Submitting Like A Man

You Couldn’t Even Send Me An Email? (And Other Problems With Submissions)

This is the fifth installment of the blog series Submitting Like A Man (SLAM), created by writer Mya Kagan. The project examines what happens when Mya resubmits scripts to previously rejected opportunities, this time using a man’s name. For more on SLAM, check out submittinglikeaman.com or follow @theSLAMblog or @Mya_Mya.

Anyone who's spent time doing script submissions will tell you that it's not uncommon to never hear back from the opportunities to which you've submitted. The notification window comes and goes, and at some point you assume the lack of a response signals your rejection. My term for this is “Default Response,” although I should probably call it the “You Couldn’t Even Send Me An Email?” Response; I think notifications are a courtesy writers are owed. Plus, an email costs nothing but a little bit of [an intern’s] time.

When I first started out, I hated blind submissions. I was networking a lot, having successful productions, and building a reputation I was proud of. Blind submissions felt like they threw away all that hard work.

In the last few weeks, Max has received a couple of these non-responses, as I’ve realized a few notification periods are overdue. Personally, I am not surprised that Max is getting more rejections. This business is tough and competitive, even for a writer like Max who has been engineered to fit the current prevailing demographic. And since I’ve already spoken about Max’s first rejection and what it “means,” what I actually want to discuss is what we could do to make the submission process a more fair system that promotes diversity. While obnoxious, “Default/You Couldn't Even Send Me An Email” Responses are more an issue of courtesy than parity. It’s other ailments that are entangling a system that’s supposed to be an equitable open door, intended even for those without agents or fancy MFA degrees or an Off-Broadway production.

Take, for example, submission fees. I recently posed a question to my readers on this subject because I have a moral and practical opposition to submission fees, but a competition to which I'd previously submitted now had a $10 fee, and if Max was going to reapply, I’d have to pay it. (The consensus was “different gender, same principle” and an interesting alternate solution was proposed.) And while I did talk about the ethical issues with asking writers to pay a fee, I did not highlight the other huge issue, which is that submission fees set apart the writers with disposable income from the writers without spare funds.

Because here's the thing: For those fortunate enough to have sizable savings, or who earn six figures at a hedge fund by day and write plays by night, a few hundred dollars per year in submission fees might not significantly impact quality of life. You might just pay it, even if you understood the moral issue with the fees. And your scripts certainly deserve just as much of a chance as those of the playwright who makes $15,000 per year as a birthday party mascot, but the result is that the submission opportunities become an open door for the financially secure writer while they are turned into a non-option for the scraping-by writer. And sure, there are countless ways in life that those who have more money are afforded more opportunity, and if you have or earn a good living, it's your right to enjoy the fruits of those labors. You might even like paying the fees because you feel as if you’re using your fortunate position to support the organizations receiving them. But the problem is that the very existence of the fee creates a division between those who can afford it and those who can't, and in the arts, we're supposed to be seeking out a diverse array of voices, not creating “opportunities” that drive away a part of the population.

a woman taking notes
The author at a reading of one of her plays.

The other improvement that would help tremendously in leveling the playing field is making blind submissions a standard practice. When I first started out, I hated blind submissions. I was networking a lot, having successful productions, and building a reputation I was proud of. Blind submissions felt like they threw away all that hard work.

Today, I’ve had a complete reversal on how I feel about the subject. With added experience, both as a playwright and an individual, I’ve come to see how much bias is all around us. Blind submissions let the work speak for itself, and they’ve been shown to work wonders for diversity in other industries; as I’ve previously mentioned, orchestra musicians is a great example. Non-blind submissions allow readers to bring their preexisting judgments to the table instead of making the decision truly about the merits of the work. (If you want to read more on the subject, I recommend Karla Jenning’s earlier HowlRound article, In Praise of Being a Blind Reader.)

