Why Your Play Was Rejected

rejection

I recently received a submission of a play we rejected not two months ago. The playwright attached it to an email directly to me (bypassing my new Literary Manager, the wonderful Lynda Bachman), which is fine. I generally just forward those to my LM unless I have a personal connection to the playwright or to the person sending me the play. But this email was different, and I hesitated long enough to read it, and, unfortunately, respond.

The playwright decided she was going to resubmit her play so soon after its initial rejection because she noticed that I had “replaced” my literary manager (our outgoing LM, Steve Epperson, left to pursue other career options, not because he was “replaced”), and believed that I would better understand her play because I was a woman.

You would imagine in that case the play would be about something specific to the female experience, but it was about writers and mythological characters. My vagina and I read the play together and were able to ascertain almost immediately why Steve had rejected the play: It had technical requirements that were outside of the physical capabilities of our idiosyncratic space and, more to the point, it was poorly written. The playwright showed some promise, to be sure, but the play had all the earmarks of a young writer’s early work– undifferentiated character voices, derivative narrative, clunky dialogue, privileging the “Big Idea” over the stories of the characters.

I gave her some feedback that was honest without being assholic (so I believed, anyway) and encouraged her to work on her craft and continue submitting to us. And of course she responded angrily, which is exactly why we don’t give feedback in rejection letters, even if we could. We receive between 300-400 unsolicited submissions a year, and we just don’t have the womanpower/manpower/level ten cleric power to give feedback to all of them. Then there’s the very real issue that not all feedback is created equal, and feedback you get from some random theatre company that has never met you and has no idea what your vision is or what you’re trying to accomplish with the play will be almost always useless (unless what you’re after is why that one specific company rejected your play).

And I really do understand the anger. It’s hard to be rejected, and playwrights are rejected over and over and over. I can understand why a playwright, in order to stay sane, would look for reasons like, “They rejected me because the LM doesn’t understand my work” in order to avoid having to think “Perhaps my play is not ready to be professionally competitive.”

Part of the problem is that theatres almost NEVER speak honestly to playwrights about why their work is rejected. So I’m going to, right now. If you’ve ever received a rejection letter, the reason is one or more of the following, I guarantee it.

I-Am-Awesome-Close-Up-e13461473446211. Your play is actually awesome, but not right for the company. We have very real limitations that we cannot avoid, such as tech limitations, space limitations, or financial limitations. Some of us have resident actors, and we need shows with solid roles for them. Perhaps your play is outside the theatre’s aesthetic, or outside the theatre’s mission. Maybe your play doesn’t fit well with the plays already selected for the season– perhaps it’s too close in tone or feel to the play already locked into the slot before or after the one for which it’s being considered. Perhaps another theatre company in our area just did a play almost exactly like yours. You would be AMAZED at how many awesome plays get passed over for practical reasons like these. It happens to me multiple times, every single season.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Hang in there. Believe me, when we find a gem that we can’t stage, we’re whoring it out to other companies trying to get someone else to stage it. I’ve done that with tons of scripts. I just sent four out today, in fact, plus two last week. You can also research theatre companies online to see what kinds of plays they do, what their missions are, and what their aesthetics are in order to better target your submissions. If your script is truly awesome, it will eventually find a home. Be patient, especially if it’s very demanding to produce. This can include things like a big cast (very expensive) or difficult tech (requiring two levels springs to mind as a common problem that can be difficult both physically and financially) or challenging casting (such as, an actor of a very specific type who can sing while playing a portable instrument, or actors with specific physical skills, such as contortionists). But even a very demanding play will eventually find a home if it’s truly awesome– look at Kristoffer Diaz’s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, or Aaron Loeb’s Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party. So hang in there.

2. Your play is not well-written. The most common problems are all the ones I state above (undifferentiated character voices, derivative narrative, clunky dialogue, privileging the “Big Idea” over the stories of the characters), plus things like lack of continuity, or “therapy plays” (where the playwrights are less interested in telling a story and more interested in working out issues with their mother/ex-wife/abuser/etc). Playwriting is fucking HARD, and even good playwrights write bad plays from time to time. Artistic Directors and Literary Managers will never, ever tell you your play is just not very good because we’re afraid of hurting your feelings and destroying a relationship. Playwrights who start out sending bad plays often end up, after getting some training and/or experience, writing GOOD plays, and we want access to those good plays.

Look on the bright side! At  least you didn't write THIS.

Look on the bright side! At least you didn’t write THIS.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Work on your craft. Read this book. Read every play and see every play you can. See more theatre than film or TV. Yeah, a lot of film and TV are high-quality, and you can get good ideas from filmmakers and television writers, but theatre is a different animal with different demands. Learn how to feed it.

3. The odds are insane. My tiny company, as I said above, gets 300-400 unsolicited submissions a year to fill 3 slots. I recently spoke to someone who works at a large theatre that focuses on Shakespeare and does not accept unsolicited submissions, and she said they still receive about 200 annually. Someone else in that conversation said her theatre gets 900 a year. Your play is one of hundreds and hundreds out there. There are easily 100 plays for every production slot in the country, if not more. Let that sink in: Every single open slot in every single theatre in the country easily– EASILY– has 100 plays competing for it. In order to beat the odds, your play not only has to be VERY good, but it also has to be the right play at the right time for the right company.

NEVER TELL ME THE ODDS.

NEVER TELL ME THE ODDS.

