Sunday, November 17, 2013

Thoughts on Getting a Play Produced

by Bill Johnson

For the inexperienced playwright, writing a play can be straightforward. One puts in the time and energy and does it. Getting the finished play produced and performed can appear to be simple as well. Send it to a theatre and get friends on the waiting list for when the play opens Off-Broadway. Unfortunately, that's like saying if you want to learn about hiking, you need to start by climbing Mount Everest. Long before most plays ascend to the lofty heights of a chance for an Off-Broadway production, or even a chance at a production in New York at a recognized theatre, they go through a process of refinement and revision. My goal here is set out some of the steps of getting a well-written play produced.

The first step is to write a well-written play. A play that engages and rewards the attention of its readers. Unfortunately for most inexperienced playwrights, their plays fail this first test. They don't read well. Some hallmarks of a well-written play? It immediately draws its audience into the narrative issue at the heart of the story.

For example, The Iceman Cometh opens with two characters talking about the issue of pipe dreams. Larry comments on how everyone around him is living a pipe dream, while he isn't. The plays acts out Larry's realization that he, too, is living a pipe dream. The play speaks in a rich way about the way many people need to lie to themselves to get through their lives. That means the play opens with a dramatic purpose of showing what it will take to bring Larry out of denial about who he is. This is a vital point because it means that from the opening of the play, the play's audience is oriented that the story has a dramatic purpose that the plays acts out to resolution and fulfillment.

On the opening page of your play, it should be clear your story has some dramatic purpose that will be acted out by characters who feel compelled to shape the outcome of the play's core dramatic issue. That dramatic purpose should infuse the dialogue of your characters.

Dialogue

Many inexperienced playwrights open a play with characters engaging in small talk to reveal who they are to an audience. This generates an impression that the play doesn't really begin until that process is complete. Open your play with an event that sets the story into motion in a way that your characters reveal themselves as they react to it and speak about it. The Iceman Cometh opens with two characters speaking about pipe dreams, and the expected visit of Hickey. Hickey will be the one who unexpectedly maneuvers everyone to examine and question their particular pipe dreams. As your characters talk about the situation they find themselves in, be careful to have characters speak to the point and respond to each other. Avoid having characters make speeches at each other. Let them voice their thoughts and feelings in a way that clearly advances the story. If your characters are speaking in paragraphs, ask yourself if they're really talking to another character or if you're using them to communicate information to your audience. As a rule of thumb, if you can't put your thumb over and cover any character's lines of dialogue, you're risking having characters run on to no particular point.

Write to the point of what characters are thinking and feeling, and have the others characters respond with what they're thinking and feeling. Stage craft Stage craft is everything that has to do with mounting a production of a play. How many sets a play requires. Suggestions on how they should be lit. How characters make entrances and exits. You can learn a great deal about stagecraft by going to plays and observing how they are staged. How light can be used to be dramatically suggestive. How a set can be suggested by a few props. How to get characters on and off a stage.

When you write your play, think about what makes the action theatrical. Avoid slipping into writing a play as if it's a television sitcom. It's not. Keep in mind that if you're writing a sitcom instead of a play, your audience can just as easily stay at home and watch sitcoms on television.

If it isn't possible for you to attend plays performed at several theatres, rent videos of filmed plays. Study how successful playwrights have used the medium of actors on a stage to bring to life their plays. Consider how you use that medium to heighten the dramatic impact of your story. When you write out what you consider to be the staging requirements of your play, keep in mind they will be re- interpreted in the light of what a theatre can both do on their stage and afford to do. But what you suggest about the staging requirements of your play on its opening pages tells your reader something about your knowledge of writing for the stage. Asking or insisting that a community or arts theatre build an elaborate set to stage your play suggests you aren't aware of the realities of mounting a play on a limited budget.

When you write stage directions for your actors, keep in mind some actors/directors will use them, others may ignore them completely, even black them out. While writing a play can be a solitary effort, mounting one requires a community working together. That also means that the other people involved in mounting a production of your play might have a different vision of how to cast and produce your play. You should think about that and how you feel about others making decisions about your play that affect it. While it's true that on a certain level, you can sign contracts that require the play be done as you've written the dialogue, how it's cast, staged and directed can also significantly affect how a play appears on the stage.

I attended a play by webmaster/playwright Charles Deemer. The use of stage craft was brilliant and interesting to watch in its own right.

Marketing Scripts

Information about theatres and their script requirement are available in The Writer's Market. The Dramatist Guild also offers a resources guide to its members. The Theatre Communication Group also offers a guide to theatres and their script requirements. Information about theatres and writing for the theatre is also available on line.

