Playwrights: Getting Produced
By: J. Marlando
If you are a new playwright the odds are that you’re pretty frustrated because once the play is written, you want to see it produced. The odds are also that you can’t find a producer or even a theater to test your play out…even for free. That’s show business for at least most playwrights that don’t have at least one hit in their resume. And so they join contests, submit scripts to colleges and smaller theaters around the country only to discover the competition is generally fierce or basically non-existent. That is, most theaters have their own select writers and/or are looking for material that will fit the people who act for them on a regular basis. I’ve been on both sides of the table, so to speak, and know from long experience if I produce Fiddler, The Fantasticks or Tobacco Road the name value is going to draw an audience and so why would I want to risk producing John or Mary Doe’s “Road Back to Pasadena?”
I was producer and sometimes director at the Jester’s Play Box, one of the most successful smaller theaters in the entire Los Angeles region for a number of years. A major reason for the financial success (at least 95% of smaller theaters in the area were running at a loss year around) was that I did name-value shows. Mostly musicals!
One of my favorite non-musical shows was “Waiting for Godot,” by Sam Beckett (and still is). What a concept, what brilliance, what a wonderful challenge to direct and what a great theatrical experience. However, it simply wasn’t right for our Pasadena audience and so I had to do Oklahoma to make up for the money I lost. I cannot personally stand Oklahoma but I’ve produced it three times because it seems never to fail at creating good box office.
Smarter theater producers do productions that bring in profit but most theater producers of smaller theaters are doing art for art sake and so even if they wanted to do your play, they couldn’t afford to. On the other hand, there are, however, some theaters that ONLY do new, original works. But again, most of them have their own circle of talent and with few exceptions that’s where they draw from.
With all this in mind, I will share one of my favorite stories with you with hope it gives you proper inspiration. There was a time when I was a young man that I wrote a play with title, “The Thirst and the Thorn.”
Being a young playwright I was absolutely enthusiastic and thought for sure that I had penned the next hit of the decade. I took it directly to a producer/director friend of mine and ask her to read it. My thought was, if she reads it she will want to produce it. Because she had produced a play of mine before this I was confident that she would actually read it.
I returned to see what she thought a couple of weeks later. She told me that this work was a piece of junk and was certainly not even close to being as good as the last play I’d done.
Well, I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel. And so, at that time I knew a producer at Paramount and got in to see him on a person basis. While I knew thirst and the thorn was not movie material, I figured that if he endorsed the play, I’d more easily attract producers for a stage production. I only waited a week before he telephoned me to come in, that he had read the play.
I rushed into his office with my heart in my throat. My first question was, “Well, what do you think?”
I will always remember his eyes smiling at me. “Do you want my honest evaluation,” he asked.
Of course I did.
He picked up my script from his desk and dropped it into his wastebasket.
Well, if you are going to be a playwright or any other kind of a pro-writer, you’d better learn how to live with rejection. Nevertheless, I left his office feeling…well, depressed to say the least.
I’ll make this long story short: After a few more rejections I finally said to heck with it, and I managed to produce the play myself—that took some doing too but that’s another story. Audiences loved it, as I thought they would, and that play ended up being intrinsic to my being given an American NEA Award for playwriting that year.
The major point is to never…never…never give up, but there is yet another point too: Never listen too seriously to anyone who tells you that your work stinks or that your work is brilliant and wonderful either. You have to go with your own heart and mind as I did with The Thirst and Thorn.
How many published books do you see that make you think—how’d that piece of worthless junk get printed but then again, you also read stuff that you deem genius. I never thought much of Hemmingway and always loved Norman Mailer—you might feel just the opposite and we’re both correct in our appraisals.
I’ve been fortunate because I’ve made a living—sometimes a good living and sometimes a lousy living but a living nevertheless from writing just about all my adult life. I’m still waiting for the gigantic, commercial hit however, but who knows, maybe next year…right?
