Cold Submission Advice from a Literary Intern
My Master’s Degree is in Theatre Arts, but it was my time from 2018-2019 as a literary intern and script reader at San Diego Repertory Theatre that taught me the most about theatres’ script selection processes.
At the REP, I gained key insights into the behind-the-scenes processes that drive season planning and script selection. In this article, I will use this inside knowledge to list a few simple ways playwrights can increase their chances of being noticed by a theatre or literary manager. I will focus on cold submissions: scripts sent to a theatre company that weren’t prompted by an event, call for submissions, or request from the company.
These are submission tips, not writing tips. Some of the tips may seem like common sense, but my time at the literary department proved just how many playwrights did not follow them. If you do, you will automatically have a leg-up on your competition.
HOW NOT TO GET BURIED IN A PILE OF SCRIPTS
The majority of the scripts San Diego REP read each season were requested by the Literary Manager or Artistic Director (a big part of my job was to research and contact literary agents or publishing houses to request scripts that my LM and AD wanted to read). We scouted for scripts by researching recent awards, other theatres’ season lineups, and agency promotions. By the time those scripts landed in a reader’s hands, we already knew such basics as:
● The playwright’s contact information
● The play’s plot
● The play’s genre
● The play’s cast size and demographic
● The play’s production history (if any), and
● The awards or reviews a play had earned (if any).
These plays had an edge because we already knew how they could fit into the next season (ie. if we were planning a season with an emphasis on social class, and might line up Uncle Vanya as a tragedy, A Raisin in the Sun as a drama, Les Miserables as a musical, and search for a comedy/dramedy with similar themes).
This is important to understand, because it informs how you can best distinguish your script submission from a sea of scripts. The following are simple tips on how to keep your script from sinking to the bottom of the pile.
● INCLUDE YOUR CONTACT INFORMATION
This might seem like a no-brainer, but I too often picked up a script that had no return address or confusing contact information. It went to the bottom of the pile, because even if I read and liked the script, there was no guarantee that I would be able to contact the writer to discuss production.
When you submit a script, make sure to include your:
● Full name (legal or stage name)
● Current email address
Consider also including your:
● Phone number
● Short biography
● Professional website
● Resume, awards, reviews, and other references
Remember that an envelope or business card can be damaged in the mail or accidentally thrown away. Including your contact information on the cover of your script is a much safer way to ensure that it doesn’t get lost.
● HAVE A WEBSITE OR ONLINE RESUME
Most script research is done online these days. Having an online presence such as a professional website or an online resume increases your visibility. It can bring you vital exposure.
Even if a script you submit does not fit the theatre’s mission that season, they might visit your website and find another one of your script that does. You might also fit the profile of a demographic the theatre wants to promote; the literary manager won’t know unless they see a biography on your website. The website should, again, include your contact information so the company may get a hold of you easily (see the point above).
● FOLLOW THE THEATRE’S SUBMISSION GUIDELINES
Some theatres have clear submission guidelines. Research whether the theatre has specific rules regarding submission format, length, information, and other requirements.
Regional theatres like San Diego REP sometimes reserve cold submissions exclusively for local artists. This was clearly stated on the company’s website, yet I still received out-of-state scripts from time to time. It did not paint the playwright in a good light, and those submissions went to the bottom of the pile if not eliminated completely.
Respect both the theatre’s time and your own by following the theatre’s submission requirements.
● KNOW THE THEATRE’S PRODUCTION HISTORY AND MISSION
In the same vein as researching submission guidelines, you should understand and familiarize yourself with the theatre’s mission and history.
Every theatre has an explicit or implicit mission statement that informs the type of plays that it selects. For example, San Diego REP explicitly supports Latinx stories and Southern Californian playwrights; if you fit the demographic and/or have a story focusing on Latinx identities and experience, you have a better chance of catching the REP’s attention. If you are submitting a musical, then New Village Arts produces up to three musicals per season as compared to one musical at the REP. MOXIE, on the other hand, calls for submissions exclusively from female-identified playwrights.
Acknowledging a theatre’s mission and history accomplishes three things. First, it shows that you have thought out your partnership with the theatre. Second, it shows that you understand your own work enough to fit it into the larger narrative promoted by a season or a theatre’s culture. Finally, it also allows you to make a better “pitch” to the theatre about why it should pick up your work.
● AN EFFECTIVE BLURB GOES A LONG WAY
A blurb is your “30-second elevator speech” for your script. It is similar to a synopsis but withholds any spoilers and offers production information. An effective blurb should reference:
● The protagonist(s)
● The central theme
● The main conflict/intrigue
● The genre
It should be short and representative of the tone and genre of the play. An example would be the blurb for Famous Last Words by Tom Moran:
George has a strange hobby – he collects people’s last words. He's also got his own picked out, and a chance encounter at a hospital will give him an unexpected chance to use them. (Comedy, 2F, 1M.)
In three sentences, the blurb introduces the protagonist (George), the central theme (last words, death, preparation for death), and the main conflict (an unexpected event at the hospital). It doesn’t give away how the conflict is resolved, but clearly indicates the direction the conflict is headed.
This blurb itself doesn’t reference the genre (although the tone implies it), but the format labels it clearly at the end with information about the cast. The script reader goes in with reasonable expectations and context for the script. When there are dozens of scripts waiting on the desk, scripts with good blurbs float to the top.
● CAST DETAILS AND CHARACTER LIST
I left this for last. It seems like a minute detail, but as a script reader, it could seriously hold me up. This is also the most common problem I encountered with cold submissions. Sometimes I might not be the one to read the script, but I was the one to sort out submissions and log the information into the system. I would delay entering the submission in the system if I had to go through the entire script counting the number of characters, their gender, and race.
As a literary assistant and script reader, I sorted information for executives such as the literary manager, artistic director, and casting director. They look for information such as:
● Cast size
● Gender ratio
● Ethnicity, and
Putting a character list at the beginning of the script, including the character’s gender, is a simple but important step in presenting your script. At the very least, you should include the cast size and gender ratio.
I hope I have helped shine some light on the script selection process and offered some useful advice. My tips essentially boil down to presentation and getting the information to the right people.
Cold submissions are hard and often feel like shouting into a void. However, it is still a worthwhile endeavor. I’ve remembered playwrights because they sent in new scripts with persistence, and I’ve hold onto scripts that I couldn’t recommend for this season but thought might be good for the future.
Finding a network like the International Centre for Women Playwrights and other communities and advocates for yourself is also a good strategy.
The biggest benefit of having a literary agent is that it moves you from the cold submission to the solicited script category. At San Diego REP, we made general script requests to agents asking for “new comedy,” “drama with a small cast,” “scripts like so-and-so,” etc. An agent will be an advocate for you when they receive these inquiries. It is also an agent’s job to know which theatre is looking for playwrights and scripts that match your profile and actively sends out recommendations for you.
If an agent is not an option for you, there are other ways to increase exposure. I’ve mentioned the importance of a professional website, online biography and resume. You should also try to optimize search engine results for yourself: leaving breadcrumbs for companies to find you.
- · GETTING LISTED ON ONLINE DATABASES
The internet nowadays creates more opportunities for playwrights to showcase themselves. There are two main online databases that I used to look up new scripts at San Diego REP. You do not need an agent in order to join, although you may need to pay a member’s fee:
In the next installment, I will go into more details about these two databases as well as an international organization called the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of Americas (LMDA). Like the International Centre for Women Playwrights, these organizations create resources and support designed for playwrights, and offer a community to support what is often solitary endeavor.