If you don’t know what RIPP: Real Inspiration for Playwrights Project is about, please click here to get some context before reading.
From JAZ DORSEY, DRAMATURG, CO-FOUNDER/MANAGING DIRECTOR SPIRAL THEATRE STUDIO
“I actively look for things and if I see something I like, I go after it. I end up partnering with the playwright to help them focus and move their work forward as best they can given the resources available to them. The first thing I always do is make them join the Dramatists Guild. That way we have if nothing else, ability to go to New York and do a reading in the room, which is always prestigious and you can invite anybody.
“I have two success stories. [I’d seen] a notice about a new play reading called The Conversation, which was about a meeting between Grace O’Malley and Elizabeth the First in 1593, a three-character historical piece, just the sort of thing that whets my appetite. I contacted the playwright, built a relationship, and we did a reading at the Dramatists Guild in November 2011, and people who came to that then went back to and did a second reading at the Irish Arts Center the following spring, and the play is still moving forward. It hasn’t had a full production yet, but in a matter of months, we had taken it from little reading in St. Louis to big readings in New York to which many prominent people of Irish community were invited. We’re building a foundation on that play to either continue to work with until produced or hopefully give it enough credentials that we can take it and submit it to theater companies. I’m on the ingoing side of submissions; I’m a dramaturg, not an agent, but somehow find myself trying to be an agent for my writers.
“The other success story is from 2009. I met [Melita Easters] from Atlanta who wrote a one-woman play about Margaret Mitchell– Mrs. John Marsh … The World Knew Her as Margaret Mitchell—that had been sitting in a drawer for 18 years, and we did three readings in New York City. At the third reading, 120 people showed up, and gave it a standing ovation. We brought it back down to Nashville and did a reading and, from there, the play was invited to the Margaret Mitchell symposium at the University of Georgia, and that got standing ovations from authors of books on Margaret Mitchell. Because of training in international studies and cultural tourism, I look for places where shows that have a unique cultural aspect can go into a system where we’re not trying to get through a submission process, there’s not a board of directors, but you can kind of start casting and doing readings for key people in that cultural system who can help you move the play forward.
There is no straight line system for doing this. The thing i find frustrating about submission by agent only is that we all know and everybody who runs theater companies know that you aren’t going to get an agent to represent a play, and it’s just a way of saying, ‘don’t bother us.’ There are not that many agents out there and of the agents who are out there, not many are going to represent plays for the stages and the ones who have any authority are located in New York. If you happen to live in Cleveland, Ohio, how are you going to talk to agent? It’s almost a requirement that doesn’t make any sense. I would like to see more theaters say,”We welcome submissions from dramaturgs.”
Ninety percent of my time is spent as a therapist. At the end of any conversation, we close with, ‘this is the next step you’re going to take.’ There’s always a next step that you can take, something you can do, but people have to understand the dimensions of communicating your play to the world around you. Smaller local companies independent in nature have got to produce plays that audiences are going to come and see and they also don’t want to open their doors by being nagged by every playwright in town. On the producing end, you have to protect yourself from opening the doors too wide. The thing that I find kind of defeating is these festivals that everybody wants to get into that are so overloaded with stuff, and entire financial falls on the playwrights.
So my advice: wherever you are, start at home. Go to the theater and get to know the acting community, then if you write a play, and you want to get it on its feet, and you’ve got a great role for a leading lady, go find her and get out of her way. A good actress has an entourage of artistic associates; if it gets into a leading lady’s hands, it automatically mobilizes It’s easier to do with actresses, because the competition is greater among actresses, so there’s more hunger to find something that sets her apart ,and women are easier to work with; men are all testosterone.
We also need to build a greater awareness of what’s happening in cities other than New York. We’re really trying to start building bridges between Nashville and Atlanta, because Nashville offers a great environment to develop work, but Atlanta offers a much bigger market. We need theater districts that create a tourist presence, and we need to understand that there are plays that can be written for those markets that wouldn’t necessarily play well elsewhere—like Ring of Fire played great in Nashville, but didn’t do well in NYC. The New African Grove Theatre in Atlanta is working with and systematically producing playwright Mary McCallum, but they don’t look to New York, because it’s never served African-American playwrights. St. Louis has a big theater community that’s not on anybody’s radar. We need to look at New York in a completely different way.”
My Nutshell Takeaway: Wow. You probably don’t even need me for this one, but let’s recap. 1) Find a champion for your work. 2) GO TO THEATER (it seriously slays me how many people who call themselves playwrights never go to theater) 3) Make friends with actors. 4) Talk about your work, even if it’s an old play that’s been sitting around for almost two decades. 5) Stop thinking of New York City as the be-all, end-all.
This is where I stop listing, because I think this is the most important thing Mr. Dorsey had to say: “…look for places where shows that have a unique cultural aspect can go into a system where we’re not trying to get through a submission process.”
I know that RIPP started out as a means of finding success stories that came through a cold submission process, but we have discovered together how few and far between those actually are as AD after LM has told us in this very blog how many other methods they use to find scripts. And while I, perhaps like you, am way too OCD to see a submission opp and let it pass, I have also begun, where possible given my body of work, to target queries and submissions more specifically. And what we’ve talked about before and what bears repeating is that this is easier to do if your play also deals in specificity.
Yes, big name playwrights do find success with kitchen sink dramas, or dysfunctional family stories, but the difference between us and them is that they are big name playwrights. If they’re older, they played a much less competitive game, and if they’re newer, they perhaps made connections at school, or through acting, or a reputable theater group. It’s much harder to get attention for the more generic subjects without an in. The world is specializing, becoming nichier and nichier—I know it’s not a word, but I need it—and I’ve seen more than a few playwrights get produced because their work is getting nichier, too. And no, I’m not telling you not to be true to yourself, but to find ways to be true to yourself and ALSO be specific. Think like a marketer—what groups will this play appeal to? Those groups are waiting for you.
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