Friday, February 7, 2014

What are the Playwriting Odds (and the 4 ways writers can improve their chances)

C-3PO: Sir, the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately 3,720 to 1.
Han Solo: Never tell me the odds

A lot of playwrights approach the business end of theater a little like Han Solo flying the Millennium Falcon through an asteroid field--we just hit the gas and go. But not all of us are skilled hyper drive navigators, so it might not hurt to give a little thought to where we're going and how we're getting there.

Gwydion Suilebhan has a great post this week over on his blog, about "Beating the Playwriting Odds" where he lays out some numbers about our field, and makes the case for being grateful about the productions that we get, and taking strong efforts to improve those numbers, and for being very grateful to the theaters who are producing new plays.  Which I agree with 100%.

But I want to look a little more closely at the actual odds we're facing, to be sure we're clear (given certain assumptions) on what the situation really is, and to have playwrights think carefully about whether they're taking the right actions to boost their chances of success.

First, let's look at Gwydion's assumptions:
  • By my best estimate, there are approximately 10,000 playwrights living in the United States. I base that figure on a small number of sources, from membership in the Dramatists Guild to the number of entries in Doollee, and though it might be off somewhat—the number could even be as high as 20,000—it’s accurate enough for the moment.
  • Each of those playwrights produces, on average, approximately one new play a year. Some may finish two or three, and some may have entirely fallow years… but one seems to be a believable estimate. So that’s 10,000 new plays (one per playwright) entering the American theatrical landscape every twelve months.
  • At the same time, there are approximately 500 world premieres of new plays at regional theaters every year. I’m also uncertain about that number, but I don’t think I’m off by very much. (I’m also not including, for the record, fringe festival or university or workshop productions.) Is the number as high as a thousand, even? Maybe: so, okay, let’s use 1,000.

So if you take those numbers together—10,000 new plays annually for 1,000 world premiere production slots—then for a playwright, the odds of having a new play produced in any given year? They’re only 10%.
The other 90%? They never get produced.
To start out, let's use his number of 10,000 new plays a year, for 1,000 slots.  But the 10% figure as to your odds isn't necessarily right, outside of the most general sense, because:
  • No theater looks at all 10,000 plays.
  • No play selection is entirely random.
  • No writer can submit to all 1,000 theaters.
So what are your real odds, and what should you do to improve them?  (Part of what has me thinking about this is a great talk by my friend, director, and really smart guy, Dan Milstein, gave at The Lean Startup Conference last year. In same ways, playwrights are all mini startups. Key takeaway--make sure you're spending your time doing the right thing. If you don't know whether you are, stop and find out.)

Let's assume, for the moment, that instead of getting 10,000 plays for each new play slot, a theater only reads 500.  (FYI, the O'Neill got 1,200 submissions this year.)  This is better, right?  But keep in mind, that means that if you submit to this theatre, your odds of being picked are only 1 in 500.

That's a lot less than 10%.

Ah, but you submit to more than one theatre.  Assuming selections are entirely random, there's a way to calculate your odds based on how many submissions you make.

(But I can't get the damn equation to show up on Blogger.  It's not too crazy.  If you want a lesson on basic probability, I highly recommend this Khan Academy video.)

If you submit to 100 theatres that each accept 500 plays, your odds of acceptance turn out to be about 18.1% (in a world of random play selection).  So that's good news, right?  Better than Gwydion's 10%.

But most people don't submit each of their full-length plays to 100 theaters.

If you submit your new play to 50 theaters, your odds drop to about 9.5%.  Which seems pretty reasonable. (And is exactly what Gwydion predicted.) Except that still means that your play is more than 90% likely to remain unproduced.  Forever.

There are four main ways to improve these odds:

  1. Write better plays.
  2. Enter the right piles.
  3. Enter smaller piles.
  4. Enter more piles.
 Sounds good.  But how do you do this, and which is the best strategy (since you have limited time and energy)?

1.  Write better plays.  We're saying each theater gets 500 plays.  But as we know, the selection process isn't really random.  A lot of the plays in that pile aren't very good.  If you concentrate your energy on writing a better play, your scripts basically competes in a smaller sub-pile of the very good plays. Maybe you take some classes, join a critique group, read more plays, get readings and workshops, go to grad school, etc.  What if the quality of your play improves so that it's in the top 20% of every pile?  In essence, you've changed your competition from 500 scripts to 100 scripts.  Guess what: if you send out to 50 theatres now, your odds of a production jump to 39%.  Quality counts.

2.  Enter the right piles. Theaters are pretty specific in terms of the kinds of material they produce (whether they admit it or not).  They perform for a certain audience, within certain constraints.  Some companies focus on comedies.  Others, like New Jersey Rep, do a lot of new plays, but they have a cast limit of 4. Some only do musicals.  You get the picture.  Unfortunately, a lot of playwrights don't. They submit somewhat randomly, to any theatre that appears in the Dramatists Guild Resource Directory, or that they can find online.  Submitting a script to the wrong theatre essentially gives you a 0% chance of production at that theatre. If you make this mistake 10% of the time, your 50 submissions are really only 45. For an average quality script, this drops your acceptance rate to 8.6%.  This is a simple problem to avoid, with a little basic research. If you don't know anything about a theatre and the kind of work it does, you've got a high probability of wasting your time.  (And you're clogging the system for everyone else.) 

