What Playwrights Should Know, Part 1


Ah, the theatre.
(Stacz Sadowski in Impact Theatre’s Of Dice and Men by Cameron McNary. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs)

So I read a lot of plays. A LOT. And I have a ton of work to do today; I have to read about 20 more plays in the next, oh, 30 or so hours, plus teach a class, shower, and engage my husband in some light badinage to let him know that, Yes, although I am SCREAMINGLY busy, I still remember he exists and appreciate that existence.


I don’t have the time to do a full post about the submission process. IOU a real post about it. Pinkie swear. But today, after reading +/-10 plays so far, I have a short series of pet peeves to unload, and a short series of high fives to give out.


1. SMOKING. For starters, it’s illegal to smoke indoors in California, and faked smoking always looks asstacular. Additionally, it’s almost always a boring, lazy choice. Yeah, I’ve seen it used well in new plays on occasion, but for the most part, it’s just a lazy way of tagging a character with a certain characteristic– nervousness being the most popular. Come on, you wrote a whole play! Surely you can come up with a better way to express a characteristic, right?

2. NO CHARACTER LIST. If you managed to include a page with quotes from Lao Tzu, Pliny the Elder, and Chaka Khan, surely you can include a page with a character list. We need it.

3. ONSTAGE SEX WITHOUT COVERS. I produce in a two-sided thrust that seats 59. I read fully 5 plays today that included this. How in the chocolate-covered fuck am I going to stage that believably? My front row is close enough to make the scene a sneeze away from an eleven-way. Also, the narrative stops when the sex begins. The amount of time it takes for the action of start-to-finish onstage sex is far too long for the information “they had sex.” It’s not porn; we can’t show anything good. So it’s just actors awkwardly groping each other while the audience sits there awkwardly waiting for the action to recommence. If you must, AT LEAST GIVE ME A BLANKET TO WORK WITH. Help a sister out.



2. PLAYS SENT TO ME AS PDFs. I really do appreciate that little courtesy.

3. PLAYS THAT KNOW THEY ARE PLAYS AND NOT FILMS. When I see work by playwrights who understand what is unique about theatre and explore that in some way, I am DELIGHTED.

OK, back to work for me.

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9 thoughts on “What Playwrights Should Know, Part 1

  1. So… I shouldn’t send you my Excel sheet of a cigarette-heavy adaptation of Sarah Kane’s “4.48 Psychosis”? Back to the drawing board…

    And can they be .doc if not .pdf ?

    • Ha!

      I don’t mind .doc, but .pdf is easier to scroll through as I read it. It’s a minor detail, but a nice touch. It certainly doesn’t take anyone out of the running. Honestly, the right play at the right time for the right theatre can be written on cocktail napkins and still get produced.

  2. Ann Holt says:

    i am currently reviewing twenty plays and this post verifies that I am not insane in suspecting that many playwrights think they are writing films. The other thing that is driving me nuts is people being shot and stabbed on stage (film again?). And where are the strong female characters? Thanks for making my day!

  3. tracy says:

    thanks for this Melissa.
    i am reading for a local Festival and i would add:
    if your characters speak in paragraphs to each other for more than a page or two, chances are you are not writing a play with characters who are listening, or have subtext, and chances are even better that you don’t know what you want to say.


  4. I don’t suppose you’re interested in a full-length with 3 women, and one of them re-starts smoking (after her mother has a stroke)? 😀 Oh, no sex.

  5. I read plays and LOVE your pet peeves — tho’ I could add several more: wink, wink, nudge. nudge dialogue; the importance of hanging out yakking in a bar; upper middle class living room family “dramas” (not). I am also a playwright — with strong women characters, current political and social issues, rarely paragraph dialogue — and am still waiting for fab Lit Mgrs or Artistic Dirs. to go “yeah” over one of my plays …


    Even worse: I have been seeing way too many plays as of late where the writer is clearly thinking of pitching the script for development as a television series.

  7. Reblogged this on griffinartistcard and commented:
    Some tips all the way from West Coast US for all you Artist Card writers.

  8. Shane Menken says:

    I once watched a webinar on screenwriting where the “expert” told us literary sheep that if your movie script won’t get picked up, write it as a play as plays are cheaper to get produced. had I been there in person i would have walked out. As a stage director, I can recognize that screenplays and stageplays are different structuraly in the same way that no body reads a novel on stage, as that won’t work either.

    many scripts I have read forget that on stage the word is the action, and on film you can always walk around.

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