The main problem with most contest fees for play competitions, especially for short play competitions, is that they don't make sense for the playwrights or for the theatres (or for audiences).
For playwrights, it's a cost/benefit problem. Generally, when you enter a contest for which you pay a fee, you do so with the expectation that you're taking a risk which has the potential for great gain if you win. And a contest, rather than a lottery, involves some element of skill on your part, so if you (think you) are more talented and/or experienced, you would expect a greater
chance of a win.
Oddly enough, many short play competitions that require entry fees do not offer significant prizes. Often, the winners get a production of the play, and maybe a video. In some instances, the writers might only get staged readings. However, what is the value of these productions to
the writers? The theatres seem to think that a production has a value worth a fair amount of cash, perhaps enough to cause a talented writer to wager $5 or $10.
This isn't really the case. For an experienced playwright, a production of a ten-minute play, in East Podunk, Indiana, which will lead to no further professional productions, no useful contacts, will not generate any useful reviews, and won't even be seen by many people, is not particularly valuable as a prize. If it's in a venue that's close to home, and the playwright can see the show, then the value goes up. But if it's far afield, and the writer can't see it, the writer gets very little from it. And a video? Ever watch a badly produced video of an amateur theatre production? Not so fun. For an beginning playwright, it's useful to have a competition win and a production to put on a resume, but even with these, they're not going to impress the folks at big theatres.
If theatres offer a $500 prize for the winners, then hey, I might be there. Lots of other experienced writers will be, too. But otherwise, the rewards are too low. Writers who are submitting to these competitions are selling themselves short. I don't think this is an
ethical issue, really. I don't care what the theatres do, but it doesn't make sense for most playwrights to participate.
Why is it bad for theatres? Well, because it's bad for writers. And especially bad for experienced writers who can get productions elsewhere (where they get paid, rather than pay the privilege themselves). So what this means is that theatres have created a situation where they have a competition that does not draw in the best material. Ideally, a theatre should want to work with the most talented writers possible, but these competitions are taking away the incentive for these writers to send them this work.
Some theatres introduce fees to keep the volume of submissions down. This is just stupid. Yes, raising fees will bring in less submissions. But it mainly means that you get less varied submissions (class issues at play here, playwrights with spare money are not necessarily better
writers) and a lower quality of submissions. A more effective way to get fewer submissions is to narrow your window, time-wise, when you'll accept submissions. Or narrow the subject matter. Or state in your guidelines that you will only accept the first 200 submissions, and post on your web site when the door is closed.
Why is it bad for audiences? Again, it's bad for audiences because it doesn't encourage submission, and therefore production, of the best possible plays available. In this age of constant media exposure, theatre needs, more than ever, to present exciting, vibrant work of the highest quality. Going to watch a mediocre evening of theatre is worse, I think, than watching a thoroughly wretched evening of theatre. Mediocre theatre makes people feel that "this was nice, but I could just have easily have stayed home and watched something better on TV."
If theatres need to raise more money to put on these festivals, they should pick better plays (from a better pool) and sell more tickets for work that really thrills audiences. If you can't find and produce such work, get out of the business. One of the reasons many ten-minute play
festivals start in the first place is because they can utilize a lot of actors, which means a lot of tickets sales to friends and family, which means it's easier to cover costs.
As to why screenplay competitions charge so much (this is often an excuse used by play contests)--it' s a totally different business. The film business has very few entry points, through which tens of thousands of writers are trying to cram material. Access to producers and agents is a precious commodity. And the best screenplay contests (they're not all created equal), offer big cash prizes for your $50. Some of them might have as much as $30,000 in total prize money, as well as guaranteed reads by agencies or production companies (who are named on the competition web site or brochure). The ones that don't offer this are a complete waste of money.
The good news for playwrights is that there are tons of theatres out there, large and small, and lots of opportunities to get our work produced and seen by audiences. We need to save our money, buy theatre tickets, and go network afterwards with the producers and directors and