Artistic leaders from three different theaters shared some of their thoughts on script submissions. All three theaters accept new plays through general submissions, contests, or festivals. These are the things that they want you to know before you submit.
Paul Nugent and Anna Nugent, Co-Artistic Directors - AboutFACE Theatre Company (Dublin, Ireland) and Michael Rhodes, Artistic Director - Tangent Theatre (Tivoli, NY)
(Together, AboutFACE and Tangent Theatre produce the annual NEWvember Festival)
- Formatting: Have a look at a published play (for example a Dramatist Play Service copy) and see how a play is typically formatted. It's a really bad start when a play looks sloppy and unprofessional. It makes us assume you don't actually read plays. Remember to put a cast list at the front of the play (and if you have multiple actors that require doubling, note which actor will double which roles!)
- Instructions: Do make sure to carefully read the requirements of a festival in their submission process. For example, for our festival we request writers submit a pdf of their play without their name on it so it can be read "blind" by our panel, yet every year we have to disqualify many plays because the writer's name is right there on it.
- Exposition: Look to eliminate exposition in early scenes and get to the action as soon as possible. See where your play starts to get lit up with action, change, or excitement. What would happen if you cut the purely expositional scenes before that? Your first ten minutes with an audience are so crucial, hook and intrigue them as soon as you can!
- Events: Look at each scene and ask what major change or event occurs in that scene. If you find yourself saying "well, there's no major change there in any relationship, but there's important exposition/historical detail/beautiful dialogue there," maybe that needs to be cut. This may also help you with pace, because often where plays lose steam are scenes that go too long without a major revelation, discovery, or dramatically changing action.
- Place: Be very specific about where you are located. Also examine how many locations you are using, and what that would look like on a stage.
And finally some of our pet peeves:
- Beginning your play with a monologue. Unless you really, really need it and it's really outstanding, it almost always starts the play off sluggishly and takes the audience away.
- Having major plot developments happen off stage or between scenes in convenient blackout and explained onstage later. Mostly these end up being missed opportunities for interesting action onstage and just add extra exposition.
- Having any phone calls onstage that are longer than two or three lines. It's almost always the worst way to get across whatever is needed on stage and rarely feels dramatic.
- And finally: don't submit your screenplay!
George Gunby, Organizer - Belper Short Play Festival (Derbyshire, UK)
- Follow the rules for typing and format. It simply makes the play easier to read. Even if it’s not a competition entry with specific rules, a clear format is essential for all involved.
- Follow time limits. From my point of view, this rule can be flexible simply because the length will depend upon a number of factors that are outside the writer’s control. Five minutes either way when it is read doesn’t worry me, and the length will change as the director and actors get involved. I have a belief that writing, in most cases, has a natural length, so don’t pad a script out just to fill time.
- Be aware of character limitations. Limiting the number of characters is mainly practical, but it does have another reason. It can prevent writers simply introducing character after character without developing the character and their relationships with each other. It also gives actors the opportunity to develop characters and not merely walk on and off.
- When specifying props and set, think about where the plays will be performed. In the Belper Short Play Festival, they are performed anywhere but in a traditional theater. It’s always the story and the text that is important. Performances take priority over sets.
- Make sure that you include your contact details. This is the most common mistake that we find. It’s easy to forget, but remember that without a contact page no producer, director, or programmer can reach the writer, and the play will be put aside, no matter how good it is. It’s probably the most important part of submitting a script, yet up to 10% of plays sent to me have no contact details.
- Make sure you send your script before the closing date. Time is always an enemy. We need time to read the scripts.
- My last piece of advice is: Patience is a virtue. Don’t worry if you don’t hear anything quickly–although sometimes giving a prod doesn’t hurt.
Tony Yajko, Artistic Director - Darkhorse Dramatists (Binghamton, NY)
- Don't be afraid to submit your work. Theater companies like ours that want to showcase new work try to give a voice to playwrights at various levels of experience. Don’t worry if you’ve had your shows done from coast-to-coast or if you’re just getting your feet wet. If you send something unique and above all entertaining, we’ll give it a shot.
- Before submitting your play to any theater company, first send it to a trusted, unbiased advisor and ask for their input. Tell them you’re not looking for praise but constructive criticism. We receive an average of 200+ submissions for our festivals, and so many scripts look like they have never been proofread. That extra attention to detail shows us that you’re putting your best foot forward.
- Keep production limitations in mind. If your play isn’t accepted, don’t feel like it is necessarily a reflection on the quality of your writing. Sometimes certain companies can’t produce a play due to production or casting aspects. As an artist, think about what makes a play producible. Do I need this fifth character? Do I need eight scene changes in this one-act?
- The key thing that playwrights miss the mark on is structure. The first thing we need to know is that structure doesn’t exist for the writer, it exists for the audience. The writer is like the driver of the car—he may know where he’s going, but the passengers (audience) like to have the headlights on and have an idea of where the driver is taking them. We all need to be cognizant of that when we write. Is there story progression? Will the audience understand the point of the play?
- Plays area a communicative art, so we need to be good communicators. We should be able to tell an audience what the play means and what we want them to think about. If you as a playwright can’t do that, your play probably lacks structure.
- Above all, you should never sit down with the goal to write something “profound.” Just write something thoughtful, honest, and entertaining. Never give up; getting your play produced isn’t a final goal, just a milestone. Recalibrate success at different stages of your life and then grow from the experience.