The Case for Accepting Unsolicited Scripts

Books and scripts - all day, every day. Photo by Sarah / CC BY-NC_ND 2.0

In 2009, when I was twenty-three, I sent a script to Iris Turcott, at the time the dramaturg at Factory Theatre. The reply was brief and the praise mild:

“I think you have managed with some efficiency to tell the story in an accessible and engaging way and it is compact enough that it is actually affordable for some theatres. That being said, I do not feel that this project is ideal for Factory. I wish you the best of luck in finding a more suitable producing partner.”

“Some efficiency,” “compact enough,” “actually affordable”—not the most laudatory feedback a young writer hopes for. But I knew submitting was a long shot and was relieved that the rejection was an innocuous one. The best thing about the note was that it existed at all. To be considered once meant it could happen again, and perhaps the next play I wrote would be better written or a better fit. After all, why was Iris reading all those scripts if not to find something or someone new for Factory to develop and program?

That my play was even considered by a theatre I had no prior relationship with now seems like a tremendous luxury. Most Canadian theatre companies have a page on their websites called “Submissions,” and under that word is some variation of the phrase: “We do not accept.” That will often be followed by a suggestion that you email the theatre a letter of introduction, or the first ten pages of your play, or that you invite someone to a reading or performance. Almost no theatres will accept and read a stranger’s play from start to finish.

Matt McGeachy, the current dramaturg at Factory, stopped accepting unsolicited scripts when he took over the position from Turcott in 2014. He gives two main reasons for the change in policy. The first is that there isn’t enough time—unlike his predecessor, he doesn’t have an assistant to handle the administrative side of his job, and his responsibilities have grown to include casting. In other words, a simple diminishing of resources is partly to explain why he doesn’t read the three hundred or so scripts Turcott managed to read every year (by his estimate, he reads between 100 and 120 solicited scripts a year).

The second reason he changed the submissions policy is philosophical: “It gave the impression that this theatre is a more open shop than it is in reality,” he tells me when I visit him at his office. Factory produces only six plays a season, and of that six only a few are world premieres. If your play were to be one of three hundred submitted a year, “it doesn’t take more than looking at the math to see that you’re probably not going into development at Factory.”

McGeachy acknowledges that while he could read and give feedback on a hundred unsolicited scripts, “Where are they going to be produced? My goal is not to make it seem like we’re running some sort of a secret club… but I don’t want to give the impression that submitting your play will mean it’s going to be plucked out of the slush pile and produced here or anywhere else.” McGeachy notes that it’s different once you have a relationship with the theatre: “Once we’ve worked with a writer—once you’re in the family or what have you—then yeah, send me your scripts.

The best thing about the note was that it existed at all.

How does one join the family? Like many companies devoted to new writing, McGeachy suggests inviting someone from Factory to a production of your work: “Nina [Lee Aquino, Factory’s artistic director] has a heroic capacity to see shows. I’ve seen her calendar where she’s seeing six shows a week. So between her and our apprentice artistic director, Miquelon Rodriguez, and me, we can see quite a lot.”

This approach—“invite us to your show”—is the same at Tarragon Theatre, where I met with literary manager Joanna Falck. Tarragon, like Factory, is dedicated to developing new Canadian plays, though until 2003 it didn’t have a literary manager or dramaturg. Urjo Kareda, artistic director of the theatre from 1982–2001, personally read between three hundred and five hundred unsolicited scripts a year. Not only that, he wrote personal responses, offering dramaturgical feedback to many writers who went on to great success and acclaim, and also to many who didn’t. (A fascinating selection of these letters, with commentary from playwrights, has recently been compiled in Jessica Riley’s A Man of Letters: The Selected Dramaturgical Correspondence of Urjo Kareda.)

In 2003, when Falck was hired by Kareda’s successor, Richard Rose, she too read and responded to unsolicited scripts. “It was great for me to start,” she tells me. “I got to know what was in the zeitgeist, what subjects people were interested in.” But ultimately, all those unsolicited scripts didn’t lead to much. “In four years there was one playwright we invited into the playwright’s unit. Most of the plays I was being sent were from, I think, more hobbyist playwrights who wanted someone to read their work. The writers we more often ended up having relationships with were ones who were presenting their work and inviting us to come and see it.” Falck left Tarragon in 2007 to become the literary manager of the Shaw Festival, where she stopped accepting unsolicited scripts, and returned to Tarragon last year, where, like most of her peers, she keeps up with new plays and playwrights by watching instead of reading. (Tarragon, Factory, and many other companies in Ontario must read brief play excerpts and/or proposals once a year, when evaluating applications for Ontario Arts Council Recommender Grants—both McGeachy and Falck mentioned this as another good opportunity for playwrights to introduce themselves.)

