13 questions to ask yourself before you enter a playwriting competition

This is going to sound ungrateful of me, seeing that I was a finalist of 2012’s People’s Play (and frequently mention this fact to make myself look good), but I’m not terribly enthusiastic about playwriting competitions. I’ve got a number of gripes over them (read on to see what), but the main thing is that I’m not really interested in seeking someone else’s approval for my script. I want to take responsibility for what I show an audience and let them be the judge. I just don’t have much patience with the hoops you have to jump through in reading departments.

Nevertheless, for the majority of aspiring writers, the fact remains that script submissions such as playwriting competitions are your only chance of getting your work out there. And, of course, if you can produce your own plays, it’s not an either/or choice – you can produce your own work and enter competitions at the same time. The odds of winning are bound to be low, but it’s not a bad deal if you prevail: typically you can expect a four-figure cash prize, a performance of your work, and a leg up with your career now that you call sell yourself as “winner of the X prize/competition”.

Approaches to competitions vary. Some people set their mind on going for one particular competition, whilst others are happy to go for a scattergun approach and submit to as many competitions as possible. Either approach can work and has worked. But based on my occasional foray into these kinds of competitions – and my habit of reading the fine print first – I think it’s a good idea to use some discretion over where you send your work. There is more at stake than a few postage stamps here.

Much of what I say here sort-of applies to script submission departments too – I’ll leave it to your common sense to adapt things accordingly. I’m splitting my tips into two sections: one section of uncontentious advice that everyone ought to agree with, and then another section of more cynical stuff that won’t go down well with everyone. But starting at the beginning:

The uncontroversial questions

So, before I annoy too many people, here are six safe tips. Pretty much everybody who’s anybody will tell you the same thing. Here are six things you should ask yourself:

1. Are you sending in a first draft?

A Nazi document
A stupid idea. But no more stupid than sending in your first draft.

Don’t do it. That is so obvious, I shouldn’t need to state it. I might as well ask “Have you set your script on fire?” or “Did you draw a Nazi logo on the front cover?” And yet this is the complaint I hear from readers over and over again. First drafts stick out like a sore thumb – anyone who’s produced a second draft will know how many howlers get found in the first. One might be tempted to think that if you’ve got a brilliant idea for a play, that’s all that matters, and the reader will overlook all the problems inherent in a first draft. But in practice, it doesn’t work that way. Seriously, don’t send in a first draft under any circumstances. Not even if the deadline’s coming and you don’t have time to re-draft. Better to submit something else (that you have been able to redraft), and/or submit your script next time when you’ve had a chance to work on it.

Even a second draft is iffy. Ideally, you want to get the script as good as you can before you submit. BBC Writersroom ex-head Paul Ashton came up with this list of all the things you might want to do in a re-drafting process. Doing them all is probably overkill – there’s only so much you can do on your own before you can’t get it better – but you should consider doing some of them. After that, you’ll have to try it out on stage, get professional feedback, or just submit and hope for the best. There’s no clear answer as to when re-writing should stop and script submission should start. But, at the very least, put your script away for a couple of weeks before you look at it again, and the mistakes will jump off the page.

2. Are there any limits on cast size?

People running playwriting competitions do, of course, have to think about the practicalities of putting on the winning play. And in most places, the main constraint is cast size. Across most theatres, both professional and amateur, the viability of producing a play drops very quickly as the cast size increases. If there’s one bit of fine print you need to check, it’s this one. You don’t want to write a six-hander for a competition and then discover the limit was five.

In fact, you probably want to keep the cast size down regardless of the rules – and regardless of whether you’re submitting or self-producing. It doesn’t matter whether you’re setting sights on the upstairs of your local pub or a fully-professional début – the more actors you need, the less likely it is it will happen. If you need a lot of characters, look for opportunities to double (or triple or quadruple) parts. If you really can’t go below a cast of ten, make sure all your characters add something to the play. But most of all, if you’re entering a competition, stay within the competition rules. Don’t be a pillock.

3. Have you checked the size/capabilities of the performance space?

Apart from cast size, chances are the other practical constraint is stage size. Some competitions will expressly say the play must be suited to their stage. But even if they don’t say that, you should do it anyway. If you can see a play there, do so. If possible, watch one with complex sound, lighting and stage movement, so you have an idea of what you can and can’t do in that space. Make sure you note the entrances and exits. Is it end-stage, the round, or something in between? Don’t submit a play where everyone faces forwards on a sofa if half the audience can’t see them.

