August 11, 2015 by Sam Graber
You are a playwright with a good play.
Your good play is a new play which has just received its first production. The production was done by a theater company in your city of residence somewhere west of Minnesota. You feel proud about the first production. You feel joy having so many people work on your new play. You feel honored so many people from your city of residence came to serve as audience and witness the first full production of your new play.
But you are troubled.
You are troubled because you feel that your play is not yet fully realized. Even with a first production you have seen where there is room for growth with your new play. You feel edgy, restless. You are a playwright with a good play and now you need another venue for furthering that play. A second production. A second home for your good play in a second community, maybe somewhere east of Minnesota.
So you head to the internet and find the website which lists the open submission opportunities. You collect and collate these opportunities. You create a spreadsheet. You are eager and hopeful.
You find that almost all requests for scripts have a sobering limitation. The calls from theater companies almost all ask for plays that have never before been produced. Many theater companies with the same restriction: “the play cannot have received a full production.”
You are a playwright with a good play that has nowhere to go. You now realize the danger of your good play having been produced. You are made to feel there’s no value in a second production. Your play has now been stamped indelibly with the fated label of used goods.
How do you feel?
For those of you still wondering what just happened let me catch you up to the current situation plaguing today’s Submitting Playwright.
The situation is that we Submitting Playwrights are constantly trolling online for theater companies willing to receive scripts for their production consideration. As the process for submission has increasingly gone digital over the past several years these theater companies are getting inundated with submissions.
It is not uncommon for many of these companies to receive over 600 scripts per single opportunity listing. I feel for the email inbox getting pounded with scripts. Reading and evaluating 600 scripts is a thankless job.
Because of this many theater companies are reacting to avoid the deluge by employing ‘ween’ tactics. These ween tactics thin the script herd. They slender the barrage of submissions down to a (more) manageable script number. Ween tactics might mandate scripts must be a specific theme. Written by a particular author demographic. Tied to company mission. At or under a certain cast size. By mail only.
It is now not uncommon for me to expect the following: “Full-length scripts wanted! However, at this time, we are ONLY accepting plays from left-handed playwrights of Russo-Brazilian ethnicity dealing with the rising microeconomy of demon tourism. Must be exactly 12,085 words.”
I kid (a little). But what I don’t kid about is seeing how many of these submission opportunities are calling for new plays that have never before been produced. Yes, that’s you out there nodding your head. Giving me a little internet first-bump.
It’s become so that if your new play has been produced once it has somehow exited the realm of ‘new’ and is no longer welcome. Meaning, your good play, once produced, is not considered new. It is now a stale jar of cherries that has passed its expiration date and now soured in the general eyes and interests of theater companies.
There was this guy I used to know who would only date virgins.
I met him right after graduating college. Before taking my final final (I slay you with my wit) I packed everything I owned in my Cutlass Sierra Oldsmobile station wagon.
The one with the peeling exterior wood paneling and the sagging interior roof cloth that I had to secure with a staple gun and the misbehaving cruise control that would suddenly activate without warning and the back seat that would lower into a moving motel room and an engine powerful enough to tow Air Force One. The automotive wonder called Big Gus.
I parked Big Gus in a highly illegal spot right in the middle of campus directly outside the classroom in which I took my final final. I handed my completed exam to the professor and strolled out to Big Gus and slid in and turned the key and peeled out at top speed of 15MPH to this bistro on the Virginia Beach boardwalk, where the guy who would only date virgins worked with me.
This guy was a former touring musician. Attractive. Muscular. Confident. Soft-spoken. He and I waited tables, served drinks, and enjoyed the summer shoreline dowry. Which is when he told me of his…fetish. And the fetish was like a self-fulfilling prophecy because the dude not only limited his intake of potential sexual partners to virgins but also kept a steady boomlet of them coming through his…intake.
I don’t know where all these alleged virgins came from. Me and the rest of the wait staff were suspect how he kept this up. He said that he straight-up told women he only dated virgins. And I will never forget what he told me next, with a straight face, and total sincerity: “Virgins are possessed with being taken by the experienced.”
(Keep in mind that this boardwalk bistro where I worked was crazy. Really crazy. The owner was dealing coke out of his office, the bartenders were welfare queens, half the patrons never tipped, it somehow rained in full sunshine, and I got jumped on the streets at night. This is why today I never let my kids leave the house.)
You’re like: what does all this have to do with playwrighting?
I think about this virgin-only dude when I see yet another playwright submission opportunity restricted to world premieres.
“We only want plays which have never before been produced.”
I don’t want to debase the conversation of artistic contribution and cultural levity by invoking a comparison of conditional submission to this warped wacko…but it just seems a little strange to have all these theater companies requesting plays that are, essentially, virgins.
WORKING WITH BRAND NEW
Of course, I am a beneficiary of such pathology. For some years I have been fortunate to have partnered with theater companies which have commissioned brand new work from me for world premiere production as part of their mainstage season.
In response to my request seeking comment, an artistic director from one of those theater companies explains that he sought out new and unproduced works so as to work directly with the playwright and realize the playwright’s vision. Another director stated she feels a certain energy and spirit with exploring fresh and uncharted territory. I admit, writing a new play specifically for a theater company affords me the chance to work with a set group of people on a unique and exciting artistic enterprise.
Is brand new the only way the above objectives can be achieved? I would argue no.
Each play is a journey. Each play is its own life comprised of more than one stage. And a birth of a play isn’t the death of a play. It’s the start, not the finish. Just because a play has had a premiere doesn’t mean it can’t have a second or third premiere, which is what happens with East Coast/West Coast/Regional premieres. The enchantment working with ‘new’ can still be had on a second and third production, sometimes at a level even more daring and bold than the first production, especially if the playwright is still involved.
