Submitting your play to a new-works festival: some hopefully helpful hints (PART 2)

Rachel was tickled when I came to bed last night exclaiming, “How hard is it to make a good movie! Honestly!” She was amused because the movie that had sent me on this mini-tirade had been Hellboy II: The Golden Army. “You’re surprised?”

She had a point. And I had not gone in with high expectations, not having been terribly impressed with the first Hellboy movie, which really had very little to do with the comic book series. Really the only reason this movie was in my Netflix queue was because Guillermo Del Toro directed it and Pan’s Labyrinth blew my mind. That, and it was a superhero movie. I felt a certain obligation.

To balance my disappointment, I watched Unbreakable tonight for the first time in 8 years. It may just be the finest superhero movie out there (I say this having swooned over The Dark Knight), and watching the commentary with Will Eisner and Frank Miller made me understand why. Unbreakable does what all good comic series do: it asks us to examine why we ourselves are special, and what our potential role is in this world.

It also finally gave me a response to Syndrome’s argument in The Incredibles that “When everybody is special, nobody will be.” The problem with this asserstion–other than being delivered by a villainous psychopath with an enormous head–is that it assumes that powers are interchangeable and thus negate-able. I can fly. Oh you can fly too? Oh then I am not all that special am I? But this equation breaks down when you can fly, but I can run really fast. Even when accounting for the law of relativity, we are still special.

I am thinking more about superheroes this weekend than I normally am (which is saying something) because I have started tackling my pile o’ scripts to review for the Bay Area Playwrights Festival, and I cannot get Spiderman’s “With great power comes great responsibility saying out of my head,” and I HATE that saying.

Focusing on the great responsibility aspect of that phrase, reading plays for a new-works festival is so much more stressful than reading scripts for A.C.T. namely because A.C.T.’s requirements are much more limiting. For example, production costs play a very small factor when reading for a workshop because the process does not end with production. The fact that a script calls for a sailboat and a desert onstage is not a deterrent because we’ll be lucky if all the music stands are functioning.

Readers also have to put much more value on the potential of a script (of which we have read 20 pages) and a playwright (whom we know only from the cover letter and the resume, and occasionally their reputation). And if you thought that judging artistic merit was a subjective exercise, just wait until you judge potentially meritorious art. It makes you question if Cassandra believes herself when she is telling herself the truth.

So it’s rough, especially since anyone who is reading for a new-works festival is doing so because they are devoted to encouraging new writers to start and more established writers to keep going. We don’t want to say no to anybody.

But, hopefully helpful hints! 1) Take your cover letter and resume as seriously as you do your play. When we are only reading the first 20 pages, how you sell the remainder of the play is important. My favorite synopses are about a paragraph and give me enough to know where a play is going without spoiling the details. You can ruin the surprise, but don’t spoil the details. Thin line, I know. Do NOT compare your play to other plays in your cover letter. “I am submitting this play because I believe it is the next Equus.” No, I didn’t get this exact claim, but I sure did get one similar. Other plays cannot help you now. I read a play last month and  convinced myself it could be the next Proof, but let the reader come to that conclusion. And do not breeze over the question, “What will you do with this workshop if you are invited to participate?” This question is HUGE in terms of communicating who you are as a playwright to the readers. If you don’t know what you are doing, then why should I make an investment in you? Are you just submitting to every festival out there willy-nilly, or have you done some homework?

2) Rejection sucks, but put it in its place. I’ve got a small pile of rejection letters for plays theaters didn’t want, so I know that pain, but don’t let that pain discourage you from writing. Don’t even let that pain discourage you from resubmitting for next season’s festival. Just because 2 readers did not like the first 20 pages of 1 of your scripts does not mean that it’s a bad script or that you’re not a good fit for a particular festival. It means that two readers did not like the first 20 pages of your script. And it sucks that this subjective judgment has denied you this chance, but there’s no way around it. Keep submitting, and eventually readers who understand you and believe in your aesthetic are going to push your scripts through to the full-read round.


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