Some plays are better suited to small theatres than big ones, and vice versa. If you’re entering the Bruntwood prize with a performance at the Royal Exchange at stake, you might want to consider something grander than two people and a table, but that’s an exception. Most of the time, you’re best off playing it safe and going far a play that can be produced on a shoestring budget on a small stage, which requires no major requirements on scenery or tech, and no more than two stage exits.

4. Do you know what sort of thing interests this theatre?

As well as cast size and suitability for the performance space, there’s one other thing you ought to consider about the place you’re submitting the play to: what are their personal preferences? Different theatres have different tastes in what they show, and that will influence their choice of winner. An out-and-out comedy that would go down well in one theatre might be shunned by another that’s into deeper stuff, but the plays the latter theatre loves might cause the former theatre to think you’re a right miserable sod. So if you can work out what sort of plays the theatre you’re submitting to likes to stage, that puts you at a big advantage over everyone else.

Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done. When competitions do state what sort of play they’re after, they tend to use phrases such as “seeking plays that are vibrant / challenging / a fresh voice” – words so vague they’re about as meaningless as the labels of “delicious / premium / quality” on supermarket product. You’re better off familiarising yourself with the kind of plays this theatre shows – watch them if you can, scan through their programme if you can’t. Are there any styles this theatre does or doesn’t like? Even this isn’t foolproof: it’s entirely possible that the artistic director and new writing department don’t talk to each other and go in completely different directions. But if you can crack this, you could be on to a winner. And tell me your secret. I’ll pay you.

One other word of caution: don’t overdo this. If you have a play or an idea that you think will a particular theatre will like, go for it. But don’t try altering an existing play to try to please the judges – that never pays off. And definitely don’t think that you can submit any old rubbish as long as it ticks the boxes the theatre sets. You must be happy yourself with what you’re submitting. If you change it to the point where you don’t enjoy it any more, chances are neither will anyone else.

5. Are you allowed previous performances of the play you’re entering?

Usually the answer to this is no. In a typical competition, the deal for the winner is that in return for the prize money, they get the première of you play, which is fair enough. Some places have rules that are stricter still and don’t even allow rehearsed readings. However, some of the bigger competitions are more relaxed, and will allow prior amateur performances. I guess if you’re producing a play in a big theatre following a highly-trumpeted national competition, the fact it was once shown in a village hall isn’t a big deal.

My advice is that if you are allowed an amateur performance or rehearsed reading, and you have the means to produce this, do that first. Even if it means delaying your competition entry to a future year. Seeing how your play fares on stage in front of a real audience gives you a far better chance to improve it than any number of read-throughs or redrafts – you get to see for yourself what is and isn’t working. (I would even rate this as more useful than script feedback services, although you can of course do both). Audience reaction might also give you a clue as to your chances in the competition – although you must remember that amdram audiences are generally easy to please, and you won’t have nearly as easy a task pleasing the competition judges (see my article on locality bias).

And, of course, a performance is a good thing in its own right. Even if your play gets nowhere in the competition, maybe you’ll establish a reputation with the audience. Maybe they’ll come back for future work of yours. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll make it that way. It’s by no means essential have approval from a reading committee before you can build your reputation as a writer – plenty of people do it without.

6. What are your plans if (when) you lose?

TV listing for Britain's Angriest Failures
Or you could appear on this show (nicked from TVGoHome, courtesy of Charlie Brooker).

Playwriting competitions are quick to state all the Good Things™ that happen to the winner of their competition, rather like a sales pitch for the National Lottery. But like the National Lottery, the thing they gloss over is that the odds are not in your favour. There will be dozens, hundreds or even thousands of people jostling for pole position. If this is your first competition, chances are your script isn’t as good as you think it is. Even if it is good, you’ll be up against a lot of people as good as you, or better. So let’s manage your expectations now: you are probably not going to win. You will probably not even make it the shortlist. If the competition has a long-list, it’s likely you won’t make that either. You will walk away empty-handed. You will be disappointed. You may even think about giving up. So I advise you to consider this situation now, before you’ve entered.

The two worst things you can do after you send of your script are: 1) daydream about the phone call saying you’ve won, a smash hit première, rapid elevation to the red carpet and Hollywood movie deals, and your own A-list celebrity boyfriend/girlfriend; and 2) stop doing everything whilst you wait for the aforementioned phone call saying you’ve won, a smash hit première rapid elevation to the red carpet and Hollywood movie deals, and your own A-list etc. etc. I would heavily advise that after you’ve submitted your script, don’t wait for the answer. Instead, carry on doing what you’re doing, same as if you’d never entered. If you can start working on other plays, do that. If you have the means to produce a play yourself, think about doing that. In short: keep at it!

