If you don’t know what RIPP: Real Inspiration for Playwrights Project is about, please click here to get some context before reading.
From HAMILTON CLANCY, ARTISTIC DIRECTOR, DRILLING COMPANY
“I love playwrights, oh my god, do I love playwrights. We do read. I prefer getting a snail mail manuscript I’m practical about it; you have to be cost efficient. I’d be loathe to suggest that the best way to get attention is to submit via snail mail but if you’re looking for a figure, I’d say that when somebody submits a hard copy, I or the literary committee reads at least some part of it 97 percent of the time. Digitally, it drops down to about 50 percent.
“It would be inauthentic to say I’ve read everything, but I try to; I feel morally compelled. But once I get to a point where it no longer interests me, which is more often than not, I stop and don’t go back. The reality of the cold submission is that it really has to attract the interest. You’d be surprised how many writers say they’re ready for production, and the play’s not really done yet; that’s true 80 to 90 percent of the time. It’s hard to write a good play. Writing a play period is hard, writing a good play is very, very hard. Writing an original play is very difficult. We have a tendency to want to repeat patterns, so when you find someone who’s not repeating old patters or who is using language in an original way, it’s arresting. And you have to look at it. You have to see it.
“So what should you do? Make your play better and make your writing better. But that’s where people go, ‘I’m done making it better. I want a production now.’ It’s really great to reinforce that we are not powerless to improve. Obviously, we need productions, but most playwrights I know hit a feeling or threshold that they really don’t know how to improve or rewrite or make it better. It’s not really a criticism.
“There have been several playwrights who have cold submitted short scripts and we’ve developed relationships, but the majority have been recommended by another playwright. I find a good playwright and do some of their work and then they recommend other good playwrights to me; it’s an instinctive thing. There is such a strong inclination for people who are in my position to make associations with writers who may have been introduced by some other source that somehow lends them some small level of legitimacy. Because there isn’t one single standard in our industry for quality. Quality is an aesthetic choice, and it’s such a horse bet from a production point of view that the likelihood that you’ll make a horse bet on someone you don’t know or haven’t encountered is low. Like anyone making a considerable wager in our culture, artistic leaders rely on the counsel of those close to their operations and past successes for advice on their choices. So most clearly, the first point of entry for any writer is to be personally recommended by a point of contact already close to the core. This advice is so self-evident it hardly bears writing and yet there is a [submission] process many writers devote themselves to with great ferocity that seems to me unmindful of this simple, almost ‘law of physics,’ as it relates to our industry.
“The difference is when you get a manuscript that speaks to you and that has happened to me on three of four occasions when someone cold submitted. A script was sent cold to our office the other day and I read it and instantly contacted the writer. It was riveting, had to read next ten and next and next and then I was bought. I got through the whole play in one sitting without moving. I got in touch with the writer—Collette Mazunik—met her, and asked her to offer us some work to create some opportunities because her work is dynamite.
“I’m actually endeavoring to purposefully build relationships with some writers who’ve submitted cold scripts to us and just reached out to us purposely, to honor some of the scripts that I’ve gone, ‘Wow, this is something; let’s see how we can bring this writer in.’ But it’s a considerable endeavor. This is what I do. When a playwright submits work to me, and the quality is self-apparent, I use it as a basis to invite them to one of our projects, and ask them to write a short play around a common theme. If it’s only short play we’ve invested in, it’s a little wager, it’s not as big a horse bet.
“Here’s my pitch: I tell new playwrights that they should have a script A and a script B on anything they propose. Script A is the attention-getter and script B, a director’s script. Script B has all that stuff in parentheses that tell the director how you want it directed, and Script A has a minimum. Try not to put it in the parentheses; put it in the text. The text is what you can’t change, and that’s what rules the director’s choices. Playwrights with less between parentheses and more on the page catch my eye right away because they’re creating, they’re sending an indication to a fellow collaborator. If you put in exactly how you want that tent pitched, it’s not as attractive to someone who’s looking for a project they want to collaborate on. When it’s an invitation to someone’s imagination, there’s more of a likelihood of catching the fly. Once somebody has said, ‘I love this,’ you can say, ‘Take a look at this other thing.’
“One last thing… We did The Norwegians, and playwrights I don’t know sent me plays about Norwegians. I wanted to go, ‘No, see, I’m not going to do another play about Norwegians until the next century! This century, I’ve had enough about Norwegians.’ What everybody’s interested in is the best darn most original play that you can possibly write.”
My nutshell takeaway: Disclaimer right up front: this is several nutshells, but Mr. Clancy had so much to say, so many things that we need to hear, so many things we feared were true and actually are.
So, connections: check. I trust this message is getting through loud and clear as this blog continues. But I hear something else in Mr. Clancy’s words. Somewhere between “there is no standard of quality” and “80 to 90 percent” of plays aren’t ready for production, I hear a concession that plays do get produced that maybe aren’t the cream of the crop, but if they come with branding, there is at least some assurance that the play could do well, i.e. it’s a risk to put on a play by an unknown even if might technically be “better” than one by a known quantity. Which means, as he says, that the submission process that we devote ourselves to with “great ferocity” is not just a crap shoot, but a crap shoot with loaded dice, and that the only way we are going to win is by writing plays that leave no question of quality even in a highly subjective world. Because stellar and amazing talent always finds a way to emerge, but the truth is that there are hundreds of playwrights vying for recognition in that next tier down: some of them are big huge names, but many, many of them are not. So for any playwright, in whatever tier, it’s like Mr. Clancy says: we are not powerless to make our plays better.
There is no truly objective way to measure the quality of an unproven play, but there are, nonetheless, measures. My partner is a classical musician and before he won a permanent gig, he had several auditions where he made the finals. He was disappointed, but, at one of those auditions, one of the decision makers told him, “You’re close. It’s just a matter of time before the right person is listening.” I think it’s the same in the submission world (that relationship thorn notwithstanding), so the question playwrights must ask themselves is: “Am I ever getting close?” In other words: Is the play getting readings? Are you getting personal responses? Have you been a finalist or semi-finalist? Do you have success with shorter plays?” It just seems logical that if a playwright is sending and sending and sending a piece and not hearing so much as boo about it, maybe it’s time to look at the play.
It’s important for playwrights to master self-assessment. You send a play to a development opportunity and they want to know, specifically, where you think the play needs work. They do this because a playwright who can do this is self-aware, able to look critically at her own work, recognize weakness. A playwright who can do this will not get defensive when, in workshop, somebody suggests that something isn’t working. A playwright who can do this is a better writer because he can feel where the play has problems, even if he can’t quite figure out how to fix them. It’s important stuff for the unknown playwright who only has a play to use as a calling card. We need to wow them; it’s the only way.
Moving on: what do you think of the idea of sending everybody hard copies? I mean, some companies say that they do NOT accept snail mail, but the ones who take either—are we wise to send the hard copies? I feel like that’s a questionable advantage I just can’t afford.
Finally, I love Mr. Clancy’s way of building relationships with unknown playwrights. I proposed something very similar in this blog post, though in the reverse. I suggested that theaters who produce our ten-minute plays then give us an opportunity to share full-length work, and give reading it priority. Either way, there are ways to finesse this broken system, to build relationships that aren’t predicated on working one’s way through a stack of what is likely 80 to 90 percent subpar scripts. I applaud Mr. Clancy for feeling morally compelled and for trying. I hope other artistic directors take note.
So, wow, that was a lot to take in. I welcome your comments. Until next time,