Advice for playwrights starting out
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1. Are you sure you want to be a playwright? How about a screenwriter or TV writer or fiction writer? Not that you can’t do them all, but it helps, I think, to concentrate and get really good at one at a time and you should think about if you want that one thing to be a playwright. Being a playwright is hard. One of my profs once said to me you have to work hard at it for at least 10 years before you start to see any movement. Then you reach that threshold but it continues to be hard. Yes, it can be great to see your work on a stage. If you love the theatre, I mean really love the theatre and more than anything want to write plays, I guess you should do it, but you should know, there is a lot of competition, a lot of great work, a lot of baby boomers who get the season slots first. And there is not much money. Not a lot of resources. So are you still sure you want to be a playwright? Okay, go on to number 2 if you’re sure, otherwise go read someone’s blog who started out as something else.
2. See and read a lot of plays. Like a lot. You need to know what other people are doing and you need to find your influences that you will eventually turn away from and the things you don’t like which will also define how you write. If you live in New York, you’ll have more chances to see plays than anywhere else. So if you can, live in New York at least for a while. You can usher to see plays for free or get discounts from TDF and other sources. As for reading, you need to read the things that have come before, the classics, the plays that are still being done and you also need to read the new plays that are coming out. Go to Playscripts and DPS and Sam French and Broadway Play Publishing and Dramatics and get on their email lists so you know when the new plays come out and look at their catalogs and get the plays from the library or the Drama Book Shop or buy them online if you have to.
3. Which means you need to have some money coming in to live on. If you’re rich or if someone else is supporting you, move onto 4. Otherwise, you need to find a way to support yourself that won’t drive you nuts and will allow you time to write. You have to find it on your own. Some people teach. Some people have non-theatre related day jobs. Some people work at an institutional theatre (for not much money) doing something necessary for the theatre. That might work for you if you don’t hate being poor. Also, you will get to see plays for free and drink free wine sometimes and get to meet cool artists.
4. If you don’t work at a theatre, and you can afford to work for nothing even for a couple of months, intern in the lit office of a theatre. You will get to read lots of new plays, and you will see how theatres (or at least the theatre you are in) makes decisions. You will see what agents are sending out and you will get a feel for what kinds of plays various agents represent and you will learn who the good agents are so later when you are trying to get an agent, you will know who will be a good match for you. If you can swing it, intern at a few theatres.
5. Write at least a play a year. Figure out what the good time for you is in the day to write. Are you a daytime writer? A nighttime writer? Do you like to write first thing in the morning? Do you like to go to cafes? If you can, try to write your first draft in less than a month. (Paula Vogel suggests 3 weeks) Do it for at least an hour a day until you finish. I think it’s important to figure out what most of your play is before you start writing.
6. Marsha Norman has these four sentences to fill in before writing a play. I’ve always found them very helpful: This play is about________ It takes place __________ It starts when ________ and ends when________ The main character wants____________ but____________
7. Once you have a first draft, do a reading out loud so you can hear it and try to figure out ways to make it better. Invite some friends over—give them pizza and beer and ask them to read it for you. Do this until the play is in good shape. You can also do public readings. It may help to hear it in front of an audience at least once or twice. Fix, adjust, trust your instincts, ignore people who are wrong or who want the play to be different than you want it to be. Listen to the people who might be right.
8. Produce the play yourself if you can. You will learn a lot. It will be hard work and might be expensive but the most sure way to get plays produced is to do it yourself. Most cities have a fringe festival which is a lower cost and easier way to put up plays. Do this with your first couple of plays if you can.
9. Once the play is in really really good shape, send the play to lots of places. Like at least 100. Pay attention to people’s guidelines and follow them. Buy a Dramatists Sourcebook or join the Dramatists Guild and use their guide. Also find the small theatres wherever you are and see if they take submissions. Get to know the people, maybe help them build sets or something or act in shows if you can. You can learn a lot about playwriting by actually being in plays. When you see a director you like, ask them if you can send them your play. Another thing you should do is find the places not in the sourcebooks who are doing plays like your plays—especially small theatres. Google the people whose work is like yours and try to send your plays to the places doing their work. Sometimes theatres will only do established playwrights work even if they have a lit office whose job it is to read through the submissions. (See #1) The odd thing is sometimes even if your play isn’t right for a theatre, you might want to send it just in case the lit asst who is probably young, is into it. Ten years from now, they could be at a different theatre and have more power. Lit people tend to jump from theatre to theatre. This is why you should apply to everything you can. If people like your stuff but it isn’t right, they may ask you for something else later or may recommend your work to another theatre. Lit people can be very generous like that.
10. Join the yahoo group the playwrightbinge. Also take a look at En Avant for upcoming deadlines and places to send plays. The internet is great.
11. Some people write lots of 10 minute plays, especially early on. These are easier to get people to produce. It might take years to get your full length up but you might get a bunch of 10 min plays produced. This will make you feel better, or it might when the rejection letters start coming in. It also might be a way to get your foot in the door of theatres who could someday produce your longer plays. Or it might just distract you from writing full length plays. This is okay if your goal is to write 10 min plays. Look at David Ives. Although don’t look too hard. He’s writing full lengths now and musicals and it’s harder than ever to gain his sort of notoriety by writing exclusively short plays. If you can’t write a 10 min play, don’t worry about that either. At some point, someone will ask you for a short play. You can just tell them no.
12. To MFA or not is a difficult decision. If you go to school for playwriting, I suggest you go to one of the ones that is free or cheap. Talk to the people who have gone there before you. Did they feel mentored or were they ignored? Did they like the program? Did they get connections from their time there? Were they able to see their plays produced at the school? Are the teachers there well known? Are they good teachers? Do you personally like their work? Are alums of the school doing well?
13. Be patient. It’s going to take a long time.
14. Do what is best for your work but be nice to people. Pick your fights. Don’t be a dick. Theatre is a really small world and word gets around. So does karma. (possibly)
15. If you like working with an actor or a director, see if you can work with them again and maybe again and again and again. Write for actors you like.
16. Write about what scares you. Write about what makes you mad. Try not to write things you don’t have a connection to. Write what you want to see on the stage. Separately, think about someday writing a big important play. Try not to attempt it until you know how to write plays, but maybe your big important play about something you care about will be the way to go one day.
NOTE: Some of this advice was given to me over the years by smart people, but I don’t really remember who said what, so you should just do it. It’s good advice, most of it. There are other things to do too, probably. Also, this is advice for starting out. You might do different things after you playwright a while. Remember that everyone has their own path. These might not all be helpful for you. So find what works for you. Good luck!
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