Another easy mistake amongst aspiring writers is to pin all their hopes on a single play. That is, they write one play that they think is a masterpiece, send it off to all and sundry, and when it gets nowhere, send it off to all and sundry again. But it is very rare for writers’ early work to be the best. Most of the time, the early work is a process of trial and error, with each subsequent play slowly improving on the last one. That is the plan you should be working to, and waiting to win a playwriting competition shouldn’t be part of the plan. By all means enter and hope for the best – but treat a win as a bonus, not a necessity.

And now for some controversial ones

So, that concludes the inoffensive part of this list. But it’s been a while since I wrote a post that’s pissed anyone off, and I have some catching up to do. So now, let us continue with six more questions that you ought to ask yourself, in ascending order of controversy.

7. Do you have to write to a theme?

One common thing I’ve seen in a lot of smaller competitions is that you have to write a play to a certain theme. Sometimes it might be a specific subject (if the competition commemorates a specific event), but often it’s some vague set of words or phrases. I’m not a fan of this, and it normally puts me off entering. I can see this approach working for commissioned writing, where a producer needs a play on a certain theme and knows a writer who’s suited to doing it, but in a playwriting competition it’s an unnecessary constraint.

I suppose the reasoning behind this is that it provides inspiration for people to get writing, but I’ve never subscribed to the theory that beginners need someone else to provide the inspiration before they can get started. No, I’m of the firm view that the more freedom you allow writers, the better they can write. The other big disadvantage is that the play you write is probably only going to be good for that competition. A play written to an open brief may yet have a life in a different script submission or a self-production. A play constrained to a certain theme is unlikely to be of any use if you lose. It’s start all over again.

On the other hand, that’s just me. I know some writers like the challenge of writing to a brief and finding ideas for how to meet the constraints. If you’re one of those people, go for it – you’ll be a a distinct advantage over everyone else. (Likewise, if you’ve written a play that coincidentally meets the brief, you may as well give it a whirl.)

8. Do you get feedback if you lose?

The answer to this question is probably no. This is one of my long-standing bugbears – if you don’t like a play, the least you can do is say why. But there is the occasional competition that does this. The only places I know do this are the Geoffrey Whitworth Trophy and Cloud Nine‘s Play Days. For one of them, you can only enter if you premièred your play in the All-England Drama Festival (or the Welsh / Scottish / Northern Irish equivalents); the other one I think stopped running when they lost their arts council funding. But if you find one, I’d highly advise you go for it. For most people, the feedback you get is the most valuable thing you will get from entering. (I am talking about free feedback here – I will come on to paid feedback in a moment.)

[UPDATE: Papatango gives feedback. Only a paragraph, but a useful paragraph, and I recommend it.]

Don’t expect anything detailed. If a place gives feedback to every losing entry, it will be, at best, curt. It might tell you what the problem is, but it almost certainly won’t tell you how to put it right. But if you are going to make it as a playwright, you need to deal with this, because this is no different from the feedback from your most important judges: your audience. Other people may tell you what they didn’t like about your play, but it is your responsibility to find a solution. But you can only solve a problem if you know what the problem is in the first place.

Some people (mainly readers who adamantly oppose feedback of this kind) will probably tell you not to do this, because of the theory that if you can’t get feedback covering two or more pages, it’s better you don’t get anything at all. Apart from the idea that beginners can’t be trusted with feedback if it’s not sufficiently detailed – something that I fundamentally disagree with – there’s the warning that without lengthy reassuring noises of how to put problems right, bad feedback might hurt your feelings and you’ll give up writing. That argument has a bit more merit, but I say you’d better go ahead and face the music now. Sooner or later, you are going to have to face people who’ll say they didn’t like your play, and they won’t be telling you how to fix it. If you can’t handle that, you’re doomed no matter what.

9. Is there an entry fee?

Some smaller competitions charge entries fees. Treat these with caution, just as you should treat with caution anything that makes its money from the writers rather than the audience. Often the charges will be justified as administration costs, but it’s easy for them to use this excuse as a front for a money-making exercise and hard for you to verify if it’s a legitimate expense. As a rule of the thumb, the higher the entry fee, the more suspicious you should be. A £5 fee is plausible amount for administrative costs, but fees can go to £30 or more. And for all you know, you are paying for a cursory glance before your script goes in the bin.

