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Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Let's all just pretend

I thought I'd share an anecdote from the trenches. This happened, perhaps, two or three months ago.

I do not have an agent. I'm not sure what it takes to get one. I have written pilot scripts, I have been reviewed by the Times favorably, I've been published, I've been produced. Maybe I need to win an award or go to some meeting no one has called me about. Maybe without an MFA from Brown or Columbia, agents figure you're still playing minor league ball.

No sour grapes. One continues forth anyhow. As a practical matter, not having an agent means that there are larger institutions that will not allow you to send unsolicited entire scripts. One must, instead, send a cover letter, 10 page sample, resume, synopsis, a small container of your own urine, and a grainy nude photo. Okay, okay. The last two aren't entirely standard. I've just heard you that if you know anything, you send that stuff too.

More often than not, doing this dance, I get someone who kindly writes that they will read the entire script. This often is a letter that makes me dance around my apartment. Because, really, I know how busy they are. If they don't want to read it, they really don't have to. I take it as a compliment and it makes my heart warm. The idea that they might, you know, actually do something with the full script afterwards isn't even a major concern. You can't expect miracles.

Such is the emotional life of the unagented playwright.

Recently, a breach of etiquette occurred between yours truly and a major theatrical institution in New York City. I won't name them because it's incredibly stupid to pick fights with major theatrical institutions. Let's just call them Theatre I'd Like To F-ck or TILF. (I would put out for them in a major way if they'd just ask me out on a date. They have no idea.)

Anyway, as an unagented playwright, I sent this TILF a cover letter, sample pages, etc for one of my new plays. Their website has the standard caveats that amount to this: "We do not accept unsolicted scripts. Send us stuff and we'll look at it. It will take us 1-3 months to get back to you. Don't get mad if it takes us forever to reject you. We give full consideration to each script."

This TILF is big on its dedication to new work, of course. But we all get it: chances are, your unsolicited script will, after a little consideration, be sent back to you in your SASE with a little frowny face. Everyone gets it. That's fine. Still, one does submit. In the hopes that you're unrepresented excellence will be noticed.

I mailed the TILF my sample materials and a nice letter on February 11th of this year.

On February 13th, I received an e-mail that said this:

Dear Matthew,

Thank you for submitting [NAME OF PLAY REMOVED TO PROTECT MY BABY.] Unfortunately, after careful consideration we have decided not to pursue this project.

Thanks again for your interest in [NAME REMOVED TO PROTECT MY CAREER.]

Signed,

TYLF

Now...

I am not naive. I never truly expected much in the way of 'careful consideration.' But let's be pretty plain: if I mailed the script on the 11th, and it took a day to get there, and I was e-mailed in at 3:30pm the next day... either this TILF had a sudden uptick in efficiency, or some intern found my submission immediately thrown in a rejection pile and got it in his or her mind to knock out some busywork, or there was a sudden and terribly important meeting called about ME alone because they didn't want to waste my time, or there was something about my materials that made them suddenly go "Oh my Lord, No. Tell him No! Quickly! Quickly!"

It doesn't actually matter. It was likely in their office for less than 24 hours before it was put into the pass pile.

We all know this happens. But we pretend it doesn't. We all do this sort of dance of denial. They say that it takes 1-3 months to get back to you. They don't mean that each submission gets its own personal meeting. They mean the stack of paper is very high and getting higher. Don't expect a phone call in the next week, just because you finished a play.

It's just that words like 'careful consideration' should have meaning. And if they don't, they should carry the illusion of meaning. All I ask (this is where my standards are) is that I am allowed to pretend that my submissions are not an empty exercise. I ask literary departments to support my illusion. When I got that e-mail, my first instinct was laughter. Were they serious? Did they really just say "after careful consideration?"

I tell this story not because it's a shock to anyone. We all know that literary departments are outgunned and surrounded and covered in tough choices and are paid less than part-time public school teachers.

I do think, though, that if an institution cannot honestly consider new scripts from unagented writers, it should say so. I think it's time for a little more transparency.

I am certain that, considering the sheer number of scripts that likely pass over this TILFs various desks, they're basically unaware that this happened at all. That's perfectly fair. Heck, they might get it right 90% of the time. But I suspect there is a real part of being in a literary department that's just about the paper shredder. I mean, it's a tough job, reading plays. But it's not supposed to be waste management and disposal.

8 comments:

Joshua James said...

I worked at a place like that, once, where the plays were just stacked up in a room somewhere and basically never read.

Those were the plays sent by agents.

It's sad, and it's part of what has really saddened me about theatre.

kris marie said...

oh i know i know. the ten pages is a delusional game, but the request to read your script is such a sweet high.

Submit to British theatres. They will read the whole thing, they send you a kind email when the play is received and they (so far this has been my experience) send a humane response and encouragement. I do this when I am down. is that sad?

Freeman said...

Kris -

You submit to British theatres in order to feel better?

Is that like Haagen Dazs for playwrights?

Joshua James said...

I have to agree, I submitted two plays to two British Theatres in the 90s, the only two whose address I had.

the first one wrote me back a nice letter talking about the play, which they liked but could not produce.

The second one passed, but the person who read it later ended up produced the play herself at another theatre.

Now that I think about it, maybe I should think about sending my plays overseas again ... if I decide to get back into sending plays out.

Freeman said...

I see that a comment was publicly removed but I was e-mailed about it. Suffice to say, I would like to stress to ANY theater company reading this that I have the utmost respect for their work and I tried to stress that in the piece. I noted that I've had good experiences as well. I also left out the name of the company purposefully. This story is about an absurd moment, one that is certainly rare, but I thought was worthy of discussion and even a little laughter.

I've had far more good experiences than bad, and I know that it's not easy.

Jessica Patterson said...

What was the gist of the comment made by Steppenwolf? Or was it a comment referring to Steppenwolf?

lindsay said...

Oh the life of tossing our babies out into the sea never to be read again. Makes me want to just leave them all in a drawer. Some months I do.

I read and respond to the scripts that come into my company. Being a playwright as well, I'm so cognizant of that person on the other end. I've gotten some really crappy rejection letters and try (and believe me, I know I don't always succeed) to be clear and constructive.

I know I've done a good job when a writer thanks me for their rejection letter! One woman said she felt so inspired by it she put it on her wall.

It's a small thing but a great feeling.

Gwydion said...

Yup: you've captured the impossible hope of every playwright exactly.

The system is broken, and in so many ways. I've written about it myself on 2amtheatre.com (if you don't know it, I highly recommend it) and here:

http://www.theatreface.com/profiles/blogs/tempt-me-to-submit

Thanks for sharing.