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July 31, 2009


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Just out of curiosity, what were the right kinds of plays for UNPT? Those that came from an agent? Plays from Yale and Brown?

I run a small company that does new American plays. The jealous playwright in me has often thought of instituting a "no agents/no Ivy League" policy.

What can I say? Theater is for rich kids. Not just watching theater, but making it too. Every single small success I've had has been wrought by a ferocious effort, while I watch some of my luckier peers just breeze on in. It's the name of the game, and it sucks, but it is what it is.


Nothing I'm hearing here surprises me one damn bit. Virtually no one has helped me in the two decades I have been writing and sending out plays. Theaters reject me; agents don't come to the few productions I do get; conferences, fellowships, and grant-giving institutions deny my applications. Year after year. Decade after decade. While plays that, by any objective standard (not just my own sour grapes), are terrible, go on to high-profile productions. If anything ever happens for me in theater, I suspect it will be due only to my will and determination. Like the cockroach, I plan to be around long after everyone else perishes. The situation sucks, but there you are.



I'll second Josh's question.

Why weren't the plays right? Just curious, because you said the plays were GOOD, but just not right for that theater.

Was there a guideline given to the readers who volunteered? Or was it just a kind of feel-your-way kind of thing?

Maybe even a veiled example would help.

And, by the way, I'm not saying that any good good play should be right for EVERY theater. I am just wondering how a theatre deals with this.

Tony Adams

I dunno, we've done I think 4 shows (2 were in a festival) in the past two years that were from open submissions.

Oddly the more we opened up our submissions the better the plays we got were (along with those that aren't so good.)It's really hard to keep up with them all though. (I'm currently failing miserably at that.)

I'd agree though that if you're not really gonna consider someone without sufficient stature, you should be honest about that.

Paul Rekk

The problem I'm hearing is that there are too many playwrights.

I'm being half facetious, folks.

But only half.


I get cold calls all the time from playwrights who want my company to do their work. Depending upon where I am in a rehearsal process, they may or may not get a response from me. If they do get a response it usually something to the tune of do not send scripts to me or to any company not solicting.

I think the same advice has to go to theatres though. Do not solict scripts if you truely dont believe that is the manner in which you will receive work you want to do.

The Pretend game used to have something to do with saving face, appearing more inclusive than you really are, etc. etc.

I still cant get anyone to produce a show of mine unless i've had many a beer with them (this is the way it gets done...that and alot of waiting and what not).

malachy walsh

Let's face it, whatever the mission statement may say to me or you, the AD decides what it means to the theatre in question.

My experience as a reader for producers and theaters in and out of NY is that Lit Depts have no real voice in what gets done or not. If they're lucky, the AD has created some kind of new work festival of readings that the dept gets a couple of slots to fill.
But that's about it.

Which means it goes more like the plot of this anecdotal story of "HOWIE THE ROOKIE" at a major new work regional many years ago. The play was submitted to the theatre through an agent. The first person to read it on the Lit Committee loved it and wrote a glowing "We must do this play" and passed it on to the next reader who wrote a glowing "We must do this play" report and so on until no one was left on the committee who hadn't read it. So it was kicked up to the AD, who, according to accounts, didn't read the coverage or the play.

The play was rejected. Standard letter with some love note "we really liked this play" sentences in it.

Then the AD went to London to see what was going on where he ran into HOWIE THE ROOKIE. He came back all excited. He'd discovered a real beauty that was perfect for his audiences. It wouldn't be a world premiere, but certainly a regional premiere and maybe even an American premiere.

He did the play. And it was terrific.

And the Lit Dept said, Hey, we told you that you should do this play and he said, in essence, Who are you? Where do you work again?


Hey Gang,

Just to answer Josh's question... UNPT had a fairly specific aesthetic. It didn't have anything to do with the Ivy League pedegree of the playwright. It's just a question of what fit in with the kinds of plays they were known for.

To give one example... one play I read and liked (but didn't love, I don't think there were any scripts in there that I loved, or I would've gone to some kind of bat for them) was a play where all of the characters were zoo animals. It was a cute, somewhat zany, whimsical and eventually dark comedy about social darwinism. Great for a lot of theaters (and indeed, six months after I wrote the report it was produced Off Broadway), just not right for *this particular theater*. For one thing, UNPT was known for stylistic and linguistic innovation and, beyond its central conceit, this play had neither.

Now (to try to make it further concrete) if Anne Washburn had sent in one of her plays a an unsolicited play, that would be an example where I'd be more inclined to go to bat for it, as her aesthetic and UNPT's aesthetic were quite similar.

Does that make sense?

In terms of "guidelines" in my particular case, because I knew the theater, its staff and its programming very well there was less guidance placed on me. I could work it by feel if something was appropriate or not.


That makes sense.

I know that some theaters will go a little further in their solicitation announcements and suggest that submitters look at past seasons to familiarize themselves with the work the theatre does.

I suspect many playwrights don't do this.

I have never been a reader for a large professional theater, but I have read submissions for smaller companies, contests, festivals and grants.

When there have been guidelines, it is interesting to me how many people seem to either not read them, or just assume that they will send it anyway and get somebody to notice it.


This Open Submission issue seems to be perennially addressed, so I'll take a turn this time, understanding that my position is nyc, or at least big city, centric...

