before writing about their work, and marketing directors might find useful information to promote a new play.

How else are we supposed to overcome the alienation we’re trying to address? Certainly there are other non-technological solutions, and I don’t mean to suggest that the New Play Oracle will address every concern we’ve got. But it would be a start.

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May I be so bold as to suggest that we take an even WIDER view of the arts sector and see if we can't use technology to radically shift the paradigm for independent artists of all stripes??

I hope you won't object if I use this site to mention an initiative I developed called CREATIVE COMMUNITY which I presented to TCG and a consortium of training programs four years ago. It wasn't the right moment, but I'm currently in meetings in LA about restarting it, and I would love to talk to others on HOWLROUND and elsewhere about it.

CREATIVE COMMUNITY is designed to foster collaboration, mentoring and networking. It is ARTIST DRIVEN and welcomes designers, writers, directors, actors, visual artists, film makers, etc...etc who are (or want to be) GENERATIVE ARTISTS.

It's also interested in blowing up the genre and limiting labels we place on practitioners in order to create CHANGE and GROWTH, and to REBALANCE POWER between artists and institutions.

How does it work? CREATIVE COMMUNITY is SELF SUPPORTING. Each member pays an annual fee to host their PAGE and to have access to other people's pages. There could be a sliding scale and options. Maybe a venture philanthropist gives the seed money for the creation of the site.

AT CC, you can view each other's work, read about new and old projects and start conversing and collaborating. Each member has the ability to ENGAGE or NOT. (Kind of like a dating site...you can flirt on line, hook up for one gig, date a bunch of folks or even get married.)

Here's the BEAUTY PART: The COMMUNITY fosters its own. That is to say, that a pool of money that would otherwise go to XEROXING, THERAPY or LATTES (maybe $100 a year) is collected to allow THEMED FUNDS to be started to support new work.

ARTISTS in the community form panels to decide who gets the funding. Do the math. If 100,000 playwrights plus another 100,000 designers, directors etc, each contributed $100???! That's $20,000,000, kids. Even if 1/10th of those folks get involved, you're talking about $2,000,000 a year. Enough money to be taken seriously as a player among all those institutions.

Every year ARTISTS empowered with CC's seed $$ can approach theatres and seek to COLLABORATE. They don't wait to be picked. They don't wait to read or responded to. They are SELF EMPOWERED. Of course, one hopes this idea catches fire and donors and foundations support this NEW MODEL. Artists who haven't received funding are still able to take part in CC's mentoring, career development and collaboration programming.

Another WONDERFUL THING: Institutional theatres are invited to LOOK and RESPOND, but they aren't in CONTROL of the money or the community. Before long, the BALANCE OF POWER shifts and artists are IN CHARGE of their own destinies.

WHY DOES THIS WORK? It works because it redirects money, and more importantly, ENERGY away from all of us individually knocking on institutional theatres' doors to fostering our own community--nationwide.

It puts DEVELOPMENT IN THE HANDS OF ARTISTS; entrusted to FOSTER ARTISTIC VISION ---not to wear artistic blinders in order to limit risk and maximize sales for a MARBLE CITADEL.

How do we protect each other from rivalries, competition, racism, sexism, ageism, etc? We spread the mandate across diverse working groups across the country and charge them TEMPORARILY (1-3 years) with the responsibility of supporting each other. You rejoin the CREATIVE COMMUNITY and have to live without the power of money or title, which I personally have found so illuminating these last five years.

With the help of a major foundation like the DUKE (Are you reading this, Ben?) we create a clear mission and strategic plan with really good assessment tools. We also collaborate with support organizations already active like Sundance, Playwrights Center, Lark and New Dramatists and reach out to presenters, universities, museums, etc to broaden the reach of time based work.

If things go well, we invite the dance world, the music world, and just the WORLD to get involved. We keep on growing the strength of our creative community and we let the institutions know the CREATIVE COMMUNITY IS THE POWER IN THE ARTS.

Maybe we're thinking of the internet to narrowly. Think of it not as a database, but an application. Why can't the personal statements, the cover letters, the request to "friend" my play (read it, please, AD or Lit Man) as Andrew Kramer mentions be done digitally instead of on paper? The theatres/festivals/competitions can post the same information they'd put in an open call or in the Dramatist's Sourcebook. But let's also not kid ourselves...this type of custom internet application would be quite expensive to produce. It's not just a website or even a simple database. It would need some highly skilled programmers.

