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.
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.
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.
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.