Playwrights and the New Play Exchange

People say that if you really want to experience the seedy underbelly of humanity, to uncover our darkest impulses and encounter people at their absolute ugliest, you really need look no further than the comments section on pretty much any article you find anywhere on the internet. But I am here to tell you all today that there is actually one circle of Hell even deeper than that one: tech support.

Now, I knew you were going to laugh when I wrote that line, because picking on tech support people is easy. But I am not talking about having to call tech support. I’m talking about having to BE tech support. Because being tech support, I promise you, is MUCH WORSE than calling it. Being tech support means that you pretty much only ever hear from people when they’re tired, cranky, confused, completely at wit’s end, furious, disappointed, or (shudder) all of the above. Being tech support means trying to help those people solve problems you didn’t create while staying even-handed and objective in the face of all these super-intense feelings. Being tech support is exhausting and demanding and it absolutely tries your patience like you would not believe.

And I should know, because for the last six months, I’ve been tech support for the New Play Exchange. There are more than 800 conversation threads in my history; that’s a healthy amount of email for six months, and it doesn’t even include the hundreds and hundreds of questions I’ve answered on various social media platforms and when I’ve presented at conferences. (And I bet some of those emails were exchanged with at least a few of you, too, by the way. Though here’s a little secret: I actually use a pseudonym so as not to invite personal conversation in what happens to be a shared support system, because I’m only one of three people answering requests for help.) But allow me to contextualize this experience a bit further for you, because I really want you to understand what it’s been like for me.

Imagine spending half a decade working on a project that really could not be any closer to your heart. Traveling all over the country meeting with people to talk about what the project could be, one day, before it even existed. Trying to excite people about what you’re working on and solicit their feedback and ask for their support. Fielding a million questions. Relentlessly pushing yourself to improve what you’re doing. Working for peanuts almost the whole time. And then you introduce the world to what you’ve done, and someone who spent two minutes and ten bucks to get access to your project writes you a furious, devout, foam-at-the-mouth email about how awful and enraging some tiny little detail is and why that tiny little detail actually means that you’re a fundamentally bad human being with a flawed vision. In other words, it’s exactly like sitting through a talkback after a reading of one of your plays. Every single day. For six months.

So, does it surprise you that the director of the New Play Exchange project would answer tech support requests? Because it shouldn’t. The mission I’ve been tasked with is to make sure the platform we’re building really works for real people trying to use it, and I don’t believe I can complete that task without hearing from those people first-hand and understanding what they’re experiencing. So I put myself right there on the front lines, and I’m really glad I did, because in all that email, in all those support requests, I have learned a TON. Not only about the New Play Exchange, but about the perilous state of the modern dramatist. And now that six months have passed, I want to share a few bits of precious knowledge derived from real New Play Exchange case studies. Call it Tech Support Wisdom for Playwrights. But before I do, I want to make sure that everybody knows what the New Play Exchange is. (Skip the following two paragraphs if you do.)

The New Play Exchange is a platform designed to connect playwrights and producers built for the common good of the new play sector. Developed by the National New Play Network in partnership with Chicago Dramatists, Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas, the Playwrights’ Center, and the Playwrights Foundation, the New Play Exchange is supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. It’s serious business.

On the New Play Exchange, playwrights create profiles, upload scripts, add synopses and links to audio files and a development history and a production history, and then tag those scripts with all kinds of metadata, from cast size to genre to subject matter keywords. Producers can then use those metadata to search the New Play Exchange for scripts to consider. They can write recommendations of any plays they love and record private notes about the plays they’re considering, and any day now they’ll be able to add opportunities, too. They’ll set a bunch of criteria for an opportunity, and then the New Play Exchange will automatically notify playwrights if they have plays that are eligible. You won’t have to search for opportunities anymore. They’ll come right to your inbox. And you’ll be able to tag your plays for those opportunities with the click of a button. And then there are a bunch of social features, too. You can “watch” your favorite dramaturgs and literary managers to make sure you keep up with the hot new plays people are finding, and you can “watch” playwrights, too, to make sure you get notified whenever they upload a new script. And there’s more coming down the road soon, too. But that’s the basic idea.