Several years back I had the debut of a new full-length done by a wonderful theater company here in Minneapolis. Replete with draft reads, director meetings, rewrites, auditions, workshops, rehearsals, tech confabs, more rewrites, infighting, in-loving, and come-to-Moses moments, the ‘world premiere’ production would have been spectacular for everyone involved if one thing wasn’t holding it all back. And I felt that one thing was…you guessed it…my script.
Yes. After seeing opening night I stayed up for two days straight feeling empty. Feeling rotten. Feeling like I had let everyone down; theater company, producers, audience, and even myself. I felt the script wasn’t sharp. The script wasn’t truly there. I thought if only I had another chance to make it better, to fix the problems.
Thankfully, other theater companies, through open submission opportunities, recognized my script still had a ways to go on its journey. These companies gave me workshops, supplemental dramaturgical support, production space and technical support. They gave me the leeway to apply significant rewrites. And they also gave me access to different audiences through a second performance. We took the script in new directions. And the performance was marked as the work of a ‘new play.’
We have such difficulty with defining language. We allow ourselves to form a taxonomy of expectation based on industrial nomenclature. Do we ever pause to consider if the terminology is more for ourselves than for the audience? That somehow our lexicon, while based on heritage or suitability to internal function, is unclear or misleading to an audience receiving the performance? Does the general audience know or have an opinion or a preference about new play vs. world premiere?
One of my good friends calls the fascination of debuting world premieres “false prestige.” He references a recent script submission which inferred a theater company wanting to work with unproduced plays just so as to allow the director to change the writing and mold the script to the home team’s aesthetic. Well that’s crazy! That is surely NOT the motivation of theater companies out there. Right?
Unless…they thrive on knowing how virgins are possessed with being taken by the experienced.
IN WHICH I GET SET STRAIGHT
So I am baffled by this sanctity of premiere-ship as it relates to scripted work (as opposed to devised, ensemble-driven, etc.) We did it first! The rest of you losers out there get sloppy seconds!
Will somebody set me straight?
At Abgindon we do NOT make the ‘world premiere’ a stipulation here; however we do require scripts to be a ‘NYC premiere.’ As long as the play hasn’t been reviewed by NYC critics, we will take a look – and as long as it meets our other submission guidelines.
We do NOT look at published or licensed scripts, even if they have not been seen in NYC because our mission is to work with playwrights to develop their play. The published/licensed play is finished and no further development is possible without violating the agreement the playwright has signed with those companies/individuals.
Most theatres stipulating ‘world premieres’ (WP) do so because either a) their funders or grantors insist that their money be used for such; or b) the theatre has positioned itself to do just that and must keep faith with their audiences and supporters.
This is not a new situation; it’s been noted at various times for at least the last two decades. Whether it’s getting worse or better, I wouldn’t know. I believe the issue has spread more into contests, awards and festivals where the script can ‘win’ but will NOT be produced. In most cases, that is the purpose of the contest, award or festival, to call attention the script in hopes their endorsement will encourage producing organizations to produce it.
For those companies doing all new work the WP is less an issue – they can have one WP along with non-WP productions and still fulfill expectations. For those theatres where there is only ONE slot open for new work amidst a season of established revivals, the WP stipulation becomes a major issue for all involved. And I am sure some theatres regret getting on that bandwagon as they realize how limiting it can be – but they may feel trapped into continuing the requirement having touted it and creating the expectation.
Similar to playwrights, theatres have to dance through many hoops, satisfy many agendas, internally and externally, to survive. If doing WPs help them survive, then that’s what they have to do. From a playwright’s POV, it’s frustrating at best and infuriating at worst.
–Kim T. Sharp, Associate Artistic Director and Literary Manager, Abingdon Theatre Company
So here Kim is not only setting me straight but also raising the discussion to a higher point. I am honored Kim contributed his thoughts because…I was once the inexperienced virgin when he took a chance dedicating time and resources to one of my new scripts. I was the neophyte. It was an astonishing, awakening moment watching top people from the world’s epicenter of theater analyze one of your developing works. You never forget your first time.
But as I’ve grown as a playwright and had meaningful and loving relationships with various theater companies my experience is that the general audience outside NYC doesn’t care whether the new play they are about to see west of Minnesota was done already east of Minnesota. Most audiences aren’t fully sure of the distinction between new play and world premiere. And the ones who are happen to be the same ones shelling out $$ to take their family to see the fourteenth installment of some movie franchise.
They want a good story. They want a good show. They don’t necessarily care they are seeing it first.
But if it matters to you, if you are addicted to premiere-ship, why are you always seeking unproduced scripts via open submissions? Wouldn’t you rather work directly with a playwright from the point of insemination (AHHH!) so that everyone is present when the idea is placed into the heart of company ethos, nourishing the idea as it develops, building together a true premiere venture, instead of receiving in your inbox a slew of completed scripts that no one else has yet to produce?
It all seems a bit like submitting a musical track off a new album to a radio station and the station responding they can’t play it because it’s already been played at another station somewhere else.
If the playwright is willing to develop further their play, and be part of the work, why deny the writer this chance?
BRING IT HOME
That old, beat-up station wagon got me through Virginia Beach. Barely. I left after the summer started to fade into autumn and drove the top speed of 15MPH over highway and backroads to home. Where I parked Big Gus. And it never started again.
Seriously. It got me home and died right there in the driveway. That car was a classic and I never will forget it.
But I was about to start my first office job. And now I needed a new car. The car had to be reliable, stylish, vibrant. Was I willing to invest in something slightly used?
Or was I only going to accept something brand new?
See you on stage.