Luckily for you, you live in the WORLD OF TOMORROW, where submitting a play is as easy as hitting “send.” Take a moment to think of the poor playwrights of yesteryear (15 years ago) who were copying out scripts at work when their supervisors were in a meeting and having to mail them out to theatres at $2.50 a pop if they didn’t work in a company with a mailroom (I remember getting submissions from Lehman Brothers regularly). The flip side of the newfound ease of the submission process is that we’re all getting hundreds and hundreds of scripts, all the time. Even if your script is fantastic, is it better for THAT THEATRE at THAT MOMENT than the other 412 the theatre will get that year? Maybe the AD has done three comedy-heavy seasons and is considering moving to a more drama-heavy season the next year. Maybe the theatre is hoping to work with a specific director and looking for scripts that will appeal to her. Or perhaps this director is already involved in the selection process. Maybe this director had a recent personal experience that increases her interest in a certain topic, and although your play is just as awesome, the play submitted right after yours is about exactly that topic. The point is: You don’t know. The variables are endless, and the competition is just insane. When I’m in season planning season (ha) in Dec/Jan, I’ll sit at my computer and open file after file after file, reading plays for hours every single day. I don’t even glance at the name of the playwright or the title of the work unless I’m already interested in moving it up to my contenders file, or if I’m sending an email to my LM indicating which ones to reject. It’s truly crazy how many plays we get, and we’re the smallest dog on the block.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Again, hang in there. Target your submissions. Develop relationships with ADs and LMs. I have personal connections with a few playwrights who know they never have to go through our formal submission process, but can send plays directly to me, AND I WILL READ THEM. They go directly into my personal season planning folder. I know these playwrights are creating quality work and I want to get my hands on it. There are playwrights whose work I have rejected numerous times because it wasn’t the right play for us at the right time who know they can submit directly to me, because despite the fact that I haven’t produced them, I believe in their work and think they’re superstars. If I can’t produce the script for one reason or another, often I’ll send it to someone who I think might be interested. I recently fell in love with a playwright who has a script I can’t produce, and I’ve been sending her play all over the place. ADs and LMs are your CHAMPIONS, not your enemy.

4. Content. This one is rare, but it does happen. We reject plays with misogynistic, anti-Semitic, racist, or homophobic content. We rejected the play that was made up of scene after scene of child pornography.

tshirt-m-gtfo-Green-art-280

I repeat: SCENE AFTER SCENE OF CHILD PORNOGRAPHY. ::shudder::

What we’d never do is reject a play because its content is too “radical” or too “challenging of the status quo” or what have you. We didn’t reject your play because we “weren’t ready” to have our “minds blown” or because we’re trying to “silence” your “anti-patriarchal dissent.” We produce in Berkeley, you know? Nothing is “too radical.” That said, I can imagine a theatre in American Fork, Utah rejecting a play that espouses the kind of liberal values Berkeley takes as a matter of course. So who knows? I can’t speak for the theatres in Beaver County, Oklahoma. Would I reject a play that espouses conservative values? I’ve actually never received a play that was, for example, anti-marriage equality, and of course I wouldn’t stage it if I did, so I suppose the answer is a provisional yes. Artists on the whole are a liberal-leaning bunch, so I don’t get plays about why we should fund a tax cut for the wealthy by eliminating food assistance for poor children, but if I did, it’s likely we wouldn’t stage it. So no need to send it to me, David Mamet. But yes, playwright in Utah who recently contacted me with a concern that his play might be too controversial, I do want to read your play about a transgendered person. I want to read it so hard! Theatre is like 99.99% cisgendered, so anything that can address that lack of visibility automatically interests me. I can easily see, though, how that view might not be shared by an AD in, say, Kansas.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: If you’re writing plays with misogyny, anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia, or child pornography, stop writing plays. For the rest of you, target your submissions accordingly. Online research is your friend. Check out a theatre’s production history. Follow the AD or LM on twitter. There are lots of ways to ascertain which companies might be a good fit for your work.

Again, I want you to remember that there are over 100 plays for every production slot in the country. I have to pass on plays I adore every single season. I have 3 slots for new plays, and we get between 300-400 unsolicited submissions, in addition to the ones I headhunt. The unfortunate truth is that the odds are overwhelmingly against you.

HOWEVER. We are on your side. I’ve dedicated my life to championing new work, and there are hundreds just like me out there. WE BELIEVE IN YOU. That’s why we chose this field. You don’t acquire wealth or power producing nonprofit theatre.  Far from it. Even the highest-paid LORT ADs still make a fraction of what they’d make in a similar corporate job. (My brother laughed out loud when I told him with awe how much the head of a local LORT makes. Having spent my entire career in theatre and academia, I had no idea these salaries were so small compared to the corporate world.) We didn’t start these companies because we thought we’d become wealthy and powerful. We started these companies FOR YOU. If I could stage 20 plays a year, I would. I believe in you and your work. I wake up in the morning and answer emails and hire directors and schedule auditions because your work deserves to be seen.

i-believe-in-you-i-really-do-252x300

Remember that we’re on your side. Remember that a rejection is not always a comment on the quality of your play, and even while you’re reading that rejection, I may very well be sending your play to another AD. Remember that there are so many of you out there that 99 plays must be rejected for every 1 that gets accepted. And always, always remember that we’re here because we love you and think you’re superstars.

So hang in there. Try not to let the rejections get you down. Work on your craft. Create relationships with ADs and LMs, a simple thing to do now that you can facebook friend us or follow us on twitter. (I found an amazing play we’re producing next season through a friendship I developed with a playwright on twitter.) Target your submissions. And KEEP AT IT. We need you, OK?

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82 thoughts on “Why Your Play Was Rejected

  1. YES! It’s always hard to realize that our “baby” may need more work. Every time I rework a play, I find I go deeper. Deeper into the story, into each character, into the “why” of the piece. Even the funny plays need a “why”.

    Thank you for this, I really needed to hear it. And for what its worth? I believe in you right back.

  2. Something I’m working on is NOT sending a play before its ready. God knows how many LM and AD think I’m a shitty writer because I sent them the first draft, all excited that, “Yay! I wrote a play!”

