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The Trouble With Mission Statements - By Donna Hoke

05 Oct 2013 6:28 AM | Anonymous
As part of my blog series where I talk to artistic directors, literary  managers, and dramaturgs about the submission process, I've heard a recurring complaint that they receive too many plays that don't fit their missions, and that we are not doing our research in determining whether or not our plays are a good fits for the particular companies we’re sending them to. I want to flip that contention to say that many theaters, when establishing their missionary positions, are not clear about what they want. Here are some real examples pulled from some random theater websites:
 
“[X Theatre] is committed to producing both classic and contemporary works, giving full voice to a wide range of artists and visions… By dedicating itself to three guiding principles - quality, diversity and community - [X Theatre] seeks to be the premier cultural organization in [insert city here].”
 
Do you know what kind of plays this theater is seeking? Here’s a few more:
 
“[This company] engages, inspires, entertains, and challenges audiences with theatrical productions that range from the classics to new works; we train and support the next generation of theatre artists; we celebrate the essential power of the theatre to illuminate our common humanity.”
 
 “To create and produce professional theatre productions, programs, and services of a national standard.”
 
“The mission of [our company] is to sustain the tradition of professional theatre and contribute to its future viability and vitality.”
 
Is it just me, or do all of these mean “We make theater”? And this is to say nothing of all the theaters who use vague mission buzzwords like “bold” or “edgy.” And the catchall “as well as outstanding works of literary merit” basically means that many, many theaters are leaving themselves open to produce anything that suits their fancy - and any particular artistic director’s fancy is elusive at best.
 
I actually asked one AD whose theater does a lot of experimental work how it was that a certain, very  naturalistic, playwright was listed among his favorites. Answer: “I’m a big fan of great writing, great characters, and interesting stories, whether the story is simply told or weird and wonderful.” And honestly, is there an AD out there who doesn’t feel that way? In my own town, Irish Classical Theatre last year produced Next to Normal, which is neither Irish nor classic, simply because they wanted to. And they did an astounding job.
 
This is not to say that theaters don’t stick to their missions most of the time; the problem is that we don’t really know what they are, and they are fluid. I understand the desire for that fluidity - I really do - but then is it fair to say that we are not doing our jobs when the missions are purposely vague enough to include just about anything?
 
Even companies with very specific missions can easily be misconstrued. Take this one:
 
“[This company] makes theater of the imagination. Our company thrives on adventure and believes no story is worth telling without a little risk. We love our villains as much as our heroes, especially in those puzzling moments when we can’t quite tell them apart. Above all, we aim to leave you with stories that stick somewhere in your heart, your brain, or your guts.”
 
It sounds a little vague, but the key to the kingdom is in that first sentence, theater of the imagination: this company loves made-up worlds, and if you look at the plays they produce, you can see that very clearly. But the thing is, you really have to take that look to know that. Otherwise, you might be saying “My play is very imaginative, and you can’t tell the villains from the heroes. I’m sending it.” And it will be totally wrong for this company and that will be on you.
 
When every company - understandably - wants the ability to say “We want to produce this play,” without having to answer to either patrons or playwrights about their reasons, a solution remains out of reach. For new playwrights, it may be best to stay away from vague-mission companies, and seek out those with missions so specific that there can be no mistake that your play is perfect for them.

Historic, Jewish, and Grand Guignol theater companies are quintessential examples. There’s even a company that only does productions of adapted novels, and one that insists on fight scenes between women. Even with my rudimentary math skills, I can figure out that these companies probably don’t get the thousands of submissions that more generically-missioned companies do. So find them. Write for them. They are probably looking for you in a way that those big companies just aren’t.

© Donna Hoke. This article may be reproduced with full attribution to the writer and copyright holder.

