When I was in 8th grade, transitioning to a Catholic high school, my teacher advised my mother to send me to a co-ed school. The reason: I didn’t know how to act around boys. The nun wasn’t worried about my body. She was worried about my mouth. I wasn’t afraid of speaking out – loud and often – behavior she suspected would make me an outcast for life. I didn’t defer to the boys.
My mother did send me to a co-ed high school where I continued to speak out – loud and often. And indeed I did find myself the outcast, but luckily I discovered theatre and the power of the written word.
How often do we apologize for our writing, telling anyone who will listen that it’s “not quite finished” or “just a first draft” or whatever qualifier we attach to it. Have you ever heard a male playwright describe his work that way?
STOP BEING A GIRL!
That’s my mantra to remind myself to just finish the damn play and get it out there. How often do you hear a male writer apologize for his work? Uh – never? Helaine Becker put it a different way.
Helaine is a very successful non-fiction writer for kids. Her latest work
“Counting on Katherine” profiles Katherine Johnson, the NASA math whiz from the film “Hidden Figures.” I was lucky enough to hear her speak to a group of children’s book writers in San Diego last month. Her talk covered the usual topics: putting together a non-fiction proposal, creating a target list of places to send your work, following the decision makers on Twitter, and all the nuts and bolts of the topic.
The room was full of women. Children’s book writers are almost always women, despite the fact that the industry itself overly celebrates male writers for kids. (For more on this sad topic, check out the essays and podcast Kidlitwomen.)
Helaine looked around the room, shook her head, and started to give a different lecture. She laid down the law for the ladies who wanted their work to see the light of day: send out your manuscript when it’s “good enough,” she said. Don’t wait for perfect. She insisted that “not open for submissions” was a mere gatekeeper to keep the timid out of the system. Sitting around waiting for someone to get back to you was unprofessional. “You have an obligation to followup.” After six weeks, write back, ask whether they’ve had a chance to look at your work yet, and ask when you might expect a response.
In other words, STOP BEING A GIRL.
My plays are not perfect. It’s unlikely any will ever make it to Broadway or Arena Stage or South Coast Rep. That doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy of productions and reviews and publication. (In fact, my adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose” was indeed just published by YouthPLAYS!) Instead of apologizing,I’m sending them out, trusting that I just haven’t found the right audience for them. Yet.
The same can be said for my first kids book. It will likely never win a Newbery Award, but it was “good enough” to get me an agent, to get great feedback from big-deal editors, but it was soundly rejected by the big five New York publishers.
That hurt. A lot.
STOP BEING A GIRL, KITTY!
I thought a lot about who was the audience of this book. I decided that “Welcome to Washington, Fina Mendoza” would resonate with folks inside the Beltway and with kids who are from California, Texas, and the west. So I shopped it to independent publishers thousands of miles away from New York and it found a home with
Black Rose Writing out of Texas.
Think about your work. Which audience can it particularly inspire? Out of towners visiting Broadway? Students who stumble into a reading of your play at a neighborhood coffee house? Senior citizens who would adore a play about a famous woman from their lifetime? There is an audience for our work. Our “good enough” work. We just have to find it.
In the meantime, let’s stop apologizing for our work. The only way our voices can be heard is if we have the guts to put it out there…over and over again.
Be brave. Be persistent. Be a new kind of girl.
Kitty is on book tour with her first middle grade mystery “Welcome to Washington, Fina Mendoza” (Black Rose Writing, 2019) and will be reading from and signing books at: Politics & Prose, The Wharf, Washington, DC Monday March 18 at 7; Children’s Book World, West LA Saturday March 30 at 2:30; and Vroman’s Pasadena Monday April 1 at 6pm.
Every year, I plan my summers for last touches on new plays so they will be available for the September 15 deadlines. Spring is spent going through rejection letters and reassessing where to send plays for the next go-around and getting a start or finish on any piece I think I can have ready for that next go-around. This year was the first time I was contemplating poetry manuscripts into the mix. This year, like every year, I asked for grace to make it through the madness. Things were going well until I was rear-ended twice between April and July, the injuries have made it hard to sleep (muscle spasms in the middle of the night suck) and the time it has taken to go to the doctors is very disruptive – I have never been to the doctor this much in my life. The lack of sleep has been cutting into my writing time but up until August, I still felt I could dig down and make my deadline goals. Then the unthinkable happened, I lost my 35 year old niece on August 16.
My niece, Tracie, had a kidney transplant in early summer; the kidney was working when she passed away from other complications. She left behind a daughter, TéAnna, who turned 9 yesterday, October 4. Working through the pain of lower body and upper body spasms, has made it challenging to sit long enough to hit a flow in my writing. Losing Tracie has forced me to have to consciously talk myself into putting together all my packets because I really did not feel like doing the drill. Not now. But if I didn’t, it would be a year till the next window and Tracie was always so excited about my writing…
What do you do when your world collapses on you and you have a deadline or two to meet?
Focusing on tasks can be a great distraction and writing is always in itself, a peace-giver, a life-saver, a place of solace.
My niece was in pain every day, yet she took care of her daughter and was a very good mother. While cleaning out her apartment, we found that Tracie wrote down her prayers. What we learned was that Tracie was always thankful for each day…she always had a Praise for God in her heart. She loved music and all her baby sister’s missing CDs were in her possession. She was beautiful and we miss her… I am so glad that I end my calls with “I love you”…
Have you ever written down your prayers?
I write my dreams and visions down but my prayers, I say them and go on. They’re something I speak into the atmosphere.
In September, I went back home for a wedding. It was bittersweet. Death has a way of pulling things together or tearing them apart. There is no neutrality. We, my family and I, choose to pull together.
I know that I will write about Tracie in some way. I can feel the story forming. I’ve had a few bad days but mostly, I haven’t really grieved yet. I am hoping to do it in the writing…
Do you find you use your writing to work through issues?
Everyone grieves differently; there is no set way to take that journey… I find that writing is the best way for me to find, maintain, and be my self in the middle of a raging storm… It’s also my saving grace… It’s times like these where I am reassured that writing is something I must do – I survive and thrive by writing…it is the greatest gift of grace….
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!
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
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.
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.
I know you really don’t need an agent at the beginning. But suppose you’re a “mid career” playwright, you’re getting productions around the world, half a dozen a year, but still not yet enough of a name to be chosen for the American Voices New Play Institute at Arena Stage?
It’s so frustrating to find submission restrictions from theatres that won’t even look at a few pages and a synopsis unless you’re represented by an agent. And since there’s so little money for agents representing playwrights (unless they sell that script to Hollywood) most call ill afford to take on new clients.
I had a wonderful agent back in the days when I was writing spec scripts and going out for meetings. I sold TV scripts, but we parted ways when I showed a decided lack of interest in becoming a staff writer on a bad sitcom. I wanted to freelance. But there’s just not enough money for an agency to support a freelancer.
I’m curious to know what you do. Send a query and pages and a synopsis anyway? Beg influential friends in theatre to write letters of recommendation? What works?