    • Pearl Klein says:

      At the same time, Joshua, that bald enthusiasm repeated enough times without the dejection caused by rejection just may get you someplace new. After all, look at all the no-talents getting more attention than you and me — they have a talent at hardheadedness we could all learn from.

  3. “So hang in there. Try not to let the rejections get you down. Work on your craft. Create relationships with ADs and LMs, a simple thing to do now that you can Facebook friend us or follow us on Twitter.” Love that that applies to actors too!

  4. Thank you for this. And for doing what you do. It’s not my complete experience, however, that theaters are there for the playwrights: VERY often, theaters will pay actors, directors, designers, stage managers, and others, and balk at paying the playwright for the material that allows them to pay actors, directors, designers, stagemanagers…

  5. Jessica says:

    This is a GREAT piece! I haven’t worked in the theater in a long time, but back in the Olden Days, when indeed I received typed, mimeographed, and fuzzily copied scripts in the mail, I was a LM at a theater attached to a major academic program, and every single thing you say here is 100% correct. If I’d lived in the World of the Future then, I would have sent the URL for this post along with every rejection letter.

  6. Can we have a rule, though? Can ADs and LMs *ask* before they give feedback? Sometimes I actually am not in a place where I want to hear what you think the problems with my script are, all I care to know is that my script has not been accepted. Multiple times I’ve received unsolicited feedback and it did more harm than good. It did not make me a better artist. It just made me think that I was now having a crappy day and that maybe this person should have asked before delivering a litany of all my script’s failings.

    • I’ve never felt like it was a good idea to give rejection feedback, mostly because I think it’s useless to the playwright, but also because no matter what they say in the moment, playwrights don’t actually want to hear it. If a playwright wants dramaturgical advice, they’ll ask a trusted colleague, not a rando 400 miles away, you know?

      That said, we’ve been slammed many times by playwrights for NOT sending out personalized rejections with feedback. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. So my approach is to stick with my conviction that rejection feedback is not helpful to anyone, a simple “No, thank you” is all anyone needs to hear, and to just shine on the complaints we get from playwrights about it. My hit is that some will complain no matter what form the rejection letter takes, and I understand that lashing out, I really do.

      I regretted sending that playwright feedback. I actually toyed with just deleting her email, or telling her we don’t accept resubmits unless it’s been at least a year (which is true). But something in her email to me compelled me to tell her the truth. It was a stupid thing to do.

      • Allan says:

        Melissa – LOVED your entire message!! Looking at things as objectively as possible, even the tiniest things DO matter and can make or break an affirmative response. The “being in the right place at the right time” adage is another “must understand” parameter. It can be as simple as the person “judging” your work is just not in the right mood for a comedy, or a musical, etc. But, in the end (no pun intended), opinions are just that – opinions. Imagine there is a competition happening live, and the competition has a panel of judges. The “panel” selects the winner. But I’ve said this until I’m blue in the face – “If the panel of judges was changed, and the competition took place all over again, I would be willing to bet big money that there would be a totally different winner.” Getting your work before the “right” judge at the “right” time AND when they are in the “right” mood makes complete sense of how the odds are stacked against any artist in any field. Perhaps I should have left these directions at the opening of this post – “Please have ‘What I Did For Love’ playing while you read this thread.” 😉

    • Karla says:

      As a playwright who’s been slugging it out for almost 20 years, I can say that if you receive a personal critique from an LM or AD, you are very very lucky. It means they care enough about you as a playwright to respond personally to your work. As the above writer states in her article, they get a few hundred submissions a year. They do not respond personally to most of them. If such responses hurt your feelings and you feel you should be asked beforehand, perhaps theater is not for you.

      • Karla: But why? Why are we so “lucky” to receive that feedback if it’s not useful to us? Why should an LM or AD use her precious time to give me feedback that I don’t want? It might not be useful for a number of reasons: I’ve had an epiphany since reading it and am planning/in the middle of a huge rewrite that renders most comments on the original draft invalid, or it’s already been published in its current form so I wasn’t planning any rewrites anyway, or my girlfriend just dumped me and I really won’t be able to absorb your notes right now, or I may just flat-out not feel like hearing it. The idea that I should be grateful for this useless criticism, when it was an inconvenience to the LM or AD to write it, baffles me. Why not save us both the trouble and just ask first? If it’s damned-if-you-do damned-if-you-don’t to give a personal rejection, why not *just ask*?

        This speaks to a larger concern of mine, the “we are not worthy” attitude that playwrights are told we should have. We should feel lucky to hear back at ALL, and we should feel even MORE lucky if that rejection is personalized, regardless of whether that rejection feedback is actually helpful. I think we can and should do better for our fellow artists.

      • danielle p says:

        @Mariah

        I can only speak from the perspective of being an actor (though in much of this article, you could swap “playwright” and “actor” and this advice still resonates), but here goes. I don’t want to hear it!

        99 percent of the time, it’s going to be nothing that I could have done differently; they decided they needed someone older/younger/taller/shorter/whatever. These are things which I cannot change. The other one percent of the time I either did a horrible audition (hey, it happens) or however it is that my work comes across, the casting people just. don’t. see. it.

        What’s more helpful for me is to work with people whose opinions are informed and who I can trust to be honest with me, for better or for worse. People who can be objective and help me find ways to improve and grow. People who, therefore, know where I’m coming from, what I’m trying to do, and have some ideas how I might get there. That’s entirely more important to me (and, ultimately, more useful).

        How many people is that? Not many. It doesn’t have to be; just find people whose opinions you respect and who you feel you can trust with your work.

        I can’t believe it’s all that different for a writer, whether of plays or poetry.