So how could we accomplish all of this? I believe that the Dramatists Guild should create industry-wide guidelines for submissions. Establishing no fees and a blind reading policy could do so much to increase fairness. There could even be industry-wide standards for what materials are requested for the evaluation. As it stands now, every group creates their own requirements, and while I understand that an organization funding a program is entitled to ask for the materials they want, it’s unfair to ask writers to jump through hoops—especially because the next submission wants you to jump through an entirely different set of hoops. (These can become so absurd that McSweeney’s has a brilliant parody article: “Playwrights should meet at least two of the following criteria: current resident of Colorado or Delaware; direct descendant of pirates; Capricorn.”) Much like the “Default Responses,” this is not even as issue of equality. Rather, if we streamlined the options, think of how much more playwriting our collective minds could accomplish when we didn't have to constantly stop to translate the artistic statements we wrote last week into Tolkien Elvish.

All this is to say: We can do better. A few simple fixes would allow this to be a more fair process for everyone. In turn, our industry would stand to be a leader of diversity and progressiveness, which is really not a radical idea—it's what the arts has always done.

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The project examines what happens when a woman resubmits scripts to previously rejected opportunities, this time using a man’s name.

Submitting Like a Man

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Great article. And what's with all the major theaters accepting agent submissions only? And how many new playwrights do agents rep that aren't recommended by, or come from MFA Programs? Something has to be done about the bias towards MFA grads. And I say this as someone who has an agent and an MFA. There's a massive problem with submissions in U.S. Theater. The only way to fight it, and get better plays on stage, and more diversity, is blind submissions.

Thank you for the support! Yes, blind submissions need to become standard. It's troubling that so many theatres who say they want to support diversity don't want blind submissions. It's not the only change that needs to happen, but it would be a huge step in the right direction.

THANK YOU FOR THE MAX UPDATE!!! I've worked as a reader for a large non-profit inNYC, a prestigious regional in NJ and a mini-studio / film company inManhattan.... YES! Blind submissions are great! BUT, the truth Isaw was... they don't care who wrote the play, they just really want goodplays! Reading for the movie company was different.... they were all agentand exec submissions and we were doing "coverage"... they wantedratings on the script and the writer. I took those positions because Iwas so frustrated and wanted to know "Why am I not getting in thedoor?" I found all the cliché's are true, but more important I foundthat all the rules to making a good to great script are truetoo! Best answer I discovered was when I was at the regional inJersey. I looked up how my one act play had done in their files. The script received high scores and recommends!!! Why did I never get acall? Why wasn't this the intro to get me on their radar? Why didthey never call me??? The date the scores and comments wereentered into their system..... September 10th, 2001..... AL QUEADA gotme!!!! I think... who knows???

What I think is it's all so hard to crack this profession and we're alwaysfighting dead playwrights and highly successful, talented, living writers....we're all just playing the lottery. I got my first pro production on mynew full length here in L.A. because I was in the Hollywood Fringe in 2014 andthat got me into a theatre company that develops new works! I had towrite a play in front of the membership 20 pages at a time over one year....they made me a member in the first 6 months because they liked my writing. 2 years later 3 members formed a production company and chose my play fortheir first production! They liked the play... it still comes down tothat! KEEP WRITING AND SUBMITTTING!!!! They have to say YESsometimes!!!!

I read for a theatre conference that does blind submissions, and I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment. I think it's also made me a better reader of scripts in general, because of only being focused on reading the work and not thinking about who wrote it and whatever preconceived notions and baggage that came with that knowledge.

There is also the issue of "Who do you know (that I know)?" This is the requirement for the playwright to make a submission with (usually 2) letters of reference. I have taken this up with numerous literary managers and artistic directors and pointed out that this policy makes the letter writer more important than the playwright and the letter more important than the play. I have received pages of explanations in response, when an intern didn't abruptly cut me short: "We don't deal with playwrights. We deal with agents." In the time it took to write the explanation, the literary manager or artistic director could have read at least ten pages. This demonstrates a terrible lack of respect for the playwright and the enormous ego of the theater decision makers. There is also the case when a literary manager or artistic director requests a play and then never gives the courtesy of a response. Again, a lack of respect for the writers who allow them to have a career.

Yes, I agree, there is an overall lack of respect for the playwright in so many of these submission issues. And the recommendation letter requirement is definitely another issue. There can be a brilliant play in the pile, but if another play has a recommendation letter from Edward Albee, it's almost certainly going to get special consideration. We need to let the work speak for itself.