I was able to find two theatre companies in Toronto that explicitly invite unsolicited scripts: fu-GEN and Young People’s Theatre (YPT). Speaking by phone with Stephen Colella, associate artistic director and dramaturg at YPT, I learned that he gets about thirty unsolicited scripts a year. “Because of the specificity of theatre for young audiences, the volume isn’t massive, which is part of what makes it manageable,” he tells me. Still, he says, “It’s a tremendous amount of work without much gain. But for me, it’s important for there to remain that means of access. Because it’s often quite daunting to find a way in, unless you know people.”

Indeed, putting the onus on playwrights to have their work performed in order to be considered by a theatre is a rather large barrier to access. Since almost no theatres in this country accept unsolicited scripts, ambitious playwrights basically have no choice but to self-produce, frequently in a poorly paid, semi-professional context. In this way, theatres have passed some of the labour of play development onto artists themselves. Instead of a theatre employing enough people to read new plays, playwrights put their own money and labour into a production or reading so that a literary manager or artistic director from a theatre will consider it. Festivals like SummerWorks or Next Stage become places where they shop for artists or even full productions.

But not every playwright has the ability to perform, direct, or produce their own work effectively, and they may not have a professional network to do it for them. Self-producing is easier for artists from affluent families because of the support they receive directly from parents and for the access to a class of people who can easily donate to their fundraising campaigns. Of course, you can find playwrights who, with few connections and little money, still manage to find a group of artists to put on their play. But this expectation that your work be shown before it can be read inevitably acts as a deterrent, limiting the type of playwright who can have their work looked at by a theatre. An unsolicited script, on the other hand, requires a writer to sit in a room and write—a mountain of a task not without its costs but definitely more straightforward than self-producing.

Putting the onus on playwrights to have their work performed in order to be considered by a theatre is a rather large barrier to access.

The loss of open submissions isn’t a universal phenomenon. In five minutes of Googling, I found out that, in the UK, the Royal Court Theatre, National Theatre, Finborough Theatre, National Theatre of Scotland, Bush Theatre, Out of Joint, Hampstead Theatre, Royal Exchange, Traverse Theatre, and Theatre 504, as well as Ireland’s Abbey Theatre, all accept unsolicited scripts. (And this is by no means a comprehensive list.)

I reached out to Chris Campbell, the literary manager of the Royal Court in London, England, where about three thousand unsolicited scripts from all over the world are read each year. He tells me of the theatre’s open submissions policy: “It’s partly symbolic; a sign above the door saying, ‘All Welcome.’ But it’s also the only way to be introduced to writers with whom you have no pre-existing links.” The Royal Court has about twelve “theatre professionals of various kinds” employed as freelance readers (Campbell says he reads about ten plays on average a week, including multiple drafts of the same play if it’s one of their projects in development).

While he emphasizes that “most of the unsolicited scripts are pretty terrible,” and that they “hardly ever produce a script that’s turned up out of the blue,” they do often produce plays by writers they first meet through an unsolicited submission. “Over the last year or so,” he says, “that description would apply to David Ireland, E.V. Crowe, Diana Nneka Atuona, and Penelope Skinner.”

By Campbell’s estimate, about one in ten scripts the Royal Court receives each year leads to some kind of relationship, whether it’s notes and feedback, a meeting, or an invitation to participate in one of the theatre’s writing groups. Through it all, the organizing principle is getting plays to production. “It’s a great help that we’re trying to program a theatre rather than provide education or a script development service,” he says. “Our reading has a practical focus.”

In 1970, when George F. Walker was twenty-three, he dropped off a two-hander he’d written called Prince of Naples at the newly opened Factory Theatre. A friend of his had seen posters around the city asking for submissions, with the tagline “Discover Canada Before the Yankees Do,” and suggested that Walker, a cab driver at the time, send one. “I didn’t know anything [about theatre],” Walker tells me over the phone. “I had only seen one play. I’d read them, but I had no expectations. Ignorance is a powerful force. You’re not aware of the possibilities but you’re also not aware of the barriers.”

One week after dropping his play off, someone from Factory called him. The play was soon given a workshop production, then a full production, and shortly after he was invited to become resident playwright. Walker has since written over thirty plays, along with TV and film projects, and in 2009 was awarded the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement. Without Factory’s willingness to read plays by unknown playwrights, Walker doesn’t believe he’d have become involved in theatre at all.

