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.