I’M LOSING FAITH IN TEN-MINUTE PLAY FESTIVALS (BUT NOT HOPE)

December 3rd, 2015 donnahoke

 

Are you shocked?

 

Not too long ago, I wrote a post called YOU WANT OUR UNPRODUCED TEN-MINUTE PLAYS WHY? that was probably the tip of this iceberg; it expressed frustration, but tried to frame it in a logical approach to ten-minute play submission, one that we could feel good about. I have always been a huge proponent of the ten-minute play; in fact, my calendar today reminded me that I’ve been wanting to write a post about why everybody should write a ten-minute play. But somehow I’m writing this instead.

 

There are so many good reasons for writing ten-minute plays, from getting full-length opportunities as a result, to meeting new directors and theater people, to expanding the resume, to the thrill of success, and the joy of production—I’ve experienced all those things and would like to continue doing so. I enjoy writing ten-minute plays, and I’ve founded and co-curate a festival of them myself. My very first production outside of Buffalo was a ten-minute play that won the Producers’ Award at Theatre Out. BUFFALO CAR PLAYS and BUFFALO RISES are among my best ten-minute play experiences ever. I founded TRADE A PLAY TUESDAY for crying out loud.

 

tuesday

 

I believe in the power of the ten-minute play.

 

But I’ve become disenchanted and angry by the trends emerging as ten-minute play festivals propagate. Here’s what’s bothering me:

 

1)  The aforementioned festivals that insist on unproduced work

 

2)  The majority of festivals, including the ones that want unproduced work, that don’t pay playwrights a dime

 

 

3) The increasing number of festivals that not only don’t pay playwrights a dime, but also ask for a fee to have the play considered

 

4) The increasing number of festivals that not only ask for a fee to be considered, but then also require playwrights to produce their own plays

 

5) The number of festivals that don’t bother to send you a program

 

6) Or a photo

 

7) Or a report about how it went

 

8) Or even let you know that your play’s been chosen

 

 

9) The number of festivals who brazenly say “write us something new” and offer nothing in return

 

10) The number of festivals who don’t want playwrights anywhere near the process

 

11) The number of theaters who get righteous and huffy when called out on any of the above practices (Words Players, anyone?)

 

12) The way these bad practices keep begetting bad practices to the point where we’re starting to see some of these bad practices applied to full-length play opportunities, and that is a trend I will never abide. But many do.

 

How can we take back the ten-minute play festival?

 

I know there are a bunch of you reading this and nodding your heads because you’ve felt like this for a long time. Or because you can’t believe I’m saying this. I can’t even believe I’m saying it. But the proof is in the fact that I haven’t written a ten-minute play in ages, but have written two full-lengths. And that I’ve skipped submissions I’ve sent to in the past because I’m getting sick of guidelines that ask so much from the playwright but only serve the producing entity (and for a compulsive submitter like me, that’s saying something!). And because I have this sinking feeling that the whole ten-minute play festival thing is spinning out of control as more and more theaters see these festivals as nothing more than fundraisers and playwrights as all-too-willing donors who drop off their plays and disappear.

 

Step 1: Plan a short play festival. Step 2: Charge a fee to enter.

 

To be fair, there are some wonderful ten-minute play opportunities out there: CityWrights, Barrington Stage 10×10, Lakeshore, Theatre Three, to name just a few I’ve had the pleasure to experience. How do we get other theaters to emulate these role models for treatment of playwrights? Is it any wonder that they get upwards of a thousand submissions? How many other playwrights out there have decided to reserve their best work for the opportunities that value it?

 

And, at least for me, value is not all about money.  My first ten-minute play production as noted above—“Write This Way” at Theatre Out—was such a positive, respectful experience. I was kept in the loop every step of the way, I am Facebook friends with the director and actors, I got photos, I still occasionally check in with the AD for things both theater and otherwise. No, I didn’t get paid, but I still felt included, important to the product. I thought that was the norm. And you know what? Maybe then it was, because that was the case for nearly every short play festival I was in through 2013. Not a lot of money, but a lot of respect. The stuff I’ve listed above? These are recent, rapidly reproducing developments. And you know, if there were cash flow, maybe it would be a little more tolerable.

 

But I can tell you that in 2015, I had 51 productions of ten-minute plays, and I made $1081 in royalties. Before you think, “that’s not so bad!” let me clarify that $300 of that was from an evening of ten-minute plays that were used in a workshop I was involved with, another $300 came from two international productions at theaters that still believe the playwright is worth something (they also both sent video), and $100 came from winning a contest. So now we’re down to $381 in actual royalties coming from nine of the 47 remaining theaters. In 2014, I had 36 productions of ten-minute plays and made $335 in royalties and $50 from a publication. That’s pretty shitty math.