3.  Enter smaller piles. Here's where you can make a big difference in your acceptance rate. If, instead of submitting to the same place as everyone else, you get your script to a theater that reads a smaller number of scripts, your chances go up fast. In Boston, where I live, the Huntington Theatre has an amazing fellowship program that's only open to New England writers. They take three Fellows each cycle. In the most recent cycle they had 68 applications That's 1-in-23!  It's doesn't guarantee production, but you do get a reading from a major LORT theater, a chance to work on your plays with really smart people, other doors open, and you now have access to other smaller piles. There's another theater here, Fresh Ink, that also produces only local writers, and only reads the first 40 plays they get.  Of these, they'll pick 3 for production.  Yep, if you submit to Fresh Ink, your chances are 1 in 13 of landing a production!  If you change your marketing focus to finding opportunities with odds of 1 in 50 or less, you would have a likely acceptance rate of better than 18.2% with just TEN submissions.  Finding such chances requires paying close attention to the theater world around you and doing some strong networking.  In Boston, smart writers watch the StageSource weekly newsletter closely for locally focused opps--I got a commission to write a musical from a StageSource ad last year (and it premiered in November).  In addition, we should encourage resources that publish submission opportunities to list the annual number of submissions they receive (like the DG Resource Directory and NYCPlaywrights). I used to list this stat when I published Market InSight... for Playwrights--it's a critical piece of information for writers to make smart choices about where to submit.

4.  Enter more piles.  This one's pretty clear.  If you only submit to 10 theatres with 1-in-500 odds, your chances of selection are 1.9%  If you send to 100, you get to 18%  Taking this route takes a lot of time--joining groups like the Binge can help get you some motivation and ideas for places to submit.  NYC Playwrights is a great site with submission opps.

With these four options, you can see why grad school seems to be an increasingly appealing option for writers trying to get more productions.  In theory, getting your MFA will help you write better plays, while also gaining you access to smaller piles.  (For example, Boston Playwrights Theatre produces 3 world premieres every year, but only produces plays by writers associated with BU and their graduate program.)

You can also see why Gwydion has started a cooperative playwrights' theatre company, The Welders, following the model of 13P, and why a similar group, Boston Public Works, has been started by 10 Boston playwrights.  Through self production, you don't have to worry about the odds at all (but you have plenty of other things to worry about).  I did the same sort thing with a bunch of fellow playwrights when we formed Chameleon Stage in Denver, back in 1993.  It's a lot of work, but it gets your work on stage.

The bad news is that new plays face very long odds in their search for a first production, but the good news is that playwrights can be smart and proactive in making those odds more favorable.


Claudia said...

A few things stayed with me. "Write better plays." I constantly look at ways to to work with more clarity, more nuance and ask myself constantly, "Is this worthy of an admission ticket and someone;s precious time?" I don't always succeed - but I remain cognizant that there's always room for improvement.

And "knowing the market." It is so important to look at: guidelines and follow them to a "t," mission of theatre (which sometimes gets amusing)and production history. It limits places where you can send your play. It also is submitting smarter and ups your chances of getting the production.

Because I mostly work for a niche market (TYA) I need to be very careful of language and content and the tender age of my audiences. So, it is also important to think of future audiences and how theatres will market the play.

Nice entry - there's hope in this blog!

Donna Hoke said...

This is excellent, Patrick. I would say, though, that the minute a theater says they only get 100 submissions, that number will at least quadruple, so that kind of transparency isn't the answer. Widesharing of opps has already increased the competition to astronomical numbers, so there should still be some reward for due diligence. As a complement to this post, I'm also going to plug my Real Inspiration for Playwrights Project (RIPP) blog series, which is all about finding smaller piles and upping your odds. For those who have never read it, start here:

Patrick Gabridge said...

Thanks, Claudia. I think you're right--there is hope here. I thought the numbers would be more depressing, but there's a lot that thoughtful writers can do to help themselves.

Patrick Gabridge said...

Good point, Donna. Thanks for the link to your blog series! I've read some of them before, but should read all of them. You do raise an interesting question about sharing opp info--it's good to help the community, but it also clogs the system and decreases your own odds. Still, I'm one for openness and sharing of information, whenever possible or appropriate. There are folks working on big new systems that might change the way plays and playwrights are matched, hopefully coming soon.

Vicki Meagher said...

I've enjoyed reading Donna Hoke's RIPP blog series, which has been helpful in my trying to figure out how plays are chosen.

I'm a new (since last year) playwright, so I'm still feeling my way around all this stuff. But one thing stands out to me already: theaters in general choose plays based on what will bring out their audience and audiences care a lot about names and famous people. So it's much safer to produce a bland play by a mildly famous playwright than a new, interesting play by an unknown who might or might not ever have any success. (There are exceptions: I'm just speaking in general.)

In the playwriting world, marketing matters almost more than the writing.

Patrick Gabridge said...

Well, I think that's partially true, Vicki. But of course it's complicated--there are a lot of factors that go into why a play is chosen for production, and certainly how easy it is to market to a particular audience is a big one. And the match for the audience counts, or sometimes an artistic director wants to stretch an audience in a certain direction. Or there might be a role that is great for an actor that the company wants to work with. Or there's a role that they don't think they can't cast. Or they just did a similar show. Looking at a company's past seasons on their web site tells you a ton about what kind of choices they tend to make, though it doesn't give you the complete picture.