Friday, March 30, 2018

Useful things to track: Submission Rates for Individual Plays

On Facebook, among playwrights there can be a fair amount of discussion about play submissions and rejections. I've seen a couple people ask about acceptance rates, which I think is an excellent question. I've only recently updated my database to allow me to have better stats on individual scripts. I've been tracking annual submission stats for many years, but I'm glad that I finally took the time for the new reports.

Here's what I have for a bunch of my full-length plays. Most of these are fairly recent, though Reading the Mind of God is a much older play. I still send these out, though with varying frequency.

A few caveats before I talk a bit more about the results.  In this database, not all acceptances are productions. In this case, I'm counting publication, a workshop, a reading, or even a finalist slot in a major competition.

So a few things jump out:

  • The acceptance rate is within a pretty narrow range, 6-8% for 9 out of 11 plays.
  • The two outliers are plays that are naturally going to be harder to place, but I've also not sent out either script nearly as much as most of the others. Will their acceptance rights move towards the average, if I get them more submissions?  (Lost in Lexicon is a children's musical, without many options, it seems.)
  • For me, it would appear that I tend to reach some sort of upper limit of just over 100. Did I run out of opps for these plays?  Did I get distracted by the other plays?
  • The totals aren't as high as I thought they might be. I'm left feeling that I need to work a little harder for each of these full-length plays.
  • I have a "hold" option, for when a company has said they are considering a play, at length. I just went through the database and cleared out any holds that are clearly not going to pay off. That was a little walk through a map of past heartbreaks.
Now that I have this report, I think I'll be checking it a fair bit, because I know I need to get my full-length plays out there more. I'd love to see each of these get to 100 and beyond--because they don't get picked and produced if they're not going out . I'm not doing my job if I'm not looking for opps, or people aren't requesting to read my work.

At the same time, I'm involved with a whole bunch of commissioned projects right now, and those, and a few past ones, don't even show up on this list because they were pretty specific for those institutions. Working on those projects takes up a lot of my submission time right now, and that's not a bad thing. My hope is that all the projects together keep gaining some heat, and will lead to more serious reads of these other plays.

But we'll see.

Just for kicks, I started setting up the stats for my short plays and one-acts. It'll take a while to do them all, because there are a lot them.  But for now, here are these:

You can see that, as you'd expect, the acceptance rate for short plays is MUCH higher than for full-length plays. And the top performers can be pretty strong indeed. Though for this small sample, there's also a wider variance.

As with the full-lengths, this report should help me identify scripts that have fallen off my radar and need to go out more. Or else scripts that aren't as strong as I'd hoped. 

(Two of the stronger performers, Quack and Insomnia, are now published, but these are pre-publication stats. My experience has shown that pre-publication performance is not a good predictor of how well the play will do after it's published.)

Sunday, March 25, 2018

What Playwrights Need from National New Play Development Workshops

For playwrights struggling to develop their work and careers such that they are at least getting a small voice in the national theatrical conversation, there are a few ways to start to break through. For some, attending a prestigious MFA program might be the ticket. But not everyone has the financial resources, or family space, or time, to carve out 2-3 years for an MFA. Other might try working with local theaters who are LORT members, or companies who are part of NNPN.  But those are hard to approach without an agent (more and more so all the time). Or a writer could move to New York City and try to get into the scene there. But not everyone can make that work with their lives.

For many others, national playwriting conferences and workshops provide a potential opening for their plays to be noticed, and to work with artistic collaborators from outside their own communities. The list would include the O’Neill, Sundance, Great Plains, Last Frontier, Inge, Bay Area Playwrights, Seven Devils, PlayPenn, the Lark, Cape Cod, National Winter Playwrights Retreat, Ashland, New Harmony, and more. At a time when our art/business is engaged in a conversation about increasing diversity/inclusion, these opportunities have a low cost of entry (compared to MFA programs or moving to a new city), are for a limited time (so don’t require you to quit your job or uproot your family), and many offer blind submissions, so that (in theory) the identity of a writer is not a barrier to selection.

I (and many others) would argue that for our artform to remain vital, we need to encourage writers of color, women, and those who identify as LGBTQ. And also not limit our writer pool to people of financial means. We need to include writers who have children, or who might be caregivers for family members. We need these diverse voices, and our informal network of playwright’s workshops can help bring them in.


I’ve been to some amazing conferences, and they’ve changed my life. (Thanks, Seven Devils!) I’ve been a finalist and semifinalist in a bunch of others (which is exciting and heartbreaking). And I think there are ways that we might encourage these organizations to be even more effective.

