Ask A Literary Manager

Ever wanted to know what Literary Managers’ pet peeves are? Steven Epperson took up our interview request. It’s lengthy and very helpful. Please comment on any of the below. He may be open to more.
All italicizing is mine for ease in reading. – CMJ

Impact Theatre buttons

SE: First off, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to ask these questions. I’ve been the Literary Manager for Impact Theatre for over 5 years, and Literary Manager for The Asylum Theatre for over 7 years, and in my time reading scripts I’ve always wanted to have an opportunity to express to playwrights how they can better submit their work. This is a great idea, and I look forward to reading your blog post.

CMJ: Are there any red flags to submissions, obvious or subtle?

SE:  Yes.
Misspellings/wrong word usage in the cover letter and/or synopsis. I’ve never seen a
play that was any good when those problems happen.
Rambling cover letter/synopsis. Keep cover letters to one paragraph, keep synopsis to one page. Max. Less is more.
No cast list = a not very good play. Every single time.
Resubmitting a script that I’ve sent a rejection letter on, and sending that resubmission to the Artistic Director directly. Anything she gets, goes straight to me, and I keep records of what I’ve read and what I have/haven’t rejected. Don’t try to get around or go over the head of the person who rejected your play.
Submitting a script after a playwright has received a rejection letter from me, and
demonstrating attitude or anger in the cover letter for their new submission. There are two acceptable responses to a rejection notice: 1) “Thank you for considering my play.” 2) Nothing. I know that it stinks to get rejected. Be professional. Being difficult might feel good the moment a playwright hits that ‘Send’ button, but it will not do anybody any good at all in the long term.

 

Jonathan Brooks, Maria Giere Marquis, and Jai Sahai in the regional premiere of Cameron McNary's Of Dice and Men at Impact Theatre Credit: Cheshire Isaacs

CMJ: Please give an idea of the sorts of plays that immediately grab your attention, and how a submission package can accomplish that without bending the guidelines?

SE: I’m chuckling as I write my answer to your first question, because, for me, this is the
most difficult question to answer. Impact Theatre produces a huge variety of work: comedies, dramas, adaptations of classics, to name a few. We’ve never done a musical, but we’re not opposed to doing one either. (Over the past several years I’ve started reading several musicals and thought, “This might be the first Impact musical!” Then, I get to the end and I think, “Um. No.” ….  the core writing elements (story, dialogue, character development) simply weren’t up to par.  In a musical, of course there need to be good songs.  However, no matter how good the songs are, if the core elements of the writing aren’t there, the script just doesn’t work theatrically.  Again, neither I nor either of the theatre companies that I work with would be absolutely opposed to producing a musical.  However, one has not yet been submitted to us that, in my opinion, would work.)

What grabs more attention, always, is quality writing. An interesting story with well crafted characters and compelling dialogue. I realize that sounds like a cheap answer, but that is the primary thing that I look for. I don’t look for specific genres, I don’t look for comedies over dramas or vice-versa. While we try to schedule variety, Impact wouldn’t be opposed to doing a season composed entirely of comedies or dramas. Impact Theatre produces four plays a year, one of which is an adaptation of a ‘classic’ that is adapted and directed by our Artistic Director, Melissa Hillman. So, we have three production slots open each season. What do I want to go into those three slots? The three best damn scripts we have that are available to us.

Impact Theatre only produces full-length works. It’s just too difficult to find individual one-acts that can be paired together to present a cohesive night of theatre. IF a playwright wanted to submit two one-acts that they felt would work together in a single evening, I’m more than happy to take a look. However, otherwise one-acts almost always get a pass from me. IF I like the writing well enough, in the rejection letter that I send out, (and every play that I don’t pass on does get a rejection letter), I will make a point to ask if the playwright has any full-length material that they wish to submit.

