I never had a problem telling stories, even to a fault.
In Kindergarten, my favorite tall tale was that my teacher had married me to both cutie-pie Sean and red-headed Adam in one day. I remember how impressed I was with myself that my mother and aunt believed my story and only questioned the point that Ms. Jean had the power to become a priest.
In 1st grade, a dollar bill was found in the doorway between the classrooms. No one claimed it, so I saw an opportunity for more chocolate and said it was mine. Older sister Kelly was suspicious, however, and upon further examination I admitted it was just a wish. Sister Jeanne Marie hit me with her ruler and my sister labeled a tattle-tail. Although her actions brought out the truth, she still had to wear cat ears and tails for a day so the whole school knew she had tattled. (Logic was never the nuns’ strong point.)
I gave up a scholarship to the local Catholic HS for a fresh start a few cities away. From the very beginning there, I crafted my own history, my own mythology, carefully told and secretive so my sister, who attended the same school, would not have the ability to quash statements that I thought made me more interesting. For the most part, it worked, but a few major whoppers came back and whacked me in the ass (another story for another time).
Moving from Boston to New York for college allowed an even wider bearth for creating my past just how I liked it.Some stories I’d heard from others became my own. I tested reactions from various people and adjusted what they learned about me for maximum impact. I aimed for mysterious, irreverent, intelligent, rebellious, sexy and not someone that everyone should like.
Fast forward a few years and I move cross country from New York to Los Angeles in 2002 – a massive change for a lifetime public transport gal who had gotten her license mere days before the road trip. Moving with a (then) boyfriend means your past and present travel with you, so how did this upheaval affect my storytelling?
I saw my stories in sharp relief to my present and hopes for my future. This mostly fresh start – amplified by the eventual break-up with the boyfriend – renewed the feeling that stories are vibrant. Stories are life. Literally moving out of my comfort zones meant my career and personal path is literally up to me. I was no longer beholden to perceptions anyone had, including my own to myself.
Visiting the east coast progressively got harder for me. I fell back into the old stories, the past, the rhythms of family members who I had already outgrown. I saw family and friends’ prejudices and (mostly wasted) potentials much more clearly, then applied the same criticism to myself:
In what areas of my life did I experience growth and what nasty, sticky preconceptions still lingered?
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!
Full Disclosure: I do not pay submission fees. At first it was mostly because I don’t budget for it, but the more I submit to play-writing contests, the more it just doesn’t jive with me. I liken it to the nearly-only-in-LA procedure of dues-paying ensemble companies. More full disclosure: I used to work for one and was partly responsible for collecting said dues.
It makes my stomach turn.
Submission fees for playwrights isn’t as sickening to me. I understand fees are sometimes considered part of the beast. I mentioned this topic to my husband and he automatically assumed you paid for your play to be in the contest, not just considered. The wide eyes when I explained…
Many people have differing opinions, so instead of this being merely my thoughts, I want to share what I learned as I investigated across multiple social media platforms.
I detest submission fees. Producing entities unfairly pass the burden of contests and productions on to prospective writers. I believe if you want to have a contest or do a production, fundraise for it. Don’t make writers pay to play.
Brian doesn’t agree that submission fees are equivalent to dues-paying companies however, a situation I could not resolve in 140 characters or less .
Donald has also gotten more prize money with contests that charge, and sees another benefit: One of my best experiences in the theater came from a competition I paid to enter – the O’Neill, which provided me with a wonderful month in Waterford, Ct. with incredible actors and directors and a wonderful staged reading of my play. I can understand why small theaters can’t afford to pay for running a competition and I see the submission fee as a business expense on my part.
Ian Hornby‘s perspective was especially interesting: Having run a playwriting competition on behalf of The Playwrights’ Co-operative, there are two edges to this topic. We started with a small entry fee ($10), purely to fund a decent prize at the end. But we had so many sites that would not list us because we had an entry fee that we dropped the fee and made it free entry. What a mistake we made. Although it’s not the right kind of filter and has so many undertones of not providing equal opportunities for those unable to afford the fee, at least it was a filter. We were completely snowed under with entries, and our panel of judges didn’t have time to do anything more than speed-read all entries so as to arrive at a shortlist, which could then be read in detail. Without doubt we’d have missed some gems.
Regardless, he does applaud contests without a fee.
Tony Earnshaw from the UK has an interesting perspective: …in the poetry world it’s difficult to find any contests which don’t have a fee attached and I’ve heard no grumbles. I’ve recently entered a short play for a competition run by a small theatre and am one of the winners (there are ten of us). The read through, at which I met the other writers, the directors and the casts, was worth it in itself.
Anyway, 5 on Linkedin from all over the world say YES, 9 say NO and 1/3 of the NO’s will make exceptions in rare cases.
Gregory Fletcher believes: If a theater company wants to attach their name to my play as the premiere producer, then figure out how to evaluate my play without charging me. Do painters, musicians, dancers, actors, or anybody else in the arts pay to have their work considered for production?
The answer to that, of course, is yes, in some cases.
