Imagine seeing this in the guidelines of a playwrights’ opportunity:
*If your play is selected, you are responsible for a $100 participation fee. You are also responsible for finding a director, casting the show, supplying sets, figuring out tech and lighting, running rehearsals, and, in all truth, filling seats. Just so you know, it could end up costing you thousands.
Would you submit? Probably not.
But the fact is that many playwrights do submit to opportunities just like this because the above paragraph is never part of the guidelines. It’s only after playwrights are selected that they hear the fine print and, too often, by then, they’re so excited at having been chosen that they try to make it work, often getting in over their heads in the process. And that’s what these dubious contests (who I suspect accept far more than they turn away) count on. That, and a misguided belief that this will be valuable “exposure.”
It is my feeling that too many of these festivals prey on unsuspecting, hungry, and/or more inexperienced playwrights by promoting the opportunity to have a New York City production—it’s telling that these festivals don’t seem to be quite so prevalent in other regions—without ever mentioning how much it’s going to cost, or the very real possibility that nobody is going to show up. Of course, promotion is an option that might pay off, but that’s going to cost even more.
From what I’ve seen, the bulk of these festivals take place in New York City, which, for a non-resident can mean additional expense, and not just for travel and lodging: one long-time festival charges an additional $900 for out-of-town participants, which is just one example of the hidden costs inherent in many of these operations. Another annual contest that offers prize money (though far less than what it cumulatively collects) requires that the shows that advance be remounted for another round of judging. And if you win? At least you might recoup some of what you’ve spent, the but honor of the prize is as dubious as the festival that awards it. (And speaking from early experience: if it’s a ten-minute DIY festival, it’s even more useless, particularly if prizes awarded by audience favorite.)
But what about the New York City International Fringe Festival (NYCIFF)? Don’t Fringe shows go on to further life? What about URINETOWN? What about DOG SEES GOD? These examples, and the success and competitive nature of the NYCIFF are the models these newer festivals like to point to in supporting their value. And yes, of course, it happens, but when you consider that there are 200 NYCIFF shows every summer, it happens more infrequently than Fringe hopefuls would like to believe. And that’s even considering that the New York Fringe curates its shows carefully, accepting only about 20 percent of the 1000+ applicants. And that FringeNYC is an established twenty-year old festival with cred, promotion, and lots of reviews, including, often, the coveted New York Times (and still I know plenty of people who had Fringe shows reviewed by the Times and didn’t get another production). And that many acts who present at the NYCIFF hire expensive casting directors, publicists, and managers to help their shows stand out in a crowd.
In other words, even though the New York Fringe is probably your best shot (for one-acts, the OOB Samuel French Festival is the best equivalent) at getting your work seen with this type of model, the odds are still incredibly long.
None of this is to say that you should not self-produce, but, if you choose to, you need to know exactly why you’re doing it, and choose the method by which you do it accordingly.
*Is it to learn all facets of the business? If so, you can probably do it a hell of a lot cheaper in your own city, or even at a Fringe festival in a smaller city. I often promote the Buffalo Infringement Festival, which turns away nobody, is free, gives you a venue and simple tech, and promotes your show. If your goal is learning—about either the process or your play—there are cheaper options than putting up a New York City show that nobody will see and, quite frankly, if you produce in your hometown, at least you have friends and family who will come.
*Is it just to have your work seen, finally? See above.
*Is it to get your work noticed, build a life for it, get an agent? This is the dream, but it’s also the loooooong shot. As such, your goal shouldn’t be one of these smaller, unknown festivals, but a bona fide production at a New York rental facility that has good cred, regular reviews, and a name for itself, like 59E59 or the Theatre Row venues (commenters, please feel free to jump in with other suggestions). You’ll still have to pay for publicity and all the other stuff, but your show will be taken more seriously, which gives it a better chance of being “noticed.” There are people who do this successfully; find them, talk to them. There is a lot to be learned that goes before and after just putting up the show.
So how can you avoid these festivals seemingly do more for the promoter than the playwright? Watch for language in the opp that says things like:
*We will supply x hours of rehearsal time.
*You will get x hours of tech time.
*The festival provides a theater, scenery, etc.
*This is an opportunity for playwrights to see their work on its feet.
*Show must have directors attached.
*Show will be given x number of performances.
*Talk about “presenting” your work rather than having it produced.
*Any use of the word “participate.”
*Any indication that you are responsible for filling seats (and mention of charges in relation to this).
*Too big a deal being made about no fee to submit or apply (often with an asterisk next to it).
None of these are set in stone but many are flags that this is a DIY opportunity, and warrant an email to ask for 1) clarification and, especially 2) information about any charges associated with acceptance to this opportunity.
Even with knowledge of the aforementioned language, it’s sometimes easy to submit to something without being aware (I’ve done it) because the language in a good number of these opps is vague—I suspect to lure playwrights in in the hopes that once accepted, they’ll be too excited to question. If you’re accepted to a DIY Festival—either by design or accident—if you haven’t heard of it, or it’s brand new (and there are new ones popping up every month, it seems), then it should be subject to your inquiry, research, and vetting. What are the hidden costs? How are prizewinners chosen? What are your responsibilities? Find others who have been involved, and solicit some honest feedback. And always remember that being selected in and of itself does not obligate you to anything; it’s not too late to ask questions or, as I’ve done when I’ve made the mistake, let them know that you’re unavailable to self-produce.
Finally, before I get flamed from here to California by someone who had a wonderful experience that led to something else wonderful, there are, of course, always exceptions (Downtown Urban Arts Festival, for example, offers a production stipend; I’d love to see others detailed in the comments as well). But with more and more of this variety of “opportunity” popping up, it’s on us to weigh the monumental odds against our own wherewithal, financial circumstances, and perceived gain. My only goal in this post is to raise awareness, let playwrights know that the benefits of self-production don’t have to be learned in New York City, there are other options and, that if and when you want that NYC production and are ready to spend the money to do so, it’s worth fully researching options that will give you what you want.
That’s all. No flames.
Playwrights, remember to explore the Real Inspiration For Playwrights Project, a 52-post series of wonderful advice from Literary Managers and Artistic Directors on getting your plays produced. Click RIPP at the upper right.
To read entries in Playwrights Living Outside New York series, click here or #PLONY in the category listing at upper right.