 

 

Like many other playwrights who submit to these things, I don’t have a career that precludes my need to get my name out there—and I hate that they prey on our need. I’ve felt very mixed up about being complicit in practices that perhaps serve individuals, but not our community.  I’ve become more discerning, but haven’t dropped out. I haven’t known how to fight this when it seems so many of the theaters won’t listen to one voice–or even a few voices–or just don’t care. I’ve wondered how we can we blame theaters for acting like they’re doing us a favor when we act like we’re getting one. It’s serious internal conflict that has seemed impossible to resolve. Because as much as I know that refusing to enter my plays will do nothing, I want to do something.

 

That helplessness has kept me sitting on this post for a long time. I wasn’t sure I wanted to say these things, to cast the stink-eye at something that I’ve long supported, to make others feel bad about their choices, because I know that no matter what I say, any festival is still going to get hundreds of submissions—often including one from me. I continue submitting for the reasons I mentioned in the UNPRODUCED post: to get the work out there, to benefit from all the good things that can come from having ten-minute plays produced, to commune with other playwrights, to someday have a crack at South Dakota.

 

So why am I saying it all now? Because… there is hope. As I mentioned in the UNPRODUCED post, we have had some success in fighting back. But it’s been a trickle of voices leading to a small amount of change. To create greater change, we need more voices. We need better backing. We need education. We need standardization. We need the Dramatists Guild.

 

 

I am therefore beyond thrilled to announce that, “the Dramatists Guild is undertaking a national study of how producing institutions run the very popular and quickly multiplying, ‘festival of new plays.’ We’ll look at everything from submission practices to author compensation, production credits to sub rights. After we’ve studied a generous sampling of these festivals, the Guild will publish a ‘Best Practices in New Play Festivals’ — guidelines that will respect and honor the dramatist’s desire to have a rewarding, professional experience while embracing the very real practicalities of producing a festival.”

 

I am SOOOOOOO excited about this. Because now we will all have a tool, the same tool, to use in communicating with theaters about our concerns. I know that when this comes out, I will be sending a copy to EVERY theater that isn’t adhering to these best practices, you know, as a gentle suggestion. Can you imagine what could happen if a theater got 200 gentle suggestions? And then if we all chose to respond according to how they choose to respond? I’m giddy at the possibilities.

 

smiley face

 

We will have the Guild behind us when we request respect and inclusion from these festivals. That’s all any of us really want, right? Stay tuned.

 

Please follow me on Twitter @donnahoke or like me on Facebook at Donna Hoke, Playwright.

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 more entries in this series, click here or #PLONY in the category listing at upper right.

 

Written by donnahoke

donnahoke

Dramatists Guild Council member and ensemble playwright-in-residence at Road Less Traveled Productions, Kilroys List and award-winning playwright Donna Hoke’s work has been seen in 40 states, and on five continents. Her full-length plays include ELEVATOR GIRL (2017 O’Neill finalist), THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR (Princess Grace semi-finalist, currently in its fourth year in rep in Romania), SEEDS (Artie award winner for Outstanding New Play), SAFE (winner of the Todd McNerney, Naatak, and Great Gay Play and Musical Contests), and BRILLIANT WORKS OF ART (2016 Kilroys List, Winner HRC Showcase, Firehouse Festival of New American Plays); she’s also authored more than two dozen short plays that have had hundreds of productions. Donna is also a New York Times-published crossword puzzle constructor; author of Neko and the Twiggets, a children’s book; and founder/co-curator of BUA Takes 10: GLBT Short Stories. For three consecutive years, she was named Buffalo’s Best Writer by Artvoice, the only woman to ever receive the designation.

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19 Comments on “I’M LOSING FAITH IN TEN-MINUTE PLAY FESTIVALS (BUT NOT HOPE)”

  1. 1 Johanna Miklos said at 9:28 am on December 3rd, 2015:

    Dear Donna,
    Yes.
    Yes.
    Yes?
    Yes.