I then took to Facebook. The results are as follows:
Prefer not to, but will if the contest interests me enough: 17 votes
I don’t mind at all; I just want my work produced: 0 votes
Here is the thing. (We’re back to my opinion now.) Regarding my more recent experiences:
Last summer, I self-produced a Fringe show I wrote with under $500 budget. I felt shame every single time we cut corners, every time I saw how very hard these wonderful actors and director worked for nothing more than a hug and immense gratitude. We had an incredibly supportive and hard-working awareness team as well, who donated their time for some experience and the cause of the piece.
There was a chance to remount and I had to turn it down for many reasons. I knew the team was happy and willing, but I just couldn’t look these artists in the eye and ask them to work for free again. I also have had some fights in my day with supervisors on Equity rules for actors and the worth of one designer versus others.
What’s changed? I often work freelance and negotiate my contracts. On a weekly basis I tell someone my worth and stick by it. When I began working for myself, I undercut my rate. That changed pretty quickly.
I also see way too many people pay upwards of $30/month to join an ensemble company; sometimes I’ve heard of $85/month. Actors may have their reasons – and I fully admit I have it easier as someone who can create my own work – but honestly, I’m fed up.
If you don’t have the money or means to produce a show, you shouldn’t do it. I have done it myself and will not do it again. Personally, it demeans everything in the work that has value, be it the writing, directing, performances, dramaturgy, design, right up to the viewing audience who pays money (in most cases) so that the artists involved may at least get nice thank you gifts.
This is a personal decision after years of self-producing and co-producing. As an extension, I refuse to pay a submission fee. If your readers (and Lord knows, I’ve donated my own time to reading plays) need money, raise the money. If you can’t produce without artists paying into the production in order to be considered, don’t produce.
Some excellent and imaginative pieces don’t “need” money. Artists involved should still be paid.
Yes, it’s hard. So is writing and acting and directing and designing….
Find the people who will donate to your work. They are out there. They are hard to find. They are hard to woo.
Art ain’t easy.
I do not mean any of this as a judgement on those who choose to pay fees and who choose to join ensemble companies, nor do I want to demean the artists who have worked for free on my work over the years. They hopefully got enough in return out of the investment.
They deserve better.
I also know for a fact there are plenty of playwrights out there who will happily pay fees for their own reason. No theater company is crying right now that they won’t get the chance to consider my plays for their competition.
Every even mild success I have from last June onward rests squarely on the backs and pocketbooks of the actors who braved traffic in LA, subways in NY, missed opportunities elsewhere or felt guilty for skipping rehearsal to audition for a commercial (they shouldn’t).
I don’t feel the need to go further into production teams’ sacrifices; just know I married a designer and learned everything about negotiating a contract from friend Cricket S. Myers. By the way, she was nominated for a Tony last year and will walk away from a job rather than accept a mediocre situation.
Often times, she is my hero.
Some may think these arguments are separate. I do not. Every time we de-value our work, an arts education program dies. After all, what value is there in it? Arts advocates are saints. Not all producers or self-producers are money-grubbing and selfish either. Many produce for the sheer joy of art, some for profit, numerous others simply because they’re good at it and theatre needs producers. It’s unfortunate that the most meager of producing codes must dictate paying actors gas money.
November 2009. I was working on a project with Jennie Webb and Laura Shamas. Laura had written a delightful play called Trapper Joan that was getting a staged reading at Theatricum Botanicum. We were rehearsing at Jules Aaron’s house. Jennie and Laura announced they had “a scheme” and took me into the kitchen.
“You can totally say no,” they began.
They were interested in doing a West Coast response to the controversial Sands Study released earlier that year. Someone needed to collect data on the LA theatre scene — specifically, data that would reflect how frequently women’s plays were produced (or, we later decided, “nurtured”) in Los Angeles. This wouldn’t be a money thing, though they did offer a small commission. It was to be a labor of love. Or principle. Or something.
A number of factors influenced my decision. (Spoiler alert: I said yes.)
For one thing, I have always been a feminist, though at different points of my life so far I have been more or less interested in describing myself using that word.
My great-grandmother was a suffragette. In high school, a friend and I gave a long presentation on ‘the feminist movement.’ We reenacted various important moments in women’s history and looked into famous women writers of years past, even reading aloud part of a poem by Sappho.
Me: “Modern feminism”– I don’t pretend to be an expert or really even knowledgeable about the feminist movement… I’m in favor of strong women. But, um, would you say that you are a feminist? Do you self-identify as a feminist, or… How do you feel about the word and do you think it applies to you?
Cáitrín: Oh my, I’ve had this conversation… I think it’s an excellent question. I think that so many women of our generation have kind of eschewed that term– tried to distance themselves from it. But if being a feminist means believing that women should be equal with men, then I’m down.
Women’s rights have always been important to me– and I don’t think it’s just because I’m a woman. It’s because I was fortunate enough to be raised by a family in an environment that promoted equality. Unfortunately, the rest of the world– even the rest of the country– has not been so lucky. This saddens me. There are a number of traits associated with women. True, this could be called / is stereotyping. But until our minds are reconfigured, stereotyping will continue to exist.
What is too bad, though, is when women are lumped together in a group and the stereotyping is used specifically against them — to harm them, or to harm them indirectly by overlooking them.
This past year, a number of things have happened that have reminded me how necessary this kind of work, and this kind of group, is.
While we may be in 2011, and while we may have “come a long way,” in a lot of ways we are still comparatively in the dark ages when you think of where we’d like to be. I’m not talking about the Equal Rights Amendment…