[If playwrights were better businesspeople, they'd be businesspeople. That's why, many years ago, I wrote an article for Callboard magazine (now Theatre Bay Area magazine) that took green playwrights by the hand and showed them the mysterious world of marketing plays. It was originally written for San Francisco playwrights, but much of the information is applicable to folks everywhere; still holds true today; and may cross over to other artists as well. I don't know—I haven't read this in a long time. And I probably don't do half the things I talk about in this article any more—but that's the luxury of being me, isn't it? (Insert smiley face here.) Hope this helps somebody out there.]
"Now I'm in San Francisco," sings John Wesley Harding. "It's a town too hard for love." Mr. Harding is singing from the perspective of a heartbroken folk-rock performer, of course, but it's a sentiment that more and more Bay Area playwrights have come to adopt as their own. Hundreds of playwrights populate the San Francisco Bay Area, and this region's treatment of them has become almost a cliche: "local playwrights can't get produced in their own hometown," "they're not taken seriously," etc. But there's truth in them thar cliches, as playwright after playwright has found these industry punch lines turning into reality.
But many playwrights are dedicated to staying in the Bay Area, building their careers nationally even if local theaters turn their backs on them. Some local scribes are fortunate enough to defy the current model altogether by living and working in the greatest city on earth.
I dug through my own experiences over the last 10 years and interviewed several writers for some sound advice about what it takes to call yourself a playwright and a San Franciscan. So, you've written The Great American Play. Now what do you do?
The Great American Play almost never starts out great. And if writing is rewriting, then there is a ceiling to how many times you can rewrite in the comfort of your own home (or wherever it is you write, be it a cafe or at your day job). So, many playwrights look to readings for help in taking the work to the next level. It's a great idea to get your play in the best possible shape before sending it out.
Very early in the process, playwright Trevor Allen prefers private living room readings with a select group of friends, be them theater folk or not. "It allows me to hear the piece," says Allen, "before throwing it to the wolves." Playwrights are vulnerable creatures, especially with a brand-new piece, and living room readings take place in the most supportive environment imaginable. (But choose your friends wisely.)
Staged readings are the next step in the development process. "They're essential to the plays that I develop," playwright Will Dunne insists. They are typically script-in-hand readings with actors in front of an audience. "How a play shows itself with witnesses," says playwright Amy Freed, "is shocking and valuable." In the hands of actors, a script can really come to life—or fall flat. Actors bring a truth to the work that is immediate and tangible. And when an audience is involved, the playwright can hear more easily the beats and gauge how well a scene is doing by an audience's response or non-response—by their laughter or attention or dead silence. "Without anyone having to tell you it doesn't work," adds Freed, "you know."
Staged readings can be cold or rehearsed, blocked a little or blocked a lot, and there are pros and cons on all sides. With some rehearsal, the actors can be more prepared to give the play the best initial reading possible. However, I find cold readings sexy as well, because it really forces the actors to focus less on their own performance and more on the text. On the same token, too much blocking can distract the audience from really hearing the script. But very physical pieces can suffer if actors do nothing but sit in chairs in a circle. It all depends on the play.
Opportunities to develop your work at all different stages abound in the Bay Area. And the Dramatists Sourcebook lists new-play development opportunities around the country—some even provide travel, housing, and/or a stipend. And everybody reading this article surely has access to a living room somewhere.
In addition to formally developing work in such a manner, playwright and solo performer Anne Galjour says, "The support of a writing group is very helpful. I don't feel so alone. Writing groups and workshops abound as well in the Bay Area. If you can't find one, you can start your own."
Playing the Odds
After you've rewritten your play enough times, and, when you're confident enough to have people, real people, read it, what happens now? Without some street cred on your side, it's hard to get theaters to take notice, especially when they've got stacks of scripts coming into their office practically every day of the year. If you don't have an agent, a production history, a recommendation from Someone Important, then theaters are unlikely to show interest in reading your work—unless they already know you or unless you are extremely lucky or determined. So, what's a green playwright to do?
Dunne suggests entering playwriting competitions. Most of them accept unsolicited scripts. "Competitions level the field to some degree," he says. Every script submitted is read (sometimes by more than one reader). Some competitions charge a reading fee, and different playwrights have different philosophies about this. But fees have become so standard over the years that I usually just see it as investing in my career.
Competitions usually offer cash awards and sometimes staged readings and full productions as well. Playwright Adam Bock generally avoids competitions because most of them seek unproduced, unpublished scripts—which means you have to wait after the end of the competition before landing actual productions. "I instead like to get my stuff up," he says.
However, he agrees that there's money to be made from competitions, if you've got what they're looking for. It's a bit strange to talk about the potential monetary value of your play, but admit it—it would be nice if you could pay your rent and buy your groceries using the cash you get from your writing.
Some competitions offer cash prizes that are larger than the royalties you would get from a production. My play, The Theory of Everything, won two competitions (the International Herald Tribune/SRT Playwriting Competition and the Julie Harris Playwright Award Competition) and landed me a total of $20,000 ($15,000 from the former, $5,000 from the latter) long before the play had its world premiere. My competition winnings (including a subsequent $1,000 for winning the PEN Center USA West Literary Award for Drama) were 10 times more than the royalties I collected from my world premiere production. (And this wasn't some small garage-theater premiere either. It was a world premiere coproduction between Singapore Repertory Theatre and East West Players, on two different continents, in 375- and 240-seat houses, respectively.)
