How to market a new play?
May 2, 2007 9:21 PM   Subscribe

My husband has written a brilliant play which is a take-off on a famous Greek myth. Its dark, funny and very timely politically but he can't find a theater to take notice of it even though he has sent it around all over the country. What does a person have to do to get a theater's attention? It has a large cast (Greek chorus) and some video but other than that it can be staged pretty simply. It would have to be a theater that would take a risk and isn't afraid of hot political topics. There are so many revivals being done nowadays its a shame such great, creative new works often go unnoticed. Thanks.
posted by Tullyogallaghan to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe he should workshop it first.
posted by thebrokenmuse at 9:35 PM on May 2, 2007

What does a person have to do to get a theater's attention?

Volunteer with the theater? Show an interest in them beyond asking them to stage his work? They might be more willing to look seriously at his play if he's someone who's volunteered with the group for a while. You know, give something to get something.
posted by mediareport at 9:54 PM on May 2, 2007

He could submit it to some theater festivals. If it won an award, that would probably make people more interested.

Has he written plays before? It helps to have a track record.

If he doesn't, he might want to try writing some shorter pieces with small casts, and try to generate interest in those first.

Building bridges to a local theater group might be a good idea, if there's a decent one where you are.

There is absolutely no guarantee of success in any arts-related field, of course.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 10:07 PM on May 2, 2007

If writing for theatre is anything like other forms of writing, a lot happens around community. The image of someone with no connection to a writing/artistic community, writing something brilliant and sending it out into the world and receiving due recognition is kind of a myth (though it might happen once in a very rare while).

That's not to say it's all about networking. It's rather that the ideas that produce and shape great works are more often than not developed in conversation with and in relation to a community of like-minded people. And it's also about making friends who want to help one another get their work out into the world -- friends who may, for instance, be willing to stage a play even though they think they're going to lose some money on it (or publish a book they know they won't recoup the costs on). In short, if money and fame come, they're more likely to come when there's promotion from the bottom-up as well as selection from the top-down.

So my advice would be for your husband to do things like take classes, join workshops, volunteer for local theatre productions, to get involved in whatever way he can in whatever theatrical community he can find. The path may not seem clearer after taking that step, but I would venture that that is indeed the inevitable first step.
posted by treepour at 10:12 PM on May 2, 2007

As a a playwright, I have never had a theatre company produce anything of mine that I hadn't already cultivated a relationship with. Generally a literary manager or artistic director will see or read something of mine, or a review, and say hey, send me a copy, or that isn't for us, but let us know about your next thing. The folks who have posted above are right: it's about community, it's about networking, in terms of being an emerging writer and getting a theatre to take you on. Once you reach a certain level, Albee or Mamet say, that doesn't matter so much, but for mere mortals like the rest of us, there is a lot of getting to know you that happens.

As a director who pitches show and produces them, a Greek drama, with a large cast and some video, that is risky politically, doesn't sound like something that would be up my alley, nor can I think of a professional theatre that would want to take that on. From Albee or Mamet maybe, from an unknown who doesn't know how to get his work done, not so much.

Find theatre companies, directors, other playwrights whose work you like. Get to know them. Pick up tips. Write, write, write. Go to openings. See what type of work they like. What's their aesthetic. Find the people who can make your play happen.

If you believe that strongly in your work, self-produce. Invite all the people that you might want to work with. Find out how an audience responds.

As someone who does it for a living I can tell you writing for theatre is ridiculous thing to do. But if you must do it you'll know. And it is extremely rare for unsolicited scripts to go anywhere.
posted by miles1972 at 10:30 PM on May 2, 2007

1. Look here -- Playwriting 101, How to Submit Plays to Theaters.

Short answer: many theaters don't just don't accept any unsolicited submissions of plays from the public at all. They may only accept plays from agents, or they may only accept plays that they know are coming.

Before sending the play out to a theater, he should look on the theater's webpage to see if they accept direct submissions. If it doesn't say, he should call the theater and ask if they accept submissions. (If they don't, he is wasting his postage -- nobody will read the play when it arrives, because the theater doesn't have anybody whose job it is to read plays that just show up in the mail!) He should describe the play, ask if they would look at it, ask who he could address the envelope to, and then write a polite letter recapping the conversation and include it in the package with the play.

2. Maybe begin with the theater department of a local college, where he could go and speak in person with the theater director? This would give students the opportunity to work directly with an author, etc.

3. Might be worth picking up a copy of this book, which describes how to write a letter to an agent etc.

4. He can also google "your city" + playwrights to see if there is a playwrights' guild or other group that might have advice for him.

