…be not stupid.
Yes, the life of a playwright is largely one of glamour, filled with expensive drinks, adoring fans, tremendous checks, beautiful actresses/actors, and, of course, huge vats of the finest uncut Peruvian cocaine. It’s okay. You get used to it after awhile.
But…there’s also the part where you have to look for submission opportunities, and sometimes theatres can get a little particular in that regard. It’s their theatre..what the heck. That said, the following text is from a theatre in Virginia, and it sounds like their literary manager…well…he has issues, all right? There’s actually some decent advice here, but the fact that anyone would post the following epic regarding submissions–AND THEN POINT OUT THAT PLAYWRIGHTS WHO WON’T READ THE ENTIRE THING SHOULDN’T CONSIDER SUBMITTING–is just, well…amusing. Painfully so. Printing this on my blog probably won’t endear me to Theatre Roanoke, but at least it’s not mentioned as a disqualification.
Don’t say you haven’t been warned. AND MAKE THAT ENVELOPE EASY TO OPEN, DAMN IT!
Studio Roanoke, a small 50-75 seat storefront theatre dedicated to building a home for new plays and the people who create them, takes submissions year round for consideration in our regular season of new works, and readings. We proudly abide by the Dramatists Guild of America’s Bill of Rights (http://www.dramatistsguild.com/files/DGBillofRights.pdf)
GENERAL SUBMISSIONS: While the primary mission of Studio Roanoke is to support the MFA Playwriting Program at Hollins University by providing production opportunities to students in the Playwright’s Lab, we do accept and sometimes produce outside submissions. Unpublished full-length and one-act plays of any style or genre except adaptations. Previous productions acceptable. Preference given to small casts with minimal production requirements. Writer paid $220 for an 8 performance run (if selected for production). While the writer is welcome in rehearsals and performance, no promise to provide accommodations or to reimburse travel expenses is extended. If the playwright is unable to be in attendance, we will work with the writer by email and phone to the extent practicable to allow the writer to have approval of production elements, regular rehearsal reports and creative communication with director and design teams. All productions are minimally produced developmental productions, not premieres. Productions are intentionally limited to a $500 budget for props, lights, set, and costume. This is so that emphasis is on storytelling rather than spectacle and so that problems in the writing are not solved by production elements. The entire purpose of these productions is to help prepare the script for a premiere at a later stage.
LUNCHBOX SUBMISSIONS: Short, unpublished plays (25-35 minutes in length) with an emphasis on family friendly material that is appropriate for a general audience at lunchtime. While your gripping drama about assisted suicide might be great writing, if people won’t feel like going back to work after hearing it, it isn’t right for this series. Small cast, minimal production requirements preferred. Plays should be complete works, no cuttings of longer material. No adaptations or musicals, please. Writer paid $25 and provided with DVD of the reading and moderated talk back. No provision for travel to attend rehearsals or the reading.
PRESENTATION PROPOSALS: If you have a suitcase piece which is self contained and currently touring that might fit both our mission and space, let us know! Send a complete project description with supporting materials, press kit, and other useful information (accommodations requirements, dates available, minimal compensation, etc) and if we’re interested in hosting your show, we’ll see what we can work out in order to make that happen.
For example, we’re hoping to bring Sean Lewis’ KILLADELPHIA and at least one of Mike Daisey’s monologues.
OUR MISSION: Dedicated to new, exciting, and innovative theatrical works of the highest quality, we provide a space where writers, performers and audience can come together in a spirit of community and collaboration to expand our understanding of what is possible in the theatre. We also offer educational programs and support for artist development for Southwestern Virginia. By working in concert with other arts organizations, we will strive to make Roanoke a nationally recognized ignition point for new play development.
A paper copy of your submission is preferred, because we hate reading plays from a computer screen but can’t afford to absorb the printing costs of electronic submissions. Please include your resume with the production history of the play. Also, include a letter of inquiry which mentions why you think you as a playwright would benefit from production at Studio Roanoke, and how you see your play fitting into our mission.
Send your script to:
PO Box 1749
Roanoke, VA 24008
We don’t return scripts (they usually have coffee stains and scribbled notes anyway) so send only a business sized reply SASE with the submission. We recycle scripts we don’t hang onto or refer to other theatres.
There is no reader’s fee, but remember that the only way to ensure that we have the very best people reading your work with the limited resources we have available without charging a fee to cover compensating those readers is to encourage you to send us only your very best work.
