Bringing Submissions Out of the Cave

  • Posted on: 3 January 2012
  • By: Tony

When I was a kid. there was a friend of one of my uncles. I’ll call him D. D had a rough go of it. He was out of work for as long as I could remember. A lot of people were, all the work had left years earlier. He was a party-er in the 70’s, as most of the people around were. As the 80’s rolled on joblessness turned to hopelessness turned to....

The ancient Mayans thought that the caves were the entrance to Heaven.  This cave extends 20 miles into the earth with a river that flows through it.  This is from right inside the entrance out witnessing the last amount of sunlight that we'd see for a few hours.Flickr

One day he went on a bender at a local dive, the kind of dive bar that had long since passed the bottom of the barrel, and at some point they cut him off and threw him out.  He drove off and they thought the night was over. He showed up later, around closing time, with a shotgun. He had determined to get those bastards and shoot up the bar. Whether by choice, or because he was too drunk to shoot straight, he didn’t hit anyone--just shot out the mirror and put a hole in the roof.

That’s the way the story was related to me anyway. He did his time and when he got out, he was gone. A life spent on the margins had finally pushed him past his breaking point and off the map. I heard he had been living in a cave somewhere in the UP.

One day he showed up to my grandpa’s farm. It was as if he was testing the waters, and needed a sandbar to walk across--he was trying to see if he could make it back onto the map. My uncle went to get some smokes and I started talking to D. He was the kind of guy that if you didn’t shake his hand with a firm enough grip, he’d start squeezing, and not stop squeezing until your handshake firmed up enough to satisfy him. I was probably 12 or thirteen at the time.

I asked him what he had been doing.


“No what have you been doing for a living,” I asked?

“Fighting. I fight in a pit for money, to eat.”

My mind flashed to Rocky, or The Octagon, or some romanticized version of prize fighting. Without a thought, I said, “That sounds like a cool way to make a living.” I hadn’t realized he was still gripping my hand.

His eyes flashed with rage, “Do I look like a Fucking DOG?!” He looked down, took a deep breath and looked back at me, dropping his pirandellian-mask. “It ain’t no way to live... a dirt pit... It...”

I could see it in his eyes. It was the simplest, most honest expression of pain I had seen. In his eyes you could see every blow he had received, every misstep and missed opportunity, every drop of blood it takes to turn a human being into a fighting dog.

In arts speak; we’d probably call it “an authentic expression of human suffering.”

Seems an odd place to start from when talking about submissions, no? For me, it is a starting point. When I was in Paris, just after college, I was working as an intern with a rundown theatre dedicated to plays directed by women. I had just done one show there and they asked me if I wanted work on a new play festival they were doing. It was my first entree into the new play world. I had no idea what I was in for.

Les Rencontres à la Cartoucherie was a joint effort of two companies that were in the same compound that housed Theatre du Soleil. There were 41 new plays in rep, with an additional night dedicated to the “Austrian question.” That year Jörg Haider’s party came to power in Austria. Having a Nazi sympathizer elected to leading a European government was understandably distressing, so they had a special night of plays exploring that. That made 51 plays, around 275 actors, God knows how many other people. My first encounter working on new plays was a doozy.

Turns out it was a Who’s Who of Parisian theatre. By that point I had spoken with Mnouchkine and Cixous enough times in passing to know who they were. Others I found out about later. Probably a good thing I didn’t know who they were at the time. Keeps you from being star-struck. One night there was an afterparty and I was talking with a group of seasoned veterans around a table with an astonishing amount of liquor, wine, beer and other assorted party aids. One older gentlemen was talking about what was real. Truth onstage. How a show we had both seen earlier in the year was an authentic expression of human suffering.

On the train home, a bum started talking to me. He could tell I was American, and started talking to me. There was something about his eyes that I couldn’t point to, but I knew it. I knew I had seen it before.  I was thinking about what the earlier guy had said as the bum talked. An authentic expression of human suffering. And I recognized it. He had D’s eyes.  That was the look that had haunted me since that day D shook my hand. No matter how good you are at lying, we can’t hide the truth in our eyes.

I couldn’t get that out of my head as I started talking to him. He was in France as a refugee, from Bosnia. He was in one of the first towns... He didn’t talk much more about it, I didn’t ask him to. I could see it in his eyes. “I was going to be a writer. Have a beautiful house. I sleep on the train here. But it’s better. There are no words...” he said.

An authentic expression of human suffering.

