Place The Play – by Dan Weatherer
So you have penned your theatrical debut and it is a masterpiece, but what now? How do you get your freshly completed stage play from your hard drive and onto the stage?
Believe it or not, this is not as daunting or as complicated a process as it might sound. While there is no 100% sure-fire way to ensure your piece gets to be performed on stage, I will share a few useful tips that will save you a lot of time when it comes to submitting material, and help manage your expectations of what you can expect to experience during the process. Again, I must stress that this is in no way, shape or form the ONLY way to get your work onto the stage, but I have only been writing as a playwright for eighteen months, and I have already had several pieces of work staged/aired in the UK/USA, and have successfully landed representation as a playwright. What has worked for me may work for you.
OK, so let’s dive in with what I have learned during my short stint as a playwright:
First, some truths as regards to theatre and new writing. (Most of what I will discuss is born of my experience with the UK theatre scene, but I imagine some of it will ring true wherever you are in the world.) New writing is seen as a gamble, more so than with regard to traditional book publishing. Many believe that theatre is the toughest nut to crack when compared to film and book industries. The aim of the theatre is to make money by filling seats. The sad truth is that new writers are not often seen as seat fillers, and theatre companies are reluctant to take a risk on any piece, regardless of its merit, if they feel the name of the author is not enough of a draw to cover their overheads and make a profit.
However, don’t despair! There are many theatres that DO encourage new writing, and they often post submission calls detailing exactly the kind of work that they are looking for. I use the Play Submission Helper and the London Playwrights Blog. Check them often and I guarantee you will eventually come across a theatre/group who will be willing to read your work. From then, it is a case of following their submission guidelines and waiting patiently for a response. (Please bear in mind that response times vary considerably, and as with any submission, decisions are based a multitude of factors, and feedback is rarely provided with a rejection.)
Before You Submit:
How many times have you looked over your work, confident that it reads perfectly well, submitted it, then later found a glaring typo?
Proofreading a script is just as important as proofreading a manuscript. Shabby submissions rarely get to the stage. Remember, you are might be submitting alongside countless other playwrights; you may as well give your work the best chance of acceptance possible by submitting a watertight script to begin with.
Further, if you can get a group of people together to read your script aloud before submitting, you will immediately hear if your dialogue is in need of further work. Hearing others speak your material will highlight any clunkiness of dialogue, or other shortfalls (such as the flow of the piece, plot holes, etc.). I would also advise listening to what your readers/performers have to say with regards to your characters. For example, not everybody speaks in full sentences, and your readers may highlight lines that feel awkward when spoken aloud. Properly written dialogue can be wooden and unbelievable. Listen to how it is performed and amend accordingly. You will be surprised at how different a line is heard as to read inside your head. However, taking into account their feedback is entirely up to you (not every piece of advice you will be given need be followed, after all: you are the architect of the piece), but sometimes they may be able to highlight issues that you may have overlooked. All of this effort can help fine-tune a script and make it ‘pop’ from the page, improving your chances of success.
Leave meat on the bone for the actors/director.
This tip is born of both personal experience and preference.
When providing a character breakdown, I find that the supplying the characters name/age is more than sufficient. Let me explain why: Theatre scripts differ from novels etc. in that you are handing over your work to be interpreted by others. Directors/actors like to delve into your words and present/interpret them in their own way. The more they have to play with, the more likely the project will appeal to them. Sometimes you can dictate far too much; for instance, a character may have had a string of one-night stands, a failed marriage, a drinking problem, no regular income and once saw a Heron, but the strength of your writing SHOULD convey all of that in the way the character acts/speaks, if it is relevant to the piece. There is no need to explain every nuance of their personality in the character breakdown: Less in this instance is indeed more. Think of it as you handing over a recipe; the key ingredients are there (and will always be yours) but the way the meal is prepared and served, that is up to the chef.
The same can be said for stage directions. Specify any important gestures/actions that you feel are integral to the action, but allow the directors/actors to add and amend any they see fit, as they explore the possibilities of the scene. I can’t stress enough how (in my experience) it is important to trust the director/actors with your work. They will keep you in the loop and may suggest amendments (ones you can of course refuse), but they may uncover new and exciting angles to your work that transfer better to the medium of the stage.
