EDIT: I wrote this in 2004 or so. While I was young and semi-foolish and wouldn’t necessarily some of the same advice today, I think some of it holds true. Someday I shall update this page with some nuggets I’ve learned in my old age. Today is not that day.

I’ve been lucky. Except for one short play (a skit, really), I didn’t start writing plays until 2001. As of this writing, I’ve had seven of them produced – two of them Off-Off-Broadway. While my plays haven’t made me anything even slightly resembling wealthy, I have been paid enough to be able to say “I’m a professional playwright” (note that I didn’t say “I make my living as a playwright”).

Some of the best short plays I’ve seen debuted at the 10-Minute Play Festival by City Theater in my hometown of Wilmington. I’m always stunned to learn that some of these plays are never performed again. “Voodoo Barbie” by George Tietze is a wicked and hilarious tale of a young girl who finds she can manipulate her mother using her Barbie Doll. Unless you went to one of the City Theater productions (they did it once in 1997 and again at the “Best Plays Ever” festival in 2001), or you happen to be George Tietze (in which case, hey, George, how’s it going?), you haven’t seen it. Why? Because George, a hilarious, insanely talented, and totally likable person, doesn’t have the sense God gave a mechanical pencil. He never submitted his play anywhere except City Theater. Now how silly is that?

If you’ve decided to become a playwright, hopefully you’re not in it for the money. Even those folks with plays on Broadway and Off-Broadway don’t necessarily write for a living. It’s not about money. It’s about something much more important than money: it’s about bragging rights and ego. You’ve created a play out of thin air. Don’t you want people to SEE what you’ve done? Don’t you want to be the god who manipulates actors into saying the words you’ve written? Don’t you want to be in the audience and turn to the person next to you and say “I wrote this” while she gives you an uneasy smile and moves three seats away?

Of course you do.

I’m not going to give you any advice on how to write your play. Well, that’s not true. Here’s my advice: don’t take anyone’s advice. You do what you need to do. Want to make an outline? Fine. Want to write freehand for three hours a day? Go right ahead. Want to start every morning by squatting naked on a bowl of green Jello and writing the first thing that pops into your head? Sounds good to me! It’s fine to listen to other writers tell you what works for them (and believe me, they’ll be happy to do so), but don’t take their thoughts as anything more than mere suggestions. If you have a creative mind and you write long enough, you’ll figure out what works for you.

What I can offer you is advice on getting you play produced. Again, I’ve been pretty successful on this front. So following are some fairly basic tips that you might want to keep in mind.

Write Short Plays.

We all want to be full-length playwrights. I know I sure do. However, lots of theaters, professional and community, hold 10-, 15-, and one-act play festivals, so they need to accept a lot of plays. Sometimes the plays only get one performance, which kind of sucks for the actors, but it’s great for you – this increases your chances enormously of getting your play produced. City Theater’s annual festival shows 25 plays. One of my plays was just in Turnip Theatre’s New York 15-Minute Play Festival…they accepted 33 plays. Most of these places get 300-400 submissions, so it’s not like you’re a shoo-in, but your chances for building a resume are much greater with these short-play festivals. Besides, short plays use less paper, so postage is cheaper.

Google Is Your Friend.

Do this:

  1. Open up another browser window (you wouldn’t want to lose your place here!)
  2. Go to google.com.
  3. Type in (without the quotes) “one act play submission”
  4. See what happens.

With a little patience, you’ll find dozens of theaters that accept unsolicited one-acts! Go to their sites and check them out. Even if the deadline for submissions has passed, bookmark them. It’s not like you won’t be doing this again 8 months from now. Once every couple of weeks, I’ll go through all the theatres I’ve bookmarked to see if they’ve announced anything.

Every week, I’ll search for “one act play submission,” “10 minute play submission,” “ten minute play submission,” and anything else I can think of that might bring up the website of a theater with a contest for short plays. As soon as my full-length plays are better than the piles of goose dung they currently are, I’ll search for those as well. I’m a little frightened to see what happens if I just type “play submission,” but hey, I’m over 18.

The Rest of the Internet Is Your Friend Too.

But don’t stop there. I’ve provided some links to pages that list submission opportunities…and there are more out there.

Be creative in your searches! Every time I see a play I admire, I look up the author and try to find a resume online. Then, I’ll look up the theaters where his or her plays have been produced – odds are, they had a contest of some kind, and they’ll be looking for more plays soon. Type and point and click on any lead you can find.

And once you’ve had a play produced, join the Dramatists Guild. Among other things, they’ll send you an invaluable booklet that outlines hundreds of submission opportunities, and their website keeps you up-to-date on new theaters, contests, and residencies.

Follow the Rules.