Authenticity is in vogue as an expression right now.  But when I hear authenticity, I think of D; I think of the Bosnian guy I talked with on the train. I don’t think of a facsimile of something deeper-something real. I don’t think of a conversation that looks close enough to fit the bill, but it’s not actually the real deal. But typically that’s what passes for authentic. We tend to think there’s too much to be lost to really rock the boat.

As a field, we have many “inauthentic conversations”. We’re storytellers, that’s what we do. We lie for a living. We’re really good at it. We’re so good we internalize it and forget how to even be honest about when we’re lying. Instead we talk about being “inauthentic.”

Such is the world of new plays. Such is the broken ecosystem we inhabit. Such is the result of our collective choices. For many folks I talk to, the most visible sign of that is the submissions system.

A play submitted to most theatres as an open submission doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of making it onstage. The bigger the theatre, the more miniscule the chance. In this there is true equality. It doesn’t matter if you’re living in a bear cave in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a Bosnian Refugee or a hedge fund manager, if you send in an open submission it will be equally rejected.

Recognizing this, few major theatres take any submissions from writers without an agent or AD submitting for them.  

So how do plays make it to a stage? In general, in order to be produced on most small stages you have to be published. Otherwise small theatres can’t find you. In order to be published you have to be produced in New York, usually in a “major production.” In order to be produced in New York, you have to be produced in the regionals. In order to be produced in the regionals, you have to be continually produced on smaller stages or have an MFA from an elite MFA program. In order to be produced on smaller stages...

True this is a simplified case for argument’s sake, but in my experience it’s largely true. And this is how 6-10 MFA programs supply the connections for the vast majority of writers who break into the regional circuit.

We can’t seem to allow ourselves to have an authentic conversation about the real nuts and bolts of it, let alone an actual honest one. The submissions process is broken and many people working in theatres think submissions are worthless. The balance of power, a 100 or so Artistic Directors who decide whom among 10,000 playwrights get work that pays the bills, is such that most people are scared to talk about it in the open. That many of those plays were hits in New York, with the New York Times stamp of approval is no accident. 

My argument is simple. Probably heretical, but simple. Closing off submissions kills institutions. Closing submissions is a short-sighted answer to ease the burden of dealing with writers without the proper credentials; without having to deal with the cancer destroying the ecosystem.

Wait, back up, did I just say that the cure to the submissions process is more submissions? Am I nuts? Possibly, we’ll have to wait and see. Now, I know, you can probably come up with 50 reasons why it can’t be done. No is our default position. Shouldn’t be done. Impossible. Don’t have the resources. Don’t have the time. I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about and my total and utter ignorance makes me a dumb dummyhead who should just stop it with the dummy talk.

Most major theatres have rarely if ever produced a play from submissions. If you talk to most literary managers in private, and I have repeatedly, they are the most disgruntled employees in an institution. Smart, creative, hardworking, and completely ignored. I hear the same thing over and over. Literary managers advocate for plays they know are great, and will do great, only to see the AD choose dreck.

The disempowerment of Literary Managers is such that often they're used as little more than a shield so AD's don't have to deal with writers.

A writer I was talking to a while back had a reading at a big deal (REALLY BIG DEAL CAREER MAKING) theatre. The literary manager was doing everything in his/her power to advocate for this play. Including making sure the AD went to the reading. He didn’t go to a lot of them. Wanna guess how many ended up getting produced by his theatre?

Another writer recently met the AD of a big deal institution in his/her town. The writer was telling me how good it was to meet them.

“Wait, you just met them,” I asked?

“Well, yeah.”

The writer had been commissioned and developed there for over five years before the AD decided to meet them.

From my vantage point, no plays from submissions were produced because they had (have?) no interest in producing writers who either didn’t have sufficient stature or personal connections to someone with enough stature. There is only one person at an institution who can make newplays work. And largely they are not interested in work that’s not being done on Broadway, off-broadway, or by an institution of comparable size. AD’s at regional theatres are not looking and not listening beyond those perimeters.

If you don’t believe me, ask around. Look at the seasons that are out there. In public just about every literary manager I’ve spoken with will tell you how amazing their programs are.  Their company is not like those other ones. They’ll toe the line. Buy a literary manager a beer and see what they say. If they trust you, they’ll talk. After enough time being a barricade between potential and a newplay dream deferred, they need someone to talk to. Literary managers are by and large not empowered to say yes. They can only say no.

I'm not a playwright first and foremost, so getting my play onstage somewhere isn't a concern of mine. However as regional theatres have narrowed their scope and become essentially franchises of each other with pretty similar seasons and often identical productions, the field shrinks. And closing off submissions is one more step in speeding that shrinkage. That's my main concern. The field rises and falls together.