Here’s the submission package that makes me happiest: an e-mail (Impact Theatre ONLY accepts submissions that are e-mailed.) that includes: the script (you would be surprised how many playwrights forget to attach their play) in a format that my computer can work with (Microsoft Word of PDF ONLY. I’ve been receiving a lot of submissions in Word Perfect, and my computer just doesn’t know what to do with those.), a cover letter, and, if the playwright wishes to include one, a resume. For Impact Theatre submissions, that’s pretty much all one needs. One thing that I would strongly advise is that playwrights should NOT adopt a One-Size-Fits-All philosophy. Find out from each theatre company they submit to what THAT theatre company wants in their submission packages. Some of the things that I don’t care whether they’re included or not: resumes, reviews, letters of recommendation, etc., might mean an automatic rejection from other

If you don’t mind, I’ll break down each of the elements that I mentioned above. As I said, e-mail the script in a format that most computers can work with, i. e. Microsoft Word or PDF. (PDF works on pretty much every computer, so it’s a good default choice.) Submit the ENTIRE script, unless otherwise specified to only send the first 10 pages or to only submit a dialogue sample. When I say that playwrights should include a ‘cover letter’, what I really want is for them to include a ‘cover note’. That means: keep it short. I’d say one paragraph (short paragraph) max. If a playwright thinks that they need more than one paragraph in their cover letter, they really don’t. Introduce themselves, tell me the title and any recent productions of the play. A brief (BRIEF) synopsis is fine, but, keep it brief. Playwrights should keep in mind that I’m more interested in reading their play, than I am in reading their cover letters.

CMJ:  What are some immediate turn-offs in submissions?
SE: I once sat down and wrote a diatribe (it had been a long week) about the different things that playwrights do that can, and do, turn me off to their work. I won’t bore you with the whole thing, but here are the high (low) lights:

Misspelling my name in the cover letter. This happened this past week. Now, some people will say, “Why does that matter?” It matters because if a playwright can’t be bothered to spell my name right, that demonstrates a lack of interest, and a lack of attention to detail. It may also be the sign of an attitude that Impact Theatre isn’t interested in dealing with. To be blunt, it’s the best way to make a bad first impression.

Misspellings, bad grammar, wrong word usage: yes, playwrights are writing speech, and the way people, especially Americans, speak does not always follow the rules of writing. (Cause instead of because, for example.) I understand that, and I’m not trying to be the grammar/spelling police. However, having sloppy writing mechanics is unprofessional, and I’ve never, ever, read a script where the playwright had bad writing mechanics where the story and the characters themselves were well crafted. I’m not talking about the occasional typo. I’m talking about consistent, repeated errors that a professional writer should know to not do. Bottom line, it just looks bad, and I’m going to pass on a play that looks bad.

Non-standard fonts or formatting: make your writing as easy to read as possible. If I have to struggle in any way with your play, including the style in which it is presented/ written, I’m going to pass. In addition, when you e-mail a script, don’t send each scene as a separate document. Don’t have the title page and/or the cast list as a separate document. In other words: send your script as a SINGLE attachment, please. This may sound trivial, but having to constantly stop and open a new document interferes with the flow of the story, and can be aggravating.

Submissions that don’t follow stated guidelines: Read the guidelines for submissions and follow them. One of the theatre companies that I work with periodically produces a 10-minute comedy play series. When we put out a request for submissions for this 10-minute comedy play series, the avalanche of stuff that we get that is neither 10-minute nor comedy is extremely exasperating. I’ve actually seen submissions of 50 page scripts. No matter who you are, guidelines apply to you, they apply to me, they apply to anybody submitting material for anything for which guidelines are out there.

Not including a cast list, unless it’s a one-person show: I see this all the time, and I cannot understand why playwrights would not include a cast list with their scripts. As a Literary Manager, I want to focus on the story, and not have to waste time trying to figure who all these random characters are who keep on wandering in and out of the scenes.

Unnecessary/gratuitous nudity: I’m not a prude. I have no problem with nudity. (Some of my best friends have been naked.) If there’s a reason for people to be naked in your play, that’s cool. HOWEVER, if the naked person doesn’t have anything to do with the story, don’t do it. IF it is necessary to the story, and there’s a way to stage it legally, that’s one thing. Gratuitous is entirely another, and we’re not interested.

