Communicating with theaters: letters of inquiry, cover letters, follow-up emails

Submission process
Mary Sue Price

Theater is all about people. Every letter of inquiry, cover letter, or follow-up email is an opportunity to get to know someone and the more people you know, the better. Developing a solid group of colleagues is part of a playwright’s job. Some colleagues will become friends and collaborators. All of them will serve as the foundation for productions, commissions, residencies, writing jobs—your entire career.

So before you start sending out letters of inquiry, take time to figure out who is doing what. Join the playwriting groups on Facebook, LinkedIn, the Dramatists’ Guild, and of course the Playwrights’ Center. Read theater magazines and blogs, such as American TheatreThe Dramatist, and HowlRound, to find out what’s going on across the country.

Go to the theater as often as you possibly can. Seek out the people who are writing and producing the kind of theater you want to do. Follow them on social media. Take an interest in their work. Go to their shows and/or read their plays. Pay close attention to where they are being produced. If you can find a graceful way to create a personal connection, go for it. Don’t push too hard—just a tip of your cap, a kind word, congratulations. If you get a response, great. If not, you can still refer to their work and specific productions in your letter. The tiniest shred of a personal connection is better than a letter sent ice cold.

When you write a letter of inquiry or a cover letter, imagine a busy person reading it. She has a ton of other things to do. Her coffee’s cold. She skipped lunch because she has to wade through way too many emails, including yours. She’s overworked and a little cranky. She’s underpaid, if she’s paid at all, but she has real power. She can open a door, even if it’s only a tiny crack. She can send words of encouragement when you need them the most. She can also move your letter to the auto-rejection list or simply hit ‘Delete.’

Treat her with respect. Do not waste her time. Do your homework. Don’t request information which can be found on her theater’s website. Make sure you understand how this particular theater handles new work and follow those rules. It’s easier than ever to find out the details about theaters all over the world, so do it. Don’t bother our reader with a pitch for your avant-garde futuristic masterpiece about aliens in the Ozarks if her theater specializes in hard-hitting contemporary urban drama written by New Jersey teenagers.

There’s a good chance that our reader will move up through the theater ranks. Your letter is the first step in what could become a strong professional relationship for both of you. Don’t waste her time and your own by sending out a form letter. Take time to make your letter specific and strong. It’s an important introduction. Make it count.

Letter of inquiry

In my view, a letter of inquiry needs to answer four questions: Who is this person? Can she write? Is it our kind of play? Can we afford to produce it?

Keep your letter brief, upbeat, and to the point. Make sure your name and contact information are at the top of the page and easy to read.

In the first sentence, if possible, reference a play or a person that lets our reader know you who you are and that you did your homework. Then connect this to your play. Describe your play in a sentence or two. Keep the theater’s mission in mind. If your play has received or made the finalists for any awards, mention it here. Give our reader a good reason to keep reading.

In the second paragraph, provide brief character descriptions and a set breakdown. If you’ve done your homework, you’ll have a good idea of what this particular theater can actually produce. Find a way to mention one of their recent productions, especially if you saw it. If not, double-check to make sure it actually happened. Sometimes websites aren’t updated very often.

In the third paragraph, add a little information about yourself and the production history of the play you’re submitting. This is a good place to mention awards for other work and any relevant degrees or work experience.

Finally, say thank you. Remind the reader of how to reach you. I always list my email and phone number at the end of a query letter as well as at the top. Keep the letter on one page. Make sure there are no spelling or grammatical errors. Triple-check to make sure all names are spelled correctly. Always read your letter aloud before you hit ‘Send.’

Writing sample

If it’s supposed to be ten pages, don’t send twelve. Or eight. Send ten pages of your strongest work in a professional format. Make sure it’s in .pdf (or the requested format) and is attached to your letter. This will be the first time anyone at this theater has read your work. Make it count. Limit yourself to a few sentences of set-up. End on a cliffhanger, if possible. Leave our tired and overworked reader wanting more.

Cover letters

These letters are often required for residency and award applications. The objective is to make your project sound so compelling that our reader can’t wait to read the rest of your application.

Pay careful attention to what the letter needs to include. There’s usually a list in the application guidelines. In any case, your cover letter should answer the following questions: Can she write? Does this play fit our mission? Why does this play matter?

