Friday, April 3, 2015
Playwriting Contests and the Myth of Exposure
That's a nice feeling, isn't it? To be a winner. Whether it's $20 from a scratch off or first prize in a pie-eating contest, it feels nice to win something.
For playwrights, it is an especially nice feeling, since, to be honest, we tend to lose so often. The writer isn't really the top of the food chain, unless you already have a name like Mamet, Albee, or Kushner.
Oh, boy. I almost hesitate to write this post, because I know plenty of folks will disagree with me. But hey, no one's forcing me to share my thoughts on a public platform, right? So, if you read this post and disagree with me, feel free to post in the comments below (I ask only that you keep it clean, as this is intended to be an educational blog).
Every year, playwrights all over the world enter playwriting contests, hoping against hope that, unlike the slush pile of submissions at theaters and producers' offices, their play will have a chance to stand out and even to win. And we all need a win now and again. And after all, if you're paying an entry (reader's) fee, you know you work is going to be read and thoughtfully considered, right?
Let's not get ahead of ourselves.
I used to enter a great deal of playwriting contests, but I don't anymore. The biggest reason is that I can't afford to. Seriously. Even some of the smaller entry fees ($10 or $15) add up, if you're entering a whole bunch of them. And I have found that the prizes offered are just not secure enough for me or my checking account to take the risk.
Before I offend anyone, let me first say that there are number of great playwriting contests out there which offer a great deal to a playwright, and are definitely worth considering submitting to. There are theaters that are genuinely looking for new and upcoming talent, and exciting, fresh plays, and hold these contests in the hopes of discovering an unheard voice in the business. I salute these contests.
Many playwriting contests, however, are simply fundraisers for the theater or group that is holding it. There is nothing wrong with this. There are plenty of worse fundraisers for a theater to have than one which offers a chance for an unproduced playwright to get their moment in the spotlight. And I will be the first to admit that theaters need all the fundraising they can get, and, in order to keep theater solvent and relevant in our society, theaters, especially regional, little and community theaters, need to keep their doors open.
But not to the extent where artists and writers are disrespected and, quite frankly, cheated.
There was a contest I used to enter for a college theater company, that offered a first prize of $1,000.00 and a production, and offered a second prize of $500, and a third of $250, with possible productions for the runner ups. I found this to be a contest worth entering, though I never won, and the reading fee was $25. I imagine this contest was flooded with submissions, as the prizes were pretty impressive, and the college was a moderately famous one with a well-known theater program. I encourage playwrights to enter such contests, I really do.
More and more, as I look through the list of playwriting contests I find on Reddit and other places, I see theaters offering a contest with a reading fee, where the prize is a production of the winning play. If you look closely at some of these contests guidelines, they reserve the right not to select a winner, even. But, if you do win, your play is produced at their theater, and you gain exposure for your play! Isn't that great? And, now, you can add an "AWARDS/HONORS" section to your resume! But does it say that you will receive any royalties from this prize-winning production?
I'm really not trying to be flip or sarcastic here, I promise. The one award I have ever won through my playwriting, is, in fact, listed proudly on my resume, and, is included in cover letters for submissions to theaters and producers. As I said before, we all need a win from time to time. However, what playwrights should also want, all of the time, is for their work and career to be treated like any other profession, and to be compensated accordingly. I'm not saying a playwriting contest is only worth entering if the grand prize is $1000 or even $500. What I'm saying is, in order to be a professional playwright, you need to be treated like a professional playwright and be paid for your work. It's not unreasonable to expect this.
But what about exposure, you may ask? Yes, playwrights need exposure for their work, this is true. And, yes, perhaps there are some circumstances where giving your work away for free in exchange for exposure for you play could be wise. If your play is going to be produced in an Off-Broadway venue, or a regional theater with a great reputation, reviewed by the New York Times and other major publications, then, yeah, that may just be a contest worth submitting to for no financial recompense. However, it is my belief that major venues are actually the types of places, by and large, that respect their artists enough to pay them what they deserve.
But any exposure is good exposure, right? I mean, it doesn't have to be a huge venue to make it worthwhile.
I don't know. Yes, it is good for playwrights to be produced. I won't deny that. We all want to see our work performed, or at least know our work is being performed. And yes, we should all support the little and community theaters across the country.
Still, it is my firm belief that we should support the arts only to the extent that an arts organization supports artists. Why should writers work for free when no one else is expected to? Why should I support an arts organization that doesn't support my work, or value it enough to write a check for it? Is this organization really worth supporting, if they pay a professional in the industry with simply "exposure"?
My answer is no. You can't claim to be a supporter of the arts if you're not supporting artists. I repeat myself only because I believe this strongly.
Unfortunately, it looks like I am in the minority. Plenty of theaters receive enough submissions to such contests, because there are so many playwrights who are willing to exchange their work for exposure. Again, I understand this. It's like submitting your short story to a literary journal that pays you in complimentary copies. Hey, at least your work is out there, right? And playwrights face so much rejection, an inherent desperation can grow inside, a need to see their work on a stage, a need to be validated, to be good enough. Only, unlike literary journals, there's no way to gauge what the "circulation" or audience size your production is going to be exposed to. And, honestly, chances are, no one with any clout in the industry is going to be watching, who will then call you up and say, "Hey, I saw a production of your play at the So-and-So community theater... let's take it Broadway!"
I think my major problem with playwrights giving their work away for free is that, I feel, in some ways, it strips away the validity of playwriting as a career, as work that is created to make a living. It gives a craft and art form that I take very seriously the scent of a pursuit followed by a an eternal hobbyist, one who is happy enough to sit at the kids' table and have their report card hung on the fridge with a "good job" magnet. Playwrights who are willing to give their work away for free devalues all playwrights who want to make a living. Personally, I think my work is worth more than a bumper sticker for my parents car that reads "PROUD PARENT OF A PRODUCED (BUT STONY BROKE) PLAYWRIGHT".
So often, playwrights bemoan the state of affairs in the industry, how impossible it feels to get ahead, to make a living doing what we love to do. Perhaps the beginning of change comes with playwrights, en masse, believing in their work enough to expect payment. At least something. Say no too much and you'll starve, but they gotta give us something. Look at the reality of giving away your work to a contest, and even paying to give it away, and ask, Does this really validate my pursuit as an artist? Does this really make me feel like a winner?
If it does, go for it. However, I would recommend to any playwright to save the money they would spend on contest entry fees this year, and instead, put that money into producing your play yourself. Make friends at local community theater, see if they'll let you use the space for a 50/50 split at the door. Get your actor buddies to help you out. I promise you, more than likely, the experience will be just as valuable as winning a small contest somewhere. You'll get to see your work live, in front of an audience, and you'll have more control over how it's presented. You may not make a profit, but even if you break even or lose a few bucks, the experience will be worth it (I can say this, because it always has been for me). Invite every newspaper in the surrounding areas to review it. Create your own press kit. Blast it all over social media. Make audience feedback cards, the works. Doing this makes the production all about your play, and not about a theater's fundraiser. And you get the joy of knowing you were proactive, and the final result is that your play had a production and you can see what works and what doesn't. This is your work. Don't wait for "them" to discover it and give it "exposure". Expose yourself. (Okay, that doesn't sound quite right...)
Again, I'm not saying do away with contests altogether. Just read the fine print. Make sure it is a contest that respects you. Because if it doesn't, it's not a contest worthy of your respect or your work.