An overabundance of stage directions: If pressed, I’d say that this is my #1 most frustrating thing. Having line after line after line after line of stage directions interrupts the flow and rhythm that I’m trying to discern from a playwright’s writing. Trying to get into a playwright’s story, trying to find out if the playwright is creating characters with individual voices, trying to see if there is something about the writing that would be compelling on a stage all get ground to a halt when I have to constantly stop reading the dialogue and read stage directions. I think that for some people, getting the action as they see it in their mind onto the paper or the computer screen is important because those writers need to have it written out in order for them to keep what’s going on organized. I understand that, and that’s fine. For writers who need that, I would strongly suggest removing those stage directions before sending their scripts out. Having massive amounts of stage directions in one’s script does nothing to help me decipher the quality of the story that the playwright is trying to tell. If no other information gets out from this blog post, I hope this does: have as few stage directions as is possible.

Impossible or difficult to manage set designs: Most small theatre companies have neither the budget, nor the space, nor the ability to reconstruct Notre Dame Cathedral.
Most small theatre companies would struggle to reconstruct your living room. Also, recently I’ve seen a number of script in which the author wants a real automobile of whatever make/model/sort onstage. Again, most small theatre companies could not get a car into their building, much less onto their performing area. I think that the biggest failing I see from a number of playwrights is that their writing makes it appear that they don’t understand other aspects of theatre, especially when it comes to sets, props and sometimes costumes.

Writing plays set in places you’ve never been to: This is less of a problem now, but a couple of years ago its seemed like everybody and their grandmother were writing plays set in a hotel or motel or trailer park in the Mojave/Arizona/New Mexico/Texas/Mexican/California/Nevada desert. I don’t know how this happened, and I don’t know why this happened. When one is not familiar with the environment they’re writing about, it shows. That being said, ENOUGH with plays being set in New York City. Feel free to set your play in the other 99% of the country.

CMJ: Does it matter to you if playwrights have a website, Facebook, Twitter presence? How much do you want to know about the playwright themselves if you’re interested in their work?

SE: Honestly, for me, it doesn’t really matter at all. If Impact Theatre decides to produce a play, then, yes, we want to know everything we can about the playwright that we’re going to be working with. Until we’re at the point where we’re ready to begin that process, and I’m being completely honest here, it just doesn’t matter all that much to us.

Along those lines, it used to bother me when playwrights didn’t have their resumes in an easily readable format. It used to, until one day I realized that a playwright’s resume wasn’t going to be the deciding factor as to whether or not Impact Theatre produced their play, or whether or not I passed their play on up the ladder. Once I realized that, I didn’t spend a lot of time looking at playwright’s resumes. If a resume is included in a submission I’ll still LOOK at it, but it’s really more of a glance than anything else: “Let’s see, any names or places that I recognize? Yes? No? All right, time to read this play.”

CMJ: What is the process for choosing a season at your theaters, and is there any way that
playwrights can aid you in that process?

SE: The process for choosing a season at Impact Theatre is as follows: every script that is submitted, whether sent directly to me by the playwright or not, goes to me. I read every script that comes in. My job is NOT to say, “Yes.”. My job is to say, “No.”, and I say, “No.”, a lot. If I don’t say, “No.” to a script, that script is passed on to Melissa Hillman, the Artistic Director for Impact Theatre. She reviews the scripts I send her, and she will either say, “No.”, or she will put the script to the side for consideration by the entire company. Once or twice a year, more if necessary, the company will gather to read plays out loud and discuss them. The group as a whole decides what plays are being produced each season, with the exception of the one classic that we do each year. The classics are the purview of Melissa, and she selects those herself.

In terms of the selection process described above, there’s not anything playwrights can do to influence that in and of itself. What playwrights CAN do is: be patient. Be patient because the one area where I’m lacking is in figuring out a way to communicate with playwrights when their play gets moved up the ladder instead of being rejected. I’ve tried multiple times, but I have a hard time composing a letter that says, “We like your play, but we’re NOT promising to produce it, and we might not, but we might, so . . . thanks!”, in 1-2 paragraphs. Part of the problem may be that I’m overthinking it, and that’s my issue. Anyway, be patient. If a playwright doesn’t hear back from Impact Theatre regarding their play, it’s a case of no news is not necessarily bad news.

