The Playwright's Guide to Submitting Smarter: A Baker's Dozen Tips to Maximize Your Chances and Minimize Your Aggravation
Your new play is finally ready for submission. ("New play" means your targets are theatre companies and contests - save publishers for plays with a production history.) Of course, too many writers think their scripts are finished when they're not, but that's another story. We're sticking to the story that begins, "your play is finally ready for submission." But now what?
Submitting scripts is time-consuming, the costs add up, and the odds are against you. A major theatre may have one new play slot a year, and if Sam Shepard or Paula Vogel has a new play, no matter how good yours is, you may be doomed, at least temporarily. Even if there is no new work that season from a playwriting titan, you're still battling hundreds of other scripts. That means you need to submit smarter. Here's how.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK
Sending a one-person play to a company that wants large casts or a thirty-page play to a ten-minute play contest is a waste of everyone's time and money - and what's worse, you identify yourself as someone who can't or won't follow directions. These are obvious misses, but sending your gritty urban drama to a company that focuses on rural concerns is just as much of a miss. Instead, research before you submit. Many theatres have their submission guidelines listed in the Dramatists Sourcebook or in the Dramatists Guild of America's resource guide, and American Theater Web has links to virtually every theatre company in the US with a website. Similar sites exist for Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and many countries. Whenever possible, find out what plays a theatre has actually produced, or if they have any guidelines for playwrights on their site - or a mission statement - before submitting.
KEEP IT BRIEF
Cover and query letters should never go onto a second page. Ever. If it's a query, keep it to a short paragraph introducing the play, a short paragraph about you, and then an even shorter paragraph with your proposed action steps (e.g. "You may reach me at this number, I look forward to sending you a complete script of Yard Wars.") For a cover letter, it's a very short paragraph reminding the person who requested your play (usually the literary manager, but possibly an assistant or even the artistic director) that they asked for it (assuming it's not an unsolicited submission, in which case, tell them a little about the script as if it were a query), a note about upcoming projects (more on this in a later tip), and again, how to reach you.
DON'T TALK ABOUT HOW GOOD THE SCRIPT IS IN YOUR COVER OR QUERY LETTER
There is nothing more annoying than an author who tells you how great his work is. It's fine to say it's a comedy, which is a statement of genre rather than a quality judgment, but don't tell us the play is "funny" or "moving" and God help you if you call it "brilliant." Do it, and there's a 50-50 chance that the literary office staff will literally laugh at your letter before they read the play. Not a great start.
DO TELL PROSPECTIVE PRODUCERS WHY YOUR SCRIPT IS EASY TO PRODUCE
Since nobody has much money in the theatre, if you have a small cast or minimal technical requirements (hence making the play both easy and cheap to produce), tell them so.
DON'T INCLUDE RETURN POSTAGE FOR YOUR SCRIPT
Just include a business-size stamped, self-addressed envelope (or for query letters, use a stamped postcard) for the theatre's reply. Who needs a script that will likely be dog-eared and coffee-stained, especially when you'll likely be on a new draft by then anyway? If you do the math, you're not saving much, if anything, by having your script returned, and some will perceive it as paranoia. Just print out another copy.
DON'T BUG THE LIT OFFICE
They're understaffed, and if the guidelines (e.g. in the Dramatists Sourcebook) say expect a response in six to twelve months, give them at least an extra six months before you send a polite follow-up note (email often works too) asking if the script is still under consideration. Having some "news" about your writing life (e.g. an award, a production, a new draft of something) makes a great excuse to write and update them.
PLUG OTHER PROJECTS
If they've requested your Magnum Opus Number One, mention briefly in your cover letter accompanying the requested script that you're working on Magnum Opus Number Two, and that you'd love to send it to them when it's ready. Never hurts to prime the pump.
GET A DIRECTOR ON YOUR SIDE
See if a director who has a working relationship with the theatre in which you're interested will read your script. If she likes it, she can bring it to them, and, depending on the director, your script is likely to skip the readers altogether and head straight for the literary manager or even the artistic director. The trade-off may be that if the director likes the script, she may want to be attached to the project, or have right of first refusal, so pick your director carefully. If you don't have director contacts, actors or other people legitimately connected to the theatre aren't bad either.
FOCUS ON LONG-TERM RELATIONSHIPS
Chances are your first submission to the theatre won't get produced. It's not impossible, but it's not likely. So if they're probably not going to produce your play, why submit? You submit to build a relationship. They begin to know you as a good writer - assuming you also demonstrate that you're not a difficult person (e.g. you don't call the literary office weekly to ask whether they've read your script) - and if you play your cards right, they'll be willing to look at anything you write. If the theatre finds a script that clicks with them, you might find yourself in a development program (see below).
TARGET CONTESTS AND DEVELOPMENT PROGRAMS
Contests are a crap shoot, but you have a much better chance of winning one than of getting a full production. (While entry fees are a fact of life in screenplay competitions, in theatre, though sadly increasing in regularity, they're still frowned upon.) And development programs, where theatres hold readings or workshops of plays with a brief rehearsal period and little or no production values, are, again, more likely than full productions. Use these as stepping stones to bigger and better things, and to allow you to polish your script with live actors and to get to know the people in the company.
INVITE LOCAL COMPANIES TO READINGS
A reading of your play (better if a company is mounting it, but even if you're doing it yourself) is a great excuse to invite local companies to see your play. If you've already submitted the play, one, it's a reminder that you're alive, and two, many companies would prefer a chance to hear a play with live actors (and possibly even on its feet) than to have to read it. And let's be honest, if Theatre X hears that Theatre Y likes your play enough to do a reading of it, Theatre X is more likely to take your play seriously (or to request it if they haven't already). You may even have a theatre to whom you haven't yet submitted the script - this has happened to me on a number of occasions - saying "unfortunately, we can't attend, but please send us a copy of [insert play title here]." Suddenly, you're a solicited submission.
SUBMIT VIA EMAIL
Some companies will let you submit queries or even entire scripts via email (usually PDF or Word files). That saves you printing, postage and the joy of physically having to walk/drive/bike to the post office. But if you're planning to submit electronically, make absolutely certain that the theatre doesn't mind receiving your letter, script or synopsis in this way. And be sure to use a very clear SUBJECT LINE, or you risk having your email deleted out of virus paranoia.
And the most important tip of all -
START WRITING SOMETHING ELSE
You can't wait by your mailbox or your e-mail inbox if you're too busy writing. What are you waiting for?
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...