Monday, January 29, 2007


Words from Patrick Gabridge on the playwrightbinge
listserv on theatres charging submission fees to
playwrights. Reprinted with permission:

"The main problem with most contest fees for play
competitions, especially for short play competitions,
is that they don't make sense for the playwrights or
for the theatres (or for audiences).

For playwrights, it's a cost/benefit problem. (Evan, I
think, brought this up briefly.) Generally, when you
enter a contest for which you pay a fee, you do so
with the expectation that you're taking a risk which
has the potential for great gain if you win. And a
contest, rather than a lottery, involves some element
of skill on your part, so if you (think you) are more
talented and/or experienced, you would expect a
greater chance of a win.

Oddly enough, many short play competitions that
require entry fees do not offer significant prizes.
Often, the winners get a production of the play, and
maybe a video. In some instances, the writers might
only get staged readings. However, what is the value
of these productions to the writers? The theatres seem
to think that a production has a value worth a fair
amount of cash, perhaps enough to cause a talented
writer to wager $5 or $10.

This isn't really the case. For an experienced
playwright, a production of a ten-minute play, in East
Podunk, Indiana, which will lead to no further
professional productions, no useful contacts, will not
generate any useful reviews, and won't even be seen by
many people, is not particularly valuable as a prize.
If it's in a venue that's close to home, and the
playwright can see the show, then the value goes up.
But if it's far afield, and the writer can't see it,
the writer gets very little from it. And a video? Ever
watch a badly produced video of an amateur theatre
production? Not so fun. For an beginning playwright,
it's useful to have a competition win and a production
to put on a resume, but even with these, they're not
going to impress the folks at big theatres.

If theatres offer a $500 prize for the winners, then
hey, I might be there. Lots of other experienced
writers will be, too. But otherwise, the rewards are
too low. Writers who are submitting to these
competitions are selling themselves short. I don't
think this is an ethical issue, really. I don't care
what the theatres do, but it doesn't make sense for
most playwrights to participate.

Why is it bad for theatres? Well, because it's bad for
writers. And especially bad for experienced writers
who can get productions elsewhere (where they get
paid, rather than pay the privilege themselves). So
what this means is that theatres have created a
situation where they have a competition that does not
draw in the best material. Ideally, a theatre should
want to work with the most talented writers possible,
but these competitions are taking away the incentive
for these writers to send them this work.

Some theatres introduce fees to keep the volume of
submissions down. This is just stupid. Yes, raising
fees will bring in less submissions. But it mainly
means that you get less varied submissions (class
issues at play here, playwrights with spare money are
not necessarily better
writers) and a lower quality of submissions. A more
effective way to get fewer submissions is to narrow
your window, time-wise, when you'll accept
submissions. Or narrow the subject matter. Or state in
your guidelines that you will only accept the first
200 submissions, and post on your web site when the
door is closed.

Why is it bad for audiences? Again, it's bad for
audiences because it doesn't encourage submission, and
therefore production, of the best possible plays
available. In this age of constant media exposure,
theatre needs, more than ever, to present exciting,
vibrant work of the highest quality. Going to watch a
mediocre evening of theatre is worse, I think, than
watching a thoroughly wretched evening of theatre.
Mediocre theatre makes people feel that "this was
nice, but I could just have easily have stayed home
and watched something better on TV."

If theatres need to raise more money to put on these
festivals, they should pick better plays (from a
better pool) and sell more tickets for work that
really thrills audiences. If you can't find and
produce such work, get out of the business. One of the
reasons many ten-minute play festivals start in the
first place is because they can utilize a lot of
actors, which means a lot of tickets sales to friends
and family, which means it's easier to cover costs.

As to why screenplay competitions charge so much (this
is often an excuse used by play contests)--it's a
totally different business. The film business has very
few entry points, through which tens of thousands of
writers are trying to cram material. Access to
producers and agents
is a precious commodity. And the best screenplay
contests (they're not all created equal), offer big
cash prizes for your $50. Some of them might have as
much as $30,000 in total prize money, as well as
guaranteed reads by agencies or production companies
(who are named on the competition web site or
brochure). The ones that don't offer this are a
complete waste of money.

The good news for playwrights is that there are tons
of theatres out there, large and small, and lots of
opportunities to get our work produced and seen by
audiences. We need to save our money, buy theatre
tickets, and go network afterwards with the producers
and directors and

1 comment:

DAM* Writer said...

One of the common benchmarks for deciding whether or not to pay a fee for a contest or festival entry -- at least in the crowd I tend to run with -- is whether the prize or "value" of winning/acceptance is 20 times that of the entry fee. In other words, a contest with a $10 entry fee should offer a prize of at least $200 -- or something of comparable value (e.g., a percentage of expected box office, access to resources, PR, etc.).

By and large, this method seems to work pretty well. At least it has for me. And I'm speaking of playwriting, not screenwriting.