Dear Playwrights, Here’s Why You Should Consider Self-Producing
Anthony J. Piccione
If you’re a playwright and you’ve been trying to get your plays produced for at least a few years now, you’re probably well aware that it’s not easy to get your play produced by a major theatre company. Even if you wrote a fantastic play, it takes months and months to even hear back from the theater after you submit to them, and even then, there’s no guarantee that you’ll get a response saying that they want to produce your work. Often, if it ever gets produced by a theatre company at all, it might take a few times submitting to different companies before to hear back from one that says “yes”.
The reality is that for the vast majority of playwrights, it’s not particularly easy to get produced on a consistent basis in today’s era. Indeed, for the average playwright, getting just one play produced anywhere by a major theatre company can be a challenge. H, there is a way for them to get their work out into the world, although it requires a lot of work that you yourself need to put into it, to put it mildly.
One of the most increasingly popular ways for new and emerging playwrights to get their work produced is to produce it themselves, either in a theatre festival or by renting a small and affordable venue. This might sound difficult and complicated, which is probably why there aren’t even more playwrights already doing it. Yet it can actually be much less challenging of an endeavor than it sounds, and hopefully, this article will help point you in the right direction of being able to do it.
How I Know This
Just over the past year, I’ve discovered the many benefits of producing my own plays in New York City, and how it can be a remarkable experience for any artist in theatre. Let’s rewind to May 2016: I had just graduated from Eastern Connecticut State University with a BA in Theatre and minors in Writing and Film Studies. Just a few months and many bus trips back and forth later, I had successfully found work and affordable housing that allowed me to move to NYC later that September, with the intention of ensuring that my dreams of being a successful playwright became far more than just dreams.
Within just a few weeks of living in New York, I submitted one of my one-act plays that I wrote in college to Manhattan Repertory Theatre, which I had heard of while still in school, but wanted to wait to submit to until graduation, so I could focus more energy on making sure any productions of my plays were a success. Just a few days later, I was accepted to participate with my short 15-minute play “The End of the Line at the End” as part of one of their various short play events held throughout the year, and within a month, I hired a director – who, in turn, cast actors in my show – and rehearsed and put up my first show in New York City, just a month after moving there. I did it all on a very tight budget, it turned out great, and it’s still an experience that I’ll never forget.
That one play was just the beginning. I later produced another show at Manhattan Rep in the spring of 2017 entitled “The Personality Play”, an abstract, experimental drama largely inspired by various experimental works produced at my college, where I also served as the dramaturge for those plays. I also produced another short 10-minute play at the 2017 NYWinterfest – a comedy entitled “Two Cousins and a Pizza” – which gave me even more experience, in terms of what it was like to work in a festival setting. Most recently, as of this column, I spent the summer producing my children’s play “An Energy Tale” – which had previously been a finalist in a statewide playwriting contest in Connecticut – at the Midtown International Theatre Festival, which as of this year, has become New York’s oldest continuing theatre festival.
I say all this because when I was still in Connecticut, very few people – maybe aside from my parents, a handful of friends and my two playwriting mentors in college – would have suspected that I would have done all of this over the course of just a year since graduating from college. For me, it’s still one of those things that I need to stop and remind myself, from time to time. As far as I’m concerned, if I can do it, there’s no reason why others can’t do it, as well.
Granted, it is easier to produce plays when you’re living in whichever city it’s being produced in, which is largely why I wanted until moving to NYC after finishing college in Connecticut. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible. With good oversight, and as long as you can recruit a good cast and crew that is in or near where the show is being produced, you could hypothetically do it from anywhere in the world, and if you keep reading on, you’ll see what I mean.
The Benefits of Producing Your Own Plays
Before we go further into what will be needed to produce your own play, let’s talk a bit about the good aspects – and also, the more challenging aspects – that come with self-producing your own work. Indeed, there are certainly some challenges that may come with self-producing – which I’ll bring up soon in the column – just as there are with any production of any show. However, I personally find that they are far outweighed by the rewards and benefits.
For starters, how about the fact that going this route will give you the chance that many other playwrights might never have in the first place: To have your work presented in front of a an audience, who otherwise might never have the chance to see your work. I’ve known quite a few talented playwrights – some of whom are at least twice my age, and have been writing much longer than I have – who have rarely had the chance to see their work produced outside of perhaps their local community theatre on a rare occasion. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I think we’d all agree that we – as playwrights – would ideally want a bit more than just that, right?
Furthermore, there are many opportunities that allow for you to submit your play to a festival in New York City, and easily get accepted. As a matter of fact, many festivals accept on a first-come, first-served basis, and accept dozens of plays per season. So this could potentially lead to you getting your work produced on many occasions, over the course of your artistic career. Isn’t that the ultimate goal of playwrights? Don’t we all want to ensure that as much of your work is eventually produced, and is produced as often as possible?