      • kbquinn says:

        I think it would be super nice if AD’s and LM’s you don’t know personally ASKED if it was okay to send you notes. It would take 4 seconds of their time to be like “I have some thoughts if you are interested in hearing them”.

    • Dusty Wilson says:

      This is a response to your comment to Karla. I’d put it there but the site is being wonky and isn’t including a reply button down there.

      I’d definitely agree that the issue of leaving feedback on plays is a bit of a sticky wicket. I remember about five, maybe ten years ago, Jeffrey Sweet wrote an op-ed in The Dramatist slamming the Detroit Rep for sending him notes and critiques on one of his works. I’m not sure if much debate came of it, but I’m glad we’re having it now.

      My experience as a reader/lit manager is limited, but I definitely understand the lack of time issue and being flooded with submissions. It’s from this background though that when/if a company decides to send me feedback, I honestly don’t take it as a huge rejection. Time isn’t exactly great for them, so for them to send feedback shows one of two things 1) They like the play, but it has issues they themselves found within the work, or 2) They like the work, the tone, and more importantly, are using this as a way in which to create a relationship for the future. I for one tend to avoid sending critques of submissions, but if it’s something I thoroughly enjoy, I would definitely reach out and ask if they would like feedback.

      That being said, I adore feedback. Even when I’m in a sour mood, feedback makes me a giddy, giddy fellow. It is very easy to grow accustomed to your own words and story, and for someone, even unsolicited, to supply their opinion is invaluable to me. It doesn’t matter if they’re the artistic director of Steppenwolf (actually that would matter and be amazing) or some random internet person from Reddit, and opinion offers you a glimpse into an angle that you might not have considered or help you discover a problem that countless drafts and readings have left you immune to seeing. In my opinion, it’s not a matter of playwrights being “lesser” or having to beg AD and LM’s to accept our work. The odds of getting a play produced are astoundingly small, and sometimes, those odds work out. But any opinion given by someone should be viewed as encouragement instead of condemnation.

      Of course, you don’t have to take everything someone says as rule. It’s part of growing that playwright armor. You take what makes sense to you, you leave what doesn’t, and you move on. Personally, I would love it if every theatre company gave feedback, but that would be horribly unreasonable to ask. But, all in all, it is a person by person thing. Some people love feedback, some are indifferent, and some loathe it with the passion of a bajillion suns. But, like accepting the first rejection, and then the hundredth, I think it is vital to become accustomed to taking criticism at any point in time, and taking it with a grain of salt.

      Also, pie is delicious.

      • 1) Pie IS delicious!
        2) As you say, different strokes for different folks. I’ve received a fair number of notes in my day. A fair number of those notes have been useful. Very very very few of the useful notes came from perfect strangers. You feel differently. You love feedback. Great! If the LM or AD is interested in providing it, you should absolutely have the option to get that feedback that you so adore. But I do think it should be an *option.*
        3) I actually am a big fan of form letters. I feel that they protect me. I received a grad school rejection recently that didn’t even make an attempt to mollify the rejection, to tell me that they got SO many qualified applicants and it was a very hard decision; they just told me “hi, you weren’t accepted.” I kind of loved that. No bullshit.
        4) That said, I don’t mind personalized rejections–just unsolicited notes. My favorite personalized rejection came from a writers group to which I’ve applied several times now, and multiple times I’ve come very close and then not made the final cut. Their most recent rejection letter to me basically said, “Hey, so, we don’t really have a good reason why we didn’t take you this year, we just didn’t.” I loved that too–because it was honest. No bullshit.
        5) I recognize that sending a writer unsolicited feedback on their script is an attempt at the no-bullshit approach. But I simply don’t see the logic of spending your valuable time on such a response when the writer very well may not want it–I know for a fact that I am not the only writer who feels this way.
        6) It is not a matter of a thick skin. Most rejections, I simply shrug off. It’s the same principle as a “development” program telling me I HAVE to do a major rewrite on my script, whether or not I see those changes as necessary; sure, one should be open to feedback and to the idea of doing rewrites, but if you don’t consider something useful for you and your script, why waste everyone’s time and resources?

  7. I think the best feedback I have received is one that said “No, thank you” to the play submitted, but encouraged me to send more of my work.

  8. David Copelin says:

    I agree with the above. The only change I would make is to ask the playwright’s permission before sending a script to another theatre with a recommendation. That’s easy to do, and helps to turn a rejection into the beginning of a relationship. Playwrights are grateful for that courtesy; they very rarely say no.

  9. Beau McCoy says:

    Thank you.
    This meant the world to me.

  10. Ry Herman says:

    When I was an LM, my policy was that I would only give rejection feedback if I absolutely loved the play, but for whatever reason we couldn’t stage it (the “#1” reason on your list.) I thought it was worthwhile to tell someone if their play was great and they should keep submitting it around, but we simply couldn’t do it. I never got an angry or upset reaction to that particular response. 🙂

  11. Paul Mendenhall says:

    Excellent column. Regarding rejection feedback, I think it depends on the situation. I recently received a one-sentence rejection from a company that had been stringing me along for nine months. I was very angry, and demanded they at least outline the reasons for the rejection, which they did. It wasn’t very helpful, but at least it showed they had put some thought into it. On the other hand, this wasn’t a situation where they had hundreds of scripts to go through. In a situation like that, I think a form rejection is understandable, so long as the reality is explained upfront.

    • Thank you!

      Remember that most of these are unsolicited submissions. There’s no “upfront” in this process. Playwrights send us hundreds of scripts off their own bat, even to theatres that expressly state that they do not accept them. Any response is a courtesy, especially for those of us working with all-volunteer staffs.

