Of late, there has been a great deal of conversation in the new play sector around the need to apply technology to solving the problems of both playwrights and literary departments: to address the question of how playwrights and theaters connect. What’s the real challenge here? And what’s really getting in the way, in practical terms? I’ll begin with three assumptions:
- That there are about 10,000 playwrights living and working in the United States.
- That each of those playwrights is generating what he or she believes to be one “finished” script per year, on average.
- That nationwide, theaters are producing approximately 1,000 new plays per year.
(More accurate data for all three of these criteria is needed, but these rough numbers are good enough for speculation.)
With those three assumptions in mind, a challenge becomes clear: how do we collectively filter the most appropriate 10 percent of those 10,000 plays into those 1,000 production slots? Forgetting for the moment how deflating that “placement percentage” might seem to playwrights, and how overwhelming the thought of sorting through 10,000 scripts a year to find one or two to produce might seem to theaters, I think it’s a fairly accurate assessment.
How have we been trying to solve that problem until now? Historically, we’ve relied on playwrights submitting scripts to theaters, who worked tirelessly to review and consider each one and respond. It hasn’t, to be blunt, worked.
Theaters tried to clarify what kinds of plays they were looking for so that playwrights didn’t just send them whatever was new. They started using submission “windows”—brief months during which they’d open the transom—rather than reviewing plays all year. They replaced script submissions with query packets and script samples. They began relying on agents as submission intermediaries, asking them to find the most promising among the 10,000 playwrights. And if those filters weren’t enough, agents started applying their own: relying on certain credentials, like degrees from the right graduate programs, to decide who to represent.
One unintended consequence of this outmoded system is playwright/theater alienation, which is, we should not forget, the problem we are trying to solve.
One fix from one theater
In the last twelve months or so, I’ve had conversations about technology and playwright/theater alienation with many of the institutions across the country that have been publically thinking about it, from the Playwrights’ Center to the National New Play Network. I’ve also talked with countless individual artists and arts administrators in venues both virtual and brick-and-mortar. I’ve seen people trying to create plug-ins for Arena Stage’s New Play Map. I’ve seen enterprising software developers building customized systems for script distribution and sales. I’ve met with groups working on standardized back-office script-tracking software for regional theaters. I know of at least a half-dozen ways in which various folks have tried to crack the same nut from different angles using different tools. And here’s the problem: none of these people are talking to each other. None of them are collaborating.
The problem that needs to be addressed, however you look at it—the alienation between playwrights and theaters, or the need to filter 10,000 plays into 1,000 production slots—is everyone’s problem. It doesn’t belong to playwrights. It doesn’t belong to theaters. It belongs to the whole new play sector. Because of this shared ownership, I would suggest, we are only ever really going to solve it by working together.
And yet, we’re reluctant to admit that we really do have a problem. In fact, when one prominent organization came out and said “This isn’t working, so we’re not doing it any longer,” they were roundly criticized. I’m speaking of course, of Arena Stage. Frankly, I credit them immensely for being willing to say that the emperor has no technology. The first step to solving any problem, after all, is admitting you have one. Moreover, I think they also deserve some credit for clearly outlining the technology they plan to use to find their one or two new plays a year: putting playwrights on staff (and committing to produce their work) and attending new play festivals and reading series around the country.
My guess, though, is that Arena’s solution will probably only end up working for theaters of Arena’s size and scope. Arena’s methods are likely not replicable for smaller institutions.
From submissions to searching
I believe one solution to addressing our problem is to build is a centralized new play database: one master repository of information that serves a variety of distinct purposes and user groups. Let’s call it the New Play Oracle.
Many new entries in the New Play Oracle would be made by those 10,000 playwrights: one entry every time a play gets created. The entry would contain all the standard components we expect in association with a script: a synopsis, a character breakdown, a development history, a sample of the dialogue, and even (assuming the right level of security) a copy of the full script. Fairly straightforward, no?
A playwright would also have the option of assigning a script to a variety of categories (genre, for example, and running time), and tagging each entry with any number of script-specific keywords. Playwrights would be able to update every entry at any time, too: adding a production history after the play gets produced, for example, or even production-specific images and links to online reviews.
At the same time, anyone whose job it is to review scripts for a theater would also have a window into the New Play Oracle. They’ll be able to enter your coverage about the plays you’re reading, update a detailed history of the theater’s relationship with the playwright in question, “forward” the script on to others for review, and so on.
So if the New Play Oracle has an entry point for theaters, there’s really no reason it can’t have one for development programs and reading festivals and contests as well, right?
Imagine that a development program, for example—one that takes submissions—could create its own entry in the New Play Oracle. The New Play Oracle would allow each development program to indicate what submission materials it wanted to see from playwrights—synopses, character breakdowns, bios, and so on.