With this in mind, it’s also worth considering this point, as well: How many other opportunities will you have for your work to get produced in the first place, given how selective so many theatre companies can be. Not only that, but, there’s a strong chance it might not even be the play that you yourself regard as your best work, but rather who the artistic director or literary manager of any given company might think of as your best work. As long as audiences are going to be seeing your work, and thus judging you as an artist based on that, wouldn’t you want to have a way to determine which plays you wrote that your audiences will know you most for?
This also leads to another important point, which I would think that any artist who is truly in it for their love of their craft would care about: With this route, there is more room for artistic freedom, while also pursuing your dreams of getting your work in front of an audience. Therefore, for those who are looking to write and present more experimental works that may seek to challenge the status quo of society or of what’s creatively possible in theatre, this might especially be something worth considering, as many of the festivals that offer self-production opportunities are especially geared toward helping different playwrights in realizing their diverse creative visions.
These are just a few benefits, among others, that are worth noting while considering the idea of self-producing your own plays. However, as I’m sure other playwrights out there might point out, this route also comes with its share of challenges and even controversies that are worth mentioning, as well…
A Few Obstacles Worth Noting
As I said earlier in this column, the very concept of self-producing is not without controversy among playwrights. Many of these opportunities I speak of require playwrights to raise their own money (although thanks to crowdfunding websites – such as Indiegogo, Kickstarter and GoFundMe, to name a few – this isn’t too hard, nowadays) to cover production costs, which can vary, depending on how long the play is, as well as the technical requirements.
Also, some festivals occasionally have a submission fee or a participation fee that must be paid in advance, before the play can be produced. For a variety of reasons, different playwrights understandably have strong feelings – one way or another – on this subject, and it is often a controversial topic of discussion, as one might notice just by taking a visit to the “Official Playwrights of Facebook” group, where the topic comes up on various occasions.
Furthermore, it certainly would be more leisurely for the playwright to have someone else producing their play, on their behalf, which is why – among other reasons – some playwrights still insist on submitting to major theatre companies, in the hopes of their play getting chosen over many others.
Finally, I will say it would also be helpful to have experience in other areas of theatre besides playwriting before embarking on an endeavor such as this. While it is possible to learn in other ways, I personally look back and find that my own past experiences as a production assistant and assistant stage manager greatly helped me prepare for my future and what I’m doing today.
If you ask me, it’s all a matter of just how much of yourself – in terms of time, finances, and pure emotions – you’re willing to invest in your own art. If you’re willing to go all the way to ensure that the world gets to see your work as a playwright, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that your dream becomes a reality.
So How Can I Do This?
I’d feel guilty if I wrote an entire column on this subject, without pointing my readers to any good places to submit to, where playwrights can self-produce their own plays. I’m sure if anyone is reading this thinking they might be interested in giving self-producing a try, this is probably just be one of the things that’s on their mind right now.
If we’re talking specifically in terms of festivals, there are many festivals in NYC and across America and the world that are worth considering. Ken Davenport has a good list of festivals on his website “The Producer’s Perspective”, and while it may be slightly outdated (i.e. the website for the “Thespis Theater Festival” has since morphed into the website for the “NYWinterfest” and “NYSummerfest” festivals), most of the festivals on that list are still alive, thriving and worth considering. I encourage you to take a look for yourself here: https://www.theproducersperspective.com/my_weblog/2014/07/so-you-want-to-enter-a-theatre-festival-but-which-one.html There are also a few other good opportunities you can find by going to the Play Submissions Helper (www.playsubmissionshelper.com) and checking to see yourself what self-production opportunities are out there that are right for you.
Then, of course, there is the route that involves simply renting the venue yourself and producing truly on your own. If you go onto www.spacefinder.org, plenty of venues can be searched for in NYC and other major cities to help you find what’s right for your budget and your production. Personally, I find that for those who may be new to producing, the festival route is best, as they provide the venue for you, thus saving you the cost of at least one major aspect of your production. Some festivals also provide other services – such as tech support, publicity, etc. – for an additional discounted cost, as well. These are all things worth considering, for those who may be considering this route.
What Else Will I Need?
So you’ve booked your venue or your slot in a festival...and now what? Well, there are a number of obvious steps that still need to be taken as a producer, before your dream can be truly realized.
Obviously, it will cost at least a bit of money (and by a bit, I mean at least $100 or so, in all likelihood) to put up even a small production. From rehearsal space to sets and costuming to hiring a cast and crew to promoting and marketing your show, each show will need a budget – however big or small – and will need to raise the funds, likely even before entering a festival or booking a venue, to make sure all the funds in the budget are available. As I indicated earlier, websites such as Indiegogo, Kickstarter and GoFundMe have made it possible for independent producers in the 21st century to easily raise sums of money from small donations. In the long history of theatre, this is still a relatively new development, and it’s one that is quite significant. Indeed, one should consider how such a task might have been much harder for playwrights who lived in past times. I would strongly urge you to consider this as just one convenient way to raise the money you’ll need for your show. Only you can know for certain just how much you’ll need in funding, but by using this method and telling all your friends and family about it – and asking them to spread the word, as well – it is possible to raise the money you’ll need.