Have you considered turning the Oracle idea into a social media site specifically for theatre people?

(reposting from FB:)I'm going to be Debbie Downer, and point out that every database can be gamed; databases, especially web-based ones, can often can be hacked; a database can have results that match requested criteria that still fall through the cracks, depending on the skills of the query coders; and not every playwright won't trust said database to protect his or her copyright interests, or even wish to submit to a national play source, due to the locality concerns folks such as Scott Walters have championed.

Also, once it's up again, look into the BushGreen solution:http://www.bushtheatre.co.u...

Also, how do we account for the tacit information issue -- how does a producer know a playwright's up to the job of production? Cultivation of relationships is still needed for arts workers, because a job offer in theatre is different than with a mainstream job. How do you determine a new playwright's willingness to work with other creatives? Her speed with revisions that a consensus deems necessary? Ability to cooperate with marketing initiatives, especially in this social media age?

Academic credentials are used as a sign that at least these artists know how the game is played. What would substitute for that, save someone of note vouching for a writer's ability to play well with others?

And here, as promised, is the extended version of this post, which goes into much greater depth:

http://www.suilebhan.com/20...

Although the comments here are largely positive (if with important implementation questions), I have heard anecdotally that others do not share my/our enthusiasm. If not... why not?

I like this national play data base idea quite a bit and the comments included quite a few "what's", "how's" and "if's". I hope the conversation continues to further explore it's useful possibility. The bottom line for me of course is as a new playwright, new to the submission process, how do I get my plays read? While I do my own research to locate professional theatres open to new works to see if my writing might be a match [and that also is very time consuming, time that I could be spending writing] I like the idea, any idea that might open the window of my scripts actually being read. Yes, many or perhaps even most regional theatres [large or small] may indeed be focusing their time and efforts in finding a new play by a known or "hot" new writer because that seems "safe" [meaning bringing in people and money], and yes this means the reality of a theatre actually being willing to seriously consider even the 10 page samples sent more problematic. Monica wrote "How can my unknown play compete with a play recently on Broadway or at Lincoln Center? " Well it can't. Period. And I'm not fooling myself by thinking there are ways that it can. However, that does not mean that such a data base made available could not serve as a tool to open the narrow door by which playwrights and theatres can find each other. While another harsh reality may include many actual productions coming about by a play being introduced via some kind of personal relationship of an AD, lighting tech intern etc [and by the way please provide me with a list of names so I can begin the process of cultivating relationships with them instead of possibly waisting my time sending submissions via the usual route that may not be taken seriously to begin with] I nonetheless continue to wade what at times seems like a marshland of potential futility to find occasional solid ground in creating that very relationship with flesh and blood theatres that we playwrights seek. If the above seems caustic or negative, it is not ment to be. HowlRound is one of the touchstones that informs, educates, connects, and inspires my beginning journey. Keep on keeping on with these eye opening and usually provocative offerings.

A very intriguing idea, and I love that you're trying to work with some numbers (I love data). While I think you're about right in terms of the numbers of playwrights, I think you're underestimating the size of the over-supply of plays. The thing is, plays don't expire after just one year. So those 10,000 writers who keep writing one play a year, are still trying to get their unproduced work on stage. So over five years, what you have is 50,000 scripts competing for 1,000 slots. But, as others have pointed out, there aren't really 1,000 slots, because many are already set aside for established, well-known writers. Instead of 10,000 plays for 1,000 slots, what we really have is more like 50,000 for 500. That's a whole order of magnitude in difference. You say that the essential problem is about playwright alienation, but I think there are three problems brought about our current situation. 1) Alienation--because playwrights are often not present in a meaningful, long-term way in institutional theatres. The Arena is taking interesting steps on this. As is the Huntington with their HPF program. 2) Theatres deluged by scripts. Without a meaningful sort of evaluation element in the Oracle database, it seems likely that literary managers would find the huge number of scripts awfully daunting, even with a good search function. As Melissa points out, recommendations are how scripts get done. 3) Access to theatres for playwrights. And data about where/how to submit. Writers of fiction have access to QueryTracker.net, which is a useful site that compiles data about fiction agent reply times. Playwrights could use something like this. Your Oracle database seems to level the access playing field, and I think many writers would like this. But I think it also forgets the fundamental social nature of our artform--theatre is about interactions between people, and plays get produced because of relationships. It would be convenient, especially for writers, for this to not be the case. I'm not sure there's a way around it, though certainly the Oracle database might end up being a helpful tool.