  12. JudyG says:

    Thanks for your very sensitive and insightful essay. I am a playwright with something of a track record – thank goodness – and also work in the literary department of a major regional theatre. I come up against what you describe daily. The truth is: we are eagerly looking forward to a great find, we are not sadists, we don’t happily turn thumbs down on every script we receive. Your article provides excellent perspective on this situation.,

    • Pearl Klein says:

      This is exactly parallel to what I’ve been taught in my directing class regarding actors: Everybody wants auditions to go well and for the right people to be hired on the spot. Nobody wants to have to reject (or even see) the wrong actors. It would be amazing if every director took this to heart and did what they could to make the audition fruitful — and in the meantime, actors need to thicken our skins.

  13. jim c. says:

    Great article. I hope to get rejected by you someday. Generally I appreciate feedback and find it cushions the blow when people respond about the play. But one well-established play development organization rejected me with feedback that condensed tiny quotes from multiple reviewers exactly like a Zagat review. They were mostly positive but the whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth. I order some Chinese and felt much better.

    • Anon says:

      You should be happy that you got a sampling – That they had multiple people read your play. I think you are looking a gift horse in the mouth.

  14. Axis says:

    Awesome Mellissa!

  15. Awesome. I want to send you something, even if you reject it!

  16. a.) I wish there were a way for well meaning ADs and LMs to tell ahead of time whether a playwright can or cannot handle honest feedback.

    b.) I wish there were a way for playwrights to know for certain as to whether feedback from ADs and LMs is sincere or not. I’ve received so many rejections that contained praise that I wonder if that is a reflexive response to head off that handful of abusive and hostile playwrights out there.

  17. Jerrie Steele says:

    I remember years ago when Arthur Miller was interviewed while his play was at the Guthrie Theater in Mpls. He said…”Playwright’s must learn how to wrestle alligators and swallow bicycles whole”.. I started smiling when I read that and felt a kinship with him. My own analogy is that playwright’s are a combination of deep sea diver, astronaut, race car driver and time traveler; all of which they do in solitary confinement…by choice! We take on this work/play with no guarantees that anyone will like us or like what we write. We have no idea if we will resurface from the deep, reenter earth’s atmosphere, cross the finish line with out crashing and burning. or return from a time trip without tripping. The playwright is the only one who can right the play, and know what to let under his skin or armor to improve it. There are just to many strings to keep track of and bones to crack, for it to be otherwise. Our only hope, if we love being a playwrights, is to write and write, until it feels right. Smile or cry…then write some more.

  18. Gwydion Suilebhan says:

    This is (unsurprisingly) outstanding.

  19. Lara Maj says:

    Emailing or mailing scripts is a huge waste of time. If you want a production, get your work up, use a Church basement, connect with actors who will support your play, and sooner or later someone from the industry will attend, and see your work.

    • How does that work for the playwright n Hays, KS (where I’m from) where we’re lucky to get 25 people/night (for a four night run) to see The Odd Couple? Or a couple hundred to see Oklahoma? I’ve been lucky to work with a teacher who believes in theater for his students and does “drama fests” and children’s summer theater, and the like, but for the most part submitting is my life blood. If I can, I’ll submit till I make it. Does that mean I don’t do readings in church basements or whatever? No, but if Neil Simon can’t bring out more then 100 people, then I find it hard to believe I’m going to be discovered. (their is a reason I live her atm, so don’t say “move” LOL)

    • cgeye says:

      What about quality? Let’s say all of us get brave, and decide to self-produce — what, then?

      Do we have enough friends to possibly begin to earn back costs? If we don’t, how do we get an audience?

      When all those big-wigs try to attend our plays, who’s attending theirs?

      With the dwindling of the newspaper theatre critic population, who will even report on these productions? How will actors, directors, designers get credit for taking a risk on our work? Outside of the non-profit/regional theatre industry, what lives do new plays have, outside of those reliably raucous or vulgar to keep running indefinitely?

      Lastly, if we go independent — we spend the money we used to spend on seeing others’ productions, on our own — will we have turned theatre into poetry, where the only reason anyone attends a reading is through obligation? Will the test of theatre be not whether an institution believes a play can draw an audience, but how large a credit line’s available, to produce?

      Maybe the moral is to start wasting our own money, on top of not getting paid, instead of forcing good companies to waste theirs on new play competitions. What we may call self-producing, others might call containment.

  20. gregm91436eg says:

    Eesh. I would never, ever send back an annoyed email to a theatre. Ever. Nor would I resubmit after only two months. You better believe I’d overhaul anything before I resubmit.

    But I think it’s important, that first section of reasons, about having to reject awesome plays because of outside factors. Those of us who went from acting to playwriting like to imagine we have more control here, and we do over the script itself, but not over the submission process.

  21. Guest says:

    # 2a. Proofreading (or the lack thereof)

  22. Sam Dulmage says:

    For giving critiques, I always volunteer positive feedback, but ask permission to give negative feedback. Unless asked what I think. Then I’ll say what I think.

    For receiving critiques, bear in mind that there’s a human on the other end of the exchange and you don’t know their workload, what kind of day they’re having, or what learned behaviour they have picked up by getting grief from stalker writers.

    If they took the time to critique, they are probably trying to help you. All critique is a gift because it tells you how your work is landing. You must expose your work to criticism and you must learn to find the value in any critique. Even a critique by a complete idiot.

    What you wrote and what they read are the same. But what you think you wrote may not be what you wrote, and what they think they read may not be what they read.

    Their critique will certainly tell you what they think they think of what they think they read. If they’re reasonably honest, reasonably sane, and reasonably astute, which is the majority of cases, you’ll even get what they think of what they read.

    But there’s a pretty good chance that you will come to the creeping realization that what you wrote is not what you think you wrote. What you wrote is probably underwritten or overwritten. Things you thought clear are unclear and vice versa. It’s the way it goes. Learn from everything.

