Dear Gentle Playwright:
I want to like your script sample. Actually, I want to love your script sample. Surprised? Did you think that I am a wicked, villainous, old grouch that lives to destroy budding young theatrical writers and can't wait to be cruel while assessing their work? No, in actuality I have been engaged as a reader because I truly love theatre.
However, there are some common mistakes that many playwrights make when they are starting out that will instantly relegate their work to the bottom of the pile. Please remember that a reader will have many scripts to work through, and you don't want to give them an excuse to quickly move on from your script due to frustration. Readers do not want to see your creativity stifled and understand that some rules are meant to be broken. But a submitting playwright needs to understand that there is a difference between creative writing and crafting theatre. Part of your job as a writer is to create a text that will allow the director, designers, and actors to do their job as well. In the name of keeping your reader engaged and giving your play its best chance, please consider the following:
1. A script is not a musical score.
I am instantly turned off by a writer providing a punctuation glossary at the top of the script.
There are playwrights who will actually list over a dozen non-standard, unique marks and give an explanation of their distinctions in the context of their script. Such as, “The mark ---- means a long pause with breath withheld, and >>>> means the character's voice is rising in pitch as the line comes to an end.” You must understand that a reader is not going to take the time or effort to assimilate all of this just for the privilege of attempting to understand what you are trying to convey in your work, especially if they are only reading a sample. Obscure punctuation is difficult to read many directors and actors are going to be turned off by a playwright attempting to control how each line is read.
This brings up the issue of overlapping dialogue. Yes, it has its place in the theatre and many fine playwrights utilize it. However, one should trust that it can be developed organically in the rehearsal process (with perhaps a few helpful stage directions from the playwright). Forcing a reader to go back and forth through your dialogue as if observing a tennis match is going to cause fatigue quite quickly and possibly create confusion. You must also think technically in terms of a full production: How can a stage manager call the show if they have to keep looking all over the dialogue to follow along?
And trust me on this: a reader knows the distinction between a “beat” and a “pause.” You do not need to explain the difference.
2. There is a distinction between a play and an experimental theatre piece.
Playwrights can utilize a variety of storytelling techniques in their script. It can be everything from straightforward, naturalistic “kitchen sink” style drama to a nonlinear piece that uses movement and stylized, poetic language. However, if one is submitting a play, it needs to contain dialogue. Submitting an abstract piece with little to no dialogue that relies mostly on movement and symbolism is not what a theatre company is looking for if they are requesting script submissions. There are opportunities out there for artists that create such work, but these types of work tend to be company created and/or commissioned.
3. Send the right project to the right theatre.
While it is frustrating that the current state of theatre seems to dictate that all new play production is economized, the facts are the facts. Keep in mind that there are Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights who cannot get a one-set, four-actor play produced. So imagine what the odds are of an unknown playwright getting a piece with a cast of thirty and truckloads of scenery produced at a small theatre company. I have read plays that focused on five characters, but then had a crowd of thirty other people come on stage for only one scene.
I have read plays that opened on a highly detailed set that took an entire page to describe. This would be acceptable were it the only locale for the play (for example the sets for A Streetcar Named Desire or August: Osage County), but then in the second scene we moved to another elaborate locale. And then a third, etc. This might work for a big-budget Broadway musical, but it is unlikely many theaters will choose it. Even if it is the greatest play written in a decade, it will be rejected simply for being out of their budget range.
It is possible that you can write a play with dozens of locales and a small company of actors doubling in many roles. But if that is the case, you must explain how this can be accomplished at the beginning of your submission; don't expect a reader to imagine how the seemingly impossible can become possible.
Keep in mind who and what you are submitting to: is it a regional theatre that is known for large-scale productions of the classics? Then your adaptation of a sprawling Nineteenth Century novel with three dozen speaking roles might be of the scale they are accustomed to producing. But if you are submitting to a small, independent theatre that performs in a 99-seat “black box,” and has never done a play with more than five actors, do not waste your time or the reader's time with something well beyond the scale they are accustomed to producing.
Study the plays of Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, Neil Simon, August Wilson and Paula Vogel. None of their works are impractical or impossible to stage. Trust me: yours should not be either.
This dovetails into another issue and my next point:
4. Remember, theatre is theatre. Be realistic about what can be accomplished in theatre.
I cannot count how many times a young playwright has called for production elements in their script that are not only beyond the producing abilities of all but the largest theatres in the world, but are frequently completely unnecessary, and often just plain weird.
For instance: Do not call for a character to drive an actual car onstage. Furthermore, do not specify an actual make and color of the car unless it is absolutely integral to the plot (I have seen inexperienced playwrights do this multiple times). Is the play about an old Hippie who is now living in his beat-up VW van that is thirty years old and it is onstage the entire play and a major part of the scenic plot? Fine. But are you having a character enter by driving a car when they could just as easily walk on stage with the suggestion that they parked their car off stage? That tells a reader that you are unwise to the realities of theatrical production and probably not someone their theatre wants to work with. Paula Vogel's masterful How I Learned to Drive is all about being in a car, and yet there were no actual cars on stage (we can learn a lot from the greats).
Having stage directions that call for non-stop outrageous production elements are a surefire way to guarantee that your play may not be considered. Unless you are writing a Vegas show for David Copperfield that has a multi-million-dollar budget, do not write a stage direction where fireworks shoot out of the ingenue's mouth.
Then there are plays that call for multimedia effects. Yes, in the modern age many theatre companies will utilize multimedia in storytelling. But if you are writing a play (as opposed to a multimedia art installation) it has to be able to exist without them, or at least with those tech elements done at a minimum. Keep in mind a reader needs to understand the play based on the script submitted, not a series of sound and projection cues.