However, the worst practice of all is those competitions that charge the winner extra. Sometimes, the winner has to produce the play, pay for someone else to do it, or even self-produce and pay for the venue, as happened in this horror story. Have nothing to do with any competition that does this – if they were any good, they would be able to stage the play themselves and recoup the costs from ticket sales.

One other thing I’ve noticed is that some competitions offer feedback for a fee – usually on top of an entrance fee. Now, in principle, this is a better offer, because you’re getting something for your money. However, I’d be wary about this. I am sceptical about the value of paid feedback in general, but stand-alone feedback services do at least have a safeguard (in theory) that they need the feedback to look useful in order for people to come back and use the service again. That does not apply to feedback attached to playwriting competitions, where few people will be choosing to enter based on the quality of the feedback. Unless you know people who’ve previously got feedback from the same competition, there’s no way of telling if it’s a useful service or just another money-making exercise. This might be the best chance you get at feedback, so use it if you like, but you may be disappointed with what you get.

10. What’s in the fine print?

Steve Jobs
Did any of this guy’s mates do the terms and conditions?

Continuing to raise up the heckles, here’s my next bugbear: competitions that get greedy on signing your rights away. Typically, a competition will require the winning entry to give them exclusive rights to perform the play for around 18 months. Some bigger competitions might also do it for the finalists. However, this will be in exchange for the prize money. Compared to what you get paid for a performance or a commission of a play, it’s a fair enough deal. Some competitions will forbid you from performing your entry until a decision is made – again, that seems reasonable to me.

But something I’ve notice a few competitions do is take performance rights from all entrants, whether or not they win. By entering the competition, you could be giving them rights to perform you play, at a later date, without any payment. You could even be granting them exclusive rights whether or not you win. In theory at least, you could could be prevented from letting another group produce it, or even be stopped producing it yourself. Whether this has actually happened I don’t know, but, at best, these competitions are sloppy at respecting author’s rights over their own work. This isn’t so much of an issue if it’s either a competition winner’s performance or nothing, but if you’re in a position to produce your own plays, be very careful with competitions that may claim rights over it.

11. Do you trust them to do your play justice?

And now, two tips about what happens if you win. You might think it’s all roses if you win, but that’s not always the case. And one danger is that the group who performs the winning entry of a play does a bad job of it. To look at this from a theatre’s point of view: if a new play’s good, the credit will probably go to the writer first and the producing company a long way second. So the temptation is there for the producing company to make all its plays stylistically similar. But in doing that, they’ll be doing a great disservice to all their writers. And just as the writer takes the credit for a good job done by the theatre, the writer will also get the blame for a bad production done by the theatre.

How often is a writer disappointed by the producing company? I don’t know, but it’s happened. I know one writer who was disappointed by a group who staged his play and didn’t get it. (There again, he’s gone to to be successful so it couldn’t have done too much harm.) There’s no way of avoiding this risk completely, but you can minimise it by seeing other productions by this company first (which you should be doing anyway, see tip #4) and get an idea of whether you can trust them. If you can’t do that, say you live in the North and you’re entering a competition in London – well, it’s up to you to decide if you want to take the risk.

But why such paranoia? Surely the fact you won a playwriting competition would more than make up for a disappointing production? Sadly, that’s not always the case

12. Is winning all it’s cracked up to be?

Now for my really contentious one. I’ve already moaned about how playwriting competitions gloss over how low your chances are of winning. Sadly there is another area where they over-promise and under-deliver: what happens to the winners. They’re all too eager to talk about winners that go on to greater things, but you never hear about the winners who don’t. For instance – much as I hate to downplay the award where I was shortlisted – New Writing North eagerly tells us about the People’s Play winners who became professional writers, but there are just as many winners who stayed in obscurity. I should say at this point that I have no criticism the People’s Theatre itself – they can only produce the play, they can’t force other people to take notice – but the interest from the wider world is less than you’d think.

Perhaps my biggest disappointment was what happened to the person who beat me in 2012. That year, the winner was Kevan Ogden, who was on the same Live Theatre Writers’ Group as me. He’s a damned good writer and I was thrilled he won. Credit where it is due, the People’s Theatre did his play justice. The only downer was that their misguided publicity, meaning the audience turnout wasn’t great, but that mistake was forgiveable. What was less forgivable was the disinterest from the prize sponsors, New Writing North. Sure, they’ve got plenty of other writers to promote too, but one would have thought that, at the very very least, they’d send someone to watch the play. As far as I know, they didn’t. You’d also think someone from Live Theatre would have shouted this from the rooftops – surely a Writers’ Groups alumnus winning the People’s play couldn’t be a better advert from them? – but it seems they didn’t send anyone either.

