Submitting your play to a new-works festival: some hopefully helpful hints (PART 3)

It takes three and a half hours to whittle a pool of 37 plays down to 25. Three and a half hours, four liters of soda, and four bins of garlic bread and pasta. Last time someone brought cookies. I thought about picking up cookies today. I should have brought cookies.

In three weeks we will reconvene, this time for the last time, for an even longer session with even more food. I am hoping that the day-job has slowed down enough by then that I could consider taking a half day (dare I even hope for a full day?) to mentally and physically prepare, because by 8:30 p.m. tonight my twelve hour day started weighing down on me. I resorted to my tried and true method of keeping my attention engaged. I title it “I’ve had two cups of Coke: I feel no more awake, but I am starting to get a headache.”


Three months and four meetings have passed since I wrote my last advice-oriented post about new-works festivals. This is largely because I haven’t had a lot of insights that would be terribly remarkable for people who have ever critiqued a play. Sitting around the room with fifteen or so colleagues who have dedicated themselves in one way or the other–be it as literary managers, as directors and dramaturgs, and as readers–to promoting new theater in America, I realize that, while our opinions about some plays differ, we are way past subjectivity. We drop plays not because we simply don’t like them, but because on some fundamental levels they do not work, and we are able to articulate why they are not working. Granted, some in the room are more forgiving than others. There are definitely some in the room who are more than happy to say, “This will not be in the final five, and I know that the other three readers don’t like it, but I like it enough that I am going to ask that it get another full read by someone.” And more power to these people. It is this passion for new voices that brought us all into this room on Tuesday nights, though it shines a bit dimmer in some.

I am a little sheepish to admit that in me this passion is tempered by a need for efficiency. I too would, under different circumstances, delight in giving a 10-minute farewell to a play that is just not going to make the cut. But it is 9:00 p.m. My head hurts. We have ten more plays to discuss before we leave. There is also a difference in attitude, I think. Some of the readers joy in the chance to get together with the other readers and discuss, whereas others think of it primarily as a responsibility to help the festival find the “best” group to dedicate their resources to. We can go back and read some of the dismissed plays on our own time. We can call up some of these people and get coffee and chat then. Tuesday nights are about getting the job done.

I don’t mean to make the one to sound flaky and the other to sound cold. Honestly, it is essential to have this balance: to have one voice in the room always saying, “Let’s give this playwright a chance,” and another voice in the room always saying “We have GOT to cut this pile down NOW!” I guess it is also essential for each reader to have this balance within themselves. I am admittedly a hawk, often advocating for brutal and immediate eradication of plays that are not going to make it in the end; and yet tonight I couldn’t let a play go, even though I would be shocked if it survived our next meeting. I defended it as best as I could when we went around the room, not really even convincing myself as I talked about what really amounts to its quaintness, and then I conceded that it should be dismissed. Then for the next hour, it ate at me. Moments of this play kept surfacing, reminding me of why I fancied it and why I had helped push it this far along.

Finally, 10:00 p.m. came as we made a ruling on the final play of the evening. As we are packing our bags, the resident dove–who at every meeting has remarked how annoyed she is getting about the negativity, and who at the last break had said (as she put more pasta onto her plate) that she was not going to encourage the dismissal of any plays for the remainder of the night–announced that she was willing to let a play go that she had formerly pressured us to keep in. I stamped a semicolon on the end of her reversal, and apologetically announced that I needed to bring a play back in or it would haunt me for the rest of my life.

Most people chuckled. Some people even “awwwed,” either because of my affection for it or because my affection was uncharacteristic. Nobody sighed or moaned or rolled their eyes at the fact that I had just added number 25 to the pile of scripts that we have to read in three weeks. Because, I think, deep down, we are all thrilled to be doing this and, I think, we all respect that we’re well past subjectivity. We all trust that nobody is pushing something forward on the ambiguous gut-feeling that they “like” it, even when they’re not as articulate about what is working as they could be. We are all willing to read it for ourselves to see what they see. That’s what brought us into the room, on Tuesday nights, in the first place.


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