Playwrights' Frequently Asked Questions
- What is the standard format for plays?
- How do I get published?
- How do I copyright my work?
- How do I get permission for an adaptation?
- How much detail should I put in stage directions?
- How do I get my work produced? - Making Contacts
- What kind of work is more likely to be produced?
- What is a dramaturg and what the heck do they do?
- Is there any difference between doing a one-act or a two-act?
- Are there grants for playwriting
- How should I go about self-producing?
- How do I find a director?
- What should I look for when re-writing?
- How do a get a second production of a play?
- Will APN produce my play?
- Can you help me with my musical?
- Will APN be my agent?
- Who should I contact for screenwriting information?
1) What is the standard format for plays?
The formats vary between stage plays and screenplays, as well as between rehearsal copies and published scripts. There are numerous software programs that you can use such as Final Draft, Scriptware, and Script Wizard to help with formatting. Although most are designed for screenplays, they often can be adapted for stage plays. If you are formatting your script to submit it to a contest or to a theatre company, it is best to see if they have specific formatting requirements.
For basic guidelines on formatting plays refer to:
2) HOW DO I GET PUBLISHED?
So...you’ve managed to get your play produced once or twice, or at least have some strong interest in it, and now want to delve into the world of publishing. Each publishing house has their own set of rules for submitting a manuscript and, like theatre companies, are looking for a specific genre – Canadian authors, theatre for young audiences, one-acts only… You will find all of the guidelines for submissions on their websites or by simply sending them an email. Suggested publishers for scripts in Canada are:
- Coteau Books
- NeWest Press
- Red Deer Press
- Talon Books
- Anvil Press
- Signature Editions
- Playwrights Canada Press
If your play has been produced in Canada, your script can automatically be published in a chapbook form by the Playwrights Guild of Canada and will be included as part of their library. Consult their website HERE.
Playwrights Canada Press is the book publishing arm of Playwrights Guild of Canada and is the largest publisher of exclusively Canadian drama. They accept submissions all year round for consideration. New plays must be written by a Canadian citizen and have had at least one professional production in the last ten years. Their website is http://www.playwrightscanada.com/.
As Canadian playwrights become more sought after in the U.S., American publishers have been more inclined to accept submissions from us “Northern” writers.
Another way to find your niche in the industry, and to guarantee that your play is read for years to come, is to fit your plays into the curriculums of schools, colleges, and universities.
3) How do I copyright my work?
First, register yourself with these companies:
Access Copyright at http://www.accesscopyright.ca
Public Lending Right www.canadacouncil.ca/plr-dpp/page.htm
The electronic Rights Licensing Agency www.terka.com
Copyright is automatic in Canada; if you wrote it, it’s yours. In the case where you need to prove ownership, take the following steps:
- Make a copy of the script.
- On the first page, ensure you print your name, address, the copyright symbol, and date.
- Mail the script to yourself via registered mail.
- When the script arrives, ensure the postmark is legible.
- Do not open it, and store it in a safe place.
The production of a play also protects the copyright status of your work; the production is evidence that you created the play.
For more info on copyright: http://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/cipointernet-internetopic.nsf/eng/Home
4) How do I get permission for an adaptation?
It is extremely important to get permission to adapt a book, other play, short story etc. before you write your play. Do not assume that for any reason – even if the author has been dead for several years – that you are free to adapt the work. Crediting the author, although vital, does not grant you permission to adapt the work. You may end up with a nasty lawsuit and have wasted valuable time.
Having said that, it is possible that the work belongs to the “public domain,” meaning you are free to proceed with your adaptation. Once the individual whom the copyright is attached to has been dead for 70 years, the copyright should then belong to the public domain. Always contact the publisher listed on the front of the book and ask for the Rights and Acquisitions department to check the copyright status of the work. They will be able to tell you if anyone currently holds the rights to the work.
Once you find out who controls the rights, you need to request the rights from them. You will have to negotiate the terms of payment to secure the rights. Make sure you receive permission in writing. The following are points to consider when negotiating the agreement:
- Is the license exclusive or non-exclusive?
- What is the geographical extent of the license (e.g. North America, Canada, worldwide, English language rights, foreign language rights, etc?)
- The owner will want to know to know the particulars of why you are seeking the rights.
- Make sure you are clear as to what fees are involved. Will you pay a flat fee, royalties, and is an advance payment required?
- In what manner are you required to accredit the work?
Once you control the rights, you can safely adapt the work into a play.
5) How much detail should I put in stage directions?
Commonly, beginner playwrights tend to overwrite stage directions. They mistakenly mimic the detailed stage directions in published scripts in their own plays. Most published scripts, however, refer to the stage directions from the first production of the play, not from the playwright’s directions in the original script.
Designers and directors may shy away from a play that is overburdened with stage directions, feeling limited in the creativity they can offer to the piece. Being spare with your stage directions opens a whole new level of artistry to your play you may never have considered, and it gives the designers and directors opportunities to offer their talents to the production of your play.
Regarding stage directions, Buzz McLaughlin in The Playwright’s Process says, “Used properly, these (stage directions) are invaluable tools to enhance our writing, helping the script to lift itself off the page. Used incorrectly, they can bog your pages down and constantly short-circuit the forward flow. The most important rule concerning stage directions is that they should succinctly describe only the present-tense action the audience will see and hear. For the reader, they should function only as enhancers, suggesting the look and sound of the play in performance. A common beginner’s mistake is to include descriptions that do more than that. If suddenly you become novelistic and begin describing the thoughts and feelings of your characters or their motives for doing this or that, you clog the script’s ability to convey the feel of your play as it will be experienced by the audience.”