The first bit of Tech Support Wisdom was inspired by the few dozen people who’ve asked why they haven’t been contacted yet about a production after they posted a script on the New Play Exchange. I sometimes wonder if these are people who are either super-hopeful or super-impatient, but what I mostly think is that too many playwrights really need to re-set their expectations in a significant way. Because let me run some numbers by you — and you’d better brace yourself, because they aren’t pretty. Are you ready?

There are about 15,000 to 25,000 playwrights working in the United States right now. Let’s call it 20,000 just to make it an even number. And those 20,000 playwrights seem to create about one new play per year, on average. Which means that there are about 20,000 new plays per year entering the cultural ecosystem. At the same time, there are about 2,000 professional world premieres of new plays in the United States every year. So let that sink in. That’s 20,000 new plays and only 2,000 world premieres every twelve months. The unavoidable, mathematical conclusion is that 90% of all new plays NEVER get produced. Only one out of ten ever go from the page to the stage. So if the average playwright writes one new play a year, that playwright can reasonably expect one world premiere production per decade. One. World. Premiere. Per. Decade.

Raise your hand if you’ve had at least one world premiere of your work in the last decade. Keep it up if you’ve had at least two. Congratulations! You’re officially above average. (Does two world premieres in a decade feel like beating the odds? Because it is.) Now keep that hand up for three world premieres in the last decade. Four world premieres. Five. See, those of you with your hands raised aren’t just beating the odds, you’re totally CRUSHING them. But I bet even for most of you, it still feels like it’s not enough opportunity. Right?

Again, ninety percent of all new plays ever written never get produced, but for some reason, we all assume that we’re the ten percent every time. That every play we ever write will end up on a professional stage, because isn’t that how it works? Well, no, that isn’t actually how it works at all. Because first of all, lots and lots of the plays we all write just really aren’t half as good as we think they are. But even if every single one was a work of sheer genius, there are still more plays that are deserving of productions than available production slots. Period. And we just don’t get that. Because we playwrights generally have a terrible understanding of what success looks like in our field. Which is frequent and unavoidable failure.

So those same tech support emails from playwrights asking us why they haven’t been contacted yet? They’ve inspired my second bit of Tech Support Wisdom, which is that a lot of us are completely ignorant about the new play selection process. We have no idea how the average artistic director selects a season, and we definitely have NO idea how long it takes. Because I get those emails like two months or three weeks or even sometimes six completely unrealistic days after the playwright first uploaded a play, which speaks to how many utter misapprehensions we’re all under.

At some level, I feel like too many playwrights still think that every theater out there has this HUGE list of plays they’re just reading through, one after the other, until they find five or six they really love and roll them all together into a season. We all still think that if we just cram our plays into as many of those lists as possible, we’re bound to get selected. And a few of us think of the New Play Exchange as the mother of all lists. The Uber-List. A few of us think of you just cram your play into that One Master List and every artistic director will eventually read it. But I’m here to tell you that the new play selection process doesn’t work that way at all. And neither does the New Play Exchange.

So how does it work? Well, it’s more like this: artistic directors are always, always looking for new scripts. They reach out through their networks and talk to their peers. They go to readings. They go to festivals. They meet people. They write emails and make phone calls. They search. They set out with a kind of mental shopping list detailing the kind of work they’re looking for, and they find it. Or they try to find it. And sometimes they get close, and sometimes they don’t, but they at least have some idea of the kind of thing they’re looking for. And do you know where they look? In the same places they always look. In the same pools of graduate students from the same MFA programs. On the same agents’ client rosters. On the finalist lists of the same contests. So do you know what the New Play Exchange really is? It’s a new place to look. That’s it. That’s what it is. A new place with new playwrights and plays and new opinions about plays in it. Playwrights and plays and opinions that aren’t already inside an artistic director’s network. An increasingly comprehensive place to do one-stop shopping for artistic directors who are tired of a limited, imperfect search process. End of story.

