All professions are riddled with systemic flaws that everyone knows about, and yet very little is done to fix them. For playwrights and musical theatre writers the systemic flaw that I hear complained about the most is the submissions process.
Now, these complaints are completely justified. The problem with the system is…well, there isn’t one.
In the professional theatre world - at least where play and musical submissions are concerned - it’s a total free-for-all. (and not the enjoyable kind, like a lovely game of Super Smash Bros. on the good ole Nintendo 64! …no? just me being a video game dinosaur? oh coo, cool…)
And like most problems, this one gets completely ignored and nothing is really done to change it. Well, I won’t say completely ignored. Writers talk about this all the time - how messy, inconsistent, biased, and often expensive the submission process can be (yes, many come with attached fees). But the people who have the power to do something about it (aka the Theaters and the theatrical community members who receive submissions) either don’t want to change the way they do things, don’t want to engage in the discussion, don’t have the time, or aren’t aware that there is a better way to go about all of this.
And there is a better way, isn’t there?
“Opportunity Is Not A Lengthy…whoa, but there are so many opportunities!”
For those of you who are not theatre writers and have never gone through the process, here’s a little peak into the world of submissions.
The first thing to note is what types of opportunities you can submit for. There’s:
Competitions - Prizes are usually monetary, but sometimes also come with readings, workshops, or (in rare cases) full productions. And the institutions may cover your travel to see the fruits of this, or they may not.
Festivals - Festivals range: geographically, in numbers of participants, in what is provided, in how many performances are allotted, in administrative and creative support from the organization, and in fees to participate. But what they all have in common is that, at the end of the day, you either need to have a producer raising the money for you or you will be producing this yourself. And they range from your local Fringe festival to Edinburgh to NYMF.
Residencies - Generally these are lovely retreat-style blocks of time set aside for a writer or writing team to go somewhere secluded and pretty, and to get a great deal of work done without the pressures and stressors of regular life. Often room and board is covered, though not always, and sometimes you are provided with access to rehearsal space, recording equipment, full living access, other artists, and/or a presentation gathering of some sort at the end of the stay.
Conferences - These include the “biggies” like NAMT and the O’Neill. Conferences are like a mixture between a residency and a festival - you reside in a place for the length of the conference and workshop your material, and at the end there is a large presentation. The larger conferences are highly sought after due to the fact that they attract producers and industry professionals looking for projects to take on.
Theaters and Theatre Companies - Although there is a sizable difference in the result of submitting to a large regional equity house versus your friend’s small theatre company that started last week, in both cases you are submitting to an entity that you hope will take on the burden of producing your material for you (in comparison with self-producing, as in a festival). These entities all have mission statements and many of them also have specific new works programming, and if your material fits what they are looking for then you can submit with the hope of getting programmed into a future season.
New Works Development Opportunities - Many of these are part of a Theater or Theatre Company’s set path to producing new material. The opportunities might be a reading, a workshop, a script analysis, a staged reading, etc., or there may be tiers of opportunities that you will be considered for. And if you are accepted, then the participants in these opportunities are then put in a pipeline of consideration for the one new works production slot for the following season. Though each theatre company treats their own programs quite differently, and these can vary greatly.
Awards - Much like competitions…well, really these are competitions. But like a theatre company, awarding entities come with mission statements that specify what kind of artists and what kind of works they are looking to award. And the awards are monetary and often quite large. For instance, the Kleban Award ($100,000) is specifically for musical theatre Librettists and Lyricists (two separate awards). Other times the work must fit within specific parameters, or the artists must be from a certain geographical area or ethnic background.
People - Producers or artists in whom you are interested. Generally, these submissions are more personal and have no parameters, and they only tend to be successful when you already have a connection to the person you’re contacting.
Cold Submissions - There are thousands and thousands of theatrical entities out there, and sometimes they have no submission policies whatsoever. Maybe that means they don’t take submissions, or maybe it just means they have no official policy for them. Cold submitting an inquiry rarely works out unless you have a connection to someone at the theatre, in which case it’s probably better to submit to the person than the entity. Well, that’s my opinion at least!
And that is just the spread of what exists out there that you could possibly submit to. Whoa. Right?
And let us keep in mind that this is you - the writer - submitting to these places. Unless you are lucky and/or rich enough to have a secretary that does this for you, then you are the person looking through all of these opportunities, checking websites, researching people and theaters, making lists of deadlines, writing up all of the submission materials and statements and cover letters, and sending the emails or filling out the online forms. That’s a lot of time and work.
But never fear! There are websites dedicated to helping writers find submission opportunities and that give the deadlines so you can plan on when and how to submit!
Now, granted, some of these websites are really looking to make money off of you and this information (paying for subscriptions and whatnot). And some are far more comprehensive than others. But the Dramatists Guild Submissions Calendar and Play Submission Helper are probably the most comprehensive of the sites for American submissions, and both are quite helpful.
“I’ll take…one with everything - but hold the synopsis!”
So what exactly do the writers submit? What are the limitations or parameters?
Well, if you thought the types of submission opportunities were varied, then just you wait (Henry Higgins)!
