Six Things Playwrights Should Stop Doing

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Because what says “HAPPY NEW YEAR” better than a judgmental listicle?

One thing I want to say right at the start is that this is a list borne out of my own personal experience. These are things I personally see early-career playwrights do over and over and over. I also expect that there will be people who disagree with me, or who say, “But [name of play] does that and it’s the BEST PLAY EVER.” Sure. A genius can take a tired trope and use it ingeniously. But these tropes, I’m telling you, are tired.

The second thing I want to say is that your play is not irrevocably in the suck pile if it uses some of these. I know you’ll iron these out in development. Brilliant writers make a lot of mistakes early in their careers, or copy what writers of the past did when these things were new or acceptable, without understanding that times have changed. A few mistakes don’t make a writer– or even that play– worthless. Rewrite and keep pushing forward.

All of that said, here’s my list. Dear Goddess of Theatre, may none of the plays I read in 2014 have these characteristics, as precisely ONE FARTILLION of the plays I read in 2013 did.

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“Please, please tell me now, is there something I should know?”

1. Making a song a central trope. Emerging playwrights love to make a song THEY love into a central trope. The song is deeply meaningful to the characters; the song has a connection to their past and carries some exposition (“Mom always made us sing this song on road trips before the accident”); the song lyrics are quoted out of context; the song is played or sung at a climactic moment. Apart from the obvious– that this trope is overused– there are a few problems with this technique. Often the song that the playwright loves does not fit well within the world of the play. Sometimes the rights are not available for a certain song. But most importantly, early-career playwrights choose a song because it has a certain emotional content for THEM that other people do not necessarily share.

If you use a very well-known standard that has an undeniably certain context within American culture (Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” for example, or “God Bless America”), generally that context is understood by your audience, even if it is not shared. Personally, I hate “Born to Run,” but every time a playwright uses it, I understand what they’re trying to say. However, when you use a random song by, say, Neko Case, Leonard Cohen, or Joni Mitchell (all examples taken from real plays) most of the people in your audience will have never heard the song before. I know you don’t believe me (“EVERYONE knows that song!”) but I’m right. Everyone YOU KNOW knows that song, but imagine a theatre audience filled with strangers, many of whom are not from your social class, ethnicity, or generation. Most people do not know MOST SONGS, no matter how popular that song is within your particular social group. I’m not talking about every usage of a song in a play. I’m talking about relying on a song to carry a particular narrative function. Before you include a song in your play, ask yourself: “Can someone who has never heard this song before, or who dislikes it, still understand everything I need the audience to understand?” If the answer is YES, then by all means, include it. If the answer is, “No, but I don’t care about people outside of the subgroup who know and like this song,” then include it. Otherwise, find a clearer way to do what you need to do. And either way, you might want to consider a trope that’s less overused.

2. Spelling out accents. This one is highly controversial when it comes to “ethnic” accents, but it’s annoying whenever it happens. For one thing, I have yet to see a playwright do this accurately. No amount of mangled spelling is going to correctly convey all the complexities of ANY accent. Most importantly, you’re attempting to dictate to the actor how the lines are said. While the problems inherent in a white writer attempting this with an “ethnic” accent are clear, it’s a pain in the ass when any writer does it for any accent. It’s awkward to try to sound lines out through the mangled spelling you chose to reflect the accent, and while you may believe you’re accurately reflecting the accent even within the limitations of what spelling can do, you may not be in the context in which the line is said, or due to the position of a word creating elision, or any number of things about how an accent works in practice. Just write the lines out properly and let your actors handle the accent. (And YES, I know some great writers of the past have done this, but that doesn’t make it a good idea for you today. If these writers were writing today, would they still be spelling out accents? I will bet you a box of doughnuts and my Cherno Alpha action figure the answer is NO.) Just trust that actors and directors are skillful enough to handle the accent on their own without you having to painstakingly spell it out for them.