Put your correct contact information on the front page of the script. This seems obvious, doesn’t it? But, right here I have a script with no envelope and no cover letter. Don’t count on the hands of many readers passing your script around to keep the envelope it came in and the cover letter attached to it. If the script doesn’t have the contact information on the cover, I have to assume the playwright isn’t that interested in hearing back from us because I don’t have time to track them down.
Number your pages. Try to figure out how to not make the cover page, character description page, dedication page, and/or production history page included in your page count. Very often theatres use the rule of thumb that one page of dialogue is one minute of stage time in order to make an educated guess about running times. If your page count of actual text isn’t accurate you might be putting yourself at a disadvantage. And pretty much I want to be reading your play, not subtracting numbers to get an accurate page count.
Be selective in your submissions. If you asked every person you saw out on a date, eventually you’d get a date—but it’s unlikely either you or your date would find the experience satisfying, and everyone who turned you down would remember you for all the wrong reasons. Before you submit your play, look at the kinds of plays your target theatre produces. If they mostly do plays like Big River and your play is a lot like Bat Boy…chances are they won’t find a spot for your play in their season because it won’t reflect the needs and interests of their audience. It has nothing to do with whether or not your play is good. Read the theatre’s mission statement. If doing new plays isn’t part of their core mission, find a theatre that is passionate about new plays and consider submitting there. Find a theatre that you’d like to go to as an audience member, that is doing plays you’d like to see, and reflects your personal philosophy and you’re going to have a much better shot at building a creative relationship that is mutually rewarding. Never treat submitting your play like a lottery or gambling. Put at least as much thought into where you submit it as you did into writing it.
Read and follow submission guidelines. I can’t tell you how important this is, and how few playwrights bother to do it. For my part, if you can’t be bothered to read our submission guidelines, I don’t see why I should be bothered to read your play. Most theatres who do new plays post their submission policies. If you can’t find them, write the theatre and ask what they are. If they don’t accept unsolicited scripts, don’t send them one.
Use a standard format. One of my biggest irritations as a reader in a literary department is people who don’t use a standard format. This either indicates that you don’t care about conventions or that you are inexperienced enough not to know they exist. Either is a signal that no matter how good your play is, you might be difficult to work with. What good does it do if you make your play difficult to read? Most literary offices are staffed with underpaid or unpaid readers who are months behind in the piles of plays they have to get through. Under those conditions, anything that makes it hard to read means that it is less likely to get read. Probably the worst offender is someone who center justifies not just the character names but everything else, so that the whole play looks like a poem. Strange fonts, illustrations, peculiar paper are not the best way to get noticed as a writer. The best way to get noticed is to have the first 10 pages of your play be really exciting examples of excellent writing. If you are using Final Draft script writing software, DO NOT format as a screenplay. When you create a new document, use the pull down menu and select one of the three stage play formats. They put them in there for a reason. If you are unfamiliar with standard stage play formatting, I recommend Writing Your First Play, by Stephen Sossaman. I wish everyone who submitted a play to me had read that book first.
Never submit electronically unless the submission guidelines specifically request that you do. Most literary offices get a large amount of scripts and stack the envelopes so that they can be read in the order in which they are received. This can often take months if they have a small number of readers. It isn’t fair to try to jump to the head of the line with an emailed script. It also isn’t fair to ask the theatre to absorb the cost of printing your script, especially if they aren’t charging you a submission fee.
Don’t make the envelope you send difficult to open. We know your script is precious cargo, but it isn’t likely anyone will steal it or that it will fall out in transit if you use a new envelope. Excessive tape only makes the person who will read your play cranky before they get to the first page. That doesn’t help anyone.
Don’t submit anything but your play, a resume, and a cover letter. If you have reviews or production stills, or other supporting materials mention that they are available upon request in your cover letter. The theatre doesn’t want to know how the play was done by someone else, they want to imagine how they will produce it themselves. A resume will tell them a lot about you and your experience, and that is useful information for a theatre to have, but it won’t persuade them to do a play they don’t like no matter how many credentials you have on your resume. I’ve gotten all sorts of strange things in submission packets—including an inexplicable full color Xerox of a peacock. Just send me your play. Don’t send me a 5 page check list of plays you’ve written asking me to pick the ones I’d like to read. I have enough plays on my desk without filling out your questionnaire.
Include an SASE for response, not return of the play. Theatres have incredibly tight budgets and saving us the cost of a stamp is a good way to show you understand that. You’ve probably always heard that you should include an SASE for return of the manuscript, but don’t bother. You can’t really use the script for anything after it’s been read once because it will be dog-eared, have coffee stains on it, and maybe even scribbled notes. Just include a note saying that if the play does not suit the needs of the theatre, kindly recycle the script. A business sized envelope with a stamp is sufficient for a rejection or notice that they are considering your script for production.