Keep in mind that you have a number of distinct markets for plays.

Large, commercial theatres that have large stages and the experience/budget to create elaborate sets. Broadway theatres and a few large regional theatres occupy this niche.

Commercial theatres that seat 150-350. They work with more modest budgets and generally look for plays with more simple staging requirements and a limited number of actors, generally 2-7. Many off-Broadway and regional theatres fit into this niche. A few cities like Seattle have several such theatres that either employ equity actors, or work with a mixed group of equity/non-equity actors.

Arts theatres These theatres often seat 75-200, and are often formed around the vision of a group of dedicated theatre professionals. They generally are open to staging new works, but must face on-going budgetary concerns. Artists Repertory Theater in Portland is an example of such a theater. They produced Holidazed, by Cynthia Whitcomb and Marc Acito.

Community theatres They often don't have the budget elaborate sets, but they can produce plays with larger numbers of actors.

Colleges Again, they can't often build elaborate sets, but they can draw on a larger pool of actors. Some colleges also offer to stage readings and produce plays of theatre majors interested in writing for the theatre.

High School Writing plays for high school students is actually one way to make something of a regular income writing plays. Every time a play is produced, the writer gets royalties. Getting plays out into the market here generally means getting a play published and offered through catalogs that offer plays for the school market.

Children's Theatre This is more of a niche market. Some theatres specialize in producing theatre for children. Other theatres produce adult work, but find having a theatre-within-a-theatre to do work aimed at children expands their outreach into their communities.

On-line Theatre This is a new form of theatre written to be produced and performed on-line. It is so new, how it will evolve will be determined by the theatre artists now exploring the medium. Web master Charles Deemer has been involved with this field.

Historical Dramas Many people are familiar with the one person performances of well-known figures like Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln. But there is also a market for one person shows about people well-known in a particular region or for activities that affected particular groups. If you can write such a play and find a performer, these kind of plays can tour colleges, particularly if they are historically accurate.

Historical Pageants Some states produce stage plays about historical events like the settling or founding of a state, or a dramatic time in history.

Arts Festivals Some arts festivals stage works by new writers.

Puppet Theatre There are a few companies that focus on doing work with puppets/actors. This form of theatre is produced much more often in Europe, where it is considered an adult form of theatre.

Audio Theatre This form of theatre can include plays written to be performed on radio, plays written specifically to be recorded and offered to the public on audio tapes, or plays that have been produced in theatres and then recorded on audio tape.

US Government The government puts together cultural exchange tours. These can sometimes include plays. This might mean the playwright would need to attach themselves to a theatre and do some legwork to set something up, but it can be done.

Labor Theatre/Other Some kinds of theatre are written and produced for the benefit of particular groups like labor unions or political theatre. A play about medical issues might be performed at a medical convention.

Mystery Theatre This is a form of theatre sometimes done as dinner theatre. It involves some kind of who-dunnit and is meant to be light entertainment. There are companies like Eddie May Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre that buy scripts or buy and revise scripts to fit this format.

Environmental Theatre This is a kind of theatre written to be performed in a particular environment, perhaps on a boat or traveling train.

Improvisational Theatre There is a kind of theatre now that, say, stages a wedding, and actors and audience intermingle.

Musicals There are production companies that specialize in producing musicals.

Play Publishers Play publishers like Samuel French publish plays and offer their production rights to theatres. Getting a play published often requires getting it produced first (with some exceptions). Getting published used to mean that a play was produced and reviewed in New York. That doesn't have to be the case now, particularly for plays written for schools, churches and community theatres. Most play publishers will send guidelines about what they expect in terms of submissions. Some of the larger play publishers are:

Samuel French, Inc. 45 W. 25th St. New York, NY 10010, http://www.samuelfrench.com.

Pioneer Drama Service, Inc. PO BOX 4267, Englewood, CO 80155-4267, http://www.pioneerdrama.com

Other Churches occasionally do plays. Some coffee houses allow artists to stage works.

A glance at the list above should alert playwrights that some plays by their nature should be submitted to particular theatres. Sending a play with a cast of twelve and elaborate sets to an arts theatre is misguided. It risks being considered unproducible just from a glance at the cast of characters and set requirements. The same play, however, could find a welcome home in community theatres or as audio theatre.

It's Written, Now What?

You've written a play. You think it's done. Now what?

I suggest your first step is NOT to send the play out. Instead, that you gather some people together to read it out loud. This will give you a sense of how the play sounds. If you can't arrange this, I suggest you read your play out loud and record the reading, then play it back while you listen and make revisions.