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3. The Magical Person of Color and/or Drag Queen and/or Gay BFF and/or disabled person. Many writers will use race, sexuality, ability, or gender expression as a metaphor. You’ll often see this referred to as the “Magical Negro”— a black character with special insight or mystical knowledge who runs around helping white main characters with no narrative or objective of his/her own. I’m saying “Magical Person of Color” because writers will also use an Asian or Native American character (ANCIENT MYSTICAL KNOWLEDGE) or a Latino character (SEXUAL AWAKENING AND ALSO MINDBLOWING FOOD). And now we’re seeing the Magical Drag Queen and/or gay BFF as well (MAKEOVER! SASS! COCKTAILS! HELPING STRAIGHT PEOPLE FIND LOVE!). The Magical Drag Queen is more often than not also a person of color, so two-for-one! We’ve seen disability used this way forever. Two examples: Mystical Blind Person (HE CANNOT SEE BUT HE SEES YOUR FUTURE) and Beautiful Person With Disability That Does Not Impact Their Adherence to Beauty Standards (basically just a deaf Manic Pixie Dream Girl). All these tropes are so common that I’ve seen a number of plays engage brilliantly with them, disrupting them or interrogating them.

If you’re writing a play where the main characters are able-bodied, white, and straight, and you want to include a person of color, an LGBT person, a drag queen, or a disabled person, high five! Now your play looks more like the world most of us live in. But think for a moment: If you have a character who is an active part of the narrative with objectives of their own, excellent. If your white main character runs into a Black homeless man who Imparts Words of Wisdom, or has a drag queen neighbor who appears in one scene to give her a makeover and Impart Words of Wisdom, or goes to the blind Asian psychic who magically solves a problem with Words of Wisdom, you have a tired (and problematic) trope on your hands.

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4. Writing a play like you’re writing for film. There are some things film does much, much better than theatre does, and vice versa. I don’t get my knickers in a twist like some do about the difference between “theatrical writing” and “cinematic writing” when it comes to things like realism, or certain kinds of narrative. I don’t mind if you write a play about a family that primarily takes place in their living room and has a linear narrative. A play can be all those things and deeply moving, brilliant, and transformative. I’m talking about technical or structural things that can be done easily in film but present enormous difficulties in the theatre. One thing I see quite often is the use of microscenes of a line or two (or fewer) that shift back and forth from place to place requiring a detailed set change or a massive playing space. Here’s an example inspired by every play I’ve ever read that does this, and before you think I’m exaggerating for comic effect, I assure you that I am not.

Lights up on Josh in his hospital bed, sleeping. The phone rings. He wakes up and struggles with his IV as he attempts to answer it. He is too late– the line is dead. He sinks back on his pillow. Sung, the ancient and wizened former Kung Fu master in the next bed, slowly rises and looks at Josh thoughtfully. Lights out on the hospital as lights up on Katie’s office, a drab but busy downtown cube farm. Katie is sitting in her office cubicle, staring at the phone receiver in her hand as Terrence, sitting in the cubicle next to hers, leans across the aisle between them and hands her a piece of chocolate. Janeen, sitting in the desk behind Katie, slowly appears over the wall of Katie’s cubicle, shaking her head, while through the office window we see a delivery truck arriving. Terrence sees this and jumps up, crosses to Mr. Taylor’s office door, and opens it, through which we see Mr. Taylor in a compromising position on his desk with a young woman whose face we can’t see. Blackout.

And of course this is the only time in the play we see either the hospital room or Katie’s office. The next scene takes place on the bench outside the hospital or in the office break room. I’ve seen examples like these dozens of times, and while there’s a way to do almost anything if the playwright is fine with stylization, more often than not a play with this kind of writing is filmic in many other ways as well.

If you’re requiring on onstage fire that must be set, rage out of control, and then get put out, for example, or a character who “suddenly transforms into a glorious angel of light” onstage, please at least throw in a sentence or two somewhere about how realistic you need this to look. If you’re imagining actual fire, or an actual being of light, you’re imagining a film.

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5. Older characters whose sole purpose is to impede the awesome young characters from whatever the hell it is they want to do because old people JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND. I can get all I need of this trope through Scooby Doo and 80s movies.

