Submitting your play to a new-works festival: some hopefully helpful hints (PART 1)

Do you know how much 22 scripts weigh? About 25 pounds. May not seem like a whole lot out of context, but when you stuff those 22 scripts in your backpack, strap your backpack on your back, and bike home, it sure feels like a lot. You learn a lot about the weight of paper in the literary department of a theater or volunteering to read for a new-works festival. Hopefully we are moving away from this, but we as an industry will not kick our addiction to paper before I will have to lug these 22 scripts back to the Playwrights’ Foundation to discuss.

I love new-works festivals. I love everything about them. Being a part of the development process is a thrill, and the value of such events for playwrights and other theaters is immeasurable. If you are an emerging playwright, this is where you should be starting out. Don’t send your scripts to me at A.C.T.; send your scripts to me through the Playwrights’ Foundation where I can actually do something with them!

So, emerging playwrights, how do these puppies work? I have a feeling all new-works festivals are different; I have only worked on three and they are fairly different. For the Playwrights Center in Minneapolis, they outsource their scripts to dramaturgs they’ve worked with in the past and trust (like myself) to read the five scripts  we are sent in full and report back in some detail, rating the play’s potential (as well as, to a certain extent, the commitment of the playwright) on a scale of 1-3. I do not fly to Minneapolis to check in. The scripts that get rated 3 get second reads by the locals.

For the Bay Area Playwrights Festival, about 15 local theater-practitioners of various backgrounds (but all experienced in reviewing plays) will together digest approximate 450 plays in 5 months. Yesterday I received my first weighty stack, and on March 10 we will choose the final 6 to workshop next July. How do we accomplish such a feat and do justice to all the scripts? Here’s how:

Round 1: Each reviewer reads the first 20 pages of 20-30 scripts. Thumbs up / Thumbs down.

Round 2: Each reviewer reads the first 20 pages of 20-30 different scripts. Thumbs up / Thumbs down.

First cut: 2 thumbs up = full read; 2 thumbs down = this is end of this script’s journey; 1 up 1 down = quick discussion, but likely full read. This cut widdles down 450 to approximately 150. It is now the first week of January.

Then the full-reads begin. By the first week of February, each of us will have read 10 full scripts in two different rounds. By this point, each play has been read fully by 2 reviewers and partially by 2 other reviewers. Conversation ensues, and we cut 150 down to 50. We each read 5 of that 50 and the next time we meet conversation ensues, and we cut down to 20 (each play has by this point been read fully by 3 reviewers and partially by 2 other reviewers). Then we each read all of the plays from the final 20 that we have not already previously read. Then we make the final call.

Although this is probably not the exact routine for all festivals, there are some common lessons to be learned from this. 1) Be confident that festivals are being as fair as time will allow; every script is seen by at least 2 reviewers and as many as 15. 2) Make sure your first 20 pages are solid! Consider what reviewers should be able to extract from your first 20 pages: originality of voice, craft & execution, compelling characters, and potential. We should not be able to know the play’s plot at this point (if we can predict where it is going: red flag!), but we should want to keep reading (and, yes, we will keep reading if we want to).

Final tip: you’ll never know if you don’t submit! Do more established writers submit to new-works festivals? You bet your ass they do, and you better believe that they take up some of the slots. For some festivals, they take up ALL of the slots. Goodman Theatre’s 2007 New Stages Festival included Ruined by Lynn Nottage, Ghostwritten by Naomi Iizuka, Spirits to Enforce by Mickle Maher, Chasing Manet by Tina Howe, Two Echos by Noah Haidle, and Gas for Less by Brett Neveu. Not exactly newbees. But look where the Goodman is coming from. They are scouting for plays to produce.

Festivals like the PlayLabs at the PWC and the BAPF with Playwrights’ Foundation aren’t looking towards the next step, The workshop is the final step for them! Still, they like to include some VIPs as well when they can. Why wouldn’t they? More established playwrights benefit from the workshop process as much as the emerging playwright, and the emerging playwrights involved in the festival learn from being around the more experienced writers. And, of course, a more established name helps bring in an audience. This is important not just for economic reasons: playwrights NEED to have an audience at these readings to learn from. Essential.

Both the PWC and the Playwrights’ Foundation like a balance and a range of voices and experience. So, yes, more established playwrights will take a few of the slots, but they will not take all of them. So submit your damn plays!

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