    Like you, I have been complicit in the robbery. Like you, I wish theater still mattered. If people would rather see a live theater performance than a video on their wrist, we would be in a better bargaining position. Theater has gone the way of opera and ballet: elitist, costly, and close to obsolete in a society of 24/7 infotainment.
    I am not convinced any action by the DG, ICWP, or any other artist centric group will make a jot of difference. Our audience has the power to want to see our plays – only: where is this audience? I have attended my fair share of small festivals: the space is filled with the writer and his/her family, and cast member friends and family. Where is the paying audience?
    I ask myself: What can I write to be of interest to the audience? Where would I have to have my plays performed so the elusive object of desire: my audience wants to be there instead of in their Laz-y-boy at home?
    I have been published. I think, if I made $100, that’s a lot. I have also self published. (That was actually more fun.) My plays were produced a very long time ago when there seemed to be more interest in new works and small productions. I have worked in the professional theater – a business like any other with grueling hours.
    Perhaps if we authors had a business-like approach to our work we could put the robber-opportunists out of business. I no longer submit stories for free. I write and don’t submit unless I like something about the model: peer review process, mission of the group, and so forth.
    Interesting post. I am curious to read other thoughts and reactions.

  2. 2 donnahoke said at 9:37 am on December 3rd, 2015:

    Hi Johanna! Thank you for reading. This post isn’t about whether theater still matters because, in fact, the reason ten-minute play festivals proliferate is because people do go to them. I’ve sat in many sold-out houses for them. They’re moneymakers, even if it’s just because the audience is made up of friends and family of the playwrights and large casts. Arguments about theater in general don’t apply to these festivals, which are moneymakers largely because they cost the theaters next to nothing to produce. The upcoming DG Best Practices Guidelines are a tool for us, to fight back with. If a theater reads them and has no interest in being professional, then you decide if they’re not worth giving your work to. It will help us make better decisions. There will always be playwrights who let anybody do their work under any circumstances; with these guidelines, I’m hoping more playwrights will be more conscious of when and why they might be doing that.

  3. 3 Catherine Castellani said at 10:08 am on December 3rd, 2015:

    Yes, yes, and YES to all of this. I’ve become much more choosy about where I submit 10s. This past summer I had a fantastic experience (10×10 in the Triangle, run by The ArtsCenter in Carrboro, NC), and a fairly useless experience (not exploitive, just useless, so I won’t name them). I won’t be sending work that useless going forward.

    The most important thing I do as a playwright it remind everyone to JOIN THE DRAMATIST GUILD, our wonderful Dramatist Guild! Too often I hear from new playwrights statements like, “I found out they’re doing/did my 10-minute play but they say I can’t come to rehearsal/have any say in it/fill in the blank with a crap practice.” We do not have to passively accept crap business practices! We do not have to accept flagrant exploitation. If you allow that, you will get more of that. Too many people think that if they just shut up and make nice they will magically end up on Broadway. No, people, sorry. No.

  4. 4 Dan MK said at 10:34 am on December 3rd, 2015:

    You really struck a nerve. I’ve been around long enough to see that the trend in 10 minute (only) festivals seems to be on the same upward swing as theaters trying to pretend they care about some important topic. Hence the advert ‘we’re seeking unproduced ten minute scripts on animals going extinct/ black lives matter/ gentrification’. Ten minutes is about the time limit on two Roadrunner cartoons. But if you send that same theater group a longer play (ostensibly with more development) on the same topic, they’re closed to productions of ‘long plays’. A playwright cannot sustain a following writing ten minute one acts, and whatever cause the theater is advancing won’t be getting much traction from eight such plays in a row. And I’m especially sick of ‘premiere-itis’. The fact that the play you’re submitting has gone through another production where problems have been sweated out is a PLUS.

  5. 5 donnahoke said at 10:38 am on December 3rd, 2015:

    Thanks, Dan. Here’s my take on the myth of world premiere-itis: http://blog.donnahoke.com/the-myth-of-premiere-itis/

  6. 6 Robert S. Robbins said at 11:09 am on December 3rd, 2015:

    Write code, not plays! It pays better. I make my living writing code. There is a huge demand for programmers. The IT industry is consuming a huge portion of the intellect and creativity of an entire generation. The theater is lucky if they are not having their talent poached by the IT industry. A great many writers have given up their literary endeavors to write code.

    I do not come to the theater community as a beggar. I am a very self-contained artist. I enjoy my imagination even if nobody else does. As I see it the theater offers neither fame nor fortune for a playwright. You can’t even hope for a career. This leaves only a pure love of drama as a form of literature as an incentive. Writing plays is worth some effort, but not a total effort requiring any sacrifice.

  7. 7 donnahoke said at 11:17 am on December 3rd, 2015:

    Thanks, Robert. What you say is true, but this post isn’t about playwrights making a living, just being treated with respect.