Canadian theatre was still in its infancy in the 70s. There is a lot more theatre happening today, a consequence of which is more aspiring playwrights entering the industry. As Rob Kempson, who helped produce and manage new play development programs at both Theatre Passe Muraille and Thousand Islands Playhouse, tells me, “In my experience, each artistic director starts with a massively long list of work they want to program. Then new things get added to the pile because they’ve been developed in-house, or seen at a festival. In other words, there is never a desperate attempt to ‘find’ a new script, per se.” That the supply of plays greatly outstrips the demand is a better problem to have than vice versa. But if we want our art form to remain current and our playwrights and audiences heterogeneous, theatres must remain open to as many new voices as possible—including those without a foot already in the theatre community.

If we want our art form to remain current and our playwrights and audiences heterogeneous, theatres must remain open to as many new voices as possible.

In the thirteen years Colella has been reading unsolicited scripts for YPT, not one has led to a production—until next week, when Christine Quintana’s Selfie, which arrived at the theatre out of the blue, will have its premiere. (Quintana is also this year’s Urjo Kareda Resident at the Tarragon).

Quintana tells me by email, “I looked at their website and saw that they accepted open submissions, and I thought, ‘Well, they’re never gonna read it.’” Hailing from Vancouver, she was in Toronto on a self-produced tour of another play she had written. “I decided on a whim to just do it. I printed off my script at a random print store, and I didn’t have access to a computer so I think I might have even handwritten a shitty cover letter. It was… not super professional.” Her gambit paid off: three weeks later Colella called her up, which began a two-year development process leading to the play’s upcoming premiere.

An important caveat: Selfie had already been developed and produced, in a shorter, French-language version, at Théâtre la Seizième in Vancouver, after that company’s artistic director had seen some of the earlier work Quintana had self-produced with her indie company, Delinquent Theatre. “[Selfie] had had a ton of support up to the point [that I submitted it], and I had received a lot of support from the Vancouver theatre community.” Still, Quintana’s expectations were low: “I definitely never thought it would make it to production. I feel very lucky.”

To my surprise, Quintana herself doesn’t think reading unsolicited scripts is a useful activity for theatre companies to engage in: “Now that I am in a position where I am often adjudicating or jurying scripts, I understand how impossible it is to get a true read on an artist and their ideas, aesthetic, and potential just from reading scripts. [As a playwright] I’d much rather invite someone to a reading of a work—I’d rather get a chance to know them, and to let them know me.”

I don’t know exactly why, unlike their contemporary analogues, Turcott and Kareda found unsolicited scripts to be useful. But reading Kareda’s correspondence with playwrights—professional and amateur alike—I get the impression that he believed his responsibilities extended beyond simply programming a season of plays—that through his responses he was trying to refine his own taste and prod Canadian playwrights, whatever their potential, toward it.

I don’t believe this should necessarily be the responsibility of literary managers or artistic directors, nor do I believe unsolicited scripts will be where most produced plays originate. The unsolicited script will often be unoriginal, unproduceable, or even unreadable. But it’s also an opportunity—really, the only opportunity—for playwrights to introduce themselves based purely on the quality of their writing, and not on their ability to network or jury-rig a no-budget production somewhere. Writers, who spend a great deal of their time alone with their imaginations, are not necessarily known for their social graces or their ability to create a sensible production budget.

Campbell tells me that if the Royal Court stopped their policy of accepting unsolicited scripts, “it would be seen as a hugely negative statement and I imagine that the playwriting community would rise as one and burn the theatre to the ground.” I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest we set fire to our beloved, if underfunded, playhouses. I understand that McGeachy and Falck have had to make a calculation, based on their other responsibilities and the number of hours in a day, and reading hundreds of mostly bad scripts a year doesn’t seem worth it to them.

But a different calculation has to be made by playwrights like myself, who already lose precious writing time to grant applications and part-time jobs: it involves applying for festivals, emailing with CAEA, fundraising, attending erratically scheduled rehearsals, and scrambling to replace actors who are suddenly offered paid gigs. These burdens can be shared by other artists, but they are burdens nonetheless, and they steal time that could go toward writing a new play or improving an old one.

This isn’t to say self-producing isn’t sometimes productive or rewarding; I’ve found it can be both. But as the primary means of having my work considered by a theatre, it’s a tremendous amount of work (especially relative to the act of reading)—and I’m someone who knows a handful of talented theatre artists and lives above the poverty line. For those who don’t, but who nonetheless have something interesting to say, it will be difficult for theatres to hear from them if those theatres remain unwilling to read.

 

Written By

Kevin is a playwright and librettist who lives in Toronto.