Read Donna Hoke's Blog Series

Comments

  • 05 Oct 2013 11:54 AM | farzana moon
    Dear Donna,
    Very enlightening article, a learning process for me and awakening! The plays chosen by those companies, looking for 'classic, edgy, funny, etc.' really don't select they are looking for, and the outcome is disappointing... thanks for sharing.
    All the Best,
    farzana
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    • 05 Oct 2013 1:56 PM | Anonymous
      An interesting experience I had lately: I got feedback from a company I'd submitted to that wanted strong roles for women. The feedback indicated that the play wasn't right for them, in part, because it was too realistic, they like some inclusion of non-realism. That was nowhere in the mission statement.
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      • 06 Oct 2013 5:20 PM | Ludmilla
        Great insight Donna. I always check mission statement, what they want and don't want-- but past productions are big help too. Thank you!
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        • 06 Oct 2013 10:17 PM | Donna Hoke
          The problem with checking past productions is that if they are productions of new plays, there is often no information available about them.
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  • 06 Oct 2013 3:56 PM | Robin Rice Lichtig
    I haven't seen this addressed before, Donna. So true! So true! You'd think they'd quit complaining about having to plow through huge piles of submissions and hone their mission statements.
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  • 06 Oct 2013 5:06 PM | Mary Bracken Phillips
    Your article is so astute! I wish it were required reading for every artistic director in the country! Also...I have been following your blog and really enjoy it. Please keep up the good work!
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  • 06 Oct 2013 8:07 PM | Raf
    So true! I worked for years in a playwrights' agency circulating scripts, and started out taking careful note of theatres' "mission statements"; but then, after noting time and time again that the theatres' actual programmes bore little relationship to their stated "missions", I decided to ignore what they said they wanted, and just send them all "good" plays that came my way. Surprise surprise, many of them programmed plays that fell right outside their brief!
    So my advice to playwrights is - ignore theatres' mission statements! (unless they are VERY clear - like those in Donna's last para). It can be argued that theatres also have an obligation to playwrights - to keep their finger on the pulse and produce what playwrights WANT to write, adapting their 'missions' to suit a developing culture and current concerns.
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  • 06 Oct 2013 10:15 PM | Christine Emmert
    Thank you, Donna. You've defined what our bewilderment is when trying to find a venue for our work. What do women want? Possibly, as you suggest, a clearer statement of what will women get.
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  • 07 Oct 2013 1:03 AM | Donna Hoke
    Very good point, Donna...actually, in Europe , where I have ssubmitted plays on many occasions, I have rarely seen "topics" listed. I think uit is very limiting to be putting thigd like "it has to contain a sentence saying such and such"..."it has to be on super human heroes,", etc... if they really want to know what is being written they should give absolute freedom to the submitters, except for things such as length of the play - do they want one acts? two acts? 10 minute? and perhaps whether they are interesteid in comedy or drama...and I think even this last one is already limiting...and, as you say, most of the times their classifications are not clear at all about what it is they want.
    Angelina
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    • 07 Oct 2013 10:11 AM | Linda Evans
      Which all goes back to...if a theater wants to produce your play, they WILL produce it. I find personal relationships are the key. Thank you for a thought provoking blog, Donna Hock. Best, Linda Evans
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      • 07 Oct 2013 10:12 AM | Linda Evans
        Article by Donna Hoke!
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  • 07 Oct 2013 12:06 PM | Elana Gartner
    Donna, this is great! Thank you! Hopefully, the new technology for script submissions that is going to be tested in 2014 and released in 2015 will help with some of this. (attended a workshop about it at the Dramatists Guild conference)But I'm totally with you. The theater that simply asks for 10 pages without any other guidelines and a generic mission drives me crazy.
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    • 07 Oct 2013 6:19 PM | Sheila Rinear
      Spot on, Donna. After all the submissions I recently put out there, I found myself wondering if anyone else found some mission statements not always in line with the theater's production history (caused me lots of confusion). Thanks for taking this on. I think it is such a valid concern.
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  • 08 Oct 2013 9:11 AM | Debbie Ann Tan
    Thank you, Donna, for expressing this issue. It's really what the person-in-charge or the group of decision-makers in that theater company wants for that particular moment in time. Maybe they themselves cannot predict what they really want until a script comes along. I've worked with some very "in-the-moment" types. Aside from that, there are also those directors who want to work with their favorite playwrights. There are also considerations as to choosing the famous playwrights because with their names attach to a production, they sell tickets. Sometimes it's really the inner circle that are given the chance, there's politics everywhere. But Donna is right, try and try, write, submit to the ones who is the right fit for the right playwright. It's always taking chances anyway. Rejection hurts but we are playwrights first and foremost so we write and see where our works go. Thanks ICWP for this chance, for me to be part of this global community, coming from a small Asian country.
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