Sunday’s April Fool’s “opportunity” has made me think this week about the more serious side of the submissions game. The requirements in Mark Harvey Levine’s hilarious piece are, of course, deliciously over-the-top…but we’ve all seen that crazy call with a million hoops to jump through, that really does seem to require everything short of cramming a woodland creature in an envelope. What requests are unreasonable?
I've also been thinking about the fact that my submission habits – and views of what is acceptable for theatres to require – have shifted a bit over time. For example, paying fees was once my line in the sand and I never used to pay them. Ever. For any reason, to anyone. Now I will from time to time (though over the course of a year I can count those submissions on one hand), if the theatre gives prizes to writers or someone I know personally recommends the theatre.
But enough about me.
I e-mailed alumni playwrights at random to get thoughts on this, and some of the responses I received appear here. (Feel free to add your own comments below, too, of course.)
Do you always follow submission guidelines to the letter? Are there requirements you consider unreasonable/unfair for a theatre to ask? What requirements are “deal breakers” (i.e., make you choose not to submit)?
I don't submit a play of mine when they ask for a blind digital copy--asking for a play without a title page or credit of ownership. I understand the need for anonymous consideration, and if they want to rip off or delete the title page then so be it, but I do not feel comfortable sending a child into the world without a home address and parental identification firmly attached.
On guidelines: I do always follow specific guidelines but have often found that plays selected do not match the nature of work the theatre is purportedly seeking. For example, I went to a festival that was very specific in their request for edgy, cutting edge plays that dared to play with language, space, time, convention, etc. However, the plays selected (from among hundreds) were all rather traditional. I guess it's all about perspective and truly understanding the brand/sensibility of a specific theater. My local theater is a 200-seat venue that routinely sells out their new works festival of ten-minute plays. Because I am familiar with the festival I know not to submit what I consider to be my finest work, but to only submit plays that tell a heartwarming or funny story. It's not as much about making an artistic judgment as being smart about how to target submissions for different audiences.
On unreasonable requirements: I'm leery of organizations that have short play festival after festival, requiring you to not only come with a full production but pay a production fee of $150 and up. These are generally in tiny venues in New York and my impression is that they take advantage of the vulnerable, basically accepting anyone who will pay, and not only collecting the fees but also building an audience not from a reputation of quality work but by bringing in quantity through family and friends of the playwrights and actors of the numerous productions they churn out.
I am also not inspired by festivals that have very specific, heavy-handed requirements -- basically anything more than required length, basic formatting and maybe a theme. However, other people do find their creativity is fueled by transforming a set of specifics into a unique piece of art. I don't think there is a right or wrong, but of course the more requirements, the fewer participants, though I would argue that themes can add interest to both writer and audience: plays about love for valentines, plays about family relationships for a mother's day event, etc.
I generally do not submit to festivals that require payment of any kind unless it is a large-scale, nationally recognized festival with understandably high management costs. If a venue feels they need a fee to pay their readers or cover production costs I don't think they have the donor support, industry connections or general expertise to pull off a quality festival. Also, I don't feel honored to be included in a festival that excludes people based on their ability to pay.
Yes, I do follow submission guidelines to the letter, and at first it was a bit of a problem, but now I think I have .doc files for pretty much the gamut of what theaters ask for: bios, long and short; character descriptions, long and short; synopsis: long and short; production histories; 20-30 page script samples; an essay for each of my full-length plays titled, "what I hope to accomplish if I get the fellowship/residency/acceptance with the play development company"...I do sometimes tailor the components depending on the theater's unique mission, but for the most part, I want time and collaborators, and while each theater company is different, there are groups of like-minded companies that allow me to send them basically the same thing...an example of what I might tailor is the desire for local long-term collaborators vs. short-term collaborators from another place in the country...
Frankly, it was a bit of a surprise to see what theaters ask for, and it did take me a while for me to sort of "understand the game" so to speak, so I think some of my earlier submissions to theaters weren't as well-written or thought out as they could have been...
The only real deal-breakers for me, aside from theaters that soliciting from, for example, women or African-American playwrights, of which I'm neither, is a submission or reading fee for smaller theaters...I have bit the bullet and paid a reader's fee for certain larger or more "prestigious" theaters, but money is where I draw the line...for me, it's the cost of theaters doing business, and I do feel I’m the one who should be paid, not the theater...
The deal breakers for me are usually practicality related rather than a question of being unreasonable or unfair. Submission fees are usually deal breakers. As are most festivals where you'd have to bring your own production with you. I usually don't have the funds to get things like that together. Submissions that require hard copies are not deal breakers, but I need to plan these ones out in advance to make sure I have enough paper, ink, and postage to send them in time. Basically, a lot of my "deal breakers" come down to finances.