  8. 8 Mary Marshall said at 11:10 am on December 3rd, 2015:

    Amen. Love your article.

  9. 9 donnahoke said at 11:17 am on December 3rd, 2015:

    Thanks, Mary!

  10. 10 Randy Gross said at 1:23 pm on December 3rd, 2015:

    Loved your article, Donna … and couldn’t agree with you more! I’ve grown progressively more dismayed with the 10-minute fests myself – especially the requirement of “unproduced,” plus the submission fees without any chance for monetary reward. Keep fighting the good fight! (And I am SO impressed with your successes – even if the royalties aren’t what you’d like them to be. I have now had plays staged in 15 states plus on 2 continents, so I’m vowing to catch up to you!)

  11. 11 donnahoke said at 1:26 pm on December 3rd, 2015:

    Thanks Randy!

  12. 12 Kerrie said at 4:39 pm on December 3rd, 2015:

    I agree whole-heartedly. I have been very trusting by sending my plays out there, but having not heard back from people who requested them overseas, I won’t send anymore. Who knows who is now performing my 10 minutes without my knowledge!

  13. 13 Chas Belov said at 3:05 am on December 4th, 2015:

    I too have moved from submitting my 10-minutes anywhere to not submitting if I find something about the call abusive. (And I’m mostly not inclined to write to order.) And you’re right that it’s going to take us pushing back to improve the situation.

    Donna, thank you and the Guild for your work in this area.

  14. 14 Sarah Smith said at 1:31 am on December 6th, 2015:

    I’m very new to playwrighting in general, but I’ve written and submitted a few 10 minute plays to festivals within the last few months.

    Similar to what has been proposed here, I generally don’t look at festivals/contests that 1) ask for a fee or 2) don’t pay $50 or more (I might revisit this last one); so it interesting to see that other people have established similar criteria. My favorite matching one on the list – produce your own play and/or bring your own actors. Maybe the approach is to have comedy be part of the application process?

    What I am curious as a newbie is: Are there any festivals that people consider worthwhile that might not meet these criteria and why? I noticed that Donna mentioned a few worthwhile festivals, as did another person in this thread, but I’d love to know why. I did follow some of the links, and some aren’t showing the festival anymore, and one of them mentioned $10, so I am assuming that there are other reasons?

    I’ve heard/read that the Eugene O’Neil festival is worthwhile even if it costs for submission.

    I’m not even sure if I am asking the right questions, but I guess I am wondering are there festivals that are more likely to lead to productions? Or other benefits?

    Just curious if others have suggestions or insights.

  15. 15 donnahoke said at 9:43 am on December 6th, 2015:

    Hi Sarah! First, be sure to check out TRADE A PLAY TUESDAY to help you refine those ten-minute plays: http://blog.donnahoke.com/trade-a-play-tuesday/

    Second, I did link this several times in this piece hoping people would check it out, but in this post, I kind of go through a checklist of reasons why it might be worth submitting to a festival that doesn’t fit the best criteria, so check this out: http://blog.donnahoke.com/we-want-your-unproduced-ten-minute-play-just-because/

    All of the festivals I mention above pay playwrights, and keep in good contact as well.

  16. 16 Stephen Sossaman said at 11:08 pm on December 30th, 2015:

    Donna, I believe that two of the theaters you praise (Lake Shore and Theatre Three) require un-produced scripts. I am OK with that, but I know that you are not. The benefits of having a short play produced without royalties still seem valuable to me: a greater likelihood that some theater will take a full length play given prior validation by festivals, some interesting theater contacts here and there, and making a contribution to audience building in service to the art. Not that the playwright should pay for this! Never!

  17. 17 donnahoke said at 1:42 am on December 31st, 2015:

    Stephen, I know Theatre Three does, and I can’t remember about Lakeshore, but Theatre Three pays $75 (and sends a program and DVD), and Lakeshore pays $100. I have no problem sending unproduced work when a theater pays proper royalties for it–and those are on the high end, which is why they’re deserving of praise in my book. As I said in this blog post: http://blog.donnahoke.com/we-want-your-unproduced-ten-minute-play-just-because/, there are circumstances where allowing a theater to produce your unproduced work without compensation might be of value, and I listed them out (at least from my perspective). But if NONE of those situations exist, I don’t see a reason to waste your brand new play on a teeny theater. Your mileage may vary.

  18. 18 Mark Cornell said at 11:27 pm on September 2nd, 2016:

    Well said, Donna.

  19. 19 donnahoke said at 9:06 am on September 3rd, 2016:

    Thanks, Mark. Nice to hear from you!


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