Types of Performance.
In my experience, the kind of submission calls most commonly found online involve either a rehearsed reading or a full performance.
A rehearsed reading is just that: actors (with script in hand) read aloud your work while in character. Usually, there are no set/props on stage. Actors may sit, and any stage directions are usually described using the text in the script. Occasionally, there will be audience feedback sessions. These types of events are great for testing new writing on both actors and audience alike. Excerpts of larger works can also be performed; the benefit of this is that you can road test a project without needing to have completed it first.
In this instance, your work will be rehearsed beforehand, and a full performance by actors in full costume, and props/sets will be involved This may be a one-off event or part of a longer run.
The Small Print.
A quick note on contracts: read them thoroughly before signing. There are a myriad of ways a Playwright may attain royalties, be sure to fully understand what you are entitled (and that you are happy with the agreement) before signing. Remember: If there is something in the contract you do not like or are unsure of, ask to discuss it further.
How To Maximise The Chances Of Getting Your Work Onto The Stage:
The length of a piece.
You may have written an epic, five-act period drama, spanning two hours and featuring a cast of hundreds (which is great), but bear in mind that such a bold offering is unlikely to be considered by all but the most adventurous of theatres.
There are several reasons for this, but the most important is cost. Such a production would require a huge budget, a budget that (unless you are a major player on the theatre scene) you are unlikely to secure. Competitions are sometimes receptive of longer pieces from new writers. (More on those later.)
I have written full-length productions but have not placed them as of yet. Theatre is it is timeless; anything written can be stockpiled until the day theatres come knocking at your door, begging for your work. (I have amassed quite the collection already!)
You will find that there are plenty of theatre groups looking for short pieces. Short is cheap. Short is good. You can still tell a story in five pages (if it is written well) and you will find theatres much more receptive to reading short pieces for that very reason. (I have had some of my best results with pieces no more than fifteen minutes long.)
Remember: as a general rule of thumb: one page of typed script equates to one and a half minutes’ performance time.
Characters and Scenery.
Again, the simpler, the better. The types of theatres/groups that are looking to stage new writing, often have little to no budget, and a stable numbering only a handful of dedicated actors. Often you will see submission calls for pieces containing no more than two characters. If you can write a tight script with only a few characters and a minimal setting, you make your work far more appealing to would-be theatre producers. Ease of production goes a long way to selling your work.
If you can write and be mindful that the piece can be easily performed, you will be at a distinct advantage when it comes to selection.
Fringe and Competitions.
I have had the majority of my success submitting to fringe events in the UK/US. While there has been little in the way of financial reward, seeing your piece interpreted and brought to life by others is often reward itself. There is no greater feeling than seeing an audience respond to your words the way you imagined they would. Further, I have built up a network of actors/directors/producers who work tirelessly in various theatre scenes around the world. Indeed, my agent came by way of a recommendation from an actress who starred in one of my pieces! (Theatre is very much a people industry. This is something to bear in mind when speaking to actors/directors who have shown an interest in your work. If they like you, they will usually support you to the hilt!)
You will also see plenty of submission calls for competition writing. Some of these have entry fees attached, but many do not. Again, if you feel you have something that might fit the submission criteria, then consider submitting. Competition wins (or final placings) look great on the resume.
Again, I must remind you that these tips are all based on the journey that I have undertaken during the past year and a half, and that they are in no way a guarantee of success. However, I have built an impressive portfolio of work, and sport a resume that lists several international performances/final placings, all in the space of eighteen months. Yes, the theatre is tough, but the point of this article is to highlight that there are ways to get your work performed in front of an audience. It worked for me (and yes, there is still a long way for me to go, but it got me where I am today), and it can also work for you; just don’t forget to invite me to opening night!
Dan Weatherer is the UK based Author/Playwright.
He is represented by The Cherry Weiner Literary Agency (author) and Julie Fox Associates (Playwright).
His third collection NEVERLIGHT is now available via Amazon in Kindle/Paperback forms.
For more information about Dan and his work visit www.fatherdarkness.com
© 2016 by Dan Weatherer. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or distributed without the author's written permission. Permission is granted only for posting on the World Wide Web at https://horror.org/, though hyperlinks to the article at this URL are encouraged.