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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

ADVICE FOR PLAYWRIGHTS: 10 Tips To Write a Play For School Theatre Programs (And Get it PUBLISHED)

This is me, Bobby Keniston.  This is my blog, Theater is a Sport.  Please read it and follow it.  Thanks.
Hello everybody, and welcome to Theater is a Sport.  My name is Bobby Keniston, and today I'm going to talk about writing a play for the school theatre market, and give you some tips about what might help it to get published. 

I have done a great deal of posts about the craft of playwriting.  In fact, you can see the very first lesson by clicking HERE.

This post is a bit different.  This one is all about tips to get a play published for the school market.  Playwrights like to earn money just like everybody else, and, while I can't know for certain that if you follow these rules you're guaranteed to be published, these are pretty basic guidelines for the market to help you along your way.

I'm not claiming to have all the answers, but I do have 24 plays published right now, most of them for the school market, with four different publishing houses.  I have learned by trial and error in the three-and-a-half years since my first acceptance for publication, and have also been fortunate enough to strike up online friendships with a great deal of playwrights for the school market, who have generously offered me advice and encouragement. 

So let's get started, shall we?

TIP #1:  Statistically speaking, more females than males audition for school plays and musicals (this is true for community theater productions as well).  Try to write at least a few more female characters than male characters, or, better still, it never hurts to have a number of gender flexible roles (roles that can be played by either male or females)

TIP #2:  Flexible cast size is also a good thing.  If you study the market and look at old classics by the wondrously prolific Tim Kelly, you'll notice how most of his full-length plays have cast sizes of 25 or more.  The more the merrier, right?  You will also notice that many of the roles can easily be doubled, or maybe even combined.  In this way, a play can accommodate a very large cast, or a much smaller one.  Hence, hopefully, more school groups will be able to produce your play. 

TIP #3:  This is not a hard and steadfast rule, but it is something I have found to be true for my work:  Lighter fare gets produced more often by schools.  This is not to suggest you should write nothing but comedies... far from it.  I'm just saying for myself, and for many of my playwriting pals in the market, the comedies sell more than the dramas.  Many of my friends have confided to me that the serious plays they worked so hard on and are really proud of get FAR less productions in a year than their lighter, fun ones.  That's the business.  Please don't mistake this as me advising you not to write dramas.  Dramas do get published and occasionally produced.  I'm just talking from a generalized, business-minded standpoint.  Two plays I'm very proud of, FRANKIE AND THE GINGERBREAD BOY, and AEROPLANE OVER THE SEA, do not do nearly as well as my plays I DON'T MIND THAT YOU'RE UGLY or CITIZEN'S ARREST.
(NOTE:  The one aspect of school theatre where this doesn't seem to be the norm is for the forensics market.  Serious monologues and serious 10-minute duets seem to do very well as a general consensus, sales-wise)

TIP #4:  Speaking of writing shorts, whether it be monologues or duets, remember, ten minutes is the maximum.  They are mostly selling for forensics' competitions, and they are strictly timed.  And also remember, the CONFLICT and CHARACTERS are what sells these pieces. 

TIP #5:  SIMPLE SETTINGS.  School drama teachers (and I should know, I am one), by and large, do not have a large budget to work with and do not receive a great deal of help to put a show together.  Because of this, a play with a simple unit set (which means one set for the show, without scene changes), or with representational set pieces (that can be moved on quickly and easily, like stools or chairs or boxes) are very attractive to drama teachers.  I don't blame them.

TIP #6:  Share the wealth when it comes to lines.  Make your supporting characters interesting.  Make sure that even the smallest part has some interesting feature or quirk that will make him or her fun and desirable to play.  School theatre is often about getting as many kids involved as possible, and we want to make sure that they are all having a positive experience, whether they have 100 lines or jut two.

TIP #7:  NO BAD LANGUAGE or EXPLICIT CONTROVERSEY.  Yes, it is good as an artist to sometimes push the envelope, and, yes, it is important to write plays that address issues that teenagers will face in their lives.  HOWEVER... if you write a play about teenage suicide (for example), it would probably be best not to have a kid with a gun to his head, a quick blackout and loud bang, and then bring up the lights with the kid laying in a pool of his own blood.  I apologize for the graphic image, and, while that image is certainly striking, and perhaps honest, most schools would not produce it.  Don't get me wrong--- some might, but most wouldn't.  And when it comes to language, it needs to be as clean as possible.  I have been asked by an editor to remove the words "hell" and "damn" from a high school-themed play.  Yes, I know many teenagers swear and curse, and we want to be honest--- I even wrote a blog about how young adult fiction can get away with so much more than young adult plays that you can read HERE.  But take my word for it--- you will most likely lose a whole bunch of productions, and maybe not even get it published, if you write a play with a ton of swearing for the school market.  The same thing goes with sexuality.  What you have to remember is that you are a creative writer, and that working within some of these certain guidelines can actually spark creativity and dimension, not destroy it. 

TIP #7:  While many plays for adults, particularly in the professional theater, do not appreciate in-depth stage directions, you have to remember that school theatre is often directed by people who see the value in the program, but might not have the most experience when it comes to directing.  There's an old adage about how many English teachers have been forced into the role of drama director over the years.  This is true for many different kinds of teachers.  Not every school has a separate theatre program with someone who majored in theatre in college.  So, stage directions can be very helpful to create a vivid picture for these folks.  The same is true for setting designs and costume and prop plots.

TIP #8:  The one play that I haven't managed to get published is called RAINBOW AND THE GOOFBALL.  It's a fairy tale I created.  Every editor who has read it has responded to me about how much they like the piece... some have even raved.  But each one has said there is no room for it in their catalogue.  If this play were called CINDERELLA AND THE GOOFBALL, it might have had a much more sporting chance.  If you're going to write a fairy tale, do something fresh and new with a name people already know.

TIP #9:  People often ask me if a play needs to be produced before it can be published for the school market.  Here's the honest answer:  only 2 of the 24 plays I have had published had a production before being published.  I know this goes against conventional wisdom, but it is the truth.  In fact, RAINBOW AND THE GOOFBALL was one play that had a production before being published, a successful one in fact, with great pictures and reviews, and that did not help it get published.  Now, obviously, a production doesn't hurt.  The reason some places strongly recommend it is because a great deal of rewriting can take place during the course of a production, making the script "tested for success".  So I don't know what to tell you.  What I will say, is that I ALWAYS read my plays out loud, often with a group of students, to hear how it sounds, and will make changes from that.  Hearing a play out loud does help one revise it.

TIP #10:  This tip will seem a bit like a cop out, but, it's true just the same:  KNOW WHEN TO BREAK THE RULES.  My advice is to get at least a few publications under your belt before you do, but, no one, not even editors, know for certain what can go through the roof and be a smash hit.  You just don't know.  You can do your best to follow trends (which isn't a bad idea), see what's big in the world of kids and teenagers, tap into all these different avenues, but, hey, in truth, it's all just a guess.  The number one job is still to please yourself first and to write something you can be proud of having your name on.  Plays are in print for quite a good stretch of time after being published.  Remember that. 

I hope you have found these tips useful.  To learn more about my plays, you can click HERE, and check out all the links (note, a few of my plays are forthcoming, so they are not yet available to check out). 

Remember, writing plays for the school market is tough, so it's good to get some advice here and there.  Also remember--- theater is not just a craft, or an art form, or a way to make some money--- it is also a sport.

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