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6. Prostitutes, Porn Stars, and Strippers. Sex workers are not a marker for all women everywhere. If you’re writing a play about ACTUAL SEX WORKERS, then carry on, my wayward son. But if you’re writing a play about, oh, a young man trying to find himself, or a middle-aged man who’s vaguely dissatisfied with life, or a man whose wife just doesn’t understand him and constantly asks him to do horrible things like pay attention to her or fold his own laundry, then inserting a Magical Prostitute who swans into his life and shows him The Way to Happiness, or the Broken Flower Stripper who needs the man to save her from herself and show her that college exists, then I am looking at you with crankyface. Are you writing a play with a sex worker in it? Ask yourself: WHY is she a sex worker? Are you writing about sex workers, or do you just want a naked version of the Magical Person of Color? Does she have objectives of her own that aren’t there just for the male protagonist to correct? Does she have a character, or is she just a racktacular vector for Words of Wisdom?

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I could write an entire blog post on this one.

And now . . . to end on a positive note, FOUR THINGS PLAYWRIGHTS DO THAT I LOVE.

1. Send me their own work and recommend other writers to me. I have had excellent luck with writers I know through the theatre community, social media, or other channels who know what we do, understand our aesthetic, and send me their work. But I have had even better luck with writers who send me SOMEONE ELSE’S work. I think this is because playwrights are out there marketing themselves as hard as they can, and will send their current play to a wide variety of theatres in case something sticks, even if the play may not be the best fit for that theatre, because who knows? Maybe they’re looking to branch out in some way. But when a playwright sends me someone else’s play, it’s because they believe that play is a particularly good fit for my company. They read the play and it made them think of my company. This is THE BEST. When I get an email from a playwright saying, “Have you read [title of play]? I think you’d love it” I get The Tingles.

2. Pull no punches. The highest compliment I have for actors is “fearless.” I think there’s an aspect of that in writing plays as well. I received a play last year that was so fearless, so completely full of its unique approach to story and theatricality, just SO INTENSELY WHAT IT WAS, that I had to get up and walk around the room for a bit in excitement before I could finish reading it. Is it a perfect play? Fuck no. What is? But I fell in love with it because it’s 100% what it’s meant to be. It is not “nice.” It is not concerned with soft-pedalling its world view. Its unique voice jumps off the page and sits on your face. Either I will stage this play one day or I will make someone else do it.

3. State in the character list that they are open to diversity of all types. Look, sometimes a play is about race, ethnicity, sexuality, or what have you in a way that demands a certain kind of casting. If you’re staging Frances Cowhig’s [410]GONE (AND YOU SHOULD), you really need Asian actors. But often a play isn’t about race, ethnicity, or sexuality; it’s about friends who help each other escape an abusive situation, or people who work in politics, or a family trying to get over a death. When you put on the character description page something like “Please feel free to cast these roles with diverse actors. I’m open to a mixed-race family, a disabled lead, or actors of size. We don’t live in a world full of skinny, able-bodied white people, so I have no need for my play to be filled with them,” I LOVE YOU. I would have done it anyway, but when you state that openly, I just freaking LOVE YOU.

4. Believe me when I ask for more work. Most of the plays I read, like seriously 99.999%, aren’t right for my company for the current season I’m slotting. However, many of those plays are still excellent, or intriguing, or display a style or a voice we find compelling that might potentially be a good match for us. We don’t ask everyone to send us something else, so when playwrights believe me, and then ACTUALLY SEND ME SOMETHING ELSE, I am excited. We staged a play this season that I received for just that reason. “Please continue to submit to us” is not a polite brush-off. It means we’re keeping an eye on you because we think you’re worth keeping an eye on.

And PS, you magnificent bastards, I’m in the middle of season planning, so right now this minute (like seriously in the next few days) is an excellent time to send me your plays. Our wonderful literary manager can be reached at lynda (at) impacttheatre (dot) com.

Happy New Year!

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31 thoughts on “Six Things Playwrights Should Stop Doing

  1. If you’re serious, I’d love to send you a play. Do you want full length (80 minutes) or shorts (10 minutes)? I’ve got both that I’ve put out into contest-land.

