The Auditioning Playwright

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April 19, 2018 by Sam Graber

Imagine that you’re asked to submit a play that hasn’t yet been written. Imagine that you’re asked to do this by a theater company or group of stage producers to write a special new script just for them.

Imagine that feeling. To be wanted. To be valued like that.

Because it’s not a finished script you wrote all those years ago now getting selected, but instead a team of people, an established company, wanting to originate a brand new enterprise of story art, with you at the helm.

So validating. Like you belong.

But…what if those people know how wonderful it feels to be you in that moment? And prey on this feeling? Exploiting the knowledge that there are far more playwrights out there than there are stages for their scripts to be channeled.

So what if you’re asked to write a new script without the guarantee of acceptance and payment for that piece, and that your writing will be judged among other playwrights also being asked to write new material for this single opportunity, and that only after all these new scripts are submitted will be when a decision is made of which new script to use?

As a public service to my fellow writers I want to share my experience with this circumstance so that you may be situationally aware when it happens to you.

When you’re asked to be…an Auditioning Playwright.

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IN WHICH I CAN’T HANDLE MY FIRST AUDITION

I will never forget the first time I worked a professional audition.

I was the writer involved in a new industrial piece. For those unaware, an industrial means a staged piece done under hire by a client for the benefit of a controlled or corporate audience. Think a fun entertainment piece used at an industry conference. Long story short, this new industrial was a hard piece to write.

Actually short story longer here, since you asked, my particular client back in 2008 was a corporate training and employee motivation business that had become flush after selling three million copies of a book. Yes, three MILLION.

And the people who worked at that business got put in touch with me to write an entire musical (surprise! Sammy G used to do music!), both songs and book, presenting a really tough assignment. How do you turn a static corporate philosophy into a dynamic staged musical?

The additional pressure stemmed from the company having sold the first performance of this unwritten musical. Yep. Total Time/Life magazine model. Sell it before you’ve made it. The CEO was a huge fan of Broadway musicals and, bless his heart, wanted to have a musical in his sellable catalog.

Except this particular debut performance his company had sold was due to be delivered in less than six months in…wait for it…Las Vegas. Not even joking.

So there I was racing to write the entire show so it could be fully rehearsed and transported to and mounted in Vegas. And the show was a 3-hander which meant its success was going to depend heavily on the chops of a small band of very talented actors.

Which brings us to the audition.

Now, again, at this point in my life I hadn’t yet been on the watching end of the audition table. I mean, sure, there were all those popular TV shows on which famous celebrities did judgy things to random auditioners. As we know, those shows derive a good amount of entertainment value from judge reactions.

Being in an actual live audition room is different. Because, as I first learned, and as you all know, auditioning is serious work where protocol, discipline and industrial-strength empathy is at play.

You accommodate your fellow actors. You treat them with respect as peers. You allow them to complete their entire prepared monologue and/or song and then warmly thank them and relay to them the dates of callbacks all wrapped within a charming bundle of cordiality and gratitude.

Unless you’re me. Unless you’re at the end of the watching table with your head buried in your arms because you’re trying to suppress the massive bout of laughter trying to burst from your body. Unless you’re just unable to control yourself and your body goes into a state of unmanageable hysteria. For some reason the auditioning process seemed so silly to me, asking random strangers to come into a room and before you in one minute emote and exude and contort and belt and shimmy and shake.

I couldn’t make it past the third auditioner before the director booted me from the room.

And that was my first audition. Total personal disaster.

Which will be like your first audition as a playwright if you don’t know how to handle what’s coming for you.

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IN WHICH MY FRIEND JOEY AUDITIONS

I was asked to write a ten-minute play for a group who did themed evenings, based on holidays. The particular holiday they were asking for scripts for was Mother’s Day. Taking their guidance to “think outside the box,” I wrote a piece that was theological and mythological and revolved around one well known horrible son visiting his mother in the nursing home where she is living out her golden years after ruling the heavens for eons.

I worked for weeks on it, refining the characters, delivering the literary Easter eggs with increasing subtly and the jokes with increasing clarity. I received encouraging feedback from beta readers (not affiliated with the theatre company) and I sent the play on feeling as though I had delivered something which was not the “same old” story of human interaction during Mother’s Day.

Apparently I had done my job a little too well. I received an email a few days after “decision day” informing me that, although they found the play “excellent and unique”, they just could not find a place for it among the other selections. That it had not been an easy choice.

Well, hey–that difficult choice on their part more than makes up for the countless hours I spent to create it to their specifications.

-Joey

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SLAVES TO THE SYSTEMS

Many of you loyal readers by now are familiar with my term Submitting Playwright to reflect the lone writer who submits finished scripts in response to open calls.

The Submitting Playwright is someone who is not commissioned and not under any sort of theater company patronage and not being compensated and who sends their finished script to be hopefully selected from the field of a zillion other scripts getting submitted for the same single open call.

