In this conversation, edited for length and clarity, two of the leaders of the acclaimed writers’ service organization the Playwrights Realm—artistic director Katherine Kovner (she/her) and associate artistic director Alexis Williams (she/her)—offer tips for submitting plays for a wide range of opportunities.
Whether to Apply
KATHERINE KOVNER: There are a lot of opportunities out there, so it can be overwhelming just to figure out how to narrow them down. But if you don’t, you will spend too much time on applications and not enough time actually working as an artist. So the first thing is to realize that you can’t apply for everything, and that that isn’t actually what you should be doing. Figure out how to narrow it down, and that will probably change year by year.
You have to think about: What type of opportunity is this, and does it fit the needs that I have at this particular moment, for the particular projects I’m working on right now, and the particular place I am in my life? Do I just really need to get out of my apartment right now, to someplace that isn’t the four walls I’ve been looking at? Do I need emergency funding or childcare? These programs are often very specific, so make sure that it’s the type of opportunity you need before you take the time to apply.
One thing to really think about when you’re considering an application process is red flags. One of these is fees. At the Playwrights Realm, we don’t charge an application fee. My opinion is that some application fees can be justified; readers have to be paid in some form. We choose to take on that cost institutionally. A cost to the applicant sometimes makes sense, but it should be related to the cost of what’s being done to process your application. Otherwise, the program is being used as a form of revenue, and that’s a very different thing to be getting into. So keep in mind whether the fee feels proportional to what is what is being done, and to the number of people who are applying. Fees of $50 can add up if 1,000 people are applying and only three people are being selected.
Another big area to think about is: What kind of rights are they asking you to give away? You may get a $1,000 prize, but do they get right of first refusal to produce your play? There’s fine print, generally, attached to an opportunity. And for a bigger award, some fine print is appropriate. But you want to be aware of it as an issue.
ALEXIS WILLIAMS: Applying to something that requires giving the right of first refusal isn’t always a bad idea. I think it’s a decision that everybody has to make for themselves. For instance, if you’re a total newbie and need your first break, or if this play’s been around and it hasn’t gotten any traction, and a company says they’re interested in doing it, and they’re going to give you some money—and you don’t see a downside to it—then you might want to go ahead.
KOVNER: Another flag to consider is the reputation of the organization, which can either counterbalance other red flags or be a red flag of its own. Do you know anyone who’s gone through the program, and did they have a good experience? Do you know the organization and their aesthetic? This is really important in terms of thinking about whether you are a good fit for their work and they’re a good fit for you. Them having done a play that’s similar to a play of yours is not the same thing as being a good fit. Because actually, if it’s too similar, then they’re probably not going to do your play.
Personal connections are a good way for you to find out a little bit more about the organization and whether you will be a good match. If you have connections to anyone at the organization, that can help you get noticed. And it’s not all about the one or two people at the top. If you’re the one playwright being championed by, say, the marketing associate, their advocacy can make a big difference. Forming relationships with younger advocates can also really pay off over time, as these are the future leaders of the industry. My tip for forming these relationships is: Treat everyone who works in theatre as an artistic collaborator, whether they work in general management, development, marketing, or something else. We all choose to work in theatre because we want to be part of an artistic endeavor, but a lot of artists treat some “administrative” roles as separate from the “true” artistic process. Be the exception.
WILLIAMS: Furthermore, beyond the opportunity you’re applying for, if there are folks you’ve connected with in the past, it’s smart to find reasons to check in maybe once or twice a year. If, for example, you just saw a show at the theatre and loved it, you can drop a note and say so and congratulate the person you know there—and find a way to sneak in a sentence or two about what you’re up to. This applies less to folks you’ve never connected with, and more to those with whom you’ve had a coffee or some other kind of interaction, and who have invited you to keep in touch. It’s a way to stay connected and on peoples’ minds.
KOVNER: And perhaps most importantly, think about whether you actually want this opportunity, or whether you’re just interested in the organization, because the two are separate. There are other ways of continuing to develop relationships with organizations, rather than applying for an opportunity that isn’t actually a good fit for you.
What to Submit
WILLIAMS: So much depends on what opportunity you’re submitting for. Is it for a writers’ retreat? A new-play reading series? A writers group? A development opportunity? Something where a company just wants to put the play up? Each of these cases has a different right answer. If we’re talking about a writers group, or something where they need to get to know your voice as a writer, it’s best to submit a sample that is further along, that is most representative of your voice. For a development opportunity, you probably want to submit a piece that’s less finished that you want to continue working on (though I’d often discourage submitting a very first draft).
For a public reading, or for possible production by a theatre, I would suggest a more polished draft of something representative of your voice that is also aligned with the theatre and their aesthetic. If it’s a company that is mainly doing naturalistic family dramas and you’ve got some bonkers, really cool work that’s pushing the forms of theatre, that’s probably not the best fit.