CMJ: Steven added this after I asked a follow-up question:

SE: If you don’t mind, one thing that I forgot to mention was the environments that theatre companies produce in.  I think the space(s) that theatre companies stage their productions in is not often considered by playwrights when they are writing scripts.  The majority of plays that I see are written for proscenium style theatres, while most small theatre companies (I don’t have statistics at hand to verify this, but Melissa Hillman, the Artistic Director for Impact has talked about this a number of times, and I take her at her word.), produce plays in some variation of ‘black box’ spaces.  For example, Impact Theatre currently stages our shows in the basement of a pizza parlor.  With an 8′ high ceiling.  This means that no matter how hard we tried it would simply be impossible to stage a play in which having a two or more level set was required.  (Unless we cast the show entirely with Ewoks, and that would bring up a whole other set of issues.)  Impact has passed on at least three scripts that we really, REALLY wanted to produce, but couldn’t due to the particular restrictions of our theatre.  Now, I am NOT expecting all playwrights to have, or request, floor plans or scale drawings of the the theatres they’re going to submit plays to before they begin writing.  What I am suggesting is that playwrights be more open to creating plays that can be staged in ways that are more flexible than only in a proscenium theatre.  Doing so give both sides what they want:  it gives theatre companies more plays to select from, and it gives playwrights more potential venues in which to have their plays produced.

CMJ: Many thanks to Steven for his time, and please do comment with questions below. I’m working on some other Literary Managers and hope to give all playwrights a larger perspective on the people reading and accepting/rejecting their work.

15 Comments

  • By Diane Grant, September 13, 2011 @ 8:47 pm

    What an excellent piece. It’s a keeper. Thanks both to you and Steven.

    Diane

  • By Sarah Stillion, September 14, 2011 @ 12:02 am

    Thank you for posting this and taking the time Steven to answer questions. I agree with most of what you say as a lot of it seems to be good common sense.
    However, as a playwright who does write a fair amount of stage directions, I am puzzled by your pet peeve of too many stage directions. I see this a lot in postings to not have “too many stage directions”. I end up not submitting to those theaters in hesitation that I might be “too much” and bias them against truly giving my writing a fair shake. I wonder what they mean is “too much” as I don’t ever think stage directions interrupt the flow as it is part of the currents of the play itself. The stage directions help determine where the river is headed.
    I read your answer and am still very puzzled. If you are writing a highly theatrical play where the action is important to the plot and to who characters are then how can you not say what that action is in the stage directions and expect readers to understand what is going on? I think good stage directions can further the action and clarify plot not hinder it.
    How would anyone understand Brecht, Williams, Miller, or any well written play without stage directions? A blanket bias against stage directions seems faulty thinking on anyone’s part in my opinion.

  • By Steven Epperson, September 14, 2011 @ 10:28 am

    Ms. Stillion,

    Thank you for your question. I will attempt to answer it as best I can. Regarding your last point about stage directions in published plays, we need to keep in mind that most stage directions in midcentury published plays marketed to the general public were taken from the stage managers’ notes, not written by the playwrights themselves. Of course, some, like Tennessee Williams, did indeed write detailed stage directions, as did Samuel Beckett. When I read a play that’s on the level of those two writers, I’m fine with their stage directions. The plays we get from emerging writers that contain paragraphs of stage directions, however, are usually not at that level, and are most often examples of playwrights imagining their play as a film and/or doing the jobs of the designers and actors. Their plays are loaded with non-narrative directions dictating things like facial expressions, the color of the actor’s dress, or even a famous film actor the character should resemble.

    Regarding your concern in regards to the volume of stage directions you include with your scripts. Not to repeat myself, but I understand that some playwrights need to include stage directions as they are writing their scripts in order to keep the action straight in their head. I get that, and I’m not sneering at that practice. What I’m saying is, as someone who is reading plays, (not for pleasure, although I thoroughly enjoy reading new scripts by new playwrights), to determine whether or not those scripts have the necessary potential to be produced, in my experience voluminous stage directions do not enhance the story. Instead, they interfere with the rhythm and flow of the story. For example, having to constantly interrupt the dialogue to read stage directions like,

    (STAN puts his right index finger into the book to mark his place and closes the book. He furrows his brow, frowns, sighs, stands, turns to LUCY and says . . .)

    doesn’t help me in my assessment of the story. Let me put it another way: the stage directions may contain information, but I maintain that it’s usually not information that I need when I’m busy assessing character development, dialogue and the story the play is telling. If a playwright needs to include stage directions as they’re writing their scripts, awesome. Do whatever you need to do to do your work to the best of your ability. I still strongly advise playwrights to remove as much of their stage directions as is possible before submitting their plays to theatre companies.

