By Annette Roman
Twenty-five playwrights gathered on Saturday afternoon of October 27 at the Berkeley Rep’s School of Theatre for the Play Cafe’s inspiring panel discussion “How to Get Your Work Produced.”
The illustrious local panelists were: award-winning playwright Anthony Clarvoe; artistic director of Impact Theater Melissa Hillman; playwright, librettist, and educator Carol S. Lashof; co-founder and executive director of Theater MadCap Eric Reid; and recent president of the Playwrights’ Center of San Francisco and associate artist with Wily West Productions Jennifer Lynn Roberts. The panel was smoothly moderated by executive director of Play Cafe and artistic director of All Terrain Theater Tracy Held Potter.
I took notes, but before I look at them, I’m thinking about what advice stands out most in my mind: “Be nice to everyone.”
The panelists discussed “networking,” but cringed at the terminology. (What a pleasure to attend a panel of writers and performers! Nary a dull inarticulate moment!) The point was, if you’re being smarmy to get something, that’s icky. But if you’re genuinely interested in someone else’s work and in working with them, don’t hesitate to connect. And if you’re shy, Roberts pointed out, social media is a great way to do it.
The panelists are all supportive of others in the theater community…and recommend you be too. Hillman pointed out that promoting others won’t hurt you—anything that promotes theater is good for everyone in theater. So go forth and post about theater you enjoyed.
On the other hand, the panelists reminded us, “Remember, it’s a small community. We’ll talk about your work. And we’ll talk about you.” I think that’s why it’s sometimes hard to get honest feedback from other people in the theater community. They’re afraid of hurting your feelings or inadvertently dissing your secret lover in the backstage crew. Luckily, organizations like Play Cafe give you a safe place to develop your work by giving and receiving critical feedback!
I was left wondering…if you’re not nice, can you learn to be just to better your chances of getting your play produced? Probably not. But since we all have a bit of the drama queen in us (or we wouldn’t be doing theatre), perhaps the best way to implement the panelists’ advice is to reach out generously and be mindful of the context and impact before criticizing or complaining.
On to my notes…
What do producers look for?
• People who know plays (read a lot of them to get the form and format right!).
• When submitting a play, match it to the theatre’s aesthetic, mission, and constraints. If they love the play but can’t use it, they might pass it on to someone else. So don’t be devastated when you’re rejected. Melissa Hillman loves to find a good home for a good play!
• Fun or unfun fact: At Impact, about 99 plays are rejected for every one that is accepted. This rate is fairly typical of other companies as well. So your rejected play is in good…heh, heh…company. (Note to self: puns are bad writing.)
So your play got rejected. Now what? Perhaps it’s time to improve it:
• Lots of great writing advice from Clarvoe, including: See how deep the response of your audience is, how it got under their skin. How does your script give actors opportunities to show their skills? Look at every syllable of your script. Ask yourself, have I attended to every moment? Does everything have a purpose? Or did I just write it because it’s fun to write? Take the time it takes to become the person you need to be to write this play.
• The panelists agreed: Be yourself. That’s what’s unique about you. Don’t try to be somebody else or write for someone or something. Write first, then search for the theater/producer that matches your work.
How do I self produce?
• Roberts: Just do it! Somehow. Get a group of writers together and commit to putting on each other’s plays. Playwright collectives are popping up all over the country are great models to collective self-producing. Check out The Welders; The Orbiters; Boston Public Works; Lather, Rinse, Repeat; and San Francisco’s own, 6 New Plays. These are short-lived commitments, not a theater company. Plus, you’ll gain experience in a few other areas of theater, which is valuable for a playwright. Get funding. Check out Fractured Atlas, who has funded at least two of these collectives. Or, find a sight-specific location for one of your plays. Partner with the business there. Or charity. Say you’ll donate your proceeds to their charity and they can do the marketing, etc. So, yeah. Just do it! And send me an invite so I can come see it.
• Find a space (wayyyy in advance). Rent it. Book it. Borrow it. Bribe it. Consider unusual spaces: your Grandma’s living room? A street corner?
• Pitch the play to a sponsor: a charity, a university with a program related to your topic (bonus: academic institutions have theatre spaces!).
• Don’t be intimidated by Equity rules (new producers get breaks—for a little while at least).
• Don’t be shy about putting your work out there. You are a job creator for theatre people!
• An important PSA from all the panelists: playwriting isn’t for making money.
How do I promote my work?
• Try to get reviewed, but don’t expect to be for the first few productions/years. There are very few reviewers and newspapers left in the area.
• Use social media to get the word out.
• Put yourself on calendars (like the SF Chronicle’s).
• Invite producers/potential collaborators personally, but don’t be offended if they can’t make it. They are busy, busy people. The invitation itself is an opportunity for them to find out that you’re getting your work out there.
What organizations should I join and who should I “follow” online?
• Join Play Cafe; the Playwrights’ Center of San Francisco; the Playwrights Foundation; the Official Playwrights of Facebook; Yeah, I Said Feminist: A Theater Symposium; the Dramatists Guild; Theatre Communications Group; and Theater Bay Area! Community connections may lead to readings and staged readings and productions. Not to mention better writing.
• Read the Playwrights’ Survival Handbook and The Dramatists Sourcebook.
• See tons of shows! Volunteer at theatres!
• On Twitter, follow: #pwops, #howlround, #newplay and @RachelBublitz.
Additional suggestions from Anthony Clarvoe:
• Many theaters only accept unsolicited scripts when they offer a new-play competition (Marin Theatre Co., for example). If you’re interested in submitting to a theatre, check their website for information about submission guidelines, including when in the year they accept scripts.
• Take classes. If you can afford it, consider hiring a dramaturg. A number of writers I know have risen quickly from long-term creative and career plateaus by making this relatively modest investment.
• Look outside the immediate area for opportunities. While many contests have regional residence requirements, many do not. The more often you submit, the more chances you have to win!