And other People’s Play winners are promoted in the north-east again and again and again. I have a theory as to why there is such a discrepancy, but it’s just a theory that doesn’t belong here. But the lesson I’ve learnt is that winning a playwriting competition – even a reasonably high-profile one – is not necessarily the career breakthrough it’s made out to be. Something to bear in mind before you give it your all for one contest.

And a final question …

There is one final question I’d urge you to ask yourself. It’s the most cynical one of all, but sadly this happens:

13. Is it a scam?

Yes, I’m afraid some writing competitions out there are scams. I’ll start off making it clear that none of the questionable practices I’ve mentioned so far are what I mean by scams, nor is this something I’d associate with any reputable group. No, this scam typically works as follows: An organisation you have never heard of invites pieces of writing for submission for an award. It won’t be a conventional competition as such, with one winner getting a top prize, but rather multiple awards to – so they claim – recognise excellence in writing. And if you win one of these awards, you’ll probably get a flattering reply saying complementary things about the script. And a teensy footnote about the administration fee to claim the award.

Do not touch this with a bargepole. It’s the same tactics used by the scumbags who run vanity press: prey on the desperation of some aspiring writers to be noticed; massage their egos with praise you don’t really mean; and con them into believing you’ve got to pay in order to get somewhere. Whilst the reality is that the people who pay get nothing in return. You do not get someone to produce your work. You get no prize money. Your “achievement” will be ignored by everybody who’s anybody. If anything, it will do you more harm than good, because the people who read your writing CV will know straight away which awards are dished out to any muggins who pays for one.

There are plenty of other variants of this scam, and you can read plenty of other horror stories on this page from Writer Beware. I’d hope that anyone with scrap of sense would spot these scams a mile off. But if you’re sending scripts off to every man and his dog, and if you’ve been led to believe that “administration” fees are normal practice, you might just get caught out.

In summary …

So, by now you’ve probably picked up a jaded and cynical tone to playwriting competitions. That is nothing personal – I am jaded and cynical about everything – but you do have to remember that the people who promote these contests are salespeople. It is in their interests to get as many entries as possible, and so, like most salespeople they will talk up the benefits of entering and downplay the poor odds of winning. It’s sadly the same as most opportunities in new writing: they routinely over-promise and under-deliver.

Nevertheless, playwriting competitions are one of several ways of getting your work out there, and for a reasonably reputable competition, it might just be the break you need if you’re lucky enough to be the winner. The fact remains that the odds are likely to be against you, but there are things you can do to push the odds in your favour. If I was to summarise the advice above as concisely as possible, it would be the following tips:

  • Get your play as good as possible before you send if off. Do read-throughs if possible, try to get feedback from anyone who will read your script – and if you are allowed an amateur performance, and you have the means to produce one, do that first. And above all, don’t send in a first draft!
  • Try to get a feel for what the competition is looking for. Get to know the limits on cast size and staging, and stick to them. That’s quick and easy. The harder thing is to work out what style of play the judges like – if you can work that one out, you’re at a huge advantage.
  • Beware of any playwriting competition that charges fees. Good theatres should aim to make their money from a paying audience. Any company that makes its money from writers should be treated with caution, and be especially suspicious of companies that charge extra for the winner.
  • Look very carefully at the fine print. You may be signing away your rights to your own work for nothing. That might not be an issue if your sole aim it to give anyone the chance to perform your work, but you need to be more careful if there’s a chance you might get your play produced elsewhere.

But if there’s on tip I would rate above all other, it’s this one. And one that not everyone will be happy with:

  • Don’t put all your eggs in the playwriting competition basket. And definitely don’t put your plans on hold whilst you wait for the verdict. Plan ahead all the time: look at other competitions, script submissions, ways of improving your writing, come up with ideas for new plays, and most of all – if you can – getting your work produced yourself.

Yes, there’s a lot to be said for doing it yourself, and yet far too often people talk like this option doesn’t exist. But it does, and it’s more effective than these people would have you believe. And, sad to say, entering a playwriting competition – even winning a playwriting competition – is less effective than they’d have you believe.

But it’s not a choice of one or the other. You can do both. If you’ve written a play, you think a competition might be interested in it, and you’re satisfied you’re not getting stung by fees or fine print, go for it – but do it on top of your other plans, not instead of them. It is by no means essential to make a name for yourself through competitions or script submissions – plenty of writers do it without – but if you take on board this advice: good luck.

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