  23. Paco Madden says:

    I think one of the really frustrating things about being a playwright is that you never know why your play was rejected. Sometimes you wonder if it was even read. It would be great if theaters could provide some sort of constructive feedback. Even if it something like a checkbox:
    – Your play is actually awesome, but not right for the company
    – Your play needs improvement, and we would be interested in seeing a rewrite
    – Your play needs improvement, but is not right for the company
    – Your play is not well written
    – The content of this play is not appropriate for the company
    This is certainly not the level of feedback most playwrights desire, but it might be better than the standard rejection. In light of the # of plays theaters get these days, it is a quick and relatively easy way to provide some level of feedback.

  24. I believe part of the learning process involves feedback. And I want to learn. (I too live very rural area and don’t have as much access to a theatre scene.) As a beginning playwright, if someone has taken the time to read my work and form an opinion on it, I feel like it’s a wasted opportunity not to receive feedback. *From my standpoint.* However, I understand how impossible that is from an AD/DM standpoint. Besides, that’s not their job.

    I wonder how AD/DMs would respond to a request for feedback in the form of a link in the body of an email (that also contained a submission) that directed them to a simple on-line survey that had several bullet points that could be checked to provide feedback i.e. the points you make in this post
    – quality fine, but not right for our theatre mission
    – quality fine, not a good fit for what we need this season
    – not well written
    – technical mismatch (length, staging, cast size)
    – content problems

    It would take maybe 30 seconds and be very impersonal… but would at least allow me to learn over the course of submitting if my play to various theatres if it really was shit and should be burnt or if I just need to persevere in finding a good match.

    It would indicate to AD/DMs that the writer was interested in limited (not time consuming) feedback. And if you didn’t want any, like Mariah, you just wouldn’t include it.

    AD/DMs — what do you think? Is this crazy or would it turn into a nightmare?

    • No matter what format your rejection takes, a percentage of the playwriting community openly HATES it. There’s no way to please everyone, so we just do what feels right for us. I’d never in a million years check “not well-written” because I’d be afraid of getting angry responses– and for good reason. We get enough angry responses from playwrights as it is. I’d much rather avoid engagement completely than invite many more raging responses from playwrights who are angry that we called their work “poorly written.”

      • Yes. It is worthwhile to avoid angry responses. Just wishful thinking on my part. Now I’m imagining how I would word a “disclaimer” indicating that should an AD/LM check “poorly written” I’d promise not to email them. ha! Ah, well, it takes all of us imagining other possibilities to improve the system.

      • “It takes all of us to imagine other possibilities to improve the system.” THIS THIS THIS THIS THIS. You win the internet today.

        I’m not sure what changes would be actual improvements, or how they could be implemented, but we’ll never get there without challenging assumptions together. THANK YOU for challenging my assumptions. I’m going to give this some serious thought.

      • Paul Mendenhall says:

        I really think it is a matter of managing expectations. If a courteous note was sent to each playwright who submits a play, thanking him or her for considering their theatre, and explaining that if their play is rejected, they most likely will NOT receive any feedback, and the reasons why, it would be pretty strange for the reaction to still be one of anger. This message could also be posted on their website. It could also say that ALL plays submitted will be considered in time, to lessen the suspicion that the script wasn’t even read. This just seems like professional courtesy and common sense to me.

  25. Um. I mean LMs. Need more coffee, clearly.

  26. Mark Cabus says:

    Here’s a really unusual case: I’m an actor/playwright–I create work for myself, and recently a theater company informed me they were producing one of my plays in their next season–with me in the lead. This was very exciting. I’d only recently moved to a new city, and while I had inroads at this particular theater, they had little to no experience with me as a writer or with my work outside of my submitted plays*. It’s a peculiar show in that I play 20+ characters with a five-piece band of musicians who also participate in the play, a kind of musical one-man show plus others.

    Two weeks ago, I received a phone call from the AD, apologizing profusely, telling me that a very well-known, award-winning playwright had personally contacted him and offered his latest play for the next season prior to its Broadway premiere. Naturally, the AD snatched it up, and my play, which was in the most advantageous slot of the season, was dropped. He promised that my play would be in consideration for the following season, but that he hoped I would understand his decision.

    Of course, I understood and understand. I’ve been a producer myself and would have done exactly the same thing had I been in his shoes. Producing the new work of a celebrated playwright over the new work of an as-of-yet unrecognized playwright is a no-brainer. I congratulated him on the good news and thanked him for their past acceptance and for their future consideration, adding I looked forward to seeing the famous playwright’s play next season. I also asked if I could continue submitting work for future seasons, and he enthusiastically agreed I should.

    There are an infinite number of reasons for declination. Most of which have nothing to do with the quality of the work or of the skill of the playwright. If your play is good, it will be produced. Period. You simply have to find the right theater. But even then, it may not get produced on your timetable. Just remember: it’s not personal. No theater company is sitting around waiting for you to submit your work so they can throw it back in your face like a snotty child. Not unless you’ve burnt bridges at that theater by responding negatively to their spurning of your work. Empathy for a producer or literary manager’s position will go far in maintaining what little ego is necessary to think you even should be writing plays in the first place.

    All playwrights think of their plays as children. But children must grow up and leave their parents in order to live, and when they do, they’re no longer just yours but the world’s as well. If they come home, you welcome them and love them until they’re ready to be sent off again.

    Thank you for a great read and great advice and a place to share my thoughts. All the best.

    *–I’d submitted another the previous year that was turned down because it was too similar to one another local company was producing.

    • “If your play is good, it will be produced. Period. You simply have to find the right theater. But even then, it may not get produced on your timetable. Just remember: it’s not personal.”

      I love this. Thank you.

  27. Jeff Craft says:

    Amen and thanks for this

  28. Brian James Polak says:

    I can’t believe “Because you are too awesome and we fear your awesomeness” isn’t on the list. As I understand it, that is the only reason any of my plays are rejected.