    Ms. Stillion, in your comment you stated, “If you are writing a highly theatrical play where the action is important to the plot and to who characters are then how can you not say what that action is in the stage directions and expect readers to understand what is going on? I think good stage directions can further the action and clarify plot not hinder it.” If you’re willing, I’d like to try an experiment. If you don’t wish to participate, that’s fine, but, if you are, here’s what I’d like you to do: take one of your plays that has a lot of stage directions. The more, the better. Now, what I want you to do is: remove ALL of the stage directions. ALL of them. Every single one. EXCEPT for, (CHARACTER Enters), and, (CHARACTER Exits). Except for those two stage directions, everything else HAS to go. Now, read your play. Do you see a difference? I am genuinely curious about your answer.

    Thank you for taking the time to post your comment.

    Sincerely,

    Mr. Steven Epperson
    Literary Manager
    Impact Theatre
    Berkeley, CA
    Impacttheatre.com

  • By Nancy Beverly, September 14, 2011 @ 10:39 am

    Great info, thanks to you both for taking the time to discuss and post!

  • By Miriam Feder, September 14, 2011 @ 3:06 pm

    Thanks Steven–I appreciate your candor and good work–and thanks Tira Palmquist for sending the link to this interview out on the Binge.

  • By Staci Swedeen, September 14, 2011 @ 3:39 pm

    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.

  • By Elly Rakowitz, September 14, 2011 @ 6:45 pm

    Steven – I found your comments absolutely valuable and illuminating in all areas. I agree with your recommendations on submitting scripts. I totally understand your rationale and appreciate the time and effort you put into your piece. Thank you SO much – and thank you, CMJ for bringing all this to us! I will review my scripts with all your pointers in mind, before submitting another script anywhere!

  • By Playwright's Muse, September 15, 2011 @ 1:44 pm

    Excellent interview! Thank you to Steven Epperson for his time, and to CMJ for doing the interview.

  • By Lynne Moses, September 15, 2011 @ 2:33 pm

    Fabulous post! It’s great to have the curtain pulled back for us. Thanks Cindy and Steven.

  • By Chas Belov, December 4, 2011 @ 5:22 pm

    This was a helpful blog post. The comments on stage directions actually helped me unlock some lines in on of my plays for additional editing that I feel significantly improved the play. Excess stage directions don’t just impact readers, they impact the playwright’s editing process.

  • By Richard Atkins, August 3, 2016 @ 3:47 pm

    I think that theaters who ask for 10 page script samples are a waste of time and I doubt that Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams was ever subjected to submitting a 10 page script sample. You said it was a turn-off if a playwright spells your name wrong. Well, I think it’s a turn-off if the literary manager or literary assistant consistently spells the playwright’s name wrong. For all the same reasons you give, so, I give the reason for NOT spelling the playwrights name, no matter who they are. I give my most critical 10 pages, and though I know they are good, I’ve never received an invite to send my play from a 10 page script sample and have usually gotten great response and productions when I submit a full length script. 10 pages out of context is just impossible to discern whether the play as a whole is good or not. That’s the bottom line and I am an Artistic Director of a theatre myself!

Other Links to this Post

  1. Great, practical tips on submitting your play | Playwright's Muse — September 14, 2011 @ 4:23 pm

  2. Literary Manager Pet Peeves | Direct Address — September 14, 2011 @ 4:50 pm

  3. LA FPI » Ask a Literary Manager 2 — September 15, 2011 @ 10:13 am

  4. Stage directions: threat or menace? « Exit, Pursued by a Lark — December 3, 2011 @ 9:15 pm

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