A big problem that needs to be examined is the funnel through which plays are taken in. Blind readings of submissions that have been curated doesn't really change much. They're still coming in from the same sources, and will come through a lit dept in much the same manner, and go out in the same manner.

Affluence and privilege open doors. Without submissions, affluence and privilege are the only keys that open doors for writers.  Neither speaks to the potential or quality of the script or how audiences will react, and the field suffers.  We need to open up how AD's and lit depts view the landscape, and how they view the communities that surround our institutions.

The way we read plays is completely out of whack. The prevailing method is to read the first ten pages and a synopsis. The idea being the synopsis tells you if a writer can tell a story, and the ten pages tell you if they can write. However, the first ten pages of any work in the cannon would be sent packing. The first plays by most amazing writers suck. There are exceptions, but by and large the vast majority of the titans of the field would not exist if they were coming through in today’s climate. We’ve managed to create ways to do less with more.

I know open submissions don’t seem manageable under the current system, if we accept all the assumptions we’ve inherited. We need to remember the field is still young. There are no rules, only assumptions we’ve tended to codify. We’ve built invisible walls outside our brick and mortar walls. Both work to keep out potential newplay greatness as well as potential audiences.  Perhaps forcing those invisible walls to fall is one key to creating an internal culture where plays and people can thrive.  

Now don’t get me wrong. I completely understand the pragmatic need to close off submissions in some cases. We had to do it at our small theatre as well, as there is no way we could keep up. And we have produced some pretty great plays that were submitted by some pretty great playwrights that I didn't know yet: Astrid Saalbach, Ninna Tersman, Rotimi Babtunde, Sean Lewis, Jennifer Fawcett and EM Lewis are just a few of the writers whose work we’ve produced that I wouldn’t have known about if they hadn’t submitted. (They represent five countries on four continents.) There are scores more I would do in a hearbeat if/when I can find the money.

What worries me as a field is that most small and mid-size companies and most new works festivals I've seen look almost exclusively to the major institutions and off-Broadway to see what writers should be on their radar. Writers that have been "legitimized." And major institutions look to smaller and midsize companies and a handful of MFA programs. So you get to a point where the system is even more closed off, more hegemonic, less diverse, and far less healthy.

The ecosystem has fallen out of balance. The largest rely on the smallest to do the heavy lifting for newplays and early career playwrights with a fraction of the resources. The host has turned both predator and parasite, and I don’t believe that symbiosis is possible without first addressing why plays make it to stages. We need to realign the field.

Most larger theaters I see have a habit of crushing new work. They’re incredibly inhospitable to emerging writers, yet get most of the resources to develop new works. That is something we need to address if we are truly interested in a healthy newplay ecosystem. There’s only two ways I see out of this. Shifting funding and resources, or figuring out why large institutions fare worse than smaller ones with new voices and trying ideas to fix the problems.

Here’s a crazy story. We’ve done 40 shows in five and a half years with an annual budget that has never topped $45k. Yeah, I know, but that’s not the crazy part. In that time I’ve had five different LORT’s contact me for info about a play we did from submissions.

If the largest are looking to the smaller companies, powered mostly by “sweat equity”,   (PDF) to do the work of finding and developing talent (without the resources)... And the smaller companies are looking to the largest and to off-broadway to fill their seasons... It's easy to see where there's a breakdown. It's easy to see why a handful of MFA programs provide the main pipeline to major stages.

I don't know what the fix is yet. But there has to be a better way

Not producing from submissions, or not taking them, are choices, not givens. So I'd challenge everyone to think out the long-term effects of closing down all avenues to discover artists not already in the pipeline.

A long time ago I was told that with any personnel or staffing issue you have two choices: You can get the person with the right qualifications who can be plugged into a project that day, or you can get the person with the potential to be great in five years. Yahoo went for today, Google went for the future. (their futures went in two very different directions.) Submissions help you look for future potential, vs. plug and play projects.

It is possible to take submissions and empower readers as creative people. It is possible to find resources to do it well. It is possible to completely re-imagine how literary offices work. It is possible to completely re-imagine what an institution can be.

If you want to be a flagship, be a flagship. In most communities there are way more smaller theatres than large theatres. Large theatres are collectively freaking out about losing millennials. (For the sake of argument, let’s keep ignoring that other generation you need to worry about getting in your theatre, the one inbetween the Boomers and the millennials.) You know who’s not freaking out about millennials? Small companies that are filled with them. This is a huge missed opportunity. Most young people aren’t going to shell out $60 to see RED or RACE. Hell, I wouldn’t and I spend every day in a theatre. Young people will shell out $20 to see a show they think they’ll like.