And many of you Submitting Playwrights out there definitely have That Very Strong Feeling about paying for the chance to submit your script. We know this game. Companies attempting to whittle down the deluge of scripts will condition submission with a fee charged to the playwright. Many of you hate what I call the Pay-per-Play system and find it repulsive.

So of recent years has been the introduction of the Cap-and-Play (again, my term) (I am hilarious) system. The first hundred scripts submitted get accepted, e.g. An issue of timing, then. A test of celerity. Which playwrights are quicker to hit that send button? How can a hundred playwrights be that much faster than you? But they are.

Of course, literary managers and producing artistic directors have come to reason the Cap-and-Play an non-optimal way to get the appropriate work into their production pipeline. So we’re now seeing the rise and return of The Audition. Where you as playwright are asked to write a brand new piece. In screenwriting we know this to be ‘on spec.’

Except.

Except you’re not the only one being asked.

There are others being asked to write for the same single opportunity. Sometimes you aren’t even aware there are others. And sometimes you are told that others are being asked but don’t worry, it’s just to keep the selection committee happy, you’re really the one we want to work with.

I will tell you where I’ve seen this Audition system get ugly. I’ve seen it in the world of business.

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YOU CAN BE DEFINED BY WHAT YOU SAY NO TO

There was this one time. In my younger days. When I was in position to land a very lucrative contract for my publishing business.

My business was small. The business potentially buying my product as part of this contract was massive. Gi-freaking-normous.

And because the money involved was large I was willing to do anything to make the proverbial rain happen. I mean, there was my little business against a bunch of other not-little businesses angling to land the gi-freaking-normous contract.

Which is probably why I was asked by the massive buyer if I wouldn’t mind creating a full version of what a future product would be if I was to get the lucrative contract.

Essentially, I was being asked to compete for the business by creating the product that I would be creating only after I was hired, except I was being asked to create it outside of contract. I was being asked to build a full product for free.

I just want you all to know something — you can define yourself by what you say no to.

As much as you want something, giving away your talent and time for free infers your work has that same amount of value. That is what is implicit to me. The implicit statement is: my effort and ability is worth nothing because I am giving it freely to someone who has outright stated they may or may not use my work and from whom I won’t be able to ask for anything in return after I’ve given it to them freely.

That valuation seems to me to be the same whether you do it just one time or do it every day. It will always be zero.

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THE WAYS IT REARS ITS UGLY HEAD

“Yo Sam! So we didn’t choose your script last year but we really liked your voice and hoping we could get you to write us a little idea for something we’re thinking about for next season.”

“Hello Sam, we’re reaching out to writers to see if they would want to submit a new full-length to us on **very specific environmental cause here, omitted** that we could try to produce for **very specific human rights festival here, omitted**.”

“Sam, so we don’t have the grant just yet but we’re getting some actors together and wondering if you and a bunch of others we know could start churning out some pages so we could hear what the characters might sound like. Get your foot in the door kind of thing.”

“I can’t promise anything but if you get me a new draft then we’ll take a look and see if it could work for next season.”

“We’ve got a first pass at collection of pieces but we’re not happy with some of individual plays and wondering if you might want to take a stab at filling the gaps for us with some new short scripts.”

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WE DON’T ALWAYS REALIZE

Sometimes we don’t realize we’re doing it to ourselves.

As writers we are naturally drawn to light the flame of the next story. We wake up each morning and are driven to create by surging personal forces from within. Our soul is triggered to work.

Most of the time we work on our terms. We write for ourselves. We write because we have a lot to say and want to get that story out. We write because we must.

But writing because you think you might have gotten the Big Break and now thrusting yourself into a maddening surge of furious output to satisfy an offer that may be tenuous at best and illusive at worst?

For sure not everyone out there is evil. Not everyone is manipulative. Not everyone is attempting to abuse your innate desire to write that next play.

Actors, brave souls them!, are in a different situation. Their auditioning process is established and known. They do compete against others but their labor spent auditioning for a single opportunity is a relatively small expenditure compared to the weeks/months we as playwrights incur developing a single new work for an audition.

And before I get slayed by the community, I totally get the hardship actors face going to auditions day in and day out. I’m not trying to compare levels of difficulty or levels of value between the trades. I am blogging here that playwrights don’t always know they are auditioning and the risk levels of that audition.

Much of that stems from the fact that we labor in a sector of the creative industry which resides on the cold end of the profit spectrum. Budget is scarce. Meanwhile, writers in profit-driven milieus such as screen and film are guarded by strict provisions outlined in labor union agreements. Writers there are never asked to do real work without payment.

But how many of us in nonprofit theater have agents? How many playwrights operate under the protection of collective bargaining? The bargaining that we do is with our own desire for achieving involvement ecstasy. We want our work on stage. We want to work in the theater.

But we should do everything we can to understand the requirements, benefits and hazards before we get asked to audition for something new. Given the personal time and talent stakes at risk, we need to have enough pride of authorship to stand for ourselves and make good decisions.

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CODA

Oh. Almost forgot. The business story I mentioned?

When I was asked to provide full product on spec?

I said no.

I ended up getting the contract.

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