I can’t stress this enough: when you find a theater that accepts scripts, READ THE SUBMISSION RULES. Follow them to the letter. Some theaters, for example, don’t want your name to appear anywhere except the title page, while some want it on the title page, in the margins, and in the dialogue. Some accept electronic submissions, while some need 2 or 3 copies of your worked, stapled in specific geometric patterns. Some don’t care about the formatting, while some have extremely complex standards for what your script should look like. No matter how annoyingly arcane their instructions, do what they say. They’re in charge (for now). Especially look for the SASE notice. I generally don’t include the SASE for the return of my plays, because I don’t expect my plays to be in great condition when they come back. Some theaters, however, require a normal sized SASE so they can send your acceptance/rejection letter (someday, these theaters will realize that email is much easier).

Just because you’re following the rules, however, doesn’t mean you can’t be a little sneaky now and then…

Formatting Is Also Your Friend.

So you’ve written a beautiful 17-page play, and you want to submit it to a theater that only accepts scripts that are 15 pages or shorter. No problem. Start playing with the margins, particularly the top/bottom margin. Try making that font just a half-point smaller. Or, worse comes to worse, make those empty lines between lines of dialogue just a wee bit smaller. If you’re subtle, no one will notice these things.

I have a specific format that I like to use, with the name of the speaker in bold and centered with dialogue beneath it. I like a big left margin (actors do to, since they can write in notes), and I find Verdana 11 font clean and legible (even though my good friend Mike Sandler, who has created this site, thinks it looks crappy on paper). However, I realize that this means my scripts use more paper than they need to, so I’m always prepared to change them up. Just don’t make the font too small or the theater will be on to you.

Be Professional.

I write a cover letter with every submission. It’s simple and clean, and usually starts out with something like:

Dear Purple People Eater Theatre:

Enclosed are three one-act plays for your consideration for the Naked Nuns One-Act Festival.

I’ll then describe each play in a little blurb. Make these blurbs dynamic and active (and for god’s sake don’t say anything like “it needs work” or “I’m reasonably happy with it”). I have a standard two-sentence blurb for each show, but I’m happy to re-write it to make sure it fits a contest or festival “theme.”

Find a Way To Make Your Play Fit Their Theme.

While most contests don’t fall under a certain “theme,” more and more seem to be using them. No problem. There’s a contest out there with the theme “Unstill Life.” Great theme, but what does it mean? Well, whatever you want it to mean. I think my play “The Boy Who was Born With a Tail” fits this theme nicely, but I wrote them a cover letter that made the connection a little more clear. Be creative! A well-written cover letter will get the reader thinking about the connection before he or she starts to read your work.

Keep Track Of Your Submissions.

If you write a cover letter for each submission, this is pretty easy: just save each letter as the name of the festival and the date. “5.8.03 EATheatre” is one of mine. This gives you a good record of what you submitted and where. Even if you were sending an e-submission, go ahead and make a cover letter, just to keep your records straight. Of course, you can always create a spreadsheet or something, but I find keeping track of my cover letters suits me just fine.

This can help you make sure you don’t miss any opportunities next year. Like an idiot, I missed the deadline for a festival that accepted my play last year because my records were shaky. Never again.

Be Gracious In Both Victory and Defeat.

The absolute worst thing you can do is alienate a theater company by being a jerk when they reject your script. And they will…even the most successful playwrights get far more rejections than acceptances. Do NOT take it personally, and for heaven’s sake don’t write them an angry email in response. In fact, if you do anything, send them a brief thank-you letter for considering your play. It’s quite a task, deciding which plays to accept and which to reject, and they’ll be happy to know you’re a good sport who plans to try again next year.

Amazingly, there are some sore winners out there as well. The awesome Gail Winar from Turnip Theatre told me that every year, some playwright has a huge hissyfit over some stupid detail in the New York 15-Minute Play Festival. I suppose the competitive nature can take over anyone, but come on! Not only does that ungrateful jerk mock all the efforts of their hosts, but he or she ruins his or her chances of ever entering the same festival next year. The truth is you might have to accept a compromise or two to get your play on the stage…as long as you’re not altering the basic nature of your play, don’t worry about it. Once you’re famous, theatre companies will be happy to accept your multiple scene changes and creative swearing, but for now, they’re in charge.

Use a Little Discretion.

In general, you don’t want to pass up any submission opportunities. But do a little research on the theater first. Google search it to see if they have a homepage. Try to find out if any other playwright has them listed on their online resume. I hate to avoid sending scripts to new companies (or companies just starting to showcase original material), but I’m a little paranoid about sending my script to a fly-by-night gang.

Hey, I hope this section helped and inspired some of you. Even though there are far fewer production opportunities than there are plays, playwrighting doesn’t need to be competitive. We ought to be supporting and encouraging each other. So good luck, and if one of your plays is selected over mine, just remember who helped you out, you bastard.