In my years in theatre, I have found that the one thing that consistently separates out those who get produced from those who don't is the produced playwrights hear their works read out loud before sending them out. Hearing your play read out loud means that you can edit/revise lines that don't play well. It means your play will generally read more strongly.

After you've been through this process, is the play ready to be sent out?

Before you consider your play producible, I suggest you consider trying to arrange some kind of staged public reading. Find out if there's a performance space available for you to arrange the play to be read. Invite some friends. Perhaps send out a notice to the local paper so you can see the reaction of others to your script. If you don't know any actors, any local college with a theatre department could help you find some.

Also

speak to some of the local theatres to see if they produce staged readings. As part of a commitment to new theatre, some theatres have a regular program for producing staged readings of plays. That allows the theatre to get a sense of audience reaction to the play before the make a commitment to produce it.

The steps set out here are not written in stone. Most theatres won't require that your play have been presented as a staged reading before they'll consider it. I suggest you consider it part of the process of creating a play and making sure it reads well before you begin submitting it.

Writer's Groups

While writing plays can be a solitary craft, there are number of playwrights groups around the country. These groups can offer valuable information about which theatres in your region are interested in reading new scripts. The Dramatist's Guild in New York also offers its members contract advice and information about both national and regional theatres. The Chicago Dramatists Workshop is another large group for playwrights that has a staged reading program. They are at 1105 W. Chicago Ave., Chicago, IL 60622, NewPlays@aol.com.

On-line Information about plays, playwrights, playwriting, writing groups and theatres is available on line. Check out http://enavantplaywrights.yuku.com/

Classes Some colleges have theatre departments, and colleges occasionally offer students opportunities for staged readings. Classes are also a good way to meet other playwrights and theatre people in your community. Some theatres offer classes in writing for the theatre. These classes can be a wonderful opportunity to become part of a particular theatre community.

Because producing a play is a community effort, for some playwrights becoming part of that community is part of writing for theatre. Other writers prefer the more solitary writing life. While you should choose the path more comfortable for you, at least be aware that there can be more to getting a play produced than writing them and mailing them off to theatres.

Contracts Entertainment attorney Dana Singer has written "Stage Writers Handbook: A Complete Business Guide for Playwrights, Composers, Lyricists and Librettists." The book offers a information about the business of writing for theatre. It's published by the Theatre Communications Group, which also puts out a book about which theatres are reading scripts. Keep in mind that a contract spells out in writing the understanding of all concerned parties about what their expectations and understandings are. It can help avoid misunderstandings from different interpretations of verbal commitments. As a famous studio executive once commented, verbal contracts aren't worth the paper they're written on.

Copyright If you want to take steps to protect your play, you can copyright it with the Library of Congress at http://www.copyright.gov. The fee is $35.

You've Mailed it Off; What Now?

You can expect to wait. Sometimes for days. Sometimes for months. Sometimes for years. Some theatres assign readers to read new manuscripts and make a decision whether to pass them along for further review or simply return them. Other theatres simply have whoever's interested and has the time read new scripts. Others might have scripts reviewed by a committee. There's no single answer here as to what will happen when you submit a script.

You can also call theatres in your community to ask if they're reading scripts and their submission guidelines.

Agents Most agents are only interested in representing writers whose work they can market. If you're an unpublished playwright, you're better off focusing on getting a play produced, but some unproduced writers are able to get agents. Other writers have agents to handle books or screenplays, and their plays are handled as a matter of courtesy. Even if you have an agent, keep in mind that you are the one with the vested interest in getting your plays produced, so even with an agent it's still in your best interest to promote your work by submitting it to theatres.

Contests Some theatres now stage competitions and contests, with the winners being produced/staged. They generally have entry deadlines and guidelines. The nice thing about contests is that if you don't hear by a certain date that you've been selected to be produced, you at least know that someone has reviewed your script.

Some contests charge a reading fee to cover the costs of reviewing scripts and mounting a production of the winning script. While this isn't a good thing for playwrights, for some theatres it's the only way they can manage to stage a competition. It does mean that some competitions are actually scams intended to make money for someone. Some of the worst of these are exposed on-line. If a theatre is asking for any kind of fee, be careful.

Conclusion Writing a play and seeing it produced can be a deeply moving experience. Or deeply disappointing. Or surprising. Or illuminating. Or any number of other feelings. There's no way to know ahead of time how a performance of a play is going to turn out. About the only thing that's guaranteed is that it promises to be an interesting experience!

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To read some of my longer reviews of popular plays like Romeo and Juliet and 'night, Mother, check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon Kindle. For more information abbout my plays, visit http://www.storyispromise.com/prenuptial.htm