5. If he is new to publishing/professional writing, he should be wary of scams (including SCAM AGENTS) that target new writers:
One "Writer Beware" list of scams
Another list of scams and anti-scam resources
The blog of the Writer Beware folks
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:37 PM on May 2, 2007

Theatre administrator in play development and also produced playwright. Theatre companies, unless they have vast amount of resources (ie. paid staff) cannot usually handle the number of unsolicted scripts that they get. This is not good, just unfortunate, because you never know when a brilliant script might come across your desk. (Though that has never happened to me, personally.) However, most of the time, companies are just only able to keep up with the plays that are being developed in-house. Being specific about where a script is sent is important. Sending a script cold is not the best way. This will go to the lowest priority, not out of malice, but sheer lack of resources. Developing relationships with people at the theatre, any relationships is key. However your husband he wants to do that, there are many suggestions above, but interest in the theatre's particular work and mandate are good starting places. Have other people read it? Do you know anyone with good standing at a theatre company or a prestigious actor? Sometimes a champion can get a script through a door that is otherwise closed. Your husband could also possibly get some feedback as well regarding the produceability. It is hard enough for a theatre to commit resources to a Greek Chorus type cast for a production even for a known writer, nevermind a writer new to them. It is a simple matter of dollars. A production costs money, and most theatre companies want to invest in a known quantity to at least try and make the money back. Of course that is little solace, but an economic truth. I don't envy your husband's position; his best bet is to get involved in the theatres (preferably in a playwright's program) and hope that the upper echelons take notice. Good luck.
posted by typewriter at 10:45 PM on May 2, 2007

Well, I'm currently in the cast of a workshop production of an adapted greek play. The directors/writers have a hand selected group of student actors and technicians volunteering their time, and a relatively cheap rehearsal/performance space. The final production will be staged three times to an invited audience of people from the theatre community, in the hopes of garnering interest. That's one way to do it.
posted by stray at 11:54 PM on May 2, 2007

I worked one summer evaluating play submissions for a regional theatre (its policy allowed authors to send in a 10-page sample of the script, and my job was to see whether we'd like to read the whole thing). One of our most fundamental rules was that if the play required more than 7 actors, especially if it was by an unknown playwright, it would have to get rejected. The economics of professional regional theatre don't allow for very many large-cast plays, and if they're willing to do a larger play, Shakespeare or a popular musical is a much safer bet than something unknown and untested. My best advice would be to try to get the play done at a non-professional "community" theatre, which won't need to pay the actors and thus might be more willing to do it. And if you can get this production reviewed favorably in a newspaper and send one or two reviews along next time you submit your script to a professional theatre, things might go slightly, slightly better. At the very least, it will show that you're serious about this play.

Unfortunately, because most community theatres seem to have a mission statement of providing family entertainment that doesn't push the envelope, it'll probably be hard to break into this market, too.
posted by clair-de-lune at 1:35 AM on May 3, 2007

Have you and your husband thought about producing it yourselves? Many beginning playwrights do this. Doing so can be relatively cheap or expensive, depending on where you live, what production values you want, and whether or not you're paying actors.

I produce a couple of shows a year (sorry, only classics) in NYC, and it costs about $6000 a show. I produce them as Showcases, which means I don't have to pay the actors (even union actors), but they can only run for 14 performances.

Theatre rental is about half of my budget. Showcases are only allowed to run in under-100-seat theatres, and such theatres rent for about $3000 for performances. Some theatres cost more. You have to shop around.

The rest of the budget goes for props and publicity. My company doesn't use sets or costumes (actors work in street clothes). If you want sets or costumes, you'll need more money. If you want to shoot for something more ambitious than a Showcase, you'll meet a lot more money. (Over 14 performances and/or a larger theatre, you have to pay the actors union scale -- unless you're using all non-union actors.)

Rehearsal space can be very expensive. See if you can find free space to rehearse (in someone's basement, etc.)

So you craft a Showcase, generate some buzz about it, try to get some reviews, and see if that leads to another production somewhere else.

If you're going this route, and your goal is to get the show produced again, on a larger scale, you probably should produce your showcase in one of the major theatre centers: NYC, Chicago, Seattle, London...

The big cast is going to be a stumbling block. Most theatres nowadays -- even big ones on Broadway -- balk at producing large-cast shows. It's VERY expensive to pay all those actors.

Even though I don't pay actors, I'm scared to do shows with more than 10 people in them. It becomes a scheduling nightmare. (Since I don't pay, I'm forced to work around their schedules. Imagine a Romeo who can only work on Mondays and Tuesdays and a Juliet who can work any days except Mondays and Tuesdays!) Each actor is an actor who might leave and have to be replaced. The more actors you have, the more likely this is to happen with at least one of them.


