Details Matter: Tips for Playwrights on Unsolicited Script Submission
Monday, October 26, 2015
By Jonathan Spector
Unsolicited script submissions are a tricky beast. There are a few organizations out there, like Playwrights Foundation (for the Bay Area Playwrights Festival), the O’Neill Theater Center (for the National Playwrights Conference) or Marin Theatre Company (for the Sky Cooper and David Calicchio prizes), that are truly looking for new work from writers unknown to them. Beyond that, sending out unsolicited submissions can be largely a waste of time for both the writer and the reader, unless they are very specifically targeted.
|Photo: “Script for Life” by user Yeonsang on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.
In either case, it’s a consuming and expensive endeavor. So, for the fall submission season, I reached out to a few literary manager types to get their suggestions. Here's what they had to say:
Josh Costello, literary manager and artistic associate, Aurora Theatre:
“It’s always much better to have a mutual friend or collaborator submit a script on your behalf. Unsolicited scripts are much more likely to end up continually bumped to the bottom of the list or read by an intern rather than the literary manager; a recommendation can get a script bumped to the top of the list and read by someone with more power.
Track everything. Create a spreadsheet (or come up with your own system) to track which of your plays you’ve submitted to which theatres on what dates, and what responses you’ve received. Track how often you’ve contacted literary managers and artistic directors, so that you walk the line between being persistent and being annoying. Whenever possible, see plays and readings at the theatres to which you’d like to submit.”
Sonia Fernandez, associate artistic director, Magic Theatre:
“Read the guidelines! Don’t waste your own or the company’s time by submitting something that won’t even be considered. Pay attention to grammar, spelling, etc. Carelessness with those things gives the impression of lack of care with the work in general. This may just be a pet peeve of mine, but nobody seems to know when to use ‘you’re’ or ‘your’ anymore!”
Sarah Rose Leonard, literary manager, Berkeley Repertory Theatre:
“I don’t really pay too much attention to play summaries. What your play is about is less important than your point of view and writing skills. Spell my name right. Write a short and sweet email that gets to the point—make it obvious that you respect my time, so I can respect yours.”
Raphael Martin, director of new work, SoHo Repertory Theatre, NY:
“I always tell writers to thoroughly research the company to whom they are sending their play. The best websites do a good job of communicating—in a graphical fashion—the kind of work a theatre might be interested in. So if you want to send a play to SoHo Rep or to the Goodman, make sure you are sending both of these theatres a play that is right in their strike zone. It’s no good for anyone just to splatter-gun the play across the landscape; better to be specific.”
Margot Melcon, director of new play development, Marin Theatre Company:
“Do not send more than they ask for. There is a reason why a company will first ask for a letter of inquiry, a script sample or an application form. You may think it will save time to go ahead and attach your CV, bio, the full script, references or reviews from a previous production anyway, just in case they’ll eventually want to see it, but what that communicates is an inability to follow directions and lack of respect for guidelines that are put in place for specific reasons.”
Anne Morgan, literary manager, Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, Waterford, CT:
“It may sound simple, but read the instructions first. The more you know about what the theatre is looking for—both in terms of work and in terms of application requirements—the stronger your application will be. Also, a properly submitted application means less time the lit office has to spend processing the play and more time they have to spend reading it.”
Madeleine Oldham, director of The Ground Floor and resident dramaturg, Berkeley Rep:
“If there’s a way in a short cover letter or email to share something about the thought process behind creating the play, that always helps me have some context for reading. Whether it’s something about why the play called out to be written, or what ideas were being pursued, it’s nice to have a little taste of how a writer’s brain works in relationship to the play. I know a lot of people think the work should speak for itself, but I find even a tiny bit of background really useful in helping me try to understand what a writer is going for.”
Finally, I’ll add my own pet peeve, from my days in the literary management trenches: be honest on your resume. Don’t obscure whether something was a reading or a production. Theatre’s a small world, and most people will spot something that seems fishy. Being inexperienced is fine. Misleading the reader about your experience is not.
Jonathan Spector is artistic director of Just Theater, a member of TBA's Theatre Services Committee. He is also a director and playwright.