I'm not a playwright; how do I write a play and get it performed?
February 23, 2010 12:59 PM   Subscribe

What's the best way for a writer who's not involved in his/her local theater scene to get a play performed on the stage?

I'm not a playwright, and I've never been involved in theater, so the whole scene is pretty new to me. However, I do write, and I'm really interested in the collaborative aspect of staging a dramatic production.

If I were to go about completing a play, what would be the best way for me to go about getting it staged? Would I just phone the nearest local community theater group and send over the script? Would I have to start making contacts by volunteering at a theater first? I have no expectation of making this a career or getting my name on a Broadway marquee. It just seems like a fascinating challenge as a writer and artist.

Thanks for your help!
posted by cirripede to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
At an onstage interview with Frank Rich in New York last year, Stephen Sondheim answered this question simply: "Write a show and put it on."

The book to read is playwright Alan Ayckbourne's The Crafty Art of Playmaking.

The best book about stage direction I've seen has to be the out-of-print Directors on Directing: A Source Book of the Modern Theatre.

Break a leg, as we say.
posted by xndr at 1:22 PM on February 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

definitely talk to local theatre groups. some groups will do original shows if they like them - one group i work with periodically does an evening of one-act plays, generally new work. if you feel up to handling the staging yourself, then go for it and try to find a place to stage it and look around for people to work on it. if your schedule doesn't conflict with their productions, you could get some folks from the local theatre groups. livejournal and craigslist are probably your friends, here. also, local universities.

(you could watch on broadway for inspiration!)
posted by rmd1023 at 1:33 PM on February 23, 2010

Best answer: Since you don't have any theatre experience, I'd strongly recommend working on at least one show before you try to get your work staged. I'm willing to bet that you'll discover things about your script that you'll want to tweak once you've seen the process. No matter how fantastic the writing is, there are still aspects of performance that I think you really need to see first hand to totally comprehend. Understanding how a director blocks a show, how dramaturges do additional research and add to the world of the play, how designers are (or aren't) able to deal with scene shifts... seeing these things get worked out will make you a better writer. I design a lot of professional theatre in Los Angeles, and I can tell from my first pass at a script if the writer is a TV/features person dabbling in theatre or if he or she is someone with live performance experience.

I'd find the names of a few directors working at the small-professional (or even well-established larger community theatre) level. Try to find someone who's working fairly regularly- someone who will be confident and experienced enough to set a good example and show you the ropes. Explain what you're doing and offer your services as a dramaturge, 2nd assistant, or even just a shadow. Then go to everything you can- auditions, production meetings, rehearsals, tech... You'll learn so much. (I'd avoid academic theatre only because the process can be weird and more stressful if everyone around you is also learning). And go see theatre too! Reading the script before you go may spoil the plot, but if you see the source material first you can get a better idea of what the director, actors and creative team are bringing to the table.

Break a leg!
posted by Thin Lizzy at 2:52 PM on February 23, 2010

Seconding universities - If the school has a theatre program and is anything like my undergrad, there are probably a staggering amount of student-run theatre groups. The school's listing of student groups would be a good place to start. Sound out the boards of the groups around springtime, as that's when they pick shows for the fall.

Also, depending on the show, you could find an undergrad/grad who's after a script for a thesis-ey project and wrangle the production that way.

If you get your cast set-up, you could submit your show for the Boulder Fringe Festival, which would make some of the production/tech issues easier to handle.
posted by Wulfhere at 2:53 PM on February 23, 2010

Yes, unless you happen to write an undeniably brilliant play (but even then) it's all about relationships. Make connections with theatres who might put on your plays, and directors who you you might want to direct.
posted by miles1972 at 2:57 PM on February 23, 2010

Best answer: Sorry, left out the most important part. AFTER you volunteer (and re-write based on those experiences) go back to the director/artistic director/other contacts you made during your volunteer show and offer up your script. Be open to work-shopping and staged readings. It's pretty rare for a new play to go from page to stage without a few table reads or workshops in between. One good reason to shoot for the established company in your volunteer work (besides having a good example to work from) is the relationship thing. Theatre people are pretty tight knit in most cities, but not everyone does everything. So maybe the director just does musicals or the company doesn't do new plays, if they've been around, they'll have a friend that does or an assistant that's on their way up that wants to.
posted by Thin Lizzy at 3:11 PM on February 23, 2010

Thin Lizzy's advice is quite good. Playwriting is it's own beast. There about one thousand gazillion idiosyncrasies in the theatre that you would never know except by working in the theatre.

I've had quite a bit of experience working in the theatre world, and the best advice I can give you is to just go to shows, try to work on some (even if it's tech, or dramaturgy, or what have you). Try and meet directors, good actors, company managers... Of course, the first step is to write a play - but it isn't, as is the case in almost everything, about the quality of the work so much as hooking up with the right folks (if it were about the quality of the work, there wouldn't be so many shitty shows about).

Lots of theatre groups have specific aesthetic philosophies they work around - this could be anything from tackling a current political issue in each show to making sure that at least one character in every play pulls a scroll from their vagina and reads a monologue from it. Figure out what these quirks are and try to write something that caters to that. Just as in music, it's better if you can write something with a group in mind than simply try to write and cold mail it around.

Good Luck!
posted by Lutoslawski at 3:53 PM on February 23, 2010

Best answer: Thirding Thin Lizzy's advice to volunteer as a dramaturge or assistant. No better way to learn a craft than to apprentice yourself to a master.

A lot of advice about hobnobbing, networking, and university theatre, but no practical about putting on a show.

You're approaching this as an artist. Try and look beyond the mainstream channels of community and university theatre. Please consider putting this on independently. Performance spaces can be found anywhere; parking lots, church basements, warehouses, and dance studios can all be host to amazing work.

You can find your own space. You can cast this yourself. You can find your own assistants and designers and stage managers. You don't need an existing company to produce your art. This does not sound like a commercial venture, so let's start with your vision -- not some jaded artistic director's.

Write your show and put it on.
posted by xndr at 5:47 PM on February 23, 2010

If nobody will put your play on, put it on yourself.

From playwright David Hare, at guardian.co.uk.
posted by xndr at 7:35 AM on February 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! Each of your answers was terrific and very useful. I'm really looking forward to taking this on, now I've got some idea of how to proceed. You've been a great help.
posted by cirripede at 3:57 PM on February 24, 2010

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