The first thing I will point out is that many of these submissions to the more prominent institutions and producing entities are agent submission only. Theatrical writing agents are not nearly as plentiful as acting agents, which really limits the groups that are able to submit to these places. Which is of course the point. Sometimes there will be a way to submit an inquiry if you don’t have representation, but more often than not you are simply out of luck. Rough times. (“No Submission Without Represen-tition…!”???)
Another limitation that might exist is needing the accompaniment of a professional recommendation letter to your submission - preferably from a recognized theatrical institution. There can be even more restrictions than this, but they aren’t as common as the agent restriction.
But if there is a submission policy that is open to the general theatrical writing public, then there are myriad types of materials that might be requested of you. This list below will include a mix of information that might be asked of both playwrights and musical theatre writers:
Log Line - A one-sentence description of the show and its themes. Not quite a tag line or hook, and also not quite a synopsis. These are pretty rare outside of in-person pitches.
Short Synopsis - These are almost always restricted to a certain word count. For instance, The King’s Legacy has different short synopsis versions in: 100 words, 150 words, 250 words, and 500 words. Writers must do their best to summarize the plot, main characters, and themes of their shows within these word counts.
Treatment/1-Page Synopsis - A little more lenient than the short synopsis - though strict on the page limitation - these synopses are the opportunity for the writer to give a full blow-by-blow of the entire plot for their show. Now is the time to say exactly what happens, when, and how. No worries about mystery or spoilers here - they want to know the ending.
10-Page Dialogue Sample - A small sampling of the feel of the show. Generally best to start at the beginning if you can, but if that doesn’t show off the piece at its best, then it can be acceptable to choose ten pages from elsewhere in the script.
20-Page Dialogue Sample - These should definitely start at the beginning. If you aren’t showing off your best work in the first twenty pages, it might be time to give the top of the show another pass.
Lyrics with Descriptions - For musical submissions these are fairly common. Choose [2/3/4/6/8/12] songs from your show (yes, I’ve had all of those restrictions at some point) to send. They want the full lyric to the song, but with a detailed description of the characters, plot placement, and other context.
Music Demos - Again, the number of these may vary. Most submissions are very forgiving on the quality of the recording as long as the music isn’t garbled and the lyrics are understandable. Occasionally you are allowed to send demos for the entire show!
Links to Media - Many online forms will include a box to add links to other media, though this generally means Videos if you have them. Youtube links, or a link to a Video page or a playlist, are great items to have!
Production History - Exactly like it sounds. It’s a list of where and when the show has been produced. If it has not yet been produced, or has only had a couple full productions, then provide a list of where it has been developed, in what manner, and when.
Other Relevant Materials - This is the space to add in any of the other materials that this submission did not specifically ask for. Or this is a great place to include a link to your website if you have one (and you should!).
Artist Bio or Resume - It’s always one or the other, not both. Why? I am unsure. But have these handy always!
Artistic Statement - Now we come to the parts that take the most time per submission. Artistic Statements are basically personal essays that speak to who you are as an artist, what your goals are, and why you do what you do. They must also be catered toward the place you are submitting to, particularly if they have a mission statement readily available.
Letter of Intent - Similar to an Artistic Statement, but these are usually laid out for you with specific questions to answer in the body of the letter. (ie. Tell us about…? Why our theatre? What do you hope to accomplish with this opportunity? etc.) It’s part Cover Letter, part Artistic Statement.
Cover Letter - Or Letter of Inquiry. These are used to introduce yourself, speak about how you found the opportunity and why you are interested, and to introduce the piece you are submitting. Generally, less than one page is desirable for these letters. And sometimes this is just the email that precedes all of the asked-for submission materials.
Full Script (and Score) - You lucky duck! They’re going to read your show! Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen nearly as often as we all would like.
Blind Materials - Sometimes theaters ask for any of the above-mentioned materials without the writer’s name, for a more fair and unbiased judging of submissions. There aren’t a ton of opportunities that ask for this, but it’s good to have blind copies available just in case.
These materials can be (and are!) asked for in any combination without even a semblance of consistency between the submission processes. And because every submission opportunity is different, it takes a great deal of time to write up every submission that you send out. Not to mention that you want to have done your research and personalized the submission as much as possible.
*Tip: Keep track of your submissions in a document! Write down what you sent, to whom, and on what date. It’s great to be able to reference back!!
Can We Consolidate?
As you see, this is a mess of a system. So the question becomes: can we consolidate all of this information?
Well, there is an entity out there who is trying to do just that! They are called The New Play Exchange. Their mission is essentially to be the hub where writers go to upload their pieces and all attached materials, where submission opportunities go to post and search out what they are looking for, and where producers and directors can go to search out scripts of a certain criteria so they can read what they are interested in. It’s a fantastic idea, but it’s definitely still in its youth and will need more time to make a greater impact.
I don’t know what any other answers may be, but if there was a standard submission packet that everyone took for every opportunity, it would make the theatrical world far more productive. Writers wouldn’t have to spend so much of their writing time doing specific and varied submissions, and institutions would know exactly what they are going to receive from writers (whether or not they care to look at all of it). All I know is, there must be a better way.
I could say oodles more about submitting to opportunities, but I think I’ll leave it here for now. Honestly, I have two submission opportunities in my inbox right now and, well, that means I’ve got some deadlines to hit!
Until next time, folks!