How to Prepare Your Stage Play Script for the Theater Market
What a high: you've typed 'end of play' and that full-length stage play you've labored on for the last eighteen months is finally finished. Time to send it out to Broadway producers and get that rave in the New York Times you've always dreamed of. ADD REALITY HERE.
Finishing a first draft of a play is great. But it's like building a house. If you tried to sell that 'first draft' house, buyers would wonder why you're selling a house without wiring, plumbing, coverings on the walls ... you get the idea. Ninety-nine percent of the time, you only get one shot to sell them the house, so wait until it's absolutely ready.
Whenever I finish a play, the first thing I do is print it and read through it myself, proofing for errors the spell-check missed and for anything in the play that no longer makes sense to me. Personally, I like to work at restaurants, so this article is being revised at Nizam, a tranquil Indian restaurant in West L.A. Often, the play you start writing isn't the one you finish writing; it takes the process of writing the play to figure out what the play is really about. Then, the job becomes to make the beginning, when you didn't know what you were writing about, more like the ending, when you did know. I call that process 'recentering.'
So you spell-check, you proof, you clarify, you recenter, you polish—you've done all you can on your own. Now you need help. You're ready for a reading. To hold one, all you need are a bunch of actors, chairs and a room. While you may be able to get scripts to the actors ahead of time, it will probably be a cold (unrehearsed) reading. It's nice to have a few audience members, people who are committed to your work and whose opinions you trust. Your objective: to listen to the play. Hearing it aloud is a great way to know if the dialogue works and to get a sense of the play's rhythm. You may wish to hold a brief discussion afterward. If you do, find a good c.
A few rules to make the discussion more useful:
- DO NOT respond to comments. Your job is to write down everything that is said and sort it out later. If you don't agree with it, you don't have to listen to it.
- Discuss questions you have about the play in advance with the moderator (e.g. 'Is Holly's return credible?'). The moderator can use these questions to focus the discussion.
- Feedback is often best delivered in the form of a question. For example, 'What does Candy want in that scene?' Don't answer during the discussion, but think about the answer and make sure the play addresses the issue to your satisfaction. IMPORTANT: It does not matter whether others understand your intentions or what you wanted to say in the play. They either 'got it' or they didn't, either of which is useful to know. Explaining to them after the fact what their reactions should have been is silly.
- A moderator should prevent people from offering suggestions. The object is to react to the play you've written, not the one they wish you had written or the one they would have written.
- You are not your work, so don't get defensive. EXPECT any first draft (and even second or third drafts) of your play to have problems. But if having your play in front of an 'audience' is the problem, you need to get over it or take up writing novels.
After any useful reading, you'll have rewrites to do. Probably a lot of rewrites, since often the play you thought was so wonderful, when looked upon with less biased eyes, isn't quite so wonderful—at least not yet. Rewrite ruthlessly. Get some distance by taking a break and working on a new project before starting your rewrites; that way, you won't be so in love with the play that you can't make the tough, but necessary, decisions. Once you finish the next set of rewrites, it's probably time to hold another reading—it could be another sit-down (a.k.a. table) reading, or perhaps a staged reading: at a certain point, the play needs to 'get on its feet.' Why? Certain problems in a script don't show up in table readings.
As you move toward staged readings, which can range from a few hours of rehearsal to create basic blocking to up to twenty hours of rehearsal with relatively polished blocking and even basic props or costume pieces. You'll need a director, and you're asking actors to commit more time.
Here are a few ways to find the resources you need:
Join a Playwrights Organization
I was the managing director of the Philadelphia Dramatists Center for several years. PDC facilitates readings, both sit-down and staged, by maintaining books of headshots and director resumes, and allowing members to use its space for free for their readings. Many cities have organizations like PDC. Two good sources of information are the Dramatists Guild Resource Directory (EVERY serious playwright should be a member) or the Dramatists Sourcebook (available through The Writers Store). (Writers Store Note: The newly updated 2001-2002 edition of the 'Dramatists Sourcebook' will be available shortly, and we will announce in an upcoming eZine when it's in stock.)