One more thought (sorry for posting too much!)...maybe the compensation isn't cash: it's reviews. Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope website might be a good model. When you register, you have to read 4 or so pieces before you can post. It's free to use, but you have to "earn" the right to participate. http://www.zoetrope.com/

I think Linda and Melissa have very good points. Maybe the primary asset of the database is not really the scripts, but the recommendations. Maybe reviewers either give a script a review, or a pass...which means that they don't say anything at all. Melissa, I hear what you're saying about not paying, but relying on external funds often creates bias. Would you consider a small annual fee, like a subscription? $35 like American Theatre? There could be a free preview level, but gosh, haven't we all spent that on submission and coverage? I think about things like Playsource that TCG used to publish...(gosh I was sad when that ended). Wasn't there a separate fee for that?

An intriguing idea, to be sure. I'd certainly be interested in checking out a searchable database of scripts, no question.

For it to work, it would have to be funded by an angel or by grants. If you're charging a fee to either playwrights or theatres, many will opt out because of it.

Of course the very first thing I thought of was a mental list of all the playwrights I'd contact immediately with a plea to let me read their work before they went public with it on this Oracle. I feel very certain that there are plenty of ADs out there who would do the same thing. That would be an ongoing struggle, no question.

I'd love to hear what repped playwrights think about this. A great agent can make a huge difference in a playwright's career, and a great agent will send me stuff targeted to my company's needs and aesthetic. A searchable database would be a lot more work on my end. Again, I'd probably use it, but it would be more digging for the same amount of gold (or less) than I get from other processes. I've spent a fair amount of time on websites perusing samples, synopses, and scripts, and slogging through every script that sounds like it might be right by description, sample, or synopsis is incredibly time-consuming because so few of them actually are right for whatever reason or reasons, many of which are wholly unrelated to quality (tech reqs, a role for a resident, mission, etc). The most valuable aspect of this database would be the ability to recommend scripts to other companies. That's how I get most of the scripts we produce, apart from the ones I get from personal connections we've made with playwrights whose work we admire.

I wouldn't use the evaluations thing. I'd be leery of posting a public negative evaluation of someone's work.

All of that said, its something I'd be very interested in checking out.

Do not underestimate the "evaluative" component -- it is very high. There are already databases like Doolee in place. Having a "like" or "recommend" button with comments (not anonymous, either) would be very helpful. I've been on several sides of the aisle: a playwright, a literary manager and director of new plays, and a theater critic. I've read and/or seen literally thousands of new plays over the past 25 years, and I can tell you that a synopsis, number of characters, and theme tells me little. What always excites me -- and most of the literary managers I've ever known -- is finding an authentic voice, someone who makes me want to keep reading no matter how unexpected the theme. We want projects that give us a jolt, which is why it is so important to get scripts to people who fall in love with them. Hooking scripts up with directors, actors, board members, even a lighting tech intern has gotten me far more productions over the years than having plays up on the web or blind submissions, and I've had several hundred productions around the world without ever having an agent. Let me tell you, reading piles and piles of scripts to winnow out a single gem is a daunting project. Recommendations from trusted people are far more likely to move a script to the front of the read pile or even straight into a reading or production.

Thank you once again, Gwydion, for your rigorous and expansive thinking. In terms of the discussion, I especially resonate with comments by Linda Eisenstein and Jason Loewith on the importance of the aesthetic match question. When I was producing lots of new plays, I often found work through playwrights who recommended other playwrights to us, and who recommended us to other playwrights. This is a tough thing to do through keywords (a list of keyword phrases to include "language focused," "structurally adventurous," "theatre with music that isn't a musical," "queered," "media galore," "meta but not annoyingly so," "wildly appropriative." The mind boggles...). Perhaps some sort of recommendation system, social networking style, is in order.

I love synchronicity!

During the past six years, Generous Company and WordBRIDGE Playwrights Laboratory webdesigner has developed the tools to make this happen. We developed a playwright modified upload database (with info such as char. breakdowns, synopses, and either viewing of scripts in window or as PDF downloads) with a password protected front end through which theatres could access /search the scripts.