Consider producing it as an audio drama (what used to be called a radio play) and distributing it online as a podcast. This can save a ton of money, and distribution is a cinch.

You can cut the cast-size down, because voice actors can play multiple roles, you don't need sets, you can cut down rehearsal time (because no one needs to memorize lines), you don't need to rent a theatre, etc.

With the boom of podcasting, there's a ton of info (books, etc.) about how to record this sort of thing (hint: start on in the "tools" section) or you can rent a studio for a few hours and get a professional to record it for you.

Your husband may need to rewrite a bit, so that his play makes sense as an audio drama, but that should be a fun challenge for a writer.
posted by grumblebee at 4:03 AM on May 3, 2007 [3 favorites]

Note: you don't have to live in NYC (London, etc.) to produce a Showcase there. Most directors don't want the writers to attend rehearsals.

You can find a director via Craigslist or "Backstage" (the trade journal for NYC theatre -- the equivalent in London is called "The Stage"). Interview him on the phone. Let him choose the actors and the performance space. Throw some money at him. Then fly to NYC for opening night.
posted by grumblebee at 4:07 AM on May 3, 2007

This site might be helpful. (It's been updated and non-updated at various times over the past several years, but seems to be in a relatively good mood at the moment.)
posted by staggernation at 5:14 AM on May 3, 2007

Workshopping is classic, as is cultivating a relationship. Also, college theaters might be more willing to take a chance--you can treat them as a sort of workshop with more emotional investment (on their part).
posted by crayolarabbit at 5:21 AM on May 3, 2007

sounds like the kind of thing for a fringe festival - The NYC Fringe produces some brilliant stuff and some crap, but if it's interesting and "edgy" it's got a fair shot, and I'd bet other such festivals around the country are similar. If it gets a spot in a festival, then you promote, promote, promote, & try to get reviewed or picked up or otherwise noticed.

Whether the play is actually as good as you think it is or not, you've got to remember that there are plenty of good plays out there for a theatre to put on, and plenty of their closest friends are brimming with new ideas all the time. They all have a dream too - they aren't sitting there waiting for something to do.

In fact, that's exactly why those fringe festivals were created, so that little productions that would otherwise never get on stage would at least have a chance at an audience, without every playwright on earth being forced to start their own theatre company :).
posted by mdn at 5:51 AM on May 3, 2007

also, it occurs to me that timing is another issue - there were a lot of anti-war productions of Lysistrata after the war broke out, for instance, so even if it's not directly related to that, the notion of "greek", "chorus", and "politically timely" may make a lot of companies feel like they've already recently covered that ground...
posted by mdn at 7:41 AM on May 3, 2007

It has a large cast (Greek chorus) and some video but other than that it can be staged pretty simply. It would have to be a theater that would take a risk and isn't afraid of hot political topics.

This sounds like a college director's dream.
posted by occhiblu at 8:48 AM on May 3, 2007

Seconding fringe festival, it's the first thing I thought of - if he can find a director who is interested in it lots of promising up-and-comers work for free or pretty much free putting together break-even (or very low budget) productions for the one here in Minneapolis.
posted by nanojath at 10:29 AM on May 3, 2007

Willing to go on the road? This theatre hosts independently produced plays, and splits the house take with the producers generously.
posted by Miko at 12:18 PM on May 3, 2007

Your husband needs to find local opportunities for staged readings and workshops so that he can see the work in person and build relationships with other theatre artists. If the play's as good as you say it is, it'll fly through workshops with glowing praise and he'll have people begging to stage it in no time. And if it isn't, he'll get feedback to whip the thing into shape, and will have a network of collaborators ready when he's done.

If you don't live somewhere such opportunities are available, if you don't live somewhere with a vibrant theatre community, it could be years before anyone notices the script if they ever do. As an anonymous submitter, the question isn't whether or not the play is "brilliant"; it's whether or not the play is more appealing to the producer than the ten thousand other scripts on his desk, which is a question just as much of style, topic and whim as quality.

If nobody believes in his script but him, your husband can try the standard frustrated-theatre-artist advice: Learn to direct, design, act et cetera, and produce it -- possibly even star in it -- yourself. It'll be a hellish experience, but one way or another you'll learn if you're stupid/crazy enough to work in theatre.
posted by tsmo at 5:20 PM on May 3, 2007

I don't know a thing about producing plays. But the edgiest and most 'risky' plays I have seen have been in College/University theaters.
posted by iurodivii at 10:05 PM on May 16, 2007

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