Here is a good rule of thumb: If you can't do a reading of a play without these over-the-top tech elements present and have it make sense to the audience, then you have written something that most theatres will discard. Present your play without mention of these heavy-handed elements. Perhaps one day you will be able to put them in a production. But when submitting a script, “the play is the thing,” not technical bells and whistles.
5. The stage directions are not there to demonstrate your literary ability or creativity.
Looking at the great playwrights of the last century I can guarantee you can quote their dialogue, but I doubt you can quote their stage directions. Stage directions are a tool for guiding the reader along with what is happening physically on the stage when the dialogue does not indicate it.
Do not write stage directions about what is going on in a character's head over an extended, dialogue-free sequence. This is not a movie, there are no close-ups. This is a play, plays have dialogue. And dialogue can have subtext to let us know what is going on in a character's head.
Do not use them to set up backstory or exposition. It is vital that an audience understand the play via the dialogue and action on stage, because they will not have the benefit of reading the stage directions. And an audience that is left in the dark can get hostile quite quickly. So can a reader who has to slog through pages of creative prose in the form of stage directions. If you want to write paragraph after paragraph about what is happening in a story, write a novel instead.
6. Start at the very beginning, or set the scene properly.
More often than not, you will be asked to send a sample as opposed to the full play. Usually this will range from ten to thirty pages. Most of the time it is best to start right from the beginning so your reader can be drawn into the story right from the top.
“But Anonymous Reader, the first ten pages are not the best part of my play.”
Perhaps they are not the best part of your play. As a matter of fact, I cannot think of a play that is strongest in its first ten pages. However, those first pages must hook the audience immediately. And if they don't, then you have no business submitting your play until they do.
The temptation may be to submit the most dramatic scene in the play. Imagine submitting the hotel confrontation scene between Willie and Biff in Death of a Salesman. Is it a powerful scene? Yes. But that is only because we have connected with the characters by this point. Seeing it on its own without any knowledge of the play would weaken its impact.
On the comedy side, imagine submitting the climactic fight between Oscar and Felix in The Odd Couple. A reader would have no idea how these two men got to this point, and in this heightened moment the subtleties of character development will go out the window.
So it is advised to start at the beginning, or at least at an early point in the plot. And if you start anywhere but the beginning, be certain to write a clear and concise synopsis of what has previously transpired. Be warned: if the plot up to that point is so overly complicated that it cannot be summarized in a few sentences, then you risk confusing your reader.
And whatever you do, be certain (no matter where your sample begins) to make it one sequential excerpt. Breaking up the sample to include multiple snippets from different scenes is not only frustrating and confusing to the reader, it indicates that there is not one sequence in your play that can stand on its own.
7. Don't submit the first draft of your first play.
Believe me, we can tell.
Just as a first-time actor should not audition for a professional production, a first-time playwright should not be submitting their work to a competitive contest or a theatre company. Your time will be better spent working on your craft.
8. Know what you are writing.
When I read an author's statement and they say, “this is a one-act that I am thinking about turning into a full-length play”, I instantly suspect that we are in trouble.
A one-act play has a specific arc, structure and rhythm, as does a full-length play. If you did not harness the needs of your drama to fit within the confines of the one-act structure, making it twice as long is unlikely to fix the issue. Imagine someone submitting a sitcom pilot to a film studio with a note saying “I am thinking of expanding this into a full-length film.”
Structure is important; learn how it works and use it to your advantage.
9. Spelling and grammar count. So does formatting.
Only the grouchiest reader is going to mark a playwright down for an occasional misspelled word or a slight formatting error. But if your play (or your application) is riddled with grammatical and spelling errors, it may signal a lack of professionalism.
And be certain you understand standard script formatting. If you are writing a piece that you think has a poetic style, that does not mean that words can be spread randomly all over the page. Some of our greatest playwrights create poetic, evocative dialogue but they still manage to organize their scripts into an accepted script format.
10. Don't send a musical to a play contest and don't send a play to a musical contest (and so many other scenarios...).
Most submission opportunities will be looking for a specific kind of play. And yet many writers will send in scripts even if they are blatantly inappropriate for what was requested.
If a company is seeking small-cast, bubbly musical comedies for a cabaret-style theatre, do not send in your searing drama about FDR's cabinet at the dawn of World War Two. If a company that specializes in Theatre For Young Audiences is seeking plays based on fairy tales, do not send it your sex farce set in a nudist colony. Do you think the last two examples are just me being glib? You would be shocked at how many playwrights do it all the time.
I am personally acquainted with a Literary Manager for a small company that specializes in plays by and about a specific ethnicity/culture. She told me that more than half of the plays submitted each season have nothing to do with the theatre's mission. Please remember, you are wasting the reader's time. And their time could be better spent reading scripts that actually have a chance of being considered. A naive writer might think, “Oh gee...but my script is just so good...I bet they will be so blown away they will want to produce it anyway!” Sorry, but that is not going to happen. Spend your time, energy and funds submitting your play to a place where it has a chance of finding a home. Rejection is a constant in a writer's life, and it is hard enough when you actually have a chance of being selected in the first place.
Please remember that rules are made to be broken, and you may find that “coloring outside the lines” of what I have presented here may just give your play the spark it needs to get selected. But in a competitive field, it is best to hedge your bets. So for the sake of myself and hundreds of other readers in this industry, please take my advice so you can give your play its best chance possible.