As part of our exploration of new play development in the Bay Area, Laura Brueckner has designed and curated this blog salon series, where the artistic directors of four prominent Bay Area new play festivals discuss, dissect, and debate issues in new play development today.
Today's question: Why should a new writer with no agent or MFA submit her/his work to a festival? Aren’t they all popularity contests?
Opening comment by Amy Mueller, artistic director of the Playwrights Foundation and the Bay Area Playwrights Festival (playwrightsfoundation.org):
Laura asked us to get personal in answer to a question she posed. So my first “personal,” meaning not “artistic director-ish” reaction was, “What? Is that what most young (and young in the art) playwrights really believe about the reading and selection process?” I just don’t see it that way. I concede that some new play festival producers do want to invest in work and writers that they already know, and/or know are moving on toward production. And I guess in that regard you could say that’s a kind of popularity contest, but I still believe it’s very much well worth it to have the folks that spend their lives reading plays read your work, nonetheless.
First of all, I’m pretty sure it depends on where (and how) you send your work. Some new play festivals focus on work by new and as-yet-little-known writers, but others, not so much. Many new play festivals have a very specific aesthetic they’re drawn to, some want the name recognition—or, more optimistically, want to support a writer they already have a relationship with and deeply believe in. Some festivals are connected to large theatres who are interested in looking at work that either they want to produce down the line (so it fits all the requirements of their season, subscriber base, interests, aesthetic taste, and mission) or it’s work they wish they could produce but never would, so they get to work on it in a workshop setting. Some new play festivals revel in experimental work, some want to invest in shifting the theatrical landscape of the form itself, and others focus on more traditionally written pieces that are accessible to a more traditional audience. Most of us focus on excellence. So, when you submit work, you should probably hedge your bets. Still, submit, and keep submitting.
Secondly, I love to read new work, and discover a new voice for the first time (and I draw a real distinction from being the ONE to discover that voice—I’m not sure that is a truthful statement, ever). It is ultimately the very best part of my work here, and reading the work is as important to me as “choosing” it. There are many, many playwrights whose work I’ve gotten to know through the submission and reading process who sooner or later end up in one of our programs, some I’ve read five or six years running! This year I can say that George Brant’s work is precisely that; his play “Grounded” will be on the Bay Area Playwrights Festival this summer. He and I were chatting about the play, and then started talking about all the plays I’ve read of his over the years, and it felt so, well, grounded in a deep knowledge of his voice. I know he felt a sense of trust and at-homeness when he realized that I really knew his body of plays. And that’s because he’s been submitting to Playwrights Foundation for many years!
Although we get hundreds of scripts, I still, after all these eleven years, have a fire in my belly, a palpable sense of anticipation, joy and excitement when I begin to read a new play—especially one written by an as-yet-unknown (to me) writer. And the people that surround Playwrights Foundation tend to be a lot like me in that regard. So, more often than you might imagine, a pretty big stack of plays get saved for future reference, or someone on the committee forwards a favorite play to a friend, and somehow many of the plays that, for one reason or another, don’t make it onto the festival find their way to a stage—locally or regionally. And yet (full disclosure!) I also absolutely love reading new plays by writers I have fallen in love with through my work at PF, and the excitement getting to read the most recent work by those writers is a sweet pleasure for me.
I know that my colleagues across the country, and in the Bay, also love this reading, it is the core of our work, and the reason we keep doing this! So, yes, I think it’s well worth it to hedge your bets and send us your stuff!
Response by Jessica Holt, artistic director of Three Wise Monkeys Theatre Company and the Bay One Acts Festival (bayoneacts.org):
“Submit, and keep submitting.” I love this piece of advice. Amy’s right. The most important thing for a new playwright to do is submit, and then submit, and then submit.
As Amy beautifully explains, new works festivals select the plays they will ultimately produce or develop based on a multitude of reasons and factors. The best thing a new playwright can do to get their work produced, without agent or MFA, is to just keep sending their stuff out there. Yes, it may be frustrating to receive those “Thank you for submitting to our festival, but...” responses, but the more a playwright gets their work out there, the higher their chance of eventually getting that coveted acceptance letter. Those playwrights with agents or MFAs were in the same exact place as the playwrights without at one point. They got into those programs (which then helped them get their agent) by keeping their heads down in the face of rejection, and licking another stamp or e-attaching another PDF to another festival, another program, another workshop. Submit AND submit. Yes, it can be an opaque and frustrating process. But the thing is, good talent will ALWAYS out. So, if the voice is strong and unique, the playwright’s work will begin to receive notice. As Amy notes, you never know who is going to read the work and even though your play might not be the right time, place, or play for that particular festival, the play you submitted may end up passed along to another producer or director.
The other thing I would say is that festivals come in all shapes and sizes, and many festivals are looking for untapped, fresh voices. I think there are some hidden assumptions in the prompt question which presumes that all festivals are looking for playwrights with MFAs or who are repped by agents. There are many festivals that I can think of in the San Francisco Bay Area who are producing and developing work by playwrights without MFAs or agents. The Bay One Acts (BOA) Festival, the SF Olympians Festival, DivaFest, PianoFight’s ShortLived festival and the Pear Theatre Pear Slices Festival all produce work by local playwrights who need no fancy pedigree to submit. And incubators like PlayGround (which I am sure Jim can speak more about) or Playwrights Center SF are great organizations to join that enable emerging playwrights to write in structured environments that may lead to subsequent productions/workshops/readings.