After you have both the funding and the venue, you will – of course – need to hire a director to help you realize your creative vision, unless a director has already been chosen or you plan on directing the show yourself. That director, once selected, will also have to be able to cast actors for your production, assuming the show isn’t already cast. Depending on the show’s technical requirements, a stage manager, set designer, costume designer, and more could be needed, as well. www.playbill.com is one good resource for hiring staff for your productions, and can often lead to you getting potentially dozens of applicants for whatever position you list as available. For casting actors, www.backstage.com is another good resource worth considering, as well.
Oh, and did I mention rehearsal space? This is probably the one part of your budget that could take up the most of your budget, and depending on how long your play is, you might need to have that space for many hours over the course of several weeks. I know some who are able to rehearse in their own apartments, in churches or community spaces, or even outside in parks, thus saving tons of money. However, to those looking for an actual space to rehearse, www.spacefinder.org – which I mentioned earlier – is a good place to find various rehearsal spaces available in various cities, and can easily help you find spaces available at different times for different costs, depending on your budget.
Last but most certainly not least…it’s up to YOU to PROMOTE your show like crazy. As many festivals go out of their way to point out, they are not producing your show, but merely presenting it. So as the producer, much of the responsibility for bringing in an audience will fall on you. Many festivals do have their own press agents, whom you can also hire to promote your show individually. However, that doesn’t mean you yourself shouldn’t aggressively promote your show through flyers, press releases, social media, online listings, and any other way you can think of. So don’t be shy! Spread the word as much as you can, and to as many people as you can!
This all might seem a lot of work, and as someone who was once known to be one of the most introverted students in his college’s theatre department, I know that it might not all come easy to each of you. Believe me, though, when I say that once it’s all said and done, the work will have been worth it. As one of the great directors who I had the privilege of knowing during my community theatre days – and one of the first to predict my future as a playwright – once told me, “Someday, you'll see actual performers doing your work and when that happens...well, I've been blessed to say from experience, THERE'S NOTHING LIKE IT!”
Some Final Thoughts
On that note, to any and all playwrights out there who are reading this, I’ll leave you with this message:
In my columns, I often write that the world needs more new and innovative plays in it. When I say that, I’m talking about YOUR plays. Audiences deserve to see your plays produced on stage, and to be able to decide for themselves whether or not they like it, rather than let those decisions be made for them by a small group of individuals whose opinions, frankly, aren’t much more valuable than those of the average theatergoer.
Furthermore, YOU – the playwright – deserve the opportunity to make your dreams come true and achieve your goal of seeing your artistic vision realized. That’s why I strongly urge all playwrights to consider what I’ve discussed in this column, and to think about how going this route might help advance their careers and fulfill their dreams. After all, it’s better to try this way than to just let that script sit around all day on your desk or laptop and never come close to the stage …
If anyone out there is reading this and has anyone questions – specifically, anyone who is a first-time playwright or first-time producer – please know that anyone who would like to message me to learn more (see links to my social media pages below) is welcome to do so for this column. I am happy to answer any questions from playwrights who are curious to know, and are interested in potentially doing this for the first time.
There are also plenty of good articles and books on producing out there – which cover this topic far more thoroughly – that are worth reading. Two books I personally recommend are “The Commercial Theater Institute Guide to Producing Plays and Musicals” and “From Option to Opening and Updated: A Guide to Producing Plays Off-Broadway”. For now, though, I hope this article will get you thinking about this topic, and considering this as a potential path forward on your journey as a playwright. It’s worked out well for me, so far, it seems. Hopefully, it can work out for other playwrights, as well…
Anthony J. Piccione is a playwright, producer, screenwriter, activist, essayist, critic, poet and occasional actor based in New York City. His plays have previously been produced in NYC at various theaters and festivals such as the Midtown International Theatre Festival, the NYWinterfest and Manhattan Repertory Theatre, as well as Connecticut venues such as Playhouse on Park, Hole in the Wall Theater, the Windsor Art Center and Windham Theatre Guild. Additionally, his short comedy “Ebol-A-Rama” was recently published this year by Heuer Publishing (www.hitplays.com), and he has also previously worked as a teaching assistant at Hartford Children’s Theatre and New Britain Youth Theater, in addition to his work with OnStage Blog. He received his BA in Theatre from Eastern Connecticut State University in 2016, and is a member of the Dramatists Guild. To learn more about Mr. Piccione’s recent and upcoming productions, please visit www.anthonyjpiccione.com and be sure to follow him on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AnthonyJPiccione.OfficialPage), Twitter (@A_J_Piccione) and Instagram (anthonyjpiccione).