Publication may inhibit the chance of your show ever being produced at all.
In many columns I’ve discussed the thorny question of how to extend the life of a production, but an equally valid concern is extending the life of the play itself. A few months ago, this topic was addressed by my fellow scribe Jonathan Fournier when he discussed e-publishing his play The Boy and the Wrapper. The purpose of publication – aside from creating a historical record – is to disseminate the play and encourage future productions. But there’s a flip side to this: publication may also inhibit the chance of your show ever being produced at all.
Depending on the material, of course, a professional production may not be a realistic dream.
As someone who has been running the submission gauntlet for years, I can assert that the vast majority of festivals, contests and theatre companies will only consider unpublished material. Usually, this is because they have a mandate to develop new work which means once your show is published, it may become harder to ever see it professionally produced.
Depending on the material, of course, a professional production may not be a realistic dream. Short plays and one-acts are notoriously hard to sell and unless your name is Noel Coward, you may find your blithe comedy blithely ignored. Theatre production is also a bit of an insider’s game – Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre accepted unsolicited submissions for almost twenty-five years, but only ever produced one show that came to them in the mail. And many Canadian theatres – Centaur and Segal included – don’t even accept unsolicited submissions. Like everything else, it comes down to who you know.
Of course, the non-professional world is a pretty lawless place - non-professionals are not always known for their artistic respect...
All of which is to say that publishing may indeed be your best bet, as it will allow you to bypass the professional market in favour of an extended life in the non-professional arena – ie. community or academic theatre. E-publishing is one road but there are also several established publishers (Eldridge Publishing, Pioneer Drama, Playscripts Inc) who do not always require a professional production as a pre-requisite for publication.
Of course, the non-professional world is a pretty lawless place - non-professionals are not always known for their artistic respect (neither are professionals, but that’s another story). In his book Finishing the Hat, Stephen Sondheim discusses the many amateur artists who view shows as “wounded animals in need of ministrations” and alter the scripts in an effort to improve them. A fellow playwright once told me of a company that produced his show but refused to pay him the rights. And an Internet search revealed to me that a show of mine was recently produced by an Ontario high school without my knowledge or consent.
There are plenty of good artists working in the non-professional world who are in need of simple, smart scripts to explore with their students and community.
Still, as always, there’s a flip side. Recently, another high school both paid me for the rights to my show and asked permission to change a line. There are plenty of good artists working in the non-professional world who are in need of simple, smart scripts to explore with their students and community. Even Mr. Sondheim concedes that these places “are the most important bastion of keeping theatre alive today”.
None of this is intended to dissuade you from aiming high. By all means, submit your play to Tarragon’s National Playwriting Competition, Infinite’s Write-On-Q Contest, or, if you’re feeling particularly daring, the Yale Drama Press Award. As writers, we can almost never predict the response to our work and it may be that the show you think no one will like is the next Drowsy Chaperone. But it’s also true that part of being a playwright is knowing the market: and it may be a relief to know that if Tarragon, Infinittheatre and Yale all turn you down, there are still other avenues of approach.
Remember: plays are not meant to be read. In fiction, publishing is the end point, but in the world of theatre, it is merely one more path towards the wicked stage.