And do you know how long that search takes, by the way? Not two months, and definitely not three weeks, and — oh my god, seriously? — not six days. It usually takes two or three years from the first time an artistic director learns about a new playwright or a new play before that work ends up on stage; sometimes it takes up to seven years. Sure, sometimes it happens more quickly, but it’s usually a really slow process. And listen: we’ve only been open for six months. (See that graphic from our launch celebration above?) People are still learning we even exist, let alone figuring out what we are, never mind actually learning how to use us. And do you know what? We HAVE had success stories already. More than we thought possible by this point. Playwrights getting contacted for opportunities and asked for full scripts, plays getting short-listed for next season, and even a few plays getting programmed. It’s very, very promising. But still, come on! To expect to have heard from somebody already is, well, decidedly premature.

Which leads me, tangentially, to the third bit of Tech Support Wisdom: we playwrights often come across as pretty darn desperate. And let me tell you: desperation isn’t a good look for anybody, but for a storyteller? We need to be calm, cool, collected, and commanding. Especially if we want people to turn over their stages to us. But it seems to me to be clear where most of that anxiety comes from. You start with the bad math I just talked about, which is pretty daunting all on its own. Then you add in the fact that we’ve all been basically exiled from theaters — a whole class of artists cast out — and it gets much worse. We’re all huddled in tents, metaphorically speaking, outside the castle walls, and our only hope to be let across the drawbridge, they tell us, is the submission process. Bring the right offering, the guards all say, and we might raise the portcullis. Painfully few of us even know what life inside the castle is actually like.

And all that disenfranchisement and disempowerment comes across, very sadly, in too many tech support emails. Playwrights asking whether the New Play Exchange will be the one thing that finally gets them inside for an audience with the king and queen, which is sort of heartbreaking, because no, it’s not. But this is why the New Play Exchange is so brilliant for us. It’s our way of saying “We aren’t bringing our plays to the castle any more. We’ll set them down out here, just across the moat, and if you want them, you can come out here and find them.” It’s a brazen, confident, bold move, which is precisely why it’s hard for some playwrights to make. We’ve been stuck in submission mode — Please, may I come in? — for so long now that we don’t know how to take charge, even though taking charge is precisely what the situation now calls for.

The fact of the matter is that the New Play Exchange is such a huge paradigm shift that some playwrights quite literally struggle to understand it. They don’t have the right vocabulary yet, so they email us asking where they click to submit their plays. And the answer, of course, is that there’s absolutely nowhere to do that in the New Play Exchange. The New Play Exchange is an alternative, or an upgrade, to the entire submission model. It’s a replacement. We don’t even use the word “submit” anywhere at all within the entire New Play Exchange platform. If you want to connect your play to an available opportunity, you don’t submit it, you tag it. All our buttons say Upload or Enter or Save. We’ve actually banned the word Submit everywhere. But it’s really going to take time for us all to get our playwright brains re-wired: really for theater makers throughout the whole new play sector to get all their brains re-wired. The artistic directors who don’t get it yet are going to have to learn to let go of a little bit of their privilege if playwrights aren’t going to supplicate themselves any more. Literary managers are going to have to learn to remember this new resource on a regular basis and integrate it into their professional processes. It’ll all take some time, which is why we’re in this for the long haul.

And I hope you’ll also be in it for the long haul, too, which leads me to the fourth bit of Tech Support Wisdom: so many playwrights are extremely, almost painfully technophobic, to the point of giving up before figuring the New Play Exchange out or even not trying at all. We’ve worked really hard to make sure that our interface is just about as easy and intuitive as it could possibly be, but there are still people who struggle. We still get questions about the most basic technical terms: questions that reveal tremendous internet illiteracy. And of course we do our best to walk people through things like copying and pasting a URL or clicking a save button before exiting your browser, but the fact that those questions exist in what seems to me to be a greater proportion than the general population is troubling. Moreover, there seem to be people who actively resist things like the New Play Exchange: shaking their fists at the sky in some protest against progress that’s half comical, half self-defeating. And I’m here to implore the technophobic among you to reconsider your prejudices.