We were working on this as a way for playwrights to be able to upload the latest drafts of their plays after the Lab and a way for us to get the word out to theaters about our playwrights works.

We are currently prepping to begin connecting theaters and WordBRIDGE playwrights via the database in the coming weeks, but if a national platform is desired (and the appropriate server space could be identified), we'd love to talk about how our database could be of service.

Thank you, Gwydion, for articulately addressing what many of us have been thinking and experiencing for a long time. I love the idea behind the New Play Oracle as a potential solution! Echoing the words of Morgan Jenness, we all work for the theater at large despite which institution we are affiliated with. Sharing the resources and creating a national database that can be accessed by playwrights, literary managers, producers and artistic directors alike builds synergy towards a healthier theater ecology.

Love the way you phrase the shift in thinking that's required. You rock: theaters are definitely eager to be in search mode.

Just sat on a panel at the PlayWriting Australia Natl Play Fest yesterday on this very topic and there are some really fabulous experiments out there - BushGreen as Jenny mentioned (interestingly, their former Lit Mgr is down here and told me the vast majority of uploads come from American playwrights), Playwrights Studio Scotland, and PWA's own PostScript, which sends every uploaded script for evaluation to at least two Aussie theaters, and those evaluations are made avail to the PW... Which has worked in some ways and not in others.

It's the evaluative process in all three of those experiments where things get tricky as far as I can tell. A vast online script library will be valuable to theaters in search mode if an evaluative component is part of it: I.e., rather than "show me plays by women,", theaters want "show me GOOD plays by women," or "show me plays by women that my theater is going to love."

As we all continue the conversation about your Oracle, I hope that part of it gets an honest hearing. Wish I could be there this weekend!!

Just a note to everyone here to say thank you for the thoughtful comments and questions, and to let folks know that I'll be publishing a longer version of this blog post on my own blog (www.suilebhan.com) on Monday in the hope of keeping the conversation going.

The Bush Theatre in London actually developed a database that sounds similar to what you’ve been describing. It’s called Bush Green (bushgreen.org) – I think the site may be undergoing changes.

I’ve listed a few plays on there for about a year now and I have to be honest, I’ve gotten significantly more interest in my work via the old/current direct-submission method. I suspect it’s because more playwrights are on the site than are the artistic decision-makers.

In any case, I think having a centralized database is a wonderful idea. The biggest challenge is getting everyone (most especially literary managers and artistic directors) to use it.

You'd need an industry leader, one of the major LORT theaters for example, to spearhead and champion the project. Think of what the Met did with Tessitura - it completely revolutionized marketing and fundraising for performing arts organizations.

Gwydion has written a marvellous blueprint that would indeed, be very useful if...and here comes the if...the major theaters that we all want to see produce our work had a real interest in discovering new work, as opposed to producing the one or two new playwrights every season who somehow become "hot." My understanding of this could be wrong, but it comes from reading "Outrageous Fortune" too many times to count. If the LORT houses everywhere feel that they must, out of desire to put butts in seats, choose only from the most "marketable" work, then it will still remain a system where the same 3 or 4 "emerging playwrights" show up in everybody's seasons. Look at the number of theatres doing Red this year, or even The Whipping Man; great scripts with proven track records. These are the slots reserved for new work!! How can my unknown play compete with a play recently on Broadway or at Lincoln Center?

So I see this as a great solution, if only this were the actual problem. Unfortunately, I think the real problem remains: even nonprofits want to produce the safest possible new plays, and that translates into everyone doing Circle Mirror Transformation or The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity this year in their "new play slot." Sigh.

I love it. It's provocative, paradigm-shaking stuff. I can easily imagine playwrights--who are often resourceful self-marketers--plugging their stuff into a resource like this in vast numbers, which would indeed give it striking depth and breadth as a repository of available scripts.

What I wonder is whether the gatekeepers who program season (and developmental) slots would use it as much. They will surely still be presented with agent submissions and recommendations from MFA directors--which will continue to enjoy the same advantages that such endorsements and affiliations currently have. They will surely continue to embrace the understandable appeal of working with writers they've worked with before. They will surely continue to be drawn--again, for understandable reasons--to the siren call of proven and popular playwrights and titles that other theaters have programmed successfully. And they will continue to prefer, in many cases, the live showcase of a developmental reading over the chore of reading a playscript's words on a screen. It's easy for me to imagine, meanwhile, schools and amateur theaters continuing to lean on the catalogs of places like French and Playscripts either out of habit or, again, the appeal of having had an outside gatekeeper do some winnowing on their behalf.

