Working with Theatres

A Guide for Playwrights

Preface By Ken Cameron

Itʼs really frustrating.

Youʼve got a fantastic idea for a play. A surprising and inventive plot. Genuinely unique characterizations. You highlight a burning issue, which is finally creeping into the zeitgeist.

But you canʼt even get a theatre to read the first page. As this new Guide from Playwrights Guild of Canada makes achingly clear, you are not alone. Almost sixty percent of the members surveyed for this Guide had sent a submission to a theatre but received no response of any kind. If this is you (and it most likely is) you are keeping good company with a legion of your peers.

And thatʼs part of the problem: there are more playwrights with startlingly good scripts than there are theatres with the resources and space to produce them.

So, if you want to give your play the chance to become that all-Canadian hit, then where do you start?

Start with WHY.

Imagine Iʼm an Artistic Director (I was once, so it shouldnʼt be too hard). Picture my office. Itʼs a crowded cubbyhole in a perpetually under-funded theatre. It might be a small independent theatre or it might be a large regional, but itʼs a theatre in Canada, so itʼs underfunded.

Ticket sales have been dropping through the floor over the past decade, so I cut another few staff members and the survivors have to do two or three jobs each. Most of them are devoted to putting on the three, four or five plays that my provincial granting body considers a minimum requirement to sustain our funding. Whomever we can spare is working the phones to sell subscriptions, sponsorships or individual tickets.

Weʼre barely getting by. No one is thinking of the future. On the corner of my desk – between the telephone and the vintage Mac – stands a tower of unread manuscripts. These represent the future to me. And the size of the pile makes me uneasy.

I know without looking that about a third of these manuscripts are inappropriate to my mandate. I donʼt do TYA plays anymore because the local school board canʼt afford to bus children to my theatre. I know another third are from another part of the country. I made it very clear on my website that our new-play mandate is focused on playwrights who live in this region. And another third of the plays will just suck.

Is it any wonder you havenʼt received a reply to the script you submitted in September when my season was just getting underway?

Iʼd been hoping for a summer intern who could plough through this pile for me, but Iʼve just read in the paper that the provincial government cut the funding for that too.

So when the phone rings and itʼs a playwright who wants to come down to my office and tell me about her script in person over coffee to see if itʼs a good fit … I tell her I take cream and two sugars and that Iʼm free on Friday afternoon.

I know this playwright. Kind of. She has been to every one of my opening nights for the past two seasons, except for that time her little girl had chicken pox. I know all this because she always writes me a short postcard after each opening, telling me what she appreciated about the show. This season she has worked up the courage to hang around the lobby and introduce herself after the show.

She doesnʼt need to be so shy. I remember her from two years ago when we used lottery money to start a Playwrights Circle. I wasnʼt running the Circle myself, but I attended the Playwrights Cabaret that marked the end of the series. I thought her piece was a little too didactic, but I liked the authentic voice she found for the characters. I told her so.

When she arrives (and remembers the cream and two sugars) Iʼve dug her original submission out my tower of manuscripts and skimmed the first few scenes. She sees it on my table and goes pale, insisting I throw it away because it has been substantially rewritten. She spent a few weeks at a playwrights colony working with a playwright-dramaturg I know and respect, who forced her to go back to the drawing board and rethink the whole thing. I make a mental note to email my pal and get a reference for her and her play.

It turns out the thing has already been produced as a one-act, by a small theatre festival in another city that focuses on emerging playwrights. On the one hand that makes me sit up and take notice because some of the kinks might have been worked out. But, on the other hand, it bugs me a little bit because even though I rarely produce new scripts I am convinced, rightly or wrongly, that if I ever do produce one, there is extra prestige in a premiere and I want to be the one to develop and dramaturge any new finds.

But just as my eyes are about to glaze over and my mind is preparing to move on to other things, she hits me with it.

She starts with WHY.

She tells me exactly why this play fits my mandate. She tells me why it is economically feasible to produce. She tells me why she was moved to write it in the first place. She tells me why she struggled so long with the subject matter. She tells me why the Playwrights Colony was a necessary step in the playʼs development. She tells me why the play connected so strongly with an audience in its first incarnation. She tells me why the professional director and cast from the first production found it to be a unique challenge and why thatʼs a good thing. She concludes by reiterating the top five reasons why I should do it. Iʼm blown away and I promise to read it that weekend.

Iʼm still not going to produce it.

But Iʼm writing an email right now telling her that Iʼve given the script to a buddy of mine who runs a small indie theatre in an old warehouse. He used to be my Artistic Associate so I know his taste.

Because I donʼt want this play. I want her next play.

The example Iʼve just cited is fictional, but the challenges faced by an Artistic Director are very real and the practical strategies used by the playwright to overcome those obstacles are all reflected in the guide you are about the read.

This guide will tell you WHERE to look for more information.

It will tell you WHAT theatres are looking for in their submissions.

It will tell you HOW you can find resources to develop your work.

But the last step is up to you.

Only you can tell them WHY you belong together.

Read the original article here.