Again, do your homework. Find out as much as possible about the application process. Some organizations, such as the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center and Page 73, have seminars on this. If you can’t attend, find out if the seminar will be streamed or recorded or if any materials from it are available. Find out who has won before and read some of their work. If one of your colleagues has won and it’s appropriate, ask for advice about the application.

If you’re going to drop a name, drop it in the cover letter, with permission, of course.

Make your cover letter immediate. Tell a story. Bring our reader into your world. Be passionate. Explain why your play serves the mission of the organization and why you have no choice but to write it.

Again, keep it on one page. Say thank you. Remind the reader of how to reach you.

Follow-up email

These can be a little tricky but they’re worth the effort. I recently won a residency after checking the status of my application with a polite and brief email.

I generally follow these rules:

If there’s a deadline, don’t wait until the last minute. This can never work to your advantage.

Many online systems will automatically let you know that your application has been received. If you don’t receive this notification within 24 hours, it’s fine to make a quick call or send an email to make sure your work was received. Again, keep our busy reader in mind. Don’t wait until the last minute and expect her to fix the problem.

Make sure that all of your contact information is correct and easily accessible. I was once contacted by an organization when part of my application did not come through. If my email had not been readily available, I might never have known. I quickly re-sent the material. I didn’t get what I was applying for but I made a contact.

If the application system does not automatically let you know that the application has been received, proceed with caution and a smile. There’s usually a contact person and I think it’s fine to double-check within 24 hours. But keep your email super brief and upbeat. If you don’t get an answer, wait a few weeks and ask again. Stay positive. If the organization is in the middle of a major event, wait until it’s over. Try to find out if there are problems or major changes within the group and time your email accordingly. Always keep it brief and positive. Do not remind them that you have asked before.

Communicating with theaters before, during, and after submitting a script

Do everything you can to avoid the slush pile. That’s where unsolicited scripts land, often never to be seen again. Despite a theater’s best efforts, scripts in the slush pile are usually read by volunteers or interns who may or may not have experience with new plays. Sometimes your play will be seen by the lit manager or other staff but the odds are against it. This is one more reason to develop contacts. A phone call or a quick email from someone involved with the theater can at least get you out of the slush pile.

I think it’s great that some theaters still accept unsolicited manuscripts. If that’s your only option, go for it. If you really want to work with a certain theater, just keep sending them plays. Make sure your scripts look professional and that your contact information is on page one. In the meantime, keep working on finding a better and faster way in. Develop those contacts. Keep entering contests and applying for residencies. Also work on developing a relationship with a theater, however small, that’s close to where you live. A group of good actors and a director who will do informal readings as your write your play can be invaluable.

Never send a first draft to a theater. You will have one shot per script. Make it count. Send a play that is ready to go into rehearsal, not one that ‘shows promise.’ For me, this means two or three informal readings, some version of a workshop, and several rewrites. There is no advantage to sending out work too soon.

Invest some time in targeting the theaters to which you’ll send a script. Really think about what you want to get out of the production and whether or not the theater you’re considering can provide it. Make sure your work is appropriate for the theater. Blanket submissions can be tempting these days when it is so much easier and less expensive to get a script out the door. But they can waste time and you’ll end up with a lot of rejections which could have been avoided.

The best way to submit a script is through a friend at the theater or an agent. But until that happens, put yourself on a schedule and just keep sending out your work. Keep careful records so you can easily stay in touch with lit managers and their staff. Make sure to send a quick email if a play you’ve submitted wins or is a finalist for an award. I did this recently and ended up with a meeting at a major theater and a workshop at a much smaller one.

If a script has been requested, I think it makes sense to follow up every couple of months. I did this last year. I don’t have a production yet but I have gotten to know some people. We’ve had a couple of meetings to discuss other opportunities at the theater which is in the middle of a transition.

If a script is unsolicited, I think one or two inquiries about it during a year is enough, unless it has won something. Don’t expect them to dig it out of the slush pile.

In general, try to think beyond your individual script. You’re building a career, not just vying for one particular production. Even if your work is rejected—and the odds are that it will be—a script submission can be a good way to get to know people. Every rejection is an opportunity to make a new contact in a lit office. Stay in touch with these people. The next theater they work for might be perfect for one of your plays. Make sure they keep you in mind.

Know that despite all your efforts, sending out scripts can be really frustrating. That just comes with the deal. A life in the theater can be difficult. Stay upbeat. Support other writers. Keep sending out work, developing contacts and building your career. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Above all else, keep writing.

Mary Sue Price is a Playwrights’ Center member.