And this is where the real magic happens: given that development programs will be selecting from the same contents that playwrights will already be uploading, the submission can actually happen via the New Play Oracle itself! The playwright can search for upcoming opportunities, sort them by a variety of criteria, find one that seems appropriate, and submit one of his/her/their plays with the click of a button, given that all of the necessary submission materials are already in the database.
But what if instead of relying on submissions, or only on submissions, the folks who run development programs did a few searches as well? Imagine the director of a new play development program consulting the New Play Oracle and looking for unproduced scripts that meet a variety of criteria: playwrights residing in a certain state, playwrights of a certain gender, plays on certain subjects, plays of certain lengths, plays added to the database within the last year, and—this is particularly important— plays that have been tagged by their authors as “needing development.”
The consultation might look like any other search; results could be filtered in a variety of ways. The program director could skim synopses and descriptions and tags and read sample and then, with the click of a button—thank you, New Play Oracle—ask a playwright or two (or more) for permission to consider their work for an upcoming program.
The New Play Oracle would facilitate a sector-wide paradigm shift from submissions toward searching.
Instead of the old technology we’ve used to funnel some subset of our 10,000 plays into (far fewer) annually available slots—playwrights and their agents submitting their work far and wide—the holders of those slots will begin using new tactics and technology (like the New Play Oracle) to seek and find appropriate scripts and artists.
(Isn’t that largely what Arena has done, by the way? Switch from submissions to searching? The new paradigm may have arrived already without us realizing it!)
Theaters intent on maintaining an open-submissions policy could use the New Play Oracle to accept and consider scripts. My guess, though, is that the increasing ease of submissions enabled by the New Play Oracle would result in an overwhelming number of playwrights sharing their work with theaters. I predict that if we had a working New Play Oracle, almost every single theater would abandon the concept of open submissions entirely (though agented submissions might continue) and embrace a searching-based model.
But what would that mean, exactly? For starters, it would transform the way in which responsibilities for bridging the playwright/theater divide are assigned. Instead of reactively responding to inquiries, theaters would be proactively looking high and low to ensure that they found the best work for their audiences and communities and artists. Instead of proactively sending work around, playwrights would react to inquiries and ensure that their work is accurately represented and “discoverable” by the world at large. More importantly, they’d be freer to focus on making their work better.
In a submission-based paradigm, playwrights are incented to find agents to represent them in the submission process. Agents hold special keys that open certain mail slots into which only agented scripts can be dropped, and they earn those keys by having a reputation for only representing plays and playwrights of “merit.” Agents work for playwrights, and get paid by playwrights, but they really serve the submissions-based system: they act as filters, funneling a small subset of those 10,000 plays into the 1,000 available production slots.
But if the new paradigm is all about searching, are agents even necessary? Or do we really need search consultants instead? Their job would be to consult the New Play Oracle with a particular theater’s creative needs and aesthetic preferences and community interests in mind and return a filtered, qualified set of results for review and consideration. Does that sound a little bit like a literary manager’s job, or part of it? It does to me, too, but I think it’s really a new position that deserves a new title.
It may be true that agents still have a role to play. We may enter a period in which submissions and searching models operate side-by-side, and that period might last forever. But we cannot continue to rely on the ability of Arena Stage and every other theater to travel around the country finding plays and playwrights. Working to develop The New Play Oracle or a similar technological system would offer an opportunity for field-wide collaboration on the problem of script selection. (This may be the time to mention that we already have a kindred system in place: the New Play Map. The map does a great job of focusing on and solving one key problem—making visible the enormous new play infrastructure in the United States and thus addressing the culture of scarcity in the sector.)
So, what else might the New Play Oracle do for us? A great deal, I believe. The next major shift it could enable would stem from the ability of the system to handle blind submissions—or, to be true to what I’ve suggested, blind searches. Imagine if theaters looking for work could choose to hide certain criteria from search results, like age and gender and race and degree status, or any other personally-identifiable information. They would easily be able to consider work on its own merits, at least on the first pass, which might help minimize concerns about elitism in play selection.
At the same time, theaters could actually use those data points to proactively find work by historically under-represented artists. Set “women playwrights only” or “playwrights of color only” as a search criteria and BOOM. No one need ever say again that they couldn’t find diverse work. Because the real secret genius behind the New Play Oracle—the thing that would make it really transformative for the sector—is that it serve as a low-cost way to expose playwrights who are currently hidden and make their plays more broadly discoverable.
The absolute best thing about the New Play Oracle, though, is that it would be shared by virtually every member of the new play sector. With a few tweaks to make some of its information public, directors could consult it when looking for new plays, members of the press might get to know playwrights better before writing about their work, and marketing directors might find useful information to promote a new play.
How else are we supposed to overcome the alienation we’re trying to address? Certainly there are other non-technological solutions, and I don’t mean to suggest that the New Play Oracle will address every concern we’ve got. But it would be a start.