Ask a literary manager: Margot Melcon

Submission process
Margot Melcon

Working on the institutional side of the new play world, I receive thousands of scripts, script samples, letters of inquiry and email updates from playwrights and agents every year. Below are a few things to keep in mind before you hit send or drop that envelope in the mailbox.

Know what you’re asking

When you send your work out into the world, you are asking for other people, often strangers, to invest their time and energy into something you've created. Be thoughtful about how and when you make that ask, and make sure you’re confident about your draft. Consider that:

  • If you send someone your script, assume an average of one to two hours of their time, just to read your materials.
  • If you’re asking for workshop, that is 25 hours or so of working time, multiplied by the number of actors, director, stage manager, dramaturg your script calls for. On a four character play, that is nearly 200 hours of people’s time.
  • If you’re asking for production: count on an average of 8 hours/day, 6 days/week for four weeks for rehearsal, plus tech and performance time for actors, director, stage manager, dramaturg, scenic, lighting, costumes, sound, props, creative team, administration, marketing, front of house and facilities. That can add up to thousands and thousands of hours if you put it all together.

This is not meant to scare you. Rather, it should inspire you to know that people will be willing to invest their time and energy into your work. But make sure that draft is worth everyone’s time. Which leads me to…

Never send a first draft

  • Take the time to edit and proofread.
  • Get some friends and some wine and hear it out loud.
  • Walk away for a week or two, then come back to it with fresh eyes.
  • Get someone you trust (who is honest) to read it first.

Unless someone has asked for it, be very thoughtful about sending out early drafts. Ask yourself if you want this person to spend time with a draft that still has typos or has an iffy second act. There are people who you want at that stage of the game, but not everyone. Which leads me to…

Be smart about how you put yourself out there

  • Read about a theater and see if their aesthetic is similar to yours. Look at their past seasons, at their mission statement, at the kind of work they produce. If it’s an obvious choice or even a reasonable stretch for the company to consider your work, then by all means, send it along, but if there is no indication that they invest (see above for the kind of investment I’m talking about) in the kind of work you write, spare them and yourself the effort.
  • Find the work of playwrights you like and contact them. Everyone needs a mentor.
  • Remember that being a good writer isn’t all there is to it. Producing a season of work, or one play, is a complex equation of balancing questions of cost, kind of theatrical experience you want to present, diversity of all kinds, taste of your audience and producability. If someone says no, remember that it is not always a reflection of whether or not they thought your play had merit.
  • Be someone people want to work with. If we’re going to spend hours and hours and hours with you, we want to know you’re not a jerk. And hopefully, you want to make sure we’re not jerks either.

Think of it like dating. There are questions you ask to figure out if you’re compatible with someone. Often times, you’ll meet someone you like through people you know. If you don’t go on that second date, it’s not because you’re not pretty; you might just not be someone’s type. If you’re awesome to be around, people will want to be around you. Which leads me to…

A few other basics

  • Don’t give someone more than they ask for. If they say 10 pages, they mean it. If they ask for a resume, they want that and not all the reviews you’ve ever gotten.
  • Keep notes on where you send your work and when so you don’t end up in the embarrassing situation of having to ask a harried literary manager to scour through their emails to find out if you sent them draft 2.4 or 2.6.
  • Keep it simple. Don’t use fancy fonts (titles are okay in fancy fonts, but the script needs to be easy on the eyes) and don’t mask poor craft with gimmicks.
  • Put yourself out there. See performance, everywhere you go. Meet people. Get on reading committees. Volunteer at theaters. Get to know the industry from every angle.
  • Be yourself. Have faith. Recognize you aren’t owed anything. Know that when it does happen, it is a win-win for everyone.

Margot Melcon is Director of New Play Development at Marin Theatre Company.


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