Do you all know that the root of the word technology is techne, which is the Greek root for art? Technology means “the study of art.” (I know: you’re blown away.) And really, here’s the truth: we ought to be technology masters, all of us. Every single thing we use to make a play is technology. Paper and pens are technology; they’re just old inventions we’ve gotten very familiar with. Computers? Script-writing software? The internet? Skyping into production meetings? Reading blogs for professional development? Using Twitter and Facebook and Instagram for self-promotion? Building yourself a website? Those are new inventions that are now absolutely indispensable for the storytellers of the present, let alone the future. So we need to get cracking: get ourselves familiar with every single tool that’s out there. Not just the New Play Exchange: all of it. A robust technological understanding needs to be part every playwright’s education (or self-education). There’s no way around it.

At the same time, we are also finding that there are some playwrights who seriously believe they know better than we do about how the New Play Exchange ought to work, an some of them really do. We get regular emails with suggestions for new features, and do you know what? Those are terrific. I can’t tell you how many great ideas playwrights have taken the time to share with us. Our tool is definitely getting better, over time, because of the feedback we’ve gotten. Maybe a fifth or a sixth of the new features we’re about to roll out came from existing users, and that’s pretty impressive. We really couldn’t be any more grateful.

However, there are also a number of users who like to email us to express fury and indignation about the fact that some feature of the New Play Exchange doesn’t work the way it really needs to OH MY GOD RIGHT NOW OR WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE! This is a special dungeon in tech support email hell, let me tell you, and it leads me to the fifth bit of Tech Support Wisdom: we playwrights sometimes hate for the real world to fail to conform to the wholly-imagined worlds we build inside our heads. We want things to be the way we imagine them to be, and we want it immediately. In some ways, I sort of love that about us. But here’s the thing: the New Play Exchange isn’t just for one playwright; it’s for all of us. And just because one playwright wants it to work one way doesn’t mean most people want it to work that way. Our job is to sift through all the feedback we get — not only from playwrights, but also from all our other user groups — and make the decision that serves the entire new play sector.

Now, I have a theory about why some playwrights get this sense of entitlement about how the New Play Exchange ought to work. I think it’s part of that same exclusionary system that keeps us all huddled outside the castle, because all too often when we finally do get let inside, we’re treated like young kings and queens whose every creative whims ought to be made manifest immediately. We get told things like “This production needs to serve the playwright’s vision” and “We’re all just here to make your play just what you want it to be, playwright.” And being treated that way — essentially, the exact opposite of how we’re treated whenever we’re outside — is why we work so hard and put up with so much to get in.

But you know what? In my experience, that’s a seriously impoverished way to make theater, and fewer and fewer theater artists I know subscribe to it. More and more playwrights emphasize collaboration in their creative approaches. And we’re seeking out production opportunities built around a more equitable distribution of creative power, like devising ensembles. We really do now live in an era in which the very idea of being inside or outside the castle is becoming obsolete. (And really, it was never all that accurate a metaphor; most regional theaters are actually humble homes staffed with too few people making the most of too few resources to do too much work.) We are all just individual members of an ever-shifting network of theater makers who come together throughout the new play sector create plays.

The same exiled-outside-the-castle mindset — which is sort of like PTSD: Playwright Traumatic Stress Disorder — also seems to me to be responsible for many writers’ fears about copyright violations. We get a slow but steady trickle of emails about playwrights’ thievery concerns at the New Play Exchange, too, and they all express similar worries. What if someone downloads my play and produces it without my permission? What if another playwright downloads my play, changes a few details, and starts sending out my work as his or her own? What are you going to do to protect me? And the answer is: nothing. The New Play Exchange doesn’t protect you at all; United States copyright law protects you. Our Terms of Use, which everyone who uses the site has to abide by, lay out some ground rules, but what really keeps you safe are the same things that keep you safe when you email your play to a theater and it’s just out there, floating around in the digital ether. In other words, the New Play Exchange is no more risky than any digital submission you might make to anyone.