  29. Sam Dulmage says:

    I think there’s a lot to be said for establishing a policy, even if you’re a a one-person operation, and making that policy explicit.

    Like “it is our policy not to critique plays that are not under consideration for production”, or something better worded.

    Or conversely “In the interests of brevity and frankness it is our policy to respond to queries with the following form”, then have boxes for “great but can’t use it right now”, “great but not what we do”, “great but not practical to produce”, some version of “needs a rewrite” with subcategories for what needs work, and finally some version of “writing needs improvement to meet minimum standards” with subcategories for what needs work. Then finish with a version of “We receive many, many submissions and there is not enough time in the world to offer detailed critique. Please be understanding. Keep writing, and keep sending your work out.”

    Or “In the interests of fostering a dialogue between writers and theatres we now provide a brief critique on all scripts submitted. However, we have a $25 application fee to help defray the cost of reviewing scripts.”

    Or could include “It takes time to review and critique a script. If you would like detailed critique we can provide a brief critique from our dramaturg for a $95 fee.”

    Lots and lots of options, but if there’s a policy, it says “Look, we thought about the best way to do this, the best for us and the best for you, and this is what we came up with, so let’s do this in an environment of mutual respect, and if you don’t like it, suck it up and get your own theatre, friend.”

  30. I don’t write plays, but I see a lot of advice in here that my fellow novelists should take to heart.

  31. Buster Spiller says:

    Excellent article! And it’s applicable to the creative process of producing theater as well in terms of talent. Every role isn’t for every actor. Most don’t understand that.

  32. JT Nichols says:

    great article! Made me laugh. I’ve directed my own plays for 18 years, and finally sent one out this year. I have three one-acts that I’m actually going to send out. Maybe we have the same sense of humor….

  33. Dan says:

    A very sincere and well written article. I say that from having been on both sides…

  34. Zambonesman says:

    A great entry, a great service to writers…ah writers, they live in fantasy worlds so it can be damn hard to face the truth- but you lay it out for em here… kudos…

  35. Eva says:

    “My vagina and I read the play together…” that’s brilliant!

  36. LATC says:

    Thanks for the great read, and sound advice!

  37. That was fun Gertrude. Informative too. You’re like a light switch.

  38. A. M. Shea says:

    The fact that you pass on scripts that you can’t use to other AD’s and LM’s is so supportive and professional. I recently had a play rejected for a festival, and the AD actually made a phone call to say he wanted to keep my (paper) script on file because sometimes he is approached for suggestions for material. This is a form of “publication” that may actually result in a production.

  39. Thank you, Gertrude, wonderful article.

    I am happy to get feedback. I know LMs and ADs are busy. If they take the time to give me some feedback, I reply and thank them. If I don’t like the feedback or think it’s misdirected, I reply and thank them — and ignore the feedback! It’s not hard.

    Why wouldn’t you want a theater to forward a play to another theater?

  40. A great piece on the frustrations and realities of receiving hundreds of new scripts a year. It’s a very tough job when most theatres don’t produce more than three or four new plays a season and many don’t do more than one or two. I remember a long time ago being amazed by the BBC radio drama operation where readers were under serious pressure to find potentially produceable scripts to fill 2,000 hours of original radio drama a year. That’s such a different dynamic from what most LMs and ADs face in the US and why it’s so difficult when you do find a strong script that doesn’t fit what your theatre is about.

  41. Truly entertaining. I think that just as electronic publishing changed the world of fiction writers and poets, computer animation software will change theatre.

  42. Thank you for a great article! Extremely insightful.

  43. deelaytful says:

    This is a great article. 🙂 This cheered me up a lot. Two different plays got passed on by two different theatre festivals…and well that’s not the most wonderful feeling. Thank you for this. 🙂

  44. Playfull says:

    Would it help if i agreed not to send you my play? You could then reply here that you are rejecting it, but that you do encourage me to continue not submitting my work in the future…

    I could then get on with some much needed re-writing and you, your vagina and your staff would have saved between 0.3 and 0.4 percent of your ‘reading’ workload. This should be just about enough time to have a cup of coffee. So please, have the next break on me.

    • danielle says:

      OK, “Playfull”, you DO realize she’s referring to people who resubmit stuff that’s been rejected within a short period of time and expect a different outcome, right?

      OH. Was it YOU who did that… or are you the type of frustrated artist who goes into self-destruct mode and does equally ill-advised things when your work is rejected??

      It’s a wonder you haven’t been arrested for flinging a Molotov cocktail through some AD’s living room window or going all stabby-stab-stab on some agent who turned you down.

      I think you’re the one who needs the break. A nice long break in a quiet place with padded walls and some Haldol to soothe that butt-hurt you’re suffering from.

  45. Perry Wilsher says:

    Hi Danielle,

    Ouch!

    My post was not meant to offend – it was meant to raise a smile (hopefully from Melissa).

    I found her article to be both, full of very sound useful advice and really entertainingly well written. The reference to her vagina made me laugh out loud…
    I was directed to this article from a post on the playwrights forum where it was suggested ‘everyone who wants to submit a play should read this’. I agree wholeheartedly.
    BTW I have never re submitted a play. In fact I have only ever submitted one play, and that was for a competition.
    I hope if you re-read my post you will realize it was meant to be ironic not sarcastic.

    I may go back and add a disclaimer “may contain slight traces of humour”

    Regards

    playfull

    • danielle says:

      OH.

      Ah, the joys of the internet—where strangers and their humor collide, sometimes with disastrous results.