Do not submit multiple scripts. Pick your best play and submit it on its own, each of your plays should be submitted separately and not as part of a bulk offering. Wait until you have gotten a response from the first play before sending the next. I have had playwrights send as many as 8 plays in a single package. That package is routinely shifted to the back of the stack because just looking at it feels like too much work. If, for whatever reason the reader doesn’t like the first play in that package, reading the next one will be harder, and the one after that even harder. If only for your own mental health, why risk having your entire body of work rejected all at once?
Do Not Send Your Headshot. Even if you are also an actor, nothing will mystify a reader more than pulling out a headshot with an acting resume when they expect to pull out a play. Let us concentrate on imagining what the characters might look like, as nobody really reads a play and wonders what the playwright looks like.
Be prepared to wait. Most literary departments are woefully understaffed and have a minimum of 6 months response time. Usually it takes them longer than that. >If the submission guidelines say a 6 month response time, don’t contact the theatre about your script until after that time has passed. If they reply saying they have your script but haven’t gotten to it yet, wait until they get back to you. Contacting the theatre by email or by phone more often than that to ask about your script is only going to get you flagged as impatient and difficult to work with. Many writers include a postcard to acknowledge receipt by the theatre. This works fine if the theatre opens the envelope as soon as they get it, but most theatres don’t open the envelope until they are ready to read the play. This means I send out a lot of postcards and response envelopes on the same day. If you’re really concerned about knowing if the theatre got your script, send it first class with a delivery confirmation number that you can check online.
Be prepared to be rejected. It does not reflect on the quality of your work. Rejection is horrible, everyone hates it, and most of us hate doing it. Consider the math, though. I get, on average, 7-12 scripts a week, 52 weeks a year. Most theatres have a very small number of reading and production slots for new plays. Within that limited number of slots a great many factors go into play selection beyond whether or not the play being considered is good. I have had to pass on a lot of very good plays for reasons that had nothing to do with the text, but everything to do with the balance of the season planning, the available resources, actors, directors, etc.
Keep track of what you sent, when you sent it, and to whom you sent it. Keep a submission log, and file your response letters. Sending the same play to the same theatre over and over again is bad form.
Have a professional online presence. A lot of young people are scratching their heads about why their very professional resume isn’t getting them jobs after college. A big part of the problem is that employers are perfectly able to do a google of the prospective employee and don’t always like what they find on that person’s personal web page, FaceBook or MySpace pages. Have your fun, but remember that theatres will google a playwright they are interested in working with to find reviews, production history, credits, and so forth. If they find a webpage where you’ve got a lot of blog posts complaining about theatres you’ve worked with or a bunch of photos of you the theatre would rather not be associated with…well, your play better darn good to take the risk you represent.
Frequently Asked Questions:
What are you looking for?
Glad you asked. Here are the reader guidelines we give to our volunteer readers and the evaluation form they fill out. Read through the evaluation materials and then try to objectively evaluate your script the way that one of our readers might. It could help you to create a better draft BEFORE you actually submit it to us.
Title: Is the title appropriate to the play? Is it intriguing?
Writing: What is the overall quality of the writing? Is it plodding and hackneyed or fresh and inventive? Is it poetic, prose, or a combination? Does the author seem knowledgeable about the subject matter? When there is heightened language used, is it appropriate and justified? Cite examples of representative lines as support.
The Characters: Are all characters, both main and supporting, drawn fairly? Does each act, react, and speak individually? Does each have a clear voice? Do they change? Are those changes understandable in context or merely convenient for the sake of plot? Are their changes in mood, belief, or objective plausible? Are their voices consistent throughout? Is each character interesting and unique in some way or stereotypes? Does each have an important objective? Does the Protagonist have interesting and relevant flaws or weaknesses? Is the antagonist fairly drawn with some redeeming qualities? Are there any characters which are unnecessary or which an actor would not wish to play?
The Story: Is the situation interesting rather than trite? Does the situation involve universal human experiences? Is the interest rooted in emotion rather than physical action? Does the play investigate the character’s internal/secret lives or remain on the surface? Are there enough complications to raise the dramatic action? Is there rising action all the way to the climax or are there long periods without forward progress? Are the complications relevant and interesting? Is the pace fast enough to maintain interest yet restrained enough to generate suspense?