If the AD won’t listen about a great play, make her/him listen. Get everyone onstaff excited about the play.  Do you know the small companies in your town? They know you, I guarantee it. Here’s your chance to prime the pump. You know that show you adore, that your AD will never do, the subscribers will never go for, the board would never allow? I’d be willing to bet there’s a small theatre in your town that would knock it out of the park. Give it to them. Who wins? Everyone.  

You want to make sure you don’t lose young people. I understand that. But you don’t need to get them in your theatre (yet.) You need to get them in theatres. Large companies have the ability to steer an entire community, for better or worse. You can help fill everyone’s houses. Sounds like a lot of work? Not really. Doesn’t take much more than you’re already doing. Connect writers with other companies in your town. Include them in an email you’re sending, help them help you. The writers you want to support will continue to get better by seeing their work onstages and audiences will be built for all of you.  After all, it’s not a zero-sum game. If everyone’s audiences grow, your audiences grow. You can prime the pump for the mere cost of a few emails. But you can’t do that if you don’t know what’s out there. Closing off submissions doesn’t facilitate that.

What could happen if that was turned the other way around and LORTS sent plays they loved to smaller theatres on a regular basis?

Deputize the entire staff and corps of volunteers to be readers. Everyone can read and review. Have everyone in the building read play a month. I read 250-500 plays a year; I have a full-time job in another field, two kids, and I run our theatre as a full time volunteer. I couldn’t keep up, so I had to stop taking submissions until I caught up.

But if you have a building, the resources are there, in the building already. We just have to unleash them. The kid in the box office took that job because he loves theatre to the point he’ll take a crap job with crap pay to try and get a foot in.  He probably knows the form inside and out already.

That stagehand you see muttering under her breath about the designs that weren’t drawn correctly and now tech’s taking three times longer that it should? She knows your audience better than you do. She watches them every single night. Get her involved in the artistic planning.

Think readers have to be highly trained? Train them. Who do you think talks to all of your audience members and other stakeholders? Imagine what your audience development could look like if there were 3100 people fully engaged and invested in the main part of the business line at your theatre? Imagine how quickly silos could fall if everyone was engaged in reading, together as one unit.

Picking plays is the most important decision most theatres make. Imagine 3100 people who could speak with authority about the plays, the field and the potential that is out there waiting to be seen. What does the opportunity cost for that look like?

Deputize the entire field.

I know most newplay scripts aren’t spectacular, but in my experience the more we opened up our submissions the better the plays we got were (along with those that aren't so good.) There is a need to separate the wheat from the chaff. But how effectively can you do that if the grain never comes into your town in the first place?

If you're not really gonna consider someone without sufficient stature, you should be honest about that, and foundations should stop giving money to people who are going through the motions. Writers and staff stop going through the motions. The status quo is not the only way.

If you can’t outrun it, get out in front of it and figure out where we’re going. Try something new. I guarantee it can’t be worse than what we’re currently doing. You never know who might be talking about your theatre. But you can certainly close off who will.  We can choose to close off the world, or we can figure out ways to force our doors back open.

Shakespeare looms largely over the field. Some folks don’t think he could have written the plays, didn’t go to the right school, didn’t have the right background.  Seems about the same reason why people think great plays can’t come from outside the LORT pipeline.  And in the matter of honesty, is what is currently filling most stages truly great? What do we have to lose by looking deeper?

When I was talking with David Henry Hwang this summer, one thing he said has haunted me a little bit:

“I wrote FOB to be done in my dorm. So between the time it was done in my dorm at Stanford, and the time it premiered at the Public theatre in New York, it was fifteen months. And it’s just really hard to imagine anything like that happening today.

Think of the future of the field if we can’t imagine anything like that happening. Our job is to fill an empty space with life. To use our imagination to move people. If we forcibly rope off the gates, we stunt our imagination.

We want to portray authentic expressions of human suffering and joy, but how can we do that if we are not being honest about how those stories are picked for stages, and don’t want to look past the palatial gates?

If we focus on the burden of reading plays and not the potential for greatness, we are shooting ourselves in the foot, not even hitting the mirror. We’re pushing plays beyond the margins and into a cave, instead of giving them a sandbar to see if they can make it onto the map.


Photo courtesy of Canon in 2D