      No problem 😉

  46. dona says:

    “Develop a relationship with me.” What kind of relationship would that be? Call you and ask you for a date? Show at your door and ask you to come it? Buy you a dinner? Why do you need a relationship to read someone’s work? Plays should be picked by merit not by who’s your buddy. If you’re really out there for the good play, you shouldn’t be expecting the people to kiss your behind for you to read their plays. Maybe one of the reason why theater is not that popular is because the wrong plays are being picked for production. It’s all based on who’s having a relationship with whom, and whose ego is rubbed by whom
    .

    • I feel compelled to point out that if you’ve read the entire post and this is what you’ve come away with, perhaps a profession that requires expertise in narrative isn’t for you.

      That said, I definitely understand the anger. Most plays do not get produced, and the bitter pill of rejection is easier to swallow with a glass of “It’s Not My Fault Because They Are Unfair.”

      I do think that personal connections can get your play read more quickly, but getting a play read isn’t the same as getting it done, and we read ALL the plays that come to our doorstep. I don’t produce plays by people I know if I don’t think the play is excellent, and I happily produce plays by people I don’t know if I believe in the work.

      My best advice to you is to find ways to handle your disappointment that don’t result in anger and bitterness. I know it’s hard. Actors and university lecturers– two other groups I know intimately– are in the same boat. It’s shitty, and I’m sorry you’re so angry. But read the entire post and see what I’m actually saying rather than just reaching for the one thing that confirms your anger, OK?

    • Sam Dulmage says:

      I applaud Melissa’s measured response here. There’s another, subtler point as well: the virtuous face of what might be seen as nepotism is the sense of “I’m going to work with these people that I know because I’ve worked with them before and I know that they’re good people to be locked in a rehearsal hall for four months with”.

      Let me give you a different example. I sometimes attend a script reading series here in Vancouver. The scripts are chosen in advance and the readers are cast on the spot, in the 30 minutes prior to the reading. If you want to read, you go up and say “hi, I’m an actor and I’d be happy to read if you have anything for me.” Now, generally actors don’t read the first time they go there. The organizers have 30 minutes to assign a couple dozen roles, and they’re responsible to the writers to find the best people they can to do the script justice. So they’re going to predominantly go with the gunslingers, the people they know well that they 100% know can just take the script and nail it.

      Let me give you another example. We once auditioned a woman for a role. She was amazing – textured, nuanced, present, radiant – but not right for the role. Years later I ran into her – she didn’t remember me right away, but I said “I remember you – your audition was amazing.” People remember these things, often. Over years of projects I remember who lit up the room with their “how can we get this done” energy and who was more focused on their own insecurities than on the work.

      The common denominator in these examples, and in Melissa’s examples, is that the relationships under discussion are connections through the work. We build up a network of people, trusted people that we will refer to each other. When someone is looking for a particular kind of script, or a particular kind of actor, or a particular kind of editor, it’s wonderful to be able to say “Hey… I think I know someone that might be able to help you.” And those “relationships”, I believe, are what we’re mostly talking about here, no?

  47. Great article. I never take a rejection personally. Somehow, I was aware of the reasons mentioned above. You just have to send our play to the right person at the right time.

  48. bcpkid says:

    I appreciate your candor, Bitter Gertrude. I have two comments. First, if a playwright sends his material out there into the world, they have to be ready for whatever criticism they receive. Do audiences or reviewers hesitate to give their opinions because feelings might be hurt? Playwrights can’t be made of glass. If you maintain that you don’t have the staff to respond to 250 plays, OK. If you’re not giving feedback because you don’t want to alienate a future good playwright, I don’t understand that. In a one line email you could say, “not right for our theater,” “we just did a similar piece,” “we can’t stage this effectively,” ‘we got through the first five pages and it didn’t grab us,” etc., etc. ADs like yourself are fond of saying that we need to develop a relationship with a theater. How, if we can’t have an honest dialogue? I know every AD within 25 miles of where I live, and they know me. If I send a play to another state, how do I know what the reaction to it will be by reading the theater’s mission statement? There are many, many of us playwrights out there, but there are a lot of you too! Any word, positive or negative, would be helpful, if just to know there’s a human being out there actually reading. If someone reacts angrily to honest criticism, they’re going to last exactly five seconds in this business.

    Thank you for your take, and for allowing me to reply.

  49. I am coming to this thread late, obviously, and perhaps no one is still reading it. But just in case: I cannot believe that ADs and LMs carefully ready those hundreds of scripts, and so could not give good feedback about the whole script (maybe just the first ten pages, or the daunting set requirements). And the odds against us playwrights seems far higher than 100-to-1, because there are many thousands of scripts being sent out, even if only 100-900 get submitted to any given theater. The cost of live theater will always mean that very few scripts get produced, unlike, say the cost of “publishing” poetry online, which is near zero. I am coming around to the idea that self-production is the only promising start to getting produced, on the model of stand-up comics, who perform wherever they can (even if they have to create the comedy series at some bar) in the hopes that they get noticed and hired.

  50. Melisahillman wrote: “I’ve never felt like it was a good idea to give rejection feedback, mostly because I think it’s useless to the playwright.” I respectfully disagree. I cannot quite see how feedback is useless, because I do not see how a playwright can fail to learn something, big or small, about the play or about the theater rejecting it. Knowing the primary reason a play is rejected would be enormously helpful, even if that does not lead the playwright to revision. Even rejection reasons that are blows to our egos or that (we think) misunderstand the play are helpful. If a theater rejects a play of mine saying that it is poorly written, or is not interesting, or could not possibly work on the stage, or is tedious, or is offensive, or too traditional or too experimental — knowing these judgments makes us better playwrights. We can stop wasting time if we learn that a particular theater is inherently wrong for our style. And if three or four theaters were to cite the same problem, we might really learn something important. I fully understand why theaters do not provide even brief explanations, but I am convinced that playwrights and theaters would be better off if they did.

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