This is the second entry in a continuing series of guest posts. Our contributor is Donna Hoke, my fellow playwright and Dramatists Guild representative from western New York. Her post was inspired, as she explains below, by the seemingly endless discussion about open submission policies (or the lack thereof). Donna is a keen thinker with some practical suggestions and I’m very glad to share them. You can follow her on Twitter @donnahoke.
Recent conversations on Twitter have brought to light the truth about the seeming void into which we playwrights submit our work. In short, what we hoped was true actually is: literary managers are not, in fact, lining their cats’ litter boxes with our plays; they are merely tremendously overworked and have little time to read and respond to submissions.
We playwrights—who spend inordinate amounts of time discussing the seeming futility of the open submission process—were happy to hear that a lack of response didn’t always indicate a lack of attention. But does it matter if, in the end, the result is the same? Too many unread plays, too much rejection by silence, and next to no productions: results fostered, at least in part, by a broken system.
I’d like to suggest that the system can be fixed in ways that will promote better communication between playwrights and the people to whom we submit our work, improvements that just might increase those needle-in-a-haystack odds of production through submission, even slightly. Because while open submission can work, I believe it can work better. Here’s how:
1) Narrow your submission window. Instead of allowing plays to come in year-round, create a short window of no more than two months and commit to reading and responding to every play received during that window within a year’s time. I know, that could mean that Playwright X might miss the window, and Playwright X might have written the Next Great Play—but if Playwright X’s play isn’t going to get read because there’s mold growing on it, then the argument is moot. And maybe if Playwright X misses the window, she’ll try harder to make it next time.
2) Narrow the number of submissions you accept. If you don’t want to narrow the window, how about shortening the list? Change your submission guidelines to state something like the following: “We begin accepting submissions for any given year on January 1; when we reach 200, submissions are closed for the year.” Then, if it just so happens that you’re all caught up on your play reading before the year is out, you can keep reading what’s been submitted after that first 200. Nobody’s going to know if you let that list slide to 250 or 300. The bottom line: don’t accept more plays than you can read and respond to.
And the responding—in any form—is important. I know that theaters don’t always like to respond because some playwrights push back, but responding does several things: 1) It shows respect for the work we’ve done and our efforts to share it with you 2) It encourages a playwright whose work intrigued you to submit again, so that 3) You can start developing a relationship that might actually lead to something productive. Responding helps to grow fruitful associations that are so important, but if you’ve got more plays lying around then you can possibly attend to, the fruit dies on the vine.
3) Reward your ten-minute playwrights. If you have a ten-minute play festival and several of the plays really connect to you and/or your audience, invite the playwrights to submit full-length plays and give them special-pile privileges. If you decide to produce one, you can remind your audience how much they liked the short play they saw by the same author and voila!—you have name recognition. Many playwrights participate in ten-minute play festivals in order to make connections and realize some success. It’s good juju to reward them for this, particularly if any of the following are true:
- Your festival charges a fee.
- The festival does not pay royalties.
- The festival makes money for your theater.
- Your theater accepts agent-only submissions.
4) Reward your reading participants. We all know there is money available to theaters that do new work—and also that for too many theaters, a reading series is the only new work they do. If this is you, don’t promise production of one of the scripts the following year if that isn’t going to happen. And, as with the short play festivals, if a script really resonates, see what you can do to help it get before the eyes of someone who might actually produce it. Maybe even recommend it to an agent you have a relationship with. Then let us know you’ve done that, so that we can follow up, and the script doesn’t get lost in yet another stack.
5) Tell the truth. If your theater has no intention of producing a brand new play by an unknown—either to the whole world or just to you—close your open submissions. It might come off as elitist, but at least it’s honest. The way things are now, in the practical corners of our hearts, we know that we don’t stand a chance against established names or someone you have a great relationship with, but as long as you have open submissions, we hold out hope. And waste time that could be spent writing.
I read a blog post not too long ago that also suggested the system is broken, and further suggested that “There’s a small cadre of playwrights whose works, like salmon, swim along national byways through New York City and around the regions. They are The Selected, receiving a kind of Good Housekeeping seal of approval from sundry dramaturgs, most of whom graduated from the Yale School of Drama and other institutions of its ilk. And suddenly, their plays are being developed in the New Play fortresses such as the Sundance Theatre Institute and at South Coast Repertory’s Pacific Playwrights Festival and the Alley Theatre’s New Play Initiative in Houson.” Neither the author of that post nor I are suggesting that these playwrights are not good or worthy, just that they are not the only ones who are, and that there must be a better way to ensure that a select group does not get the lion’s share of attention just because it’s easier to do it that way.
For many of us, it’s not even about the money; we just want to get our work in front of audiences. So away from the issues presented in this blog post, I believe many of the above suggestions can help. We don’t want a slice of the big green cheese—just some realistic opportunity. To be fair, there are theaters that employ some of these practices, but not nearly enough. If every theater that doesn’t adopted one or two of these ideas, maybe change would begin. And if that’s not possible, please help us understand why.
The ideas expressed above are a contribution to the ongoing intellectual discourse about theater. Though I’m honored to share them, they represent the thinking of their author, not necessarily my own. If you’d like to make a contribution, too, just let me know. Provocative, smart, and even dangerous discourse is always welcome.