  2. chasbelov says:

    Melissa, thanks for the tips. I’ll add a sub-trope to your gay male BFF trope: that you know they’re gay male because they’re effeminate. Of course there are effeminate gay men in real life, but you *never* see the gay male BFF non-drag-queen trope without also seeing the effeminate gay male trope. At least in The Motherfucker With the Hat, he has his own arc, his own feelings, some surprises, and meaty stage time.

    I must cop to using the magical impeding moms tropes as well as the transgender BFF in my first play, but in all fairness, even though they are all clearly in supporting roles with much less stage time, I did give the two moms one conversation that would pass the Bechdel test, and the transgender guy (FTM) is a carpenter, has a good monologue, his own sex life, and finds romance at the end. (Yes, there were way too many things going on in my first play. It’s a first play. It does what first plays do. And I still love it and was thrilled at its staged reading and would love to see it done some day.)

    Alas, my next (5th) play is not yet ready for submitting to theatres and even when it is, I think for Impact it’s another one of those stretches you talk about, though less of a stretch than my past plays. The play after that, which I just started on New Year’s Day, one of my traditions, I think is definitely an Impact play. We’ll see. Of course I have to finish writing and editing it first.

    Yes, as you suspect, I do send stretch plays. I do know the difference between stretch and totally inappropriate. My 3rd play is an avant-garde destruction of The Merchant of Venice that I will never send you, as never in a million years would you think the play was even a good idea.

    I do make notes where a particular role could be played by someone with a disability, even going so far as to point out a particular stage direction that would need to change. I also may change a line for an actor of a particular race. And “any race or gender” often turns up in my character descriptions. As far as a general note, though, would “Diversity in casting is encouraged” be sufficient?

    And I have a playwright I want to introduce to you, which I will handle off the blogosphere.

  3. Thank you so much for showing the most frequent current pitfalls. I’ve been guilty of #1 and have seen all the others too many times.

  4. I know what you’re saying with #3 on things you love, but it kind of makes me sad that it has to be spelled out. In today’s diverse world, this should be a given. Thanks for the great post!

  5. Patrick Burns says:

    Great advice!

  6. John O'Hara says:

    I loved this entry. Especially the magical gay friend and the ‘cinematic’ writing. I’ve been guilty of ‘feisty old lady with filthy mouth’–more than once.

  7. This is a great blog and in particular, a great article! I will pass it onto my playwright pals and my students. You crack me UP – and you are also bang on the money. Oddly, this article is encouraging. Thank you for writing, Bitter Gertrude! I’m going to follow you. (Does that sound creepy?)

  8. Mead says:

    SUCH a good list, thank you. For me #2 is the one that really bugs me — so much so that I often stop reading the script at that point. To me it’s lazy playwriting; the writer isn’t doing the work of considering language and syntax, s/he’s merely attempting to manipulate actors by remote control. RRRRRGGGGHHHHHH. Also I want to say that I love the passion for good writing I hear in this post. We all want playwriting to be as affecting and transformative and memorable as possible, so it’s disappointing when it’s not that….and transporting when it is.

  9. the micro-directed-through-stage-direction-play-that’s-thinking-like-a-film gets a big high five. and it’s not “don’t do this” every in your writing but, as you write so welcomingly, its a play that’s thinking like a film. so BE that. yes.

  10. Kent Nicholson says:

    Great List Melissa. I would also add to #1 that if you don’t have the rights to said song, the mere performance of you play could be illegal. It’s generally easy to get the rights, so if you MUST build the emotional core of the show around an existing piece of music then please please GET THE RIGHTS. It’s generally not a problem in smaller theaters because no one knows, but the minute you get a show published or produced at a prominent theater, you will run into problems. So it’s best just to follow Melissa’s advice and not do it at all.

  11. Shaun Rolly says:

    Great article and very insightful. Do you accept original musicals?

    • We have a very small space so we haven’t done a musical yet. If we did one, it would have to be one that could be done with very small instrumentation.

