THE TREND TOWARD WANTING (NEEDING?) UNPRODUCED TEN-MINUTE PLAYS: FACTS, FICTION, AND REASON
As with most blog posts I write that aren’t part of a regular series, this one came about because this topic has reached fever pitch among playwrights. Ten-minute play festivals are ubiquitous and have been for some time; in fact, on my list of future blog topics is why everybody should write ten-minute plays. But since so many of us are already writing and submitting them, this topic seems more urgent at the moment (but it is delaying an awesome #PLONY interview with William Missouri Downs). Here’s why:
In the past three years, it has become nonsensically and increasingly common for producers of short play festivals to ask for unproduced ten-minute plays. In other words, they want world premieres of ten-minute plays. The idea of the world premiere is something that has creeped into the theater culture zeitgeist to harmful and misinformed effect. (If you don’t already know about the myth of world premiere-itis, please read this.)
I’ve been told that the need for world premieres is often linked to grant money, but with these festivals that doesn’t seem to be the case. Nobody is offering to develop these short plays, and, in way too many cases, nobody is offering royalties either. So the question becomes WHY?
Consider that Citywrights, a premier, professional, and lavishly produced festival of ten-minute plays, doesn’t care about world premieres; they care about putting on the best plays they can find. When there is no development or grant money or prestige attached to the world premiere, shouldn’t that be the point? I know when I co-curate BUA Takes 10: GLBT Short Stories, we couldn’t care less about world premieres (in fact, we welcome plays that have had multiple productions), because our audience couldn’t care less about world premieres (which is true of most audiences); like us, they just want a good evening of plays. So again, WHY?
Citywrights knows what’s important, and does it right.
I started asking. And other playwrights started asking. We asked why world premieres were needed when chances were very good that nobody in said theater’s audience had seen the play, that it would be new to them. Would it be possible to say it can’t have been produced in the state? Or can’t have had more than one or two productions? A recent response to this question from a representative for Jewel Box theater explained it this way: The Jewel Box has enjoyed being the first to air little known plays or unknown playwrights and just decided our first play festival would feature new plays and give priority to quality plays that have not been produced … anywhere. “Just decided.” In other words, not profit, or logic, just because. Further discussion led nowhere, and I won’t be submitting (and NOT because the only “reward” is a bare bones “staged performance” and “exposure”—more on that below).
I’m happy to report that we have had success with these efforts. Most recently, I contacted the producer from Shakespeare in the Burg and made our case; in her attempt to explain her reasoning, she realized it made no sense and amended the call. I recall a university case on Official Playwrights of Facebook that had the same result. Letters from Jeremy Richter and Baltimore regional rep for the Dramatists Guild Brent Englar just successfully negotiated a change to the M.T. Pockets call for plays, which now says no more than two or three productions. It can be done! Particularly with smaller theaters and amateur groups who are presenting new festivals, it would seem they really don’t know why they’re asking for world premieres; I suspect it has a lot to do with copycatting guidelines without much thought to their logic. In other cases, there might be confusion between unpublished and unproduced (i.e. unpublished means no required royalty). And if this is the case, it is worth probing. We owe it to the theaters who might not understand what asking for world premieres with no compensation will do to their submission pool, and to playwrights who deserve a chance to be paid for a brand new work if at all possible.
So theaters, if you’re asking for brand new ten-minute plays, here are a few questions to consider:
1) Is this a development opportunity for the playwright? In other words, will you be working with the playwright to make the play better so that it’s as good as can be for your audiences and for the playwright to use for future submissions? For instance, are you willing to allow the playwright to Skype or Face Time into rehearsals and/or performances so that she can derive some benefit from this process? And are you making this clear to the playwright?, i.e. you don’t only agree if asked; you tell the playwrights upfront that they are welcome to be involved, and send them rehearsal schedules, directors’ notes etc. in order to facilitate this.
2) Are you getting grant money for the very fact that you’re producing world premieres?
3) Is your theater big enough and/or important enough that “exposure” is going to mean anything to the playwright? For example, would producing a ten-minute play from this playwright mean you might consider a full-length play?
4) Can you afford to pay the playwright something, anything? For BUA Takes 10, we pay $25; it’s not much, but it’s what we can afford and shows good faith.
5) Is there a solid reason beyond pure stubbornness that a second or third production, or even the Oregon or West Coast premiere is not acceptable? (I can’t think of one but I’m willing to hear what some might be.)
If the answer to ANY of the above questions is yes, then you at least know that you are giving the playwright something in return for the privilege of being the first to present his/her play. But if you answered no to all of them (as I suspect most of these opportunities will), then for the sake of your selections, your audience, and your playwrights, I respectfully ask that you reconsider what you’re requesting and why you’re requesting it.
As for playwrights, when it comes to ten-minute plays, while royalties are always preferred, we know that they’re often not offered. So when might it be acceptable to allow a ten-minute play to be premiered without compensation? We all have our own thresholds—or not, as the success of these contests indicates—but these are questions that are relevant for us when it comes to allowing a first production for free:
1) Is it reasonable for you to attend the festival so that you might get valuable feedback to better your play?
2) Is this a theater that does new work generally (i.e. full-lengths) and that you want to get to know?
3) Is this a play that you’ve sent to all the good paying ten-minute opps and not gotten through? In that case, any production might be worthwhile (although this is a fine illustration of how asking for world premieres without pay lessens the quality of submissions).
4) Is it a new state for you? Yeah, it’s ego, but we’re all guilty of wanting to add a new state or country to our resumes.
5) Is there a cash prize or helpful award you could win?
6) Are you building your resume and in need of any production experience at all? (This is a valid reason that we need to acknowledge.)
For festivals that don’t want world premieres, I’m far less particular; another production of “You Haven’t Changed A Bit” only gives more credibility to the play, makes me another connection to another theater (perhaps; not all are communicative), and puts my name on another program. But when asking for world premieres has become such common practice, it’s worth considering whether or not your play can do more for you somewhere else. And it’s also worth considering approaching the theater and questioning the guideline using the arguments laid out above; it works!
“You Haven’t Changed A Bit” has had more than 45 productions, and nobody has seen it twice.
One final note: there are companies who not only want your world premiere rights without compensation, but will also require a fee for the privilege of being considered. I’m not as fee-averse as some, but blatant fundraisers at playwrights’ expense are completely unacceptable.