Every Good Beginner Deserves Feedback

COMMENT: Theatres have to reject most scripts that are sent to them – but they could at least say why.

Last week I did something I very rarely do – I submitted a script to another theatre. On a whim, I decided to enter New Writing North’s People’s Play competition (which is why I was late doing the Brighton Fringe roundup – I was working flat-out polishing up the script I wanted to send). Note my use of the words “rarely” and “on a whim”: I usually don’t bother with playwriting competitions at all. Same goes for most script calls and theatre reading departments. My reasons are many and varied, which you can read here, but the main one is that unless you are lucky enough to be picked – and let’s face it, the maths says it probably won’t be you – it’s a waste of time. If they don’t want your play, it gets binned without any explanation why.

Since I’m already biting the hand that might feed me, I will say this in defence of the People’s Theatre: they’ve got a good reputation for what they produce (and with me active in a fellow Little Theatre Guild venue I could do with building links), they don’t try to take ownership of your script, and they don’t charge submission fees. It’s the last one that I have big problems with, because I am very much opposed on principle to the idea of theatres making money from writers. A “reading fee” of around £30 is not uncommon for playwriting competitions, which, for all I know, could be little more than a glance of page one (and if you win the costs can be even more extortionate, but that’s another story). But even with a free competition with no strings attached, it takes time and money to get the play ready, print it, write the covering letter and post it. So usually I’m better off doing it myself.

However, I’m at a bit of an advantage here. Thanks to my links in Durham Dramatic Society, I have the means to get my scripts acted out, either as readings or full performances. That way, I find out which bits work and which bits don’t, where I need to improve and where I should stay the same – and I do not believe I would have got as far as I have without this. Most aspiring writers aren’t as lucky as me. I regularly meet up with some of the members of the 2011 Live Theatre Writers’ Group, and I sometimes find it embarrassing that I’ve got actors ready for my latest project when other writers, with some good scripts behind them, have to send scripts off to every man and his dog in the hope that someone shows interest.

If there’s one thing more dispiriting to aspiring writers than a bog-standard rejection letter, it’s a string of bog-standard rejection letters. It’s a vicious circle: if they won’t tell you what it was they didn’t like, how are you supposed you write a play they do like? Most writers will eventually lose heart and give up. Could any of them have written a gem if only given some advice? We will never know.

I know there’s other ways of getting feedback, such as family and friends, writing courses, and the odd reading service, but they’ve all got limitations. So here is my call for everyone who runs playwriting competitions, script calls, submission departments or anything else: yes, of course you have reject most of the scripts sent to you, but you can at least say what it was you didn’t like. It’s a common courtesy: all these writers have spent countless hours preparing stuff for you, and they’ve done you a favour by giving you a vast range of new writing to choose from; the least you can do is say what was wrong. I’m not talking about a detailed report – a few sentences will do.

So why don’t they do this? Since I have yet to find a competition that says why losing entries don’t get feedback, I can only guess. The obvious reason would be lack of time. But is it that a good reason? It surely can’t take more than a minute to write a few lines on the play’s faults. Even if readers go through scripts at a ridiculous rate – say, one script every ten minutes – the time taken to write feedback would be only a fraction of the time taken to read it. In short: if you’ve got time to read it, you’ve certainly got time to write what you thought.

Okay, perhaps it takes one minute to write your off-the-cuff thoughts, but longer to think about how to put it in a polite and constructive way. I’ll admit on the odd occasion when I’ve read a terrible script (and believe me, I’ve seen some unimaginably awful ones), I would have struggled to find anything positive to say. But frankly, if you don’t have time to write your thoughts in a polite and constructive way, I’d rather you said what you thought in a tactless and undiplomatic way. That’s still an improvement on saying nothing.

I struggle to think of other reasons. Might they get bogged down in arguments with writers who don’t like the feedback? Maybe, but that shouldn’t happen if you make it clear that you don’t enter into correspondence on feedback and stick to it. Might it give away cues about how they pick a winner? Quite possibly, but surely knowing what a theatre looks for is a good thing.

There is one other reason why theatres might not want to give feedback: it might give the game away on how quickly and arbitrarily losing scripts get rejected. I have no reason to believe any theatre behaves this way – indeed, I would be very disappointed if it turned out anybody was – but the process of shortlisting plays in competitions seems to be a black box that few people understand. My view is that it’s better to be honest and upfront about how you do this. BBC Writers’ Room, for instance, and quite open that they only read the first ten pages of most scripts. Whilst I would prefer it if they gave a little feedback if you don’t make it past this stage, it does at least let writers know they’ve got to focus their energy on getting the beginning right. Better this than keeping writers guessing on which bit they needed to improve.

The current practice of no feedback might make life easier for theatres that accept unsolicited scripts, but it does the theatre world in general few favours. All writers make early mistakes, but it seems few get the chance to learn from their mistakes. How much undiscovered talent is remaining undiscovered? I honestly don’t know. But if we all do what we can to help beginners get past the easy pitfalls, we may one day be thankful we did that.

UPDATE: Apparently, my play made it into the last four, so perhaps I should stop being so sniffy about lack of feedback for a moment.

But the excellent news is that the winner of the People’s Play is Kevan Ogden who was on the Live Theatre Writers’ Group with me. I haven’t seen or read his winning entry Ersatz, but I’ve read other stuff he’s written and I’m confident it will be good. Normally I don’t recommend plays written by people I know, but on this occasion I’m going to make an exception. So come and see the winning entry on the 20th-24th November, and I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.



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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Every Good Beginner Deserves Feedback

  1. Larry

    Chris: first, I appreciate your writing this blog post, as it accords with my own feelings after having submitted several plays to competitions and theatres without success, and without even a word of acknowledgment or feedback.