As a quick aside, what is important to know is that I have seldom been able to write what I’ve wanted to write. InfoBarrel is certainly that opportunity and I’m having a great time at it. For one thing, I spent at least ten steady years ghosting so writing each day to create other people’s books. I don’t know if that’s part of every writer’s profile but ghosting belongs to mine. I’ve had some great jobs along my way too so, I don’t know, maybe it all evens out over time? I’ll tell you now, however, I’ve written a heck of a lot more stuff I didn’t want to write than ever I have that I wanted to write so IB has truly opened a fun and important door for me!
Anyway, here are some hints for getting your next play into production.
- If you have a play that you believe fits a Broadway agenda and don’t have any connections to producers, you will almost certainly need an agent. Start writing letters today. If you have a play that fits an Equity Hat Contract size of house or an Equity waver size of house, you need to go introduce yourself to as many producers, directors, stage managers and anyone else connected to theater that you can. After all, there’s almost as much nepotism that occurs in theater as there occurs in government.
NOTE: The problem with mailing out your play cold-turkey is that it probably won’t be read. It’s like sending a book to a publisher—that nice short and sweet letter of rejection you get telling you how much merit your work has, is nearly always a stock letter and the odds are your package wasn’t even opened or if it was, it was opened by some secretary only to double check your return address. Nevertheless, mail copies to agents and theaters anyway.
The first book I ever sold, I had long forgotten I’d even written it. My wife found it and began sending it out to publishers without telling me. After more than twenty rejections Abbey Press said yes. So that too is sometimes how it can work.
1. If you are a young or new playwright do NOT write plays with complex sets or set changes. One set plays will be most appealing to most producers.
2. Stay away from plays that call for period costumes unless you’re writing for a specific theater that does a lot of period plays. Especially if your target is a 60 or 90 seat waver house the chances are they will have an extremely limited costume department if they have one at all. Always remember, your play can be rejected for a lot of reasons that have NOTHING to do with the value of your writing.
3. Write SMALL CAST shows. A play with four characters is going to be accepted twice as quickly as a show with eight characters…in many instances. I say many because none of this is cut in stone. Nevertheless, for a new playwright staying at eight characters or below is wisest.
4. Here’s another rule of thumb but one that is nearly always applicable. Write plays with younger characters if you’re going for smaller theaters and/or the college market. Younger characters mean no older than 30. For college productions you can usually get by with one older character in your cast list but most theaters, including college theaters, that aren’t paying their talent simply have a tough time attracting older talent.
5. These days you will probably have far better “luck” getting your play produced if it is a two act as opposed to a one act but especially opposed to a three act. And, do your best to keep those acts to around one hour apiece when you can. If you need more time to unfold your story, do so in act one and never act two as you want your audience to leave wanting more, not feeling worn out from their experience.
6. A well written comedy will probably be considered twice as fast as a well written drama by most theaters. Comedy in all media is absolutely the biggest challenge to write and truly funny plays are truly far and few between. There is another problem, however, that can occur at a lot of smaller theaters. Not every director knows how to direct comedy. I have seen great comedies bomb because the director simply didn’t grasp the timing and action that the work demanded. And so, if you happen to pen a good comedy at least give the best playwright notes that you can to help guide the producer/director toward your vision. My rule of thumb was that it was (nearly) always best to let the playwright direct his or her own comedy when possible.
Note: I am only experienced in U.S. Theater but assume it’s pretty much the same internationally.
Can readings help? They can! I remember a few years ago I wrote a play that I thought was a doozie—it was thick with jazzy dialog and fast paced action. I was shocked because in spite of all my experience, the reading exposed the play as being…well, lousy. I realized that I had overwritten the work so no matter how good it looked on paper, it read thick alright…thick and sluggish! So yes, have a reading or two of your work before you submit it so you are sure of pace, plot and how your character development actually works.
Live theater is a wonderful art form that often includes dancing, singing and many other talents such as juggling to acrobatics. Of all the advice I have for every budding talent who works hard, is dedicated to his or her art and is struggling to make a mark in theater—remember this beyond all else Show Business is two words and the “show” part is often the least important in the real world.