by David Dower
I really like Hal Brooks.
I like his energy. I like his work. I like his mind. And I like his dedication to the theater.
So, I left the PlayPenn New Play Development Conference a little unsettled last night after participating in the panel discussion there. The timeframe and the format of the discussion didn't really seem to allow for a real conversation about a couple of things that were clearly troubling Hal about my response to the question of our approach to new plays and playwrights at Arena. As we broke, I could still see the consternation on his face and his final question was sort of offered to the air but never answered:
"But, if you don't accept submissions anymore, how do we get our plays to you."
At the 2009 Playpenn conference I was approached by a playwright I had never met, although I knew her name and knew of her plays. I had very recently inherited the responsibility for supervising the Literary Office at Arena and was just getting my feet under me with how we managed the submission process. So, when this young person approached me to tell me how grateful she was for my notes on her play and how helpful my letter was, I was taken aback. I hadn't read the play she was talking about, and near as I knew, I had never written her a letter. She had, she told me, done a rewrite based on this letter and was now hoping I would read it again for consideration in the season planning.
The thing about the submission process, everywhere, is that there are way, way more plays submitted than there are resources for supporting them. Like, for every play we have time, money, and capacity to develop or produce there will be 300 submitted. For real. I don't know the ratio for a conference like PlayPenn or the BAPF or the O'Neill-- all of which are going on as I write this, but I bet it's more than 100 to one.
And, like many producing theaters, we couldn't devote the resources to having artistic staff read each of the submitted plays. This would be more than a full time job. How many books or plays could you read in a year and make a cogent, thoughtful response? And what would be the point of that job at a place like Arena? Particularly since most of the opportunities for new plays in our season were coming through other sources. We commission work, scout, and at that time we had a writers council but had not yet launched the Playwright Residencies.
So, like many producing theaters, a system had developed over time that distributed the burden of reading the submitted plays to the interns and literary volunteers. And they'd write reports that got turned into letters to the writers about their play and why we were unable to produce it. The whole process barely grazed the artistic staff of the organization for all but a handful of the plays, and even the teeny handful that managed to get onto the desk of a member of the staff team rarely, if ever, made it to the Artistic Director to read. AND, of those, maybe one every ten years would actually make its way onto the season. Maybe. Yes, Arena in those days did more than one new play every ten years, but they were projects commissioned by the theater, or that came in through existing relationships, or were scouted at play development conferences. "Over the transom" is massively inefficient.
So, following the awkward moment where the playwright thanked me for advice I'd not given on a play I'd not read but did, somehow, apparently write her about, I resolved to rethink the inauthentic practice of the "open door" policy. Over the rest of the summer I worked with the staff at Arena, and with a handful of agents and playwrights to revamp our work in this area. We closed the submission policy. We redirected our energy and resources to scouting work, attending new play festivals and conferences, hosting gatherings of writers, and focusing on developing relationships more than plays.
And we created, funded, and launched the Residency program that put five playwrights on staff.
So, back to Hal.
When I ran through a quick version of this history for the audience at PlayPenn, in answer to the moderator's request that I explain why we "no longer read plays" at Arena, it tripped some people up. Partly because the question was overly dramatic and so my response felt glib, even to me. It's not true that we don't read new plays at Arena. Of course we read new plays. I'll bet the artistic staff at the theater reads several hundred a year still. We just don't engage plays that come in the mail from writers or agents that we haven't requested. We engage the plays we've invited. So, the true issue was less of whether we're reading than a question of how one gets invited.
Hal wondered how we chose the resident playwrights. I told him this. There was not an open submission process here for reasons that still make sense to me as I articulated them in the comments of this earlier post.
He, and others, wondered what sort of impact this has, then, if it's focused on mid-career writers and we didn't open the application process. I think it has an huge impact on the writers themselves, and they say as much. But the question is about impact in terms of access. And there, I'm afraid, we're not much help. What we are doing at the Institute is trying to develop the rationale for, and advocate for, more of these residency opportunities in theaters around the country and at all parts of the career spectrum. We're trying to create authentic opportunities for more opportunity, rather than invite more writers to apply for the few opportunities Arena can make and then winding up with another inauthentic process of review and rejection.
But I could see that Hal Brooks was uncomfortable with the whole notion of the closed submission policy. So, it's cool and all that we have five recognizable names on staff writing plays and have committed to producing the work of these writers. But what about the writers not on staff who are still hoping to get a production at Arena?
"But, if you don't accept submissions anymore, how do we get our plays to you."
I left PlayPenn thinking about this unanswered question and wishing I'd had time to answer it. Here's the thing, Hal. Nothing's really changed about that, if you think about it. When the submission policy was open, writers and agents had the impression they were getting their plays to me by putting them in the mail (or, increasingly, e-mail) addressed to me. Or to our Artistic Director. But they weren't. They were getting plays to a corps of non-staff readers with no real avenue to impact planning decisions. Only a handful of organizations with open submission policies can say the artistic staff reads everything that comes in. And most of those that can are either play development centers or small producing theaters.
So, the plays I read come to me from a variety of sources and each time via an invitation from me or Molly with a commitment to read them. Arena Stage puts a huge amount of effort into attending new play festivals and labs. And we maintain close relationships with the artistic staff of most of them-- these people will often lobby us to take a look at a play they've worked on that they feel is a match for our interests. There's one play in the season this year that came that way- via a "heads up" from a development lab. Arena also puts resources into commissions and more often than not we wind up producing the play that results. There's a play on the season this year that came through a commission. We attend productions of new plays at theaters around the country. There's an Arena production moving to Broadway this season of a play that came that way, and another on stage here this coming season. Last year we hosted more than 100 writers in conversations at Arena, and through those relationships dozens of plays were read by staff here.
Embedded in Hal's question is the real question underneath so many interactions I have with emerging playwrights. "How do we get a production at Arena if we're not known to you already and you won't read our plays when we send them?"
The answer to that one is by being in motion in the world as a playwright. If you're participating in development labs and conferences, if your plays are somewhere in production, if you're engaged in the #newplay dialogue that is taking place online-- where all of Arena's Artistic Development staff is "hiding in plain sight" and actively participating as well-- you have a much better chance of coming to our attention than if you are mailing a script to a theater that assigns it to a non-staff reader.
After the panel, the amazing Ed Sobel was also lost in deep thought. "What," he wondered, "would the impact be if all the producing theaters stopped reading unsolicited plays?" My guess is that it would put more weight and authority in the hands of people who run those organizations that do effectively read unsolicited scripts. For our part, at Arena, we are happy to align ourselves with the curatorial energies of a dozen play labs and festivals and a handful of small to midsize theaters that seem to regularly share an artistic sensibility with us. They are reading, carefully and effectively, the same pile of scripts that used to come over our transom. (Yes-- the same 1000 plays we used to process through Arena a year are also sent to every other organization with an open policy. A handful of those organizations have developed expertise and prioritized resources for authentically engaging each play. The rest are doing some version of what Arena was doing. It is the only way through the deluge.) Right now, in the waning era of the open submission at producing theaters, the weight of engagement with the plays is resting on interns and volunteers. I think it is an improvement if the people on the receiving and evaluation end have more expertise and more at stake than that.
Change is scary but necessary. We have no time or resources to waste if we're going to advance the infrastructure for new works and the people who create them. Authenticity. Alignment. Effective stewardship of the reources under our control. Transparency. Good words. We are trying to live with them here at Arena and in the Institute. I have faith that by keeping at that, we are moving forward. We may not yet know what it looks like when we get there, but it will be an improvement over where we've been.