“YOU WANT OUR UNPRODUCED TEN-MINUTE PLAYS WHY?”

August 28th, 2015 donnahoke

 

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?

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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.

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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?

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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:

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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!

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“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.

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

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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14 Comments on ““YOU WANT OUR UNPRODUCED TEN-MINUTE PLAYS WHY?””

  1. 1 Bill Cissna said at 1:43 pm on August 28th, 2015:

    I have to say that I had a polite exchange of notes on a similar theme with the artistic director at Jewel Box Theatre in WA, who are starting up Small Treasures, their first-time short play festival. They did make the decision to not charge a fee (though that meant they won’t have a “winner’s prize), but still had the “premiere” request built in. I merely shared my opinion that no fee would help, but still, demanding unproduced would still cost them with some writers, and also maybe in getting the best work. Already no pay, no possible prize — so I happened to be in a position to send a new work, but (in my opinion) my BEST 10-minute, which has been done in four small-venue environments, would NOT be sent, due to the guidelines. Nobody west of Greensboro, NC has seen it. Wouldn’t a regional premiere (and regional, I have found, is a VERY flexible term) be just as good?

  2. 2 donnahoke said at 11:31 am on August 29th, 2015:

    Our conversation moved from public on FB to private, and had the same result. And I said the same, I’d be sending my C list plays that have been refused everywhere else. The logical arguments got nowhere. I think these festivals need to be more flexible on “new” and what that really means for them.

  3. 3 Robert S. Robbins said at 3:17 pm on August 28th, 2015:

    I can understand why theaters prefer world premieres. It is for the prestige. A play’s first production will often be credited in the published book of the play and on the Wikipedia entry. Some theaters are only remembered for their association with a major literary figure. But it is stupid to demand a world premiere for a ten-minute play because nobody is taking such a short work that seriously.

  4. 4 donnahoke said at 11:30 am on August 29th, 2015:

    Exactly. But I still maintain that MOST plays at MOST theaters are not world premieres. For ten-minute plays, it makes no sense at all.

  5. 5 Chas Belov said at 6:38 am on August 29th, 2015:

    Donna, fine post. I would add re “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.” something like, and if your answer to that is no, is everyone else involved working for free? I suppose the only thing a yes answer here provides the playwright with is equity, but that’s something.

  6. 6 donnahoke said at 9:12 am on August 29th, 2015:

    That’s a good rule to abide, but, in this case, I was talking about money as one way to “earn” world premiere privileges. What you’re talking about should be asked in any situation where no royalties are offered. If nobody is getting paid, and a world premiere is for some reason still of paramount importance in the absence of grant money or development, then I’d love to know why.

  7. 7 Richard Moss said at 11:45 pm on August 29th, 2015:

    Ever since the earliest successful commercial theatre productions, the managers and entrepreneurs have sought a useful system (or network of systems) via which all known artistry may be compressed, preserved and forced into a gigantic sausage, and then cut off by the meter and stored.

    Only then can it be priced and ordered by the slice, as required by the tenets of profitable commercial exploi…production.

  8. 8 Stephen Sossaman said at 9:54 am on August 30th, 2015:

    Another excellent and thoughtful article, Donna. Unfortunately, theaters are so deluged with submissions that most will probably be deaf to your logic (I just had a ten-minute play accepted by a theater that drew 300+ submissions, and some theaters as you know get twice that many). There might be some modest marketing benefit to world premieres (Advertisers are taught that “New!” is better than anything except “Free!”), although the theater world much prefers very well known plays in order to sell tickets. Until the theaters come to your point of view, we writers do at least build our resumes, as you point out, although by a certain age building a resume is less an admirable bit of dues-paying than it is a humiliation. As for pay, we writers often do get a free ticket (air fare and hotel not included).

  9. 9 donnahoke said at 12:07 am on August 31st, 2015:

    But some theaters ARE responding once the logic is pointed out. Other will turn deaf ears, certainly, but I’ve been encouraged by the successes of late.

  10. 10 John Chatterton said at 6:29 pm on August 31st, 2015:

    At my Short Play Lab (produced in NYC monthly in season), we don’t demand premieres. I don’t know why I would. We prefer that plays not have been produced with us, because that might limit their audience. We offer a prize of $75 to the playwright with the most popular play (as measured by a show of hands) in his/her program, which comprises up to 10 plays. The Lab doesn’t produce the plays — this is a DIY opportunity. We do curate them, in addition to providing a theatre and staff. We have many regular participants as well as newbies. Our Facebook page allows playwrights from out of town to hook up with local producers, directors, and actors to help put on plays that we have approved. Ticket sales, at $20 each, are the only source of revenue for the Lab, which consistently breaks even or makes a small profit. Playwrights from the Lab have been known to graduate to other of my festivals, the Midwinter Madness Short Play Festival and the Midtown International Theatre Festival (MITF).

  11. 11 Jane Cafarella said at 10:37 am on September 1st, 2015:

    I agree wholeheartedly. It means you can end up with a whole body of short works that can only ever be performed once, and from which you are unlikely to earn any money.
    I also find that competitions or groups that want to encourage female playwrights are sometimes very prescriptive. For example, they require works on motherhood, domestic violence, or about famous women in history, or about lesbian women. Or the writer has to be a particular age or type of woman – mostly under 25. This means that even if you fit the demographic, unless you have something in your trunk that fits the bill, you have to construct something especially for that particular competition. Often, the deadlines are tight, so even if you were so inclined, it would be impossible to write something worthy in time. If producers want to encourage female playwrights, they should give them the same freedom of expression as they give men.

  12. 12 Marjorie Bicknell said at 3:35 pm on September 2nd, 2015:

    This send us your unproduced 10-minute play business is frustrating, to say the least.

    Several of my 10-minute plays have won contests or have been put into various festivals. But the truth is, I have actually forgotten the names of the several of theaters. (My fault, I know, for not writing them down.) However, the reason they are forgotten is this: I was offered a free ticket and a program and photos if I couldn’t attend. But after the offer was made, nothing arrived. Not the photos, not the program, not nuthin’.

    So it makes you wonder why they bothered to send the letter, or more often, the e-mail saying you’ve “won.”

    Perhaps it’s just nice to get an evening of royalty-free plays.

  13. 13 donnahoke said at 4:38 pm on September 2nd, 2015:

    All the more reason for playwrights to start being firmer on it. Then again, if no proof exists that it was done, who’s to say? 😉 There have certainly been festivals I’ve been chosen for that never took place.

  14. 14 Richard Monaco said at 11:04 am on May 7th, 2016:

    I am a comedy writer who is new to writing 10 minute plays. As yet I have not been produced but am awaiting responses on a two scripts I have sent out. I was rejected a couple of times at a theater where I appeared as an actor in a number of productions. When I went to see what they selected for their festival I was amazed at the corny and amateurish submissions they selected. Very disheartening. Perhaps there was some nepotism practiced here since all authors were local. I do, however, believe in the value of the 10 minute production if only to get your work out there where it can be seen by somebody.


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