The Oracle is, in other words, a brilliant and game-changing idea if both sides use it extensively. Its advantage over open submissions is clear and clever, but its pragmatic advantage over all the other tactics, for the institutions reading the plays, may well seem less persuasive to all but the most doggedly committed literary staffers and new-play evangelists.

(I may well be wrong. I hope I am, and I hope people will point out all the myriad ways in which I'm wrong. Even as I write out this naysaying I'm envisioning a small theater's artistic staff folding the business of searching the Oracle into its weekly work flow and making it work.)

A database form could be created that asks specific questions of those who read the plays. They would be required to indicate their background, ie. literary manager, artistic director, playwright, actor, etc. People would earn street creds by a rating system for the completed evaluation forms. That way you could follow a given AD or LM and know see what they've liked, reviewed etc. You could also determine if the play has bee produced, any comments no the production. You could also choose "theatre companies like ours" and follow stuff they people connected with a particular company have reviewed. Sounds almost like a Spotfiy for plays.

I love this idea. Maybe it's an open-source project so that no one person is bearing the burden of developing it... How to create something like this is beyond my ken, but I really think it's great. We have all this amazing technology available to us, we should see what else it can do.

Sign me up! I've been thinking a lot lately about how we market new works within the industry and the mechanisms used to share Information about plays that are being read, workshopped and produced. Each year hundreds of plays that were deemed worthy by one organization for their festival or season never again see the light of a stage. Often its not because the play isn't working but rather that no one is working for the play. As someone who has been lucky enough to be able to help writers move their works in their past I know it can be done but without a strong system of information distribution works it's hard for agents, playwrights, and artistic and managing director to share their successes. I also believe that more organizations would produce new work if they knew that there were great pieces available that fit their programmatic needs and have a track record. I think your Oracle idea is a wonderful proposal and could be a great start. So count me in. Lets look at some of the models already in existence, pull the best practices from what is working, find someone to fund a pilot and work the kinks out as we go!

So who funds this? Who pays the host, who pays the web designers to create... who pays to maintain? Is it paid for by a generous angel or is it a fee-based structure where the money comes from those submitting? And how much? Yearly fee? And if you don't pay, you get blocked? Is it per play uploaded? SOmething about this already makes me yearn for the (at least attempted) personal submission, the "Hi, I like what your theatre does and this is why my work would fit" process. Plus, once you upload, you're done. At least currently I know who I will probably never hear from! :)

I like this idea as well as any idea that gets people thinking about addressing the issue of access, which I believe is the core issue for the vast majority of playwrights who are struggling to get their work seen, myself included as I have around 8-10 plays and no professional productions. However, if I can offer a counter perspective, if you think about the "major" modern and classic playwrights, didn't most of them have a core group of artists that either championed their work, or were the main collaborators that they worked with? Think O'Neil at The Wharf or Sam Shepherd with The Magic? Shakespeare or Moliere. Just a few because the list is quite extensive. So couldn't also an option of creating opportunities for playwrights be more about connecting with a core group of artists, creating a situation where your work and theirs is championed at the same time and thus attention to you rises? I tend to reject the idea of the playwright as this singular entity that exists somehow outside of the periphery of the production/artistic team, and I don't think you are expressly advocating for that here, but it does set up this almost anonymous system. So I wonder if creating more inclusive opportunities rather than an e-flood of the market with materials may be a stronger solution, albeit slower, in the long run.

My question is who will create this oracle, administer it, advertise it, etc.? Sure, it sounds great, but without someone (or many someones, based on the vast scope of it) who is DEDICATED to making it happen, it will end up like so many other good ideas...dead in no time.

