by Roberta D'Alois
I’m a playwright and Artistic Director of a small theater company, and I've also been reading for theaters, workshops, and grants opportunities etc. for the past few years. There’s some overall notes I’ve compiled so I wanted to pass on some observations and even some advice.
- Some plays are really obviously seriously flawed – flabby dialogue, no conflict, unclear structure - but many of the plays I've read are just… okay. They're well-crafted, have some snappy and interesting dialogue, and are clearly structured with rising conflicts. But they're just okay. They don't expand my worldview, engage me in ways I'm surprised by, show me a new perspective about an issue I've thought about, or otherwise command my attention. It doesn't mean that they are bad plays - they just don't… sparkle.
- I would also say that for most of the theaters and competitions I've read for, there is wider agreement than you might think even in blind ratings of what makes a play sparkle. ( This statement presupposes that the readers are intelligent theater practitioners, not random volunteers who don't have much experience even viewing plays much less reading and commenting.)
- That said, for development opportunities, one challenge is finding a play that needs development but isn't a first draft or completed play. Some plays that are otherwise quite good don't make it to finalist status because they are obviously a first draft and need a lot more work than a development opportunity can offer, or conversely, they've been read and semi-staged before and seem very complete. So ALWAYS read the notes on the opportunity of what kind of work they are looking for.
And about those instructions – I know we all struggle with writing about our work almost as much as we struggle with our work. But if an opportunity wants you to say what you would like from the opportunity - spend some time on that. I can't tell you how many letters I've read over the years that say "I would like the chance to hear my play read by actors." For most competitions, you should ALREADY have done that, and now want to explore specific questions about the play. If you don't know, that might be the time to talk with your writers group or a trusted theater friend about what the play needs that can be offered by the specific opportunity you’re applying to.
And again about the instructions –OMG, I can't tell you how many plays I've read for opportunities that call for a 10 minute play and the playwright has sent a play that is half an hour or more. Or vice versa - calls for full-length dramas and I read 20 minute comedies. Or a request for a play with cast of no more than 4 and I’m sent a trilogy on the Punic Wars complete with battle scenes. As many of us have discovered, even big theater is a small world, and readers remember that you didn't bother to read any instructions when you sent in your play. And if the call is for something specific – one-act plays about the #me too movement, or 10 minute plays about the funniest person you ever met – don't just send what you have happening now. If you have a play that you think fits, make the case that it fits. Organizations putting out specific calls really do want plays that fit the length, theme etc.
This may be obvious, but one or two small typos won't necessarily negatively affect the reading of your play. But massive typos, character names spelled differently in different scenes, wonky formatting (like nine point font to make sure your 25 page play fits in 10 pages) really won't help you. And a small note – take that "copyright 2008" off the first page of your play. If you're really sending us your underwear drawer play, don't call attention to it.
Specifically for theater production opportunities - believe it or not theaters want good plays. Yes, we read work submitted by agents first, but unless it's a theater that only solicits work that is represented by agents, readers like me go through the plays and make recommendations. It's not super common, but if a play by an unknown matches the theater’s mission, is well written, and the playwright has given us some information about who they are, that play certainly has a chance to be noticed, and in the best of all possible worlds, a good chance to be passed on to a theater that might produce it if we can’t.
- I don't read for regional theaters, so for those of you who are trying to crack that nut I don't have much to say about them. What I do want to say about local opportunities, specific opportunities, development groups etc. is to advise you to write the play you want to write. Unless there is a SPECIFIC call regarding length, theme or number of characters, I've never heard from my cohort of readers "this play has too many characters" or "oh my God, we could never have a swinging chandelier." Especially for development opportunities, create the world you want the readers to see and we'll follow you.
- But of course be judicious – your three-hour play with scads of special effects that are necessary for the play to have maximum impact is probably not going to be seriously considered by a 99 seat black box theater. If the only plays you write are 15-character spectacle plays, search the theaters and opportunities that want to see those kinds of plays.
- And finally, while this also may be obvious, unless the opportunity OFFERS feedback as part of the experience, don’t demand feedback or send a whiny or nasty email if you are not chosen. As noted above, Lit Managers, AD’s and panelists have long memories and it’s a small world.
- The odds are long – we all know that. But since I've been reading scripts, I've been so delighted to see how much really good work is out there and how thoughtful playwrights are about discussing their work.
Roberta D'Alois is a playwright, performer and director. All the above images come from her website: http://www.robertadalois.com/