Excellent feedback for playwrights! I’ve been the Literary Manager of Penguin Repetory Theatre, 30 miles north of New York City, for seven years and found myself nodding in agreement on your comments. Penguin is a small theatre that looks for small cast scripts. It was overwhelming and frustrating at how many writers would send in large cast play, apparently never bothering to read the submission guidelines or look at the kinds of plays we produced. After years of wading through scripts I finally took the Artistic Director’s advice and went to Agent Submission only.
And now my follow-up questions:
CMJ: Has moving to agent submissions only improved the quality of work or simply cut through those playwrights who didn’t pay attention to your guidelines?
SS: Seven years ago when I started as Literary Manager at Penguin Rep, a 108 seat theatre north of New York City, my goal was to begin a reading series called “Play With Your Food.” I was looking to find four or five good plays that might be ready for production for the following season and test drive them before our audience. As a playwright myself, I advocated for open submissions because, damn it, how about giving us regular people a chance?
Within the six week submission window I received 758 scripts. I’d asked for full length small casts and plays that “illuminated the human spirit.” Over half of the plays sent were wildly inappropriate. A small number of submissions were quite good and several were, to my ear, simply wonderful. Imaginative, well told, surprising stories where something happens, where characters want something, strive for it, encounter obstacles and engage me.
It was because of the simply wonderful plays that I continued to have open submissions for the next five years. I thought that if I tweaked the guidelines and narrowed the chute, more of the wonderful would rain down. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Scripts continued to line my walls. Finally Joe Brancato, Penguin’s Artistic Director, said “Stop torturing yourself.”
Moving to agent submissions did eliminate receiving large boxes of completely inappropriate scripts. It also set the bar at “acceptable” in terms of spelling, listing a cast of characters and other basic formatting issues. However, every agent submission isn’t wonderful. I know that there are excellent writers who don’t have agents and I feel for them, I really do. The wall they have to scale is a high one.
CMJ: Do you ever make an exception to agent submissions?
SS: Penguin Rep has been in existence 34 years, so we have a large theatrical network. Scripts still come over the transom with personal recommendations or through personal connections. We have a preference for working with writers from New York or the surrounding area.
CMJ: What is the ratio of new plays to known plays at Penguin Rep?
SS: Penguin produces four main stage shows per season (May-October) and presents readings of five plays for the “Play With Your Food.” Although it can vary from year to year, the majority of these are new plays.
CMJ: Are there any other red flags you would like to add to Mr. Epperson’s comments?
SS: Mr. Epperson really ran the bases in his thorough and thoughtful comments. I would add one thing – also at the risk of being labeled a prude (and with due respect to Mr. Mamet.) Gratuitous vulgar language is simply that – gratuitous, and often unintentionally comic. The more vulgar language is used, the less its impact. Even in the most angry or offensive characters it’s rarely the foul language that heighten the situation, it’s the dramatic support and situation supplied by the writer and tapped into by the actor that cause the fur to fly.
Unlike Mr. Epperson, I can’t claim to have responded to every script that has been submitted. Due to sheer volume I simply wasn’t able to keep up. I have passed scripts along to other theatres where I think they might find a home. I still have a box of scripts that I’ve kept thinking – gee, maybe someday or someplace this might work. And I have become acquainted with some dedicated, talented and inspiring writers.
One last note. As someone who has received a rejection and an acceptance for the same play on the same day, I acknowledge that the world of playwriting is very subjective. Just because your play isn’t a perfect fit for Penguin doesn’t mean another theatre won’t find your work compelling and worth producing. Research theatres, read the guidelines, keep submitting. There are no guarantees. But you can certainly increase your odds.
CMJ: Many thanks for such a fast turnaround, Staci!