In order to succeed in this field and get produced, playwrights also need tenacity, persistence and a good attitude (don’t we all need that?). Thinking it’s all fixed and just based on popularity may make you feel better when you are smarting from a rejection letter and nursing your ego, but it’s not going to get you produced. Submit. And then submit.
Response by M. Graham Smith, Producer of Aurora Theatre’s Global Age Project New Play Festival (auroratheatre.org):
As the American theatre continues to add more and more playwrights to its ranks, one effect is that many producing institutions, regional theatres in particular, are no longer accepting unsolicited scripts. David Dower wrote something for HowlRound a few months back, essentially admitting that Arena Stage, like most big regionals, hasn't been really considering unsolicited scripts for the last decade or more, so it was time to just be honest about it, and stop accepting them. Many of those theatres have essentially outsourced their literary departments to MFA programs and new works festivals as a way to find new talent. This makes festival opportunities even more crucial, especially for those who don't have relationships with regional theatres already. It's one of a shrinking number of places that work can speak for itself.
I agree with Amy; the more familiar a festival can become with a writer's work, the better the odds become. When I've seen an emerging writer's focus deepen over several different scripts, if I have the opportunity to see a spectrum of his interest and craft, and can see his interests and style evolve, I get a much better sense of what each new work means to his body of work.
My advice would also be something that Marcus Gardley told me when we were both working at Amy's festival several summers ago—it's the relationship that you want to develop; it's rarely about the single moment of “we've chosen your play.” Readers read much better with a context. That's why reading several scripts by a writer over several years really helps. But there are other ways to build relationships. Marcus said he would always try and meet the potential festival, or meet the theatre, or meet whomever, before handing them a script to consider. If there is an opportunity to provide context in a cover letter or statement about the work, be as genuine as possible. If you live in the city where the festival happens, go to the festival! Introduce yourself. When sending out scripts, I also advise writers to take a close look at the festival's mission statement, history, and staff. Why is THIS festival a good match for you? The more specific and honest you can be in your cover letter about how you connect with the festival's overall mission, the clearer context they will have about who you are when reading your script.
Good work does speak for itself. Five years ago I was a reader for Amy at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival (BAPF) and fell in love with a comedy by a NYC playwright named Clarence Coo. When it wasn't chosen for the festival, I wrote Clarence an email introducing myself and told him how much I'd loved the script and his writing and wanted to read more of his work. We met up for coffee the next time I was in NYC and started a tradition of a yearly coffee whenever I was in town. Clarence's next script took him a few years to write and rewrite, and he sent me drafts with each new iteration. I was no longer on the selection panel for the BAPF anymore, but when the panel did select his new play last summer, “Belle Province,” he requested that I direct it because of the value of the relationship and the time we'd already spent on the script. This was a case of all of our relationships growing together over four years: the director, the writer, and the festival, as we better got to know each other.
Response by Jim Kleinmann, artistic director of PlayGround and the Best of PlayGround Festival (playground-sf.org):
While I would generally agree that, from the writers’ perspective, it is best to submit “early and often,” I have some concern about the situation that is hinted at in Amy’s and particularly Graham’s comments about the different types of festivals and the role of the new play festival within the greater ecology of the American theatre. Graham suggested that perhaps larger theatres have outsourced their literary departments to new play festivals. But I’m not seeing much of a connection between what’s getting produced at new play festivals and what makes it to the stage at the majority of our “regional theatres” with perhaps one exception—those theatres who run their own new play festivals or competitions, like South Coast Rep and the Pacific Playwrights Festival, or Actors Theatre of Louisville and the Humana Festival. So, instead, what we have is an increasing number of submissions to the independent new play festivals each year by a growing number of playwrights—many fresh out of the growing number of MFA programs but also, if my experience at PlayGround is any indication, an increasing number of aspiring playwrights without graduate-level training, all looking for their first big break. They come to the independent new play festival because, as Graham noted, most of the larger theatres won’t accept unsolicited submissions, while we’re committed to reading everything (and we do!). With the limited resources and personnel of the independent new play festivals (many subsidized through large volunteer selection committees), are we all digging ourselves into a trap in which we increase the likelihood that a) we will just as likely overlook a great talent or important new voice as find one, mixed in as they are with the hundreds of other submissions, and b) even when we are fortunate to identify that new voice and provide him/her with the platform of our respective festivals, how many of those writers will be embraced by our leading regional theatres where the majority of paying opportunities and audiences still reside? So, yes, I agree with everyone that a writer should/must submit as widely and as often as possible; if you don’t, you’re only limiting your own opportunities. And for those of us running independent new play festivals, I hope we can begin to identify ways to bridge the increasing gap between the R&D we do and what’s being produced in our regional theatres.
The views represented in this Chatterbox Art & Opinion post are those of the individual author, and do not necessarily represent the views of Theatre Bay Area or its staff.