How to Fail at Playwriting: Chapter 11: Contests and Festivals

Don't forget to read the fine print.
Don’t forget to read the fine print.

So by this point, you have a completed, polished script that is quite possibly the most brilliant thing ever. Awesome! Or maybe it’s sort-of okay. Yay! Or perhaps it’s just some dialog strewn like dead logs across a trail in a forest no one owns, so why pay a log picker-upper to come in and clean up? Why not just leave them to soften and decay with the passing seasons, composting back into the weather and enriching it with their dormant barky-ness? It’s time to send out your work!

First, search the web for the many, many contests and festivals that feature new work by living playwrights. Remember that term: new work. It’s something you should start saying instead of a play. It sounds more important, like you’re working on a cure for something, doesn’t it?

Many contests and festivals charge a small fee. Don’t begrudge this. It costs a lot to get everything processed and reviewed and responded to. Even if the readers are volunteers, those other people who do stuff like  advertise the contest usually have to be paid.

Insider tip: As a volunteer reader myself, I try to read my minimum number of submissions at the last minute, perhaps at the end of the day or when I’m completely frustrated by my actual job and need a brief distraction. “Try and hold my interest,” I tell the submission. “You’ve got fifteen seconds.” So take all you’ve learned in previous chapters about character and story arc and show-don’t-tell and pacing and stuff, and jam it all into the first half-page, because that’s probably all the time you have. As John Irving said, “try to tell the whole novel in the first line.”

What is it you want to say? Some popular themes include “Love is elusive.” “War is bad.” “Life is funny and the goofiest things can happen.” Whatever your flavor, consider shoehorning it into the first line or two of dialog, like this:

Night. A hot-air balloon. Joshua nurses his imaginary child. Gomesh helps.
Joshua: War is bad.
Gomesh: The goofiest things happen.
They implode.

That way, even if your reader gives you a pass immediately, as they’re likely to do with a whole pile of submissions waiting and dinner not even started, you’ll know you are sharing your-deeply felt vision with another human soul.
Go for it!

Takeaway: The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, but it ends any time you plop down and turn on Netflix.

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One thought on “How to Fail at Playwriting: Chapter 11: Contests and Festivals”

  1. Wow, if the book on failure is 11 chapters or more, I’d hate to see the one on how to succeed. Or is failure harder than success? Hmmm.

    “Just some dialog strewn like dead logs across a trail in a forest no one owns.” Love.

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