The only real safety, honestly, is to hide your plays on your hard drive and never share them with anyone who hasn’t signed a non-disclosure agreement, which would of course be ridiculous. But you can’t do that, people, and this is the sixth bit of Tech Support Wisdom. You have to put your work out there, boldly. On the New Play Exchange, yes, of course, but everywhere you can: on your websites, on any other script databases you might find. Set up Google alerts for your name and your play title and go about your business. Do not let your fears make you a digital shut-in. Do not let a small number of bad stories — and yes, there are bad things that happen, we get that — keep you from even trying. Because I can tell you about another kind of bad thing that’s much, much more likely TO happen and that you’d really rather avoid: a producer trying to find your work and not being able to because it’s nowhere to be found. We get tech support emails about that, too: producers who want to know how to find a particular playwright who isn’t on the NPX. Yes, they actually email us now and then to ask why a writer they like isn’t in our database.) Remember: only the NSA can search on your hard drive, and if that’s where they’re looking, they aren’t looking for plays, believe me. So put your work where it can actually be found. Make it easy for producers to connect with you, and don’t worry so much about the bad guys who MIGHT come creeping in through a side door.

Finally, speaking of bad guys, here’s the last bit of Tech Support Wisdom, which has to do with the topic du jour: gender parity. We all know the appalling, must-be-rectified data: roughly 20-25% of the new plays being produced around the country in a given year were written by women. But there are some men who make the argument that those results are perfectly normal, even logical, if 20-25% of the playwrights themselves are women. It’s a ridiculous argument, for the record, but let me still share another critical bit of data with you: right now, 52% of the writers in the New Play Exchange database identify as women. Fifty-two percent means there’s absolutely no excuse for us all not to do better nationwide. The plays are there, folks. You can find them in a five-second search. We’ve made it painfully easy for you. You can start with just the plays on The Kilroys’ list, which are all right there, or just set the search filters to show you nothing but plays by female and trans playwrights. You’ll have thousands of options to choose from before you even start winnowing the list down by genre, subject matter, cast size, or anything else.

So that’s it: seven bits of Tech Support Wisdom, gleaned by reading emails to the New Play Exchange. But I want to close by returning to those long odds I mentioned at the beginning. Twenty thousand new plays making their way into the new play ecosystem every year, but only two thousand world premiere production spots: I know that has to seem pretty disheartening to some of you. But that is exactly the wrong response. We playwrights have to stop sitting back on our heels right now. This is not a time for moping and whining. This is a time for action.

Instead of feeling defeated, we need to see those numbers as a rallying cry. As an invitation to ask ourselves and our colleagues some really tough questions, like Why do producers get to decide which two thousand plays get selected for production? Can’t we pick some of them for ourselves? Why can’t we learn to produce our own work? Why shouldn’t we start a theater company? Why can’t we form more playwrights’ collectives? (As a founding member of The Welders, I’m a particularly big fan of that last option.) Because all of that is ready to be done and challenged and achieved immediately. There’s no need to wait.

We are the ones who can change the odds, and the way to do it is really simple: all we need to do is re-set our expectations about the career we’ve chosen. Redefine playwriting success to look more like building our own castles (or homes) instead of yelling over a pulled-up drawbridge over and over again. Stop spending so much time and energy submitting our work all over the place, and instead spend five years perfecting one play while learning to produce theater and raising money, then produce that play. If you do that, you’ll be HALF A DECADE ahead of your statistically-likely pace. And then maybe the second time it’ll only take you three years. Heck, you might even grow to like it. Because let me tell you, taking charge of your own fate instead of sitting around waiting for help feels pretty darn good: like heaven, really, instead of tech support hell.

9 thoughts on “Playwrights and the New Play Exchange”

  1. Thanks so much for this! I was happy to get to thus talk at the Conference. I would also love to see the one on social networking which was at DG Conference. I hated to miss it. But couldn’t miss another at the same time.

  2. Excellent, comprehensive, inspiring work, Gwydion. Your work makes it easier for producers to find us, read us, like our scripts, produce us, even though the odds are awful.

  3. Pingback: Black Southern Playwrights Take Center Stage | HowlRound Theatre Commons

  4. Pingback: Black Southern Playwrights Take Center Stage - showbizztoday

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