    I am not, as it happens, a “trained” or “experienced” playwright who has gone through a creative writing program, lots of workshops, or the like. But I have been a theatregoer all my life, have always wanted to write plays, and have studied books like Bernard Grebanier’s “Playwriting,” which I think provides the most useful and rigorous advice for constructing a dramatic plot that I know (and I have seen numerous plays that I believe would have benefited from such counsel). And so at the fairly advanced age of 60, I finally came up with ideas for a play or two and decided to follow through. By now I have written four plays in all (3 short and 1 long, with 2 more in progress), and I intend to keep writing until I die whether or not anyone ever produces me.

    My one full-length play has undergone numerous revisions both large and small as well as much useful feedback from friends. After two years, when I finally felt the play was achieving some form, I did contact a playwriting professor at a local university who, without asking for any compensation, gave me a 3-page report that was both highly critical and extremely useful. But when I visited his office, I was gratified that he had remembered the play well and told me he enjoyed it and “wanted to read it.” After another major found of revisions I thought the play ready to submit.

    And so I tried a couple of competitions and theatres where I thought my play might fit. With one competition, I was required to send three hard copies – which required some 3-4 hours of printing, checking, and binding time; plus about $50 USD for paper, toner, a shipping box, and postage. Not a word in reply. I have no idea if my play was even read in full, let alone made a first cut. In another case, I sent a query to a theater this past April asking if my play would meet the company’s guidelines; on receiving a favorable reply, I emailed the script, but have yet to hear a word.

    I also submitted two of my shorter plays to competitions, again without the slightest response. Based on this silence, how do I know if my plays were considered (a) completely inadequate or (b) strong contenders? How much time and effort would it have taken the judges to write a short note from which I could learn something useful? Even if they said the dialogue sucked or the characters were unconvincing that would be better than nothing. I’m an adult; I know the “decision of the judges is final,” etc. But why can’t the judges take the responsibility to explain their decision?

    Not winning doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is the apparent tone of lofty indifference to work that has cost me a great deal of thought and care.

    At least some competitions seem to understand the problem and offer a more humane approach towards the contestants. One site writes: “Even if your play is not accepted, there is a good chance you will receive constructive feedback (if the editors feels your work shows potential).” Another: “Once plays are chosen and announced, non-chosen playwrights may contact the theatre company for feedback on the script but must understand that it may not be possible for all such requests to be addressed quickly or at all depending on the number of such requests.” Fair enough, and I don’t see how anyone could reasonably expect more.

    But there is in my opinion a way out, a way around the frustration of competitions and the silence of theatre-owners, and that is self-publication. I see no reason why I can’t hire a few willing actors for a reasonable sum to rehearse my 10-minute plays, videotape them, and upload them to YouTube. I see no reason why I can’t gather my scripts and self-publish them as my Collected Plays. In that way at least there’s a chance these plays will reach an audience beyond the judges of those competitions with their mysterious, silent ways, and perhaps a chance that some other theatrical company will feel that what I have to offer is just what they’ve been looking for.

    • Hi,

      Thanks for sharing your experiences.

      Interesting that one competition was asking for three copies plus binding. That does seem excessive as most entries would only get read once. The only thing I would say in defence is that the cost of printing the extra two copies is still less than most entry fees when they get charged.

      Could you tell me which competition has the phrase about non-chosen playwrights being able to request feedback? That seems like a good compromise, and if I can point to one competition that does this I might be able to point this out when trying to persuade other competitions to do the same.

      Regarding self-publishing, this certainly is an option in the UK – the Edinburgh Fringe and most of the smaller Fringes are open to anyone who can get the actors and costs together. Not so sure about the situation in the US; I understand that some of the Fringe festival there vet entries, which brings you back to square one. Self-production also has the advantage that you can make sure the play is done the way you want – it is not unknown for winners of competitions to be disappointed by how their play was produced. I would even say that if you have the means to do it yourself, you should do that first; if it’s a runaway success, the professionals will beat a path down to your door. You do, however, need to realise how much work and stress is involved in doing this, and it’s not something to do lightly.

      What you really have to be careful of is the way you come across. I know of one American writer (I won’t embarass him by giving his name) who self-published his play and sent it to my drama group (as well as, I appears pretty much every other group in the world). I read through two thirds of the play and found it incomprehensible, and finally tried looking at his website to see what it was supposed to be about. Instead, I found a tirade of his against the establishment of America for not performing his play which was definitely as good as any Pullitzer prize winner. This is an extreme example, but it is a horrible warning of how important it is to get this right and how badly you can get it wrong.

      There’s an lot of ins and outs to DIY theatre, and I may write more about this some day. In the meantime, best of luck with your efforts.

      [I’ve now deleted the comments on the other pages to keep them on-topic.]

  2. Larry

    Sorry for the belated reply. The two URLs in question are these:

    http://plays.about.com/od/playwritingcontests/tp/playsMarch.htm
    http://www.destinationtc.org/playwritingcontest/guidelines.htm

    I appreciate too the lengthy new post on 10 beginner’s mistakes. I am probably guilty of some of these myself (and can think of some acclaimed plays that are guilty of some as well – am I allowed names? [Yes, as long as it’s on-topic – Chris] I can’t think of any less plausible motivations than are found in Sarah Ruhl’s “The Clean House,” for instance). But I’d like to think-hope-believe that I’m not someone who will :”doggedly refuse to accept anything’s wrong and carry on making the same mistakes.” On the other hand, to come full circle, how can one learn if something is wrong and avoid those mistakes if no feedback is given?