    • All submissions can be sent to our literary manager at lynda (at) impacttheatre (dot) com. It’s impossible to tell without seeing the material whether we’d be interested or not. We haven’t done a musical yet, but I’ve learned to never say never.

      • Shaun Rolly says:

        I’ll send it. One thing I’ve learned, too, is to never say never. Made quite a career out of those three little words… 🙂

        Oh! And on a side-note. I’ve always believed unless one is actually writing a musical specifically about a musical artist with a catalogue of songs or the show is about a certain genre of music, than all songs should be original composition. To me, unless it involves the aforementioned criteria, than the art of playwriting for a musical is negated. Another pet peeve of mine is when scripts quote other’s scripts. Again, unless the show is an homage to a specific writer, come up with your own dialogue to get the point across.

  12. sheaannmarie says:

    In response to you request for scripts, what’s the best address to send you my work? Are you interested in one-acts, full-length, what?

    A. M. Shea

  13. Paul Taegel says:

    Dear Miss Bitter — Your blog very much reminded me of the book, HOW NOT TO WRITE A NOVEL, which I picked up on a whim and read cover to cover while standing in a bookstore. Thus I would say perhaps you ought to write a book on how not to write a play. The theater could use some guidance these days.

  14. Good Evening: With your permission, I would like to add something that I love when playwrights attempt to do it, namely, make the greatest effort possible to spell correctly. If nothing else, all writers should know when to use “their,” “there,” or “they’re.” Incidentally, nice blog. Vonn Scott Bair

  15. jguenther5 says:

    Dang! I was planning to do all six of these things in my new play about a Cajun drag Queen ho who likes to break out in “♪♫Feelings…♪♫” at the drop of a skimpy brim. Oh, well, back to the drawing board.

  16. mark says:

    Thank you for another great blog post that helps playwrights see things from the reader’s perspective. How about a few helpful hints for theatres and contests requesting submissions?

    1)It is 2014. It is time you move to a paperless submission process. It is better for the environment and it is far more efficient and inexpensive for the playwright.
    2)If you do request printed, hard copy materials don’t ask for a full script if you are expecting hundreds of submissions. A submission packet consisting of a cover letter, brief bio, one-page synopsis, cast of characters and a ten-page sample are pretty much the norm-why not use that for the first round to save time, space, postage and hundreds of innocent trees?
    3)On that note, why not make an industry standard of the aforementioned “ submission packet consisting of a cover letter, brief bio, one-page synopsis, cast of characters and a ten-page sample?” This way the writer can have a file ready they can send to many theatres, and it seems to be that a majority of theatres are using this standard.
    4)Playwrights have probably prepared the following for their play: A brief one-paragraph synopsis, a one-page synopsis and a two-page synopsis. Please don’t ask for esoteric versions such as a half-page synopsis, a 500-word synopsis or request the the synopsis and cast of characters and scenic requirements all fit on one page so that the writer has to do a custom version just for one, shot-in-the-dark submission.
    5)Do not be a Formatting Nazi. Yes, plays need to be written in a standard, recognized professional format. But you do not need to be OCD on your end, for example: Requesting that pages be numbered is reasonable. Specifying exactly how and where the numbers appear and in what font and size is very silly. Don’t make a writer have to spend time re-formatting just for you.
    6)Do not charge me for the honor of you reading my play. If you cannot afford a reader or the administrative costs, then you probably can’t afford to produce new work either. Any theatre that charged actors to audition would be ridiculed, boycotted and not have their doorstep darkened by true professionals…it should be no different for playwrights. And this helpful hint: If you are a large, professional company with a seven-figure budget, an endowment, a large subscriber based and corporate sponsors you have absolutely no business charging a fee.
    7)If you are sponsoring a contest where the winner gets $100 and a one-night staged reading of their play in a no-name theatre in the middle of nowhere and you are charging a $20 fee and expecting hundreds of submissions, then you have balls. BIG ones.
    8)If you cast an out-of-town actor in a professional play and told them they would have to pay their own transportation and lodging and they would only get a $100 stipend for weeks of work people would find it outrageous. So how can you demand that of a playwright? Many “contests” require something similar of the “winners.”
    9)Please be as clear as possible as to what your theatre is interested in producing, along with cast size and technical limitations. We don’t want to waste our time or your time. (Of course I know that there are many playwrights who will ignore you anyway and send a door-slamming farce to a Shakespeare festival…but some of us really want to behave ourselves and target only theatres that are appropriate for our work.)
    10)Finally: Please don’t ask for submissions unless you truly are looking for new work. Don’t ask for plays just to “see what is out there.” Don’t request submissions of new works just to demonstrate to your board that you are reaching out. And in reference to #9, don’t ask for genres that your company has never produced and most likely never will produce just because you have a notion that there is a slight possibility in the future you might considering thinking about producing a play in that genre. It is time-consuming and expensive to submit even when there is a true possibility of interest, please don’t waste our time that could be better-spent creating theatre.