Get to Know a Theater Company
Some playwrights are lucky enough to develop a relationship with a theater company. I'm a resident playwright at City Theater in Wilmington (DE), and I know that whenever I write something, they're committed to helping me develop the play through readings and workshops, with an eye toward producing it. Don't have a relationship with a theater company? Try calling your local community theater, introducing yourself and telling them that you're looking for actors and a director for a reading. They may help you out and give you some names.
Approach Universities & Theater Schools
Universities are an excellent source of eager actors (potentially both undergrads or graduate students) and directors, and theater schools (attached to professional theater companies) usually consider referring their students for outside projects to be part of their job. It's unlikely that either will help you organize the reading, but they're a source of 'talent.'
After the staged reading, there will be more rewrites, and the reading/rewrite process can go on for as long as it's productive. It may take a year or more from the completion of the first draft to get to the point where you feel confident in your script. But eventually a script needs a production -- not because it's finished and ready to be set in stone, but because it takes a more fully realized production to continue its development. So now you're ready to submit. Where do you submit? The best resources for play submission are the previously mentioned Dramatists Guild Resource Directory and the Dramatists Sourcebook. Not only do they list hundreds of submission opportunities, but they'll also tell you the appropriate way to submit your work. Here are some listings you'll want to look for:
Developmental Theaters & Programs
Some theaters, for example the wonderful Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey that just did a table reading of my play BEN, specialize in developing plays. At PTNJ, they begin with a table reading. Assuming the script continues on course, the next step is a concert reading and then a workshop production, which is close to a full production. There are a number of programs that will provide you with a high-quality (and often high-profile) staged reading or workshop -- for example, the O'Neill Festival or Sundance (yes, there's a Sundance for playwrights.)
New Play Festivals
Many theaters have festivals—and some festivals exist in their own right—for new plays. Obviously, these are great places to submit that new script. Some theaters particularly gear their festivals toward local playwrights, so keep a special eye out for these.
Many contests have as part of their submission requirements that the script not have been previously produced (readings and workshops are fine in most cases). You're competing, quite wisely, with other scripts that are developmentally in more or less the same boat as your own. Of course, there are also listings for theaters' regular production slots, agents and publishers. Beginning with the most obvious answer, if your script hasn't been produced yet, it's too early to approach a publisher: they typically want evidence of some kind of track record. Agents can open doors, though a decent query will get you read almost anywhere. A good time to approach agents is if you're having a production you can invite them to (no, a NY agent isn't going to travel to a high school in South Dakota...), or if you can present them with some evidence that your career is moving forward. But they're far less necessary in theater than in film—of course, I still wish I had one right now.
As for theaters, if you're really sure your script is ready—remember, there are rarely second chances—research the theaters that seem to be good fits for you, and then follow their submission guidelines. If a theater has a website, chances are you'll find a link to it at American Theater Web. They also have a bulletin board with playwriting opportunities. Another place to find playwriting opportunities on the web is the Playwrights Noticeboard. If you're a young playwright, go right to my Young Playwrights Page, which lists many contests for young writers (and has extensive playwriting instruction as well).
Once you've cast your bread upon the waters, don't wait around for the responses to come back. Write something new, and start the process all over again.
Meet the Author: Jonathan Dorf
Author of more than 30 published plays with over 1000 productions worldwide, Jonathan Dorf co-founded publisher YouthPLAYS, co-chairs the Alliance of Los Angeles Playwrights and is Final Draft's resident playwriting expert. He created the content for Playwriting101.com, Google's top-ranked playwriting website for over a decade, and teaches playwriting through Screenwriters University. He has served as Visiting Associate Professor in the MFA Playwriting and Children's Lit programs at Hollins University, as United States Cultural Envoy to Barbados and been a guest speaker at schools and festivals ranging from the University of Southern California to the...