There are also logistical questions: Is it a company with an ensemble of actors that is generally in all of their things? If you have a wonderful play that calls for five Latinx actors and their acting ensemble has none, that’s something to keep in mind, Also, simply: Cast size is always a thing to consider.
A question I always ask is: Why are you choosing this piece for this company? Really think that through and be able to answer it.
KOVNER: When you can only submit a sample, not the whole play, how do you figure out what section to include? Again, consider the company and what they care about. If they’re a company that does mostly family dramas, then consider a sample that shows you really have the skills for that. Generally, try to submit something that you think will excite the reader—something that shows your talent or skill.
Applications and Their Components
KOVNER: Most applications have long-form questions in them. We, as companies, spend a lot of time coming up with those questions. Look at those questions and answer them as fully and specifically as you can. If you’re asked what development the script has undergone, don’t answer, “It’s had a little development.” Tell me about your experience of the development process and, specifically, what it’s made you think about your play, what needs further development, and why you want to keep working on it. And, unless you’re applying for production, you should be able to convey excitement about actually working on the project.
If it hasn’t had any development, that’s not necessarily a problem. It can sometimes be super exciting for a theatre to be the first one working on it. They just need to know that’s the case.
WILLIAMS: I’m constantly looking for a level of self-awareness around where a play is in terms of its development—and what a writer is looking for, the kind of help they need, and what they’re striving for in the story they’re seeking to tell.
KOVNER: In your application, try not to slip into overly formal, impersonal grant-speak or the language of a generalized artist statement. I’d encourage you to imagine you were speaking with your friends, because the more your unique personality can come through, the more the theatre can feel the person in your application, the more excited they’re going to be to meet you. Personally, when I write grants, I can slip into grant-speak easily, but we find ourselves more successful with grants when we don’t, and I would say that’s true for playwrights as well.
For your cover letter, if you have seen a play at the company, mention it and say something nice—and hopefully genuine—even if the only thing you liked was the set. People appreciate being complimented. And it’s good for them to know that you didn’t just discover them today, with this application. If you personally know someone that they’ve worked with and you like their work, that is also a good connection to mention in a cover letter.
A lot of people don’t have those connections, and that’s fine. You can familiarize yourself with playwrights the company has worked with, and with those writers’ plays and talk about how that drew you to the company. And if you have another concrete reason why you’re excited about this theatre—“I looked at your website, and I was so excited about your interest in X or about the fact that you, too, are inspired by Y”—that’s also worth mentioning. The more specific you can be, the better.
What It’s Like on the Other Side of the Process
WILLIAMS: In “normal” times, an organization generally has just one or two people managing many, many, many scripts between them—probably 50-plus scripts at any given time. For the Playwrights Realm’s open submissions, we tend to get around 700 applications for under 10 spots. Although I don’t think you always need them, if you’ve got connections, use them to flag your submission when applications are going through—detailing why you’re thinking of this organization for your play.
And given the workloads of the folks reading submissions, try not to go crazy with nudging people. If you send somebody a play, and it’s been three weeks, don’t email asking if they’ve read your play yet. I’m a big fan of kind of letting something sit before reaching out. If you have new information around the piece to share—maybe it just won a big award or was named a finalist for a great opportunity, then it’s fair to reach out. But be mindful.
I remember times, when I was an agent, when a writer (not a client, but someone whose work I was just considering) would constantly call to check in on if I’d read their play yet—like every week. It was a red flag: If this is what it’s like when I’m not even repping them, this working relationship could become stressful.
KOVNER: Online you can find pictures of the interviewer with their dog, or information about how many siblings they have. That’s fine; it’s the world we live in. But I would not recommend mentioning what you’ve found in your interview. I, for one, like to pretend that I have more privacy than I do. If you really wanted to game the system, you might bring up your dog, but you don’t need to tell me, the interviewer, that you’ve found out I have a dog. Being aware of that balance can be useful.
Another way to come prepared is to come with good questions. It’s pretty standard for places to ask you if you have any questions. They shouldn’t be questions that can be answered by spending five minutes on the company’s website, because that makes it very clear that you didn’t bother doing any research. And don’t be afraid to ask more than one question. For me, I would be happy to answer as many as we have time for. Frankly, I’ve never stopped someone from continuing to ask questions. I’m happy to follow up via email, if time runs short.
Interviews are actually a two-way street. If you’ve reached the point where you’re being interviewed, then you have some chance of getting this opportunity. And you should also be thinking about whether you really want this opportunity, because it’s usually possible for you to choose not to take it, even though it may seem like the last thing you would ever do. Some opportunities are not worth it.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. This Giving Season, please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!