Editor's introduction: St. Paul native Kevin Lawler is the Producing Artistic Director of The Great Plains Theatre Conference, a 6-year-old workshop for new plays in Omaha, Nebraska, that solicits scripts in October. This begins a months-long process of winnowing through the submissions, which can number in the thousands, down to the several dozen or so that will be workshopped at the conference.
I participate in the earliest part of this process, reading though dozens of submitted scripts and passing along recommendations for those that seem worthwhile. Some are quite good; most are not. And many scripts never even make it this far, as they are eliminated without even being read because of formatting problems, or because the submitter wasn't entirely clear as to what the conference is looking for, despite the submissions guidelines being posted on the conference's website.
As Lawler now has a number of years experience with submitted scripts, both as part of the conference and as the cofounder of Omaha's BlueBarn Theatre, we asked him to make some notes on what to consider when submitting a play.
Hi. My name is Kevin and this is my story. Within the past few years I found myself running one of the larger new play development projects in the country, The Great Plains Theatre Conference. Max, being a very tired and confused Irishman, asked me to contribute some advice to playwrights about submitting work to festivals, competitions, conferences, etc. I think I may get at least a few drinks out of it so here goes:
Some dos and don’ts about submitting plays to festivals/competitions, as well as elsewhere:
1. Each theatre festival/play competition has its own group of dysfunctional people who are in charge, and, if they have not spiraled too far down into the hell of their own ego, they have tried to come up with a description of what they are open to receiving, and a set of suggestions/requirements about how to submit work to them.
These are mainly there because the “offices” of these organizations are so wildly understaffed that they make The Raft of Medusa look like a quilting bee. Paying attention to these cues is as important as having fresh horseradish root for your trifecta martini. You will save yourself a lot of time and give your work the best chance to be chosen if it fits what the group is looking for, and you follow their submission instructions.
2. Submit your strongest work. If you feel like the play needs another few weeks/months of work to get it working the way you want it to then wait until you do that work. There is a never-ending stream of places to submit to so you can simply wade into that torrent when your play is fully ready.
3. Submitting work means you are moving from the solitary writing endeavor into a community venture, which, in the end, is what theatre is all about. That means working with people who will either be more or less talented than you are, and more or less ill-behaved than you. (Ideally it will be more on both counts, but the other combinations can be fun, too.) Try to enjoy the outside energy that your play brings to you.
Yes, you and your work will occasionally be treated with stupidity and laziness that is nauseating, but most of the people that run festivals, etc. are playwrights themselves, have spent years submitting their work, and love plays and playwrights. Operate with that assumption until someone’s behavior proves otherwise. When that rare occasion happens that someone treats you truly horribly, write a play about the offending person/experience and send it to every theatre in their city.
4. Finally, and this may be the most important piece of advice that I can give: start your own theatre festival. There is no excuse for a playwright to not have their own festival of new work in their living room, garage, or local bar at least once a year. Does your town have an annual turnip festival? Perfect! You get the idea. You will be a much happier playwright (and I will have one more place to submit my strange little turnip plays).