"To fall, patiently to trust our heaviness, even a bird has to do that before he can fly."
Rainer Maria Rilke
Some Will Dunne Wisdom
For most playwrights today, it’s difficult to get work produced. Especially in tough economic times, many theaters are struggling to make ends meet and producing a new play, especially by a new playwright, means taking a risk that could lead to significant financial loss. As a result, larger theaters tend to work with playwrights who already have track records. Smaller theaters are more likely to take on the risk of new work because less money is involved, but, for the same reason, production quality may fall short of what the play really needs.
The good news is that there are a lot of theaters in the United States (more than 200 in the Chicago area alone) and they produce plays all the time. You just have to find the right theater for your work and the opportunity to get your play read by the right person. Many resources are available to help playwrights tackle this daunting quest. At the national level, The Dramatists Guild provides a powerhouse of support for playwrights, including the annual Dramatists Guild Resource Directory (sometimes referred to as the “Playwright’s Bible”).
Before submitting a play anywhere, you need to know what producers want and don’t want, how they expect to receive a submission—for example, synopsis and sample pages versus full script, electronic submission versus hard copy—when exactly to contact them, and whom to address. The Resource Directory puts all of this information at your fingertips and includes in its scope not only theaters, but also festivals, conferences, contests, colonies, residencies, grants, fellowships, and other career opportunities. No playwright should be without it.
Here in Chicago, we are lucky enough to have Chicago Dramatists, a 32-year old “playwright’s theater” devoted to nurturing new voices for the American stage. Playwrights gain many resources—classes, workshops, individual script consultations, reading opportunities, business advice, industry panels, and more—to help them not only develop plays, but get them up on stage. And you don’t have to live in Chicago to take advantage of many of these resources, such as script consultations. Similar types of organizations include New Dramatists in New York and the Playwrights’ Center of Minneapolis, among others.
How do theaters select plays? Like each playwright, each theater is unique so there is no one set of guidelines or advice that will apply to them all. My experience has been that an unsolicited script has a better shot at getting a good read in a playwriting competition than it does in a stack of scripts that have been on the desk of a literary manager at a theater for the past year. My experience has also been that, on that same desk, there are two stacks—the tall one and the short one—and that it is really important to try to get into the short stack. That means getting out and meeting other theater artists, becoming familiar with theaters that feel like the right match for you, and finding ways to get yourself known there and drum up interest in your work so that it is not “unsolicited” when it arrives. I know many playwrights who created their own career opportunities by volunteering to work at a theater and getting to know the staff that way. Playwriting conferences, such as the O’Neill’s US National Playwrights Conference, Seven Devils Playwrights Conference, and PlayPenn also offer opportunities not only to develop your work but advocate for yourself as a playwright, though first you have to be accepted.
Speaking of creating your own career opportunities, there is a lot to be said for making a real commitment to your work and producing it yourself. This doesn’t need to be a Broadway production. If you can assemble a good team of theater artists, you can mount a streamlined production of your play in a small venue without spending a ton of money. You might also check out the fringe festivals in your area. Many provide the venue and handle the marketing for you. Whether you produce the play alone or through a festival, you will be getting your work up in front of an audience and perhaps a few critics and, if the response is good, it may open a door elsewhere. Even if it doesn’t, you will have learned a lot about your play and yourself in the process.