This would certainly be an intriguing experiment, although difficult to jump start. Of this much I am certain: it would be a curious sensation to submit not to a particular theater (where I have done the research and targeted my submission as best I may) but to a large, necessarily faceless storage facility. The penitent playwright would then be unable to say, "There, I have submitted my best work to (fill in name of theater here)." Instead, that same playwright would say, "I have now submitted my best material to the Oracle. I sure hope somebody notices." The actual effect might be exactly the same––and yes, the Oracle might well be advantageous––but the psychology of all this would be daunting for the Army of 10,000 and their 10,000 scripts. The fact is, I like doing my own research, and I take pride in targeting my submissions! Now. Do I often feel that "the system" is broken? Sure, I suppose. But does that imply there is a solution? History––and the history of successful art, and art patronage––suggests otherwise. Sometimes good work rises to the top; sometimes it does not. We playwrights should move forward, with or without an Oracle, comfortable or at least not overly angry with the uncertainties of our vocation. For so long as art is subjective (which it surely always is, except in certain totalitarian regimes), writing (or locating) good work will always be difficult. This is not to say we shouldn't try to level the playing field and speed the plow––and I do salute you, Gwydion, for thinking outside the proverbial box––but the nature of the beast will always resist the comforting ease of a clear, efficient solution.

"the emperor has no technology" LOL __ I also target my submissions very carefully. I'm starting to develop relationships with literary managers this way. __ One set of tags that could be added is indicating what kinds of people might like the play. For example, I'm writing a play based on my experiences in the dot-com industry. So I might tag that play “Web professionals, tech people, young professionals.” A theater that has a lot of people like that in their audience could look at that play, and a theater that doesn't, wouldn't. __ Of course, this means that playwrights have to think about who would love their play. Also, the directors and literary managers searching this database would have to trust that playwrights have tagged their play accurately.

So glad you articulated this. I too want something like this, but having worked on dozens of web projects, these questions come to mind: Who gets access? Is it open, free to anyone? Do theatres and playwrights get "vetted"? Is it only for professionals? (What about schools, a big bulk of working playwright's markets)? Are whole texts available, or just synopses? How does this differ from Doolee or really good publisher's websites? Who pays for it? Do playwrights and theatres subcribe? Does an institution underwrite and manage it? Can there be a role for agents and publishers, who are part of the new play ecosystem? How are copyrights protected?

Emily, those are all really terrific and important logistical questions, I agree (as a veteran producer and creative director of about fifteen years' worth of web projects). My broad answer to all of them is that it should be as open and inclusive and accessible as possible. Specific answers will of course need to follow as part of the development process. In any event, what I think is more important, first and foremost, is the paradigm shift: giving up the flawed fiction of submissions and embracing a new way of connecting plays to the people who want to produce them.

It could be Internet based. Each playwright could host their materials on their own website, just all using a standard format that could be centrally accessed. It would sure beat trying to track down playwrights through agents (those who have one) and trying to get copies of their work.The central record could just hold the aggregate data and allow sifting and searching 'I want a play with 4 actors set in the UK about aliens' or "I want a ghost story with 7 actors set in the nineteenth century".

Gwydion- thanks for having these thoughts!
"The New Play Oracle would facilitate a sector-wide paradigm shift from submissions toward searching." This concept is HUGE on may levels!
I do also wonder why we don't put more thought into innovating and creating new forms to counteract the fact that there are only 1000 new plays done a year and 10,000 writers. I would also love to hear from you how you could use the Oracle as a method of updating an antequated system.

GO GWYDION!! Thanks so much for your thoughts! Inspiring!

Fascinating and filled with promise. I can't help but jump immediately to an issue I perceive with the idea - not sure why that happens because I couldn't be a bigger champion of using technology to get at some solutions. Not to mention everything has to start with an idea. But, here goes: the New Play Oracle made me think right away of the Cultural Data Project (http://www.culturaldata.org). I'm an administrator and the CDP would be the closest working model to what you're talking about with the Oracle on the artistic side. For those that don't know, the theory behind CDP is that if there is a single repository for arts organizations to enter data from their yearly financial statements into it would make less work for them. Funders sign up and set parameters within the system for financial reports they want to see based on their guidelines. The org. then generates a report based on the funder's pre-entered criteria - once they have updated their profile - and prints it out to include in the application to the funder. Theoretically, it should reduce the number of times in a fiscal year the org. has to cram the square pegs of their financial statements into the round holes of a funder's budget form. The problem I've come across is that not enough funders use the program for it to be effective - yet it is required by the City of New York so all NYC-based orgs. have to use it. In this same light, you'd truly need all 10,000 plays and all 1,000 production slots updating the system for the Oracle to be a total replacement for the current system. I wonder what the reality of getting all 10,000 plays per year into the Oracle is - even if people are willing to use the system would they be on top of updating it? And what happens to those who don't use it? ALL that being said...I like it!