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  • George Sapio

The Submitter's Lament

I just had a convo with a fellow playwright whose work I respect; she was lamenting the lack of recent success in pitching her short plays.

This is indeed a tough business; there are too few venue for all of us dramatic scribblers. And (aside from aggressively networking with lit managers and artistic directors) there are no surefire ways to get one's work accepted. But there are ways to increase your chances.

This is indeed a tough business; there are too few venues for all of us dramatists. Aside from aggressively networking with lit managers and artistic directors, there are no surefire ways to get one's work seen, let alone accepted. But there are ways to increase your chances. I go into more specifics on this in my book Workshopping the New Play: A Guide for Playwrights, Directors, and Dramaturgs, but I wanted to share some tips with you here.

For the sake of argument, let's assume that, after reading all the submission guidelines, you have a magnificent play that’s the Completely-Perfect-Fit for Weehonka's Annual 10-Minute Play Festival (Theme: “Ointments”). So yes, by all means — send it in!

But before you submit anything anywhere, here are a few things to think about.

First, remember that all submissions will be evaluated by people who may share some of these characteristics:

– A literary manager/artistic director who favors comedies featuring seniors, but your characters are all tweens; or

– A director who prefers to present all female-identifying plays, and you've written about burly greasemonkeys in a scrapyard; or

– A board that feels that trans folk have been greatly overrepresented, and your play features a trans couple and their transitioning teenage kid.

The point is that theatre is a highly subjective world, rife with vagaries and vicissitudes. No one knows at any moment who's going to get the nod, unless something had been prearranged without letting applicants know to not waste their time and effort. As an artistic director, director, and producer who has had to make the choices many times, and having participated in many other literary meetings, I know from experience that outcomes are unpredictable.

Keep these elements in mind when you submit:

Are your character requirements too specific? Or can casting be flexible? Whenever possible I prefer open casting instead of “Tim must be fifty-one, heavily bearded, and look good in cerise.” The casting instruction for one of my own characters, The Universe, is “Who has sufficient attitude to do this part?”

Chemistry between the actor and the role is sometimes way better than arbitrarily limiting physical characteristics. If in an audition an actor makes me actually believe they will never rest until their sworn enemy is rotting neck-deep in a cistern of boiling zebra poop, and the role calls for someone hell-bent on revenge, that actor is likely to be cast.

I’ve always practiced and advised casting as diverse a company as possible—not only to begin rectifying eons of exclusion of undervalued artists, voices, and stories, but also for the growth of the work thanks to what actors of different backgrounds, experiences, and POVs bring to the rehearsal room.

If your characters are written with specific descriptions and for the purpose of your story must be represented on stage by women/transfolk/BIPOC (or even hetero-cis white men), you need to specify that they are to be cast only with actors who fit those criteria.

On the subject of themes: It’s wonderful to have a specific theme for an evening of shorts (because, hey, a night of “ointment”-themed plays will get me out of the house very time). But is your play weak on plot, structure, and characterization? Is it really a skit — nothing more than a nine-minute advertisement for “The Fastest Relief for OTC Hemorrhoids You Can Buy”? Or does it employ the theme only as a framing vehicle against which to hang serious dramatic human conflict that's general enough to speak to nearly everyone in the theatre?

What's the actual run time? When companies suggest you sit down and read it out loud, they mean it. Do it. This is so you know for sure how long it really is. Does your “ten-minute” play actually run fifteen minutes, even though it's “only” ten (and-a-half) pages? Maybe your six-page play runs ten minutes. Reading it aloud will show you, plus lets you detect passages that just don’t work when spoken outside your head.

Other things to keep in mind:

· Did you submit a play that clearly fits the stated criteria?

· Did you send them a gritty, dystopian tale of drugs, family abuse, and incest, when their recent productions include The Music Man, The Odd Couple, and Our Town?

· Did you send a named copy instead of a blind one?

· Did you think that one little “blue word” would fly in a “family-friendly” show?

· Did you spell correctly the name of the theatre? The lit manager?

· Did you write to the current lit manager, not the one who left the company two years ago?

Submitters always need to consider the folks at the other end of the opportunity trail. Theatres get a lot more plays than they can (or want to) read. Companies are almost always understaffed and dependent upon the kindness of volunteers. They take time and care to set out their submission guidelines. The more you adhere to them, the better chance you have of success. The more you do not, the more you'll demonstrate you have little consideration for their time and project … and they will click off another rejection (possibly flagging your name to ignore for future submissions).

Last, you may know in your heart that your play is a masterpiece. But you have one minor submission criterion problem, something not 100% in line with the theatre's specifics. Before lobbing it off, I recommend that you ask for clarification. I have done this, from time to time and almost always received a polite response. Theatres usually appreciate a short email asking about something that might be a little unclear in their submission requirements. This shows that you’re considerate of their time and don’t want to waste it, plus you might get a “Hey, thanks for asking and although it might not be right for us this time, we'd like to have a look anyway.” All of a sudden they know your name, and you have a guaranteed read.

And after all that, it may still come down to the fact that your protagonist’s name is the same as the lit manager's loathed ex-spouse … and someone else’s is not.

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