Awards also bring a certain amount of cachet. A play that has some award attached is bound to be more noticed by theaters than a play that doesn't. Simple as that.
One additional advantage to competitions is that people will get to know your work. Most competition judges are members of the theater community and are often culled from around the country. This bodes well if you are looking to establish a national network of contacts.
Getting It Up (And Doing It Yourself)
Ultimately, Bock is right. Money is good, but the real satisfaction comes from seeing your play performed. (And if it's relatively successful, you can still collect a healthy chunk of royalties.)
It ain't easy being green—so you'd better learn to write a good query letter. Most theater companies will not accept unsolicited scripts. Query letters act as an introduction to you and your work. If the query jives with whoever reads it, the theater will then request to see your whole play. (It can take months for them to respond.)
Keep the query letter brief and direct. Include a few sentences about yourself and a concise and appealing one-paragraph synopsis of your play. Mention any contests you've won and any development the play has had. Also, if you are querying the theater for a specific reason (you admire its work, you like its mission, etc.), then say so. Above all sound professional, and not like a crazy person. Crazy equals writing more about you and your play than people have the time and patience for. Avoid making sweeping statements ("this play will change the way America thinks about homelessness and bunnies"), bemoaning the state of contemporary theater ("theater is dead, and my play will revive it"), being maudlin ("life is a tragedy, and my work reflects the state of the human condition") or writing anything that may tag you for an oddball ("my dog likes my play," "my psychic told me to query you," "I am very very very close to my mother"). I've been a screener for the O'Neill Conference, and, by your query letter alone, I can tell if I like you. Take that for what it's worth, and adjust your query letter accordingly.
Go through the Dramatists Sourcebook, pick out theaters you're interested in and send those queries. (Some theaters require that you also send a sample of your play.) This does not mean sending it out to one theater and then quitting after you receive one rejection. ("What good is talent," asks Galjour, "if you don't put it out there?") In fact, send your queries out even to those theaters that say they only accept submissions from agents. (It doesn't hurt, and I have actually gotten some of these strict theaters to read my work.)
Both Adam Bock and I sent queries about our first plays to over 50 theaters. And that meant over 50 rejections. However, Bock's Swimming in the Shallows had successful productions in San Francisco and London, and my Big Hunk o' Burnin' Love launched my career, establishing permanent relationships with theaters in Los Angeles and Arlington, Virginia.
"The majority of what you get are rejections," says Galjour. Adds Bock, "You have to get a hundred rejections to get a yes." I subscribe to his philosophy as well. Be happy each time you get a rejection, because you are that much closer to landing a production. I typically also send thank-you letters to people who have read my plays. It's good for business, and it's just the right thing to do.
And don't take this "local playwrights don't get produced locally" thing too seriously. Productions elsewhere means you get to travel (usually on the theater's dime, if you negotiate your contract right), and traveling is fun. Aside from bopping about the United States, Dunne has gone to Russia, Bock to London, and myself to Singapore.
If you're so covetous of having your plays performed in the Bay Area, do it yourself. "I encourage writers to self-produce," Dunne says. That's how many playwrights get their start. Self-producing gives you the practical tools that will help build your knowledge of all aspects of theater. And with this knowledge, your playwriting skills will inevitably grow and expand. "We all make mistakes," says Allen. "Why keep waiting for other people to make mistakes for you?"
The Right Relationship
And whether you seek local productions or productions elsewhere or both, the business of playwriting is all about establishing relationships, about expanding your network of theater contacts.
Certainly, if you expect to get produced locally, get to know the people in the theater community and allow them to get to know you. Seek out small companies that produce work you admire. Bock's mantra: "See more plays, meet more people, do more work." It's easier for a company to relate to your writing if they already know you. That's why Bock gets produced in the Bay Area regularly. He has built relationships with The Shotgun Players and Encore Theatre Company. Allen has hooked up with Crowded Fire and The Cutting Ball Theater. And I became playwright-in-residence at the New Conservatory Theatre Center long before we received a grant for me to do that officially. And all three of us began those relationships by attending the companies' productions and making first contact with the people who run things. "It doesn't hurt to be nice, either." Freed adds, "The best thing you can do is foster relationships with other aspiring directors and actors."
You can also establish relationships on a national level. Once you discover literary managers in different parts of the country who connect to your work, you can usually keep sending them plays. And theater people talk to each other. That's a good thing for playwrights. Bock's runaway hit, Swimming in the Shallows, was produced in San Francisco because a theater in New York (that had passed on the play) suggested it to a local director and the local director took it to a local company. (Playwrights Horizons was the New York theater, Kent Nicholson was the director, The Shotgun Players was the company.) And this circuitous route is typical of how scripts get passed around and eventually produced.
Those just starting out really need not worry about agents, grants, commissions, getting published, critics, and things of the like. And, besides, that's a whole other article. And you don't have time to read that anyway. Your career is waiting for you.