These are suggestions—some are free to implement, some are not. I realize that every organization has its own reasons and methods, and no one asked me for my advice. But I’m a writer who has been through the process, who has been a stay-at-home parent, and who has tried to figure out how getting into one of these important opportunities could be possible given the restrictions of my life.

So here goes:

1.  Early notification.  Most programs operate in the summer. My summer books up months ahead, both with family stuff and with writing projects. Two weeks away is tricky if you have a steady job or have kids at home. Three weeks or four weeks takes a LOT of planning and asking for favors. Many places start notifying in mid-March for July, which can work. Notifications in April are much harder for writers. Every extra week of notice helps writers. Less lead-time favors people without families or people with more financial resources. Shifting submission deadlines earlier does not inconvenience writers—so if you need to shift the deadline 3 weeks earlier to give 3 more weeks of lead time, many writers would thank you, and you might change your pool of applicants/participants.

2. Minimally coordinate to avoid overlap.  In my ideal world, we would have a big convening (via HowlRound?) of all the organization leaders, and they would all look at their calendars and coordinate a little. Yes, the summer is only 12 weeks long, so some workshops will necessarily be simultaneous. But the ones that overlap by just a few days force really tough choices for writers who are multiply selected (I know, boo, hoo). This year, I was a finalist at BAPF but need to attend the Dramatists Guild NYC national conference, and they overlapped by 3 days (thus had to step out of the pool). The Guild conference might also overlap the O’Neill.  At the very least, the Guild and workshops could attempt to coordinate so that writers who are at these workshops—some of our best writers—can attend the conference.

3. Set the dates early. Some conferences have only a range of dates posted when the submission window is open. Writers tend to apply to as many of these opportunities as possible, but they’re making uninformed choices if they don’t know what the exact dates are. Some family situations and many jobs will require significant notice and planning in order to take multiple weeks off. If we want people without significant financial resources to participant, we need them to be able to plan.  There are conferences coming up this summer for which you still can't find the dates posted online right now.

4.Consider using a common app or common requirements. Many places ask for artist statements and  have specific formats for cast list, development history, bio, etc.  Which is fine. But they’re all slightly different. Shifting this same info from format to format takes a fair amount of time for writers. Spread out over thousands of writers, this seems like many thousands of wasted hours. This is an application cost, of time, that has a greater impact on people without means or who are caring for children/family members.

(these are going to start costing money)

5.  Feed writers. If you pay a stipend, but don’t make arrangements for food, guess where the stipends have to go. There are creative options—Seven Devils has arranged discounts with local restaurants, plus they set up a cooler of picnic food every day that the entire company can access. This helps save money for folks on tight budgets.

6. Pay for travel. Many of the larger opps pay for travel. Just about all of them provide housing. Airfare costs will keep out people who don’t have deep pockets, which, given how income/wealth is broken out across America, means a less diverse pool of applicants.

7.  Increase stipends, or start paying one.  A few places offer them now. Sometimes it’s hundreds of dollars, some are up to $1,000 or more. And as a playwright participant, I am always extremely grateful for every dollar. But if we want a diverse pool of participants, in every sense, then in an ideal world, I think we’d shoot for $500/week. That amount would help cover lost wages, help pay rent, or help offset childcare costs. When I was the stay-at-home dad for our two small kids, I applied to the O’Neill with a vague sense of dread—how would I be able to afford to pay for someone to watch the kids for a month? (Fortunately/Unfortunately, I never had to figure it out.)  Also, if you pay a stipend, please post how much it is on your web site. Writers with restrictive budgets need to make informed choices.

Please understand, I think all these organizations are doing amazing work, and they are providing an essential role in the theatrical ecosystem. And I also understand that every one of them is scrambling for dollars every year just to keep their programs open. So a logical response to many of these suggestions will be a collective eye roll and/or sigh of despair. And, like many writers, if chosen for any program, I am incredibly grateful for the chance to work on my play, and to interact with other artists in a creative, nurturing environment. But it’s important for writers to at least state our needs, if we have any hope of them being met.

Most importantly, enacting any of these steps will help widen an important entranceway for writers who have traditionally not had access to participation in the larger artistic conversation. We need those plays, we need those voices.

(My secret fantasy is for some big foundation to think about this, and decide, "well, let’s try an experiment, and try funding these tweaks across the board for two years." It would impact hundreds of writers. Would it help diversify and change the pipeline? It might. Which would in turn might have ripple effects across the theatrical landscape, for years to come.)