Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Script submission and living in the real world...

Some years ago when I was the Artistic Director of Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey (now called Writers Theatre of New Jersey), I was deeply involved with a project that changed the way I thought about script writing in this country. Here's the story and what I learned from it:

A large foundation approached us and asked if the theatre would be interested in sponsoring a major national playwriting contest.  What was being proposed was a competition to find the two best new American plays, award two $10,000 cash prizes to the winners (at the time the biggest cash awards ever offered in this country), and give each of the two winning plays a week-long professional workshop with an established director and dramaturg assigned to each script and actors cast in New York City.  In addition, the project involved identifying the top high school theatre teachers in the state and invite them to be a part of our development week with the winning plays.  The total budget for the project was over $200,000.  Needless to say, we jumped at the opportunity, daunting as it was for our fledgling theatre company.

So we set out to find the two best new American plays.  We advertised the competition in every conceivable publication and avenue available for getting the word out.  We hired a literary manager to handle submissions and signed up a small army of trusted theatre professionals as readers of the scripts as they came in.  And then we waited to see what would happen.

I'll never forget that as the submission deadline approached, our local postman started bringing into our offices a trickle of scripts at first and then in the last couple of weeks he started dragging in large canvas bags full.  It was unbelievable the stacks of scripts that poured in--it was like a dam had burst. In total, by the deadline we had 1,007 full-length plays submitted.

As they came in, each script was entered into the system and sent out to two different readers to evaluate thoroughly.  If even one reader liked a script, it was sent to a third reader.  In this way we were eventually able to narrow down the mountain of scripts to a stack of 33 semi-finalists.  Then these 33 plays were read by myself and two other close colleagues whom I trusted completely.  And out of these semi-finalists, we finally chose seven finalists that we felt were actually deserving of winning the competition.  The winners were then selected from these seven by a nationally recognized team of theatre professionals.

That's seven finalists out of 1,007 submissions!  That's well under one percent!  It staggered me. How could there be so few scripts that were worthy of our prize?  For me, it was an eye-opener, for sure--that so many writers would think their faulty script, usually due to basic story structure issues, was ready to be seriously considered.  So many well-meaning people were deluding themselves.  So many out there who didn't know their craft, especially when it came to actually telling a story that lifted off the page.

The moral of this story:  Learn everything there is to know about the art form and don't bother submitting your script anywhere until you are absolutely convinced that it's as good as it can possibly be on a professional level. Otherwise you're living in a fantasy world and submitting your work may be an exercise in frustration.

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I'm the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our last residency ran January 3-11, 2016 and we are now considering applications for starting the program with our July 2016 residency that runs July 21-31.  I'm also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter), a professional script consultant, and the author of The Playwrights Process.

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