The Subplot: Is there a subplot? Is it relevant to the main plot?
The Dramatic Question: Is the plot clear? Do we know what the main character wants, why he or she wants it, and what is keeping them from getting it? Does the Protagonist’s need drive the play? Is the protagonist’s need emotionally important? Does the protagonist largely determine the outcome?
The Resolution: Is it clear at the end if the protagonist has succeeded or failed? Are the big questions answered? Was the outcome in doubt or was it predictable? The Central Question: Is there a deeper question being asked by the play than whether or not the hero will succeed? Is this question made clear early in the play? Is it significant and relevant enough to hold audience interest? Is it also resolved with the climax?
The Theme: Is there a moral lesson being taught by the play? Does the theme arise naturally from the action? Is it clear from the text or does a character announce the theme in a speech at the end of the play? Are the ideas behind the play treated with new insight or as slogans for familiar positions? Is this play about issues or characters confronting issues? Does the writer preach or explore? Is there a balance between thought and emotion? Are opposing viewpoints treated fairly and given sufficient weight?
Structure: Do the divisions between scenes and acts fall naturally? Is there a logic to the progression? Is each scene worth including? Is there action which might be better handled as exposition, or vice versa? Do the scenes have a late point of attack or does each “ramp up” to the important action? Does each scene have its own rising action and climax? Is the length appropriate to the piece? Is it too long or too short? (One acts are typically 15 to 60 minutes, full length are 90+ minutes.) Does the opening immediately engage an audience? Is the conflict introduced early enough? Is the denouement brief enough to maintain interest? Is the ending clear? Does the piece end with a period, question mark, or an ellipse?
Dialogue: Does every line move the play forward? Is there unnecessary repetition? Is there a rich subtext or is it all on the surface? Does the play use dramatic irony for character revelation? Are there actions which contradict the dialogue for dramatic juxtaposition? Does each character have a distinct voice?
Theatricality: Is there spectacle? Does the play (in addition to being a good story) come across as potentially good theatre? Will it be interesting to look at as well as listen to? Is music integral to the play? What are the degrees of artificiality? How do they support the story and characters? Is the production meant to recognize the presence of the audience (Presentational) or ignore them (Representational)? How are the Five Elements of Production (Set, Props, Costumes, Makeup, Lights, and Sound) addressed in the script? Are there any potential production problems in any of these areas?
Style: What is the primary performance mode? Is it realistic or fantastic? What are the distinctive features of the play that define its style? Could it be directed in a variety of styles or is it rooted in something specific? (Naturalism, Realism, Expressionism, Epic?)
Aesthetics: Does the play have a specific or universal appeal? If specific, what are the benefits of approving production? Does the play give us new insight into the chaos of daily life or strengthen our ability to face those struggles? Does it create an empathy or sympathy which might not have existed otherwise?
Sources and Production History: What is the production history of this piece? Has it been work shopped or produced before? If so, in what capacity? When? By whom?
3 thoughts on “Rule Number One…”
It took me three days to read this missive. Dear God…""be not stupid is so very acurate.
This is hilarious; I'd love to know who wrote it, because it's clear that years and years of frustrated experience when into crafting this. And while the tone's a tad arch, you know what? Most of this is really good advice. It's astonishing how many writers seem unaware that they're submitting in such a way as to inform the theater, "I can't follow directions and I don't have time to facilitate your process, ergo you should fork over your facilities, funds and actors to me."Of course not YOU, Mr. P……
Well, thanks Mead, though, over the years, I've made my share of mistakes. At one infamous point, I sent out a bunch of submissions of a play that had great potential for edgy theatres because the thing's so goddamn evil that it's killed at the box office every time it's been done–you probably know which one I'm talking about. But, instead of sending out a professional, neutral query package, I wrote this crazed cover letter and synopsis that tried to capture of anarchic spirit of the play. The result: *crickets* I later looked at the query packaqe again, and it was utterly cringe-inducing. Painful now just to think of it. (Maybe enough time's passed that they'll have forgotten about it and I can try again. Hmm. Not likely.)So…you learn. But when I got down to this guy's instructions on how to prepare an envelope, I had to walk away from the computer to catch my breath. It was like watching vintage Monty Python for the first time…make it stop! Absolutely awesome. I agree that I think he really means well. (Maybe.) It reminds me a certain contest we both know about which has rules that read like precinct-captain instructions on election day."Does your play have words that actors can say? This is called dialogue. Does it have people things happen to? These are called 'characters.' Your play should have both dialogue and characters…."