    • You’ve hit some of my hot-button issues!

      I’ve been an outspoken opponent of submission fees for years. I think we need to eliminate them. I understand they pay readers, but I think we need to find a better way to pay readers than to charge playwrights for the “privilege” of entering a competition.

      I think a cover letter is entirely useless and I have no idea why anyone asks for one. I don’t want to read your synopsis, and I don’t want to read your bio. I want to read your play, sent to me as a .doc, .docx, or .pdf. Not ten pages of your play, not twenty pages of your play. I want your whole play, and nothing but your whole play. It’s the only thing I use for making season planning decisions, so it’s the only thing I read. I DESPISE writing cover letters, and I refuse to make anyone else perform that nonsensical formality. I like a short note in the email with the play attached– even just “Here’s my play; I hope you like it” or “I workshopped this with [name] who said it might be right for your company. Thanks for reading.” But I don’t see a purpose for a formal cover letter.

      I don’t care about format and I don’t understand people who do. As long as your play is clear– do I understand who is talking, who is interrupting whom and how and for how long, what the necessary stage directions are, then I don’t care much beyond that apart from preferring formats that don’t eat paper or are too closely spaced together to read comfortably.

      Hmmmmm– maybe I should write a “Six Things Theatres Should Stop Doing” blog post next.

  17. Anne-Charlotte Harvey says:

    Love this conversation! Everyone who writes or reads plays should hear—and heed—your no-nonsense advice. Write that book! Some discussion of the difference between the two media (theatre and film) may not be amiss.. Too many plays seem to be written with an eye to movie rights.. or are they just trying to “adjust” to an audience that is bred on film?

  18. mikedimpact says:

    Oops…Medias Res has a prostitute character…but it’s a dude played by Butt Love so I beat the game when you think about it.

  19. mark says:

    Can I add one more?

    Theatres who add you to their e-mail lists when you submit, especially when they don’t even bother to read your play. In 95% of the cases, the writer is not within a thousand miles of their theatre in the first place.

    • I agree that no one should add anyone to an email list without asking, but I wonder: How do you know they didn’t read your play? Did you check their guidelines to see if they respond to unsolicited submissions? Some theatres only respond when they’re interested in producing, due to the staggering volume of submissions. If they do say they’ll respond to all submissions, remember that it can take months to process any one script because of the enormous volume. Even tiny theatres with unpaid staffs whose literary managers are working full-time office jobs or what have you receive hundreds of unsolicited submissions a year. Even theatres that explicitly state they do not accept unsolicited submissions receive hundreds of unsolicited submissions a year from hopeful playwrights. The volume is truly mind-blowing.

      It’s also good to remember that it’s easier to turn around a rejection, but a play that is under serious consideration can be floating around a theatre for quite some time as they go through their season planning process.

      But I do agree– no one should ever add anyone to an email list without some kind of opt-in. That’s obnoxious and would get me to unsubscribe with the very first email I received.

  20. sheaannmarie says:

    Really enjoyed Six Things Playwrights Should Stop Doing. I know I’m only a year late, but does the invitation for submissions for your next season still apply for 2015?

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