Who really wants their play produced at a theater where the AD knows so few playwrights that s/he has to resort to the work of strangers? Isn’t it the AD’s job to know the field and at least a handful of playwrights in the community? I’m a very small AD, but if I had the money, I could book 5 seasons of work right now just by calling the playwrights that I know and have been dieing to work with... not to mention the playwrights that I only wish I knew. Isn’t it my job to see a lot of plays, and that I should be contacting those writers whose work fits my company’s mission? Why would I go with something on paper when I attend terrific readings and workshops of plays looking for a next step? Wouldn’t I be doing a disservice to my company if I produced a play by someone who I have no idea what their work ethic is like... no idea if they’re a flake or worse?

I can understand Open Submissions by a theater company in a town that does not have such a large pool of talent living nearby, but other than that, someone would need to explain to me why there is even a submission option, agent or otherwise. If my company needs something, I think it’s my job to go out and get it – not wait for someone to send it in the mail. What am I missing?


I guess the "it's who you know" idea isn't one we love in what we like to pretend is a meritocracy. If there's something we "cling to" it's that particular illusion.

Joshua James

What Freeman said.


"Isn’t it my job to see a lot of plays, and that I should be contacting those writers whose work fits my company’s mission?"

RLewis, your comment begs one question: what about those writers who are having a hard time getting any productions going in the first place, and therefore don't have something running somewhere that you can go and see?
And as for the idea that an AD who produces the plays of "strangers" is one to be pitied/avoided: many very prestigious theaters used to have an open submissions policy--the Public still does, at least in theory. If Oskar Eustis picks my play out of the slush pile (insert dream sequence here), I assure you, I wouldn't think any less of him. Really.


I agree with Freeman that "it's who you know" is not a rule to ignore, and I understand that it's part of a trilogy of rules, but I can never remember #3. I do recall that rule #2 is "it's who knows you", and I think that rule is much more at play with this issue.

And that leads to Ken's questions, since he begs it, which I'll lump into - how does one get known to ADs? The first thing that occurs to me on that score is the assumption that playwrights just drop into the world with no history. But the writer must have come from somewhere, Ken - a college program often has opportunities to get something up or an intern program where new work could see some light, if you're industrious. Heck, rally your fellow students or interns and put something up together. In our industry it won’t be long before those kids are Somebodies, and they will already know you as the one that didn’t just sit there.

I'm sure anyone reading this has an angle or 2 of how to lose one's Strangerness, but the one that still mystifies me most is why on earth a playwright would submit work to a theater where they have never seen any of that theater's work. We, small though we are, get that all the time. And our work is pretty specific - if you haven't seen anything we do, how would you know that your play is right for us to produce? But yet the plays keep arriving. And, if you go see work at the theater where you want to be produced, at least you’ll have something to put in your cover letter ("really liked what you did in your last play... here's mine"). My tip: go on a “talk-back” or post-show reception night. ADs love when folks show up for those lame events (they gotta do ‘em, but hate to), and a writer who attends one will probably have a chance to intro/say Hi to the AD (and others who will one day be Ads).

Don’t we all know these things? – it’s called Participating in the Community. And we all want to work with others who Participate, too. It might take a bit more elbow grease than just packing up shit into envelopes, but I think it’s all about Community. My partners have met most of their contacts from smoking and/or drinking beer. It’s incredible the number of relationships you can begin while banished to the stoop of your local theater.

Heck, if you’re having a hard time getting something going, just offer your services to a theater company: write material for their next benefit… or for their website, …write reviews for NYtheatre.com, etc. We recently mounted a reading by someone we met cuz she ran a blog for us during one of our past productions. We’ve since crossed paths with Johnna so many times that we couldn’t wait for an opportunity to ask her for some work. And I thought one blogger had a great idea to write material for the upcoming NYIT Awards. Think of all the players this person will naturally be working with in a writing situation. I’ll bet things will come of that for the playwright. And look at all the women who gave material to New Georges for their early Performathon Benefits. Many of the mainstage playwrights for them got their NG start in a Performathon.

And I believe that if you do make a good initial impression, it’s not hard to build on it. I’ve been to many apartments where a writer and (best friend) director just got some actors in their livingroom to read a new work. If you target the right AD (at the right level for you), it’s not that hard to get them over for a beer and a reading. Or just put the damn thing up yourself. I know that’s even more work, but I don’t hear Young Jean Lee complaining, and now she has a film deal.

Just don’t start with Roundabout or MTC... build your profile. I mean, who doesn’t think that it’s just a matter of time before a big fish ventures into the shallow water to gobble up a Mac Rogers (maybe with Viral)? Cuz he kept getting the work out there (even if it meant doing it himself), he made good friends in the Community (esp’ with bloggers), and he apparently works hard. If you’re good, the cream will eventually rise – ya just gotta get some heat under it. But if you are still having problems, and you’ve tried all this, then maybe you do need to look honestly in the mirror, and either change your work, your social skills, or your life choices.

And Ken, there seems no need to address your last para’, since you refuted it yourself, but I can tell you that Oscar isn’t picking anything from a pile. Dream, but get to work – Participate in the Community. Good luck (yes, you'll need that, too.)


Hey R,
You have set the bar high, but I'll meet the challenge. Look for me at your next talkback night. I'll be the one with the look of eagerness and desperation.

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