6) How do I get my work produced?
Although most theatre companies welcome unsolicited scripts, the likelihood of yours being picked up increases exponentially if you have some connection to the theatre. That being said, APN still encourages playwrights to submit scripts they feel are well suited to the mandate of the theatre. So before submitting any scripts, see one of their plays (or at least look at past seasons) and visit their website for submission guidelines.
Playwrights who wish to see their work produced on Canadian stages must know more than how to write a compelling story and strong characters. They must be able to successfully market themselves and their plays to producing theatres. In the vast majority of theatres in Canada, plays are chosen by the company's Artistic Director. Drawing your play to their attention can be a challenging task. It is often difficult to convince an Artistic Director to read your play, let alone consider it for production. As an emerging playwright, without the benefit of an established reputation, you must rely on a combination of professionalism, networking, and hard work to open the necessary doors.
The best route to achieving production is to build relationships with theatre artists. Concentrate your energies on making professional connections with your local theatre community. Take every opportunity to meet and work with professional actors, directors, designers, dramaturgs, and other playwrights. As in any business, one-on-one contact is far more valuable and influential than words on paper. Every theatre career begins in a local community, before branching out to reach a provincial, national, or international audience. The benefits of personal contact are many: you will learn about the playwright's role in the collaborative process of making theatre; you will receive valuable feedback on your writing; and you'll meet the people who will eventually direct and perform your plays.
Make telephone calls to Artistic Directors at theatres you think will be interested in your work. It never hurts to try...
A great way to create relationships with your local theatre community is through playwright development organizations, and via those theatres which have reading and development programs. Volunteer at theatres and with us at the Alberta Playwrights' Network – you are likely to make valuable contacts at events we host.
7) What kind of work is more likely to be produced?
Your chances of receiving a production increases if your play matches the mandate of the theatre company you approach. Every theatre company has a mandate, whether to perform classical pieces, or works by women playwrights, or with a focus on social issues. Research the theatre before you submit your script to them to ensure they will even consider it. Overall though, smaller casts with lesser production values tend to be more likely produced, as they are less expensive.
8) What is a dramaturg and what do they actually do?
There are actually two different types of services that a dramaturg can provide. A dramaturg can be contracted to research the required information on a play for a theatre company, or to assist playwrights in the development of their plays.
A dramaturg may be called on to research any necessary historical background of the period in which the play is written, define any unknown words or terms in the play, contextualize the theatrical history of the period, and provide any images or materials that may help capture the period of the play. APN does not provide this service, but we are dedicated to the development of new plays.
APN’s dramaturgs function as a support network, helping playwrights create their best possible work. The dramaturg helps the playwright identify the artistic vision of the play, giving the playwright suggestions on how to remain true to this vision. The dramaturg acts as an outside eye, providing feedback on the play’s structure, themes, characters, language and plot. Comments are given regarding the playwright’s success in achieving his/her objectives and suggestions are provided on how to strengthen the play. At no point does the dramaturg rewrite any portion of the play.
In large part, the dramaturg acts as a “counsellor,” asking the playwright a series of probing questions. In the process of answering the questions, the playwright gains a clearer vision of what’s working in the script and what needs further attention. A dramaturg helps playwrights see their work in a new light, opening up new possibilities for the script the playwright may never have considered. Dramaturgs often help playwrights mine the untapped areas of their imaginations in a safe and supportive manner.
9) Is there any difference between writing a one-act or a two-act?
If you are a beginning playwright, it’s a good idea to start by writing a one-act play. As Buzz McLaughlin advises, start writing shorter plays of 20 to 40 pages or less. Start by writing a play with two or three characters only, set it in the present context, have the characters share a backstory (that is they already know each other and share a history), and write your play in a realistic style. Once you are comfortable with this form, you can begin writing longer, two-act plays, with more characters, and you begin to experiment with language and form.
10) Are there grants for playwriting?
Yes! You can apply for many different types of grants through multiple different sources. Below are the links to some of these granting bodies. Remember, you can always make contact with them for help, they are more than willing to support you and your craft.
11) How SHould I go about self-producing?
Many playwrights market themselves and their plays by self-producing. This generally means a lot of hard work, and little or no pay or royalties. However, it is an excellent way to get you and your work noticed, and while it can be stressful, it can also lead to huge payoffs in the long run. It is possible to create a career for yourself, and eventually move into the larger theatres.
If self-producing is something that interests you, have a look at some of your options below:
You are provided with a venue, technicians, and minimal publicity in return for a registration fee. The casting, rehearsal, and promotion of the play are up to you. However, if you manage to create a Fringe hit, you can garner a lot of attention for yourself and your play. Many professional playwrights have launched themselves via the Fringe. There is a network of Fringe Festivals that spans the country during the summer months.
- Edmonton Fringe Festival
- Vancouver Fringe Festival
- Winnipeg Fringe Festival
- Regina Fringe Festival
- Toronto Fringe Festival
- Atlantic Fringe Festival
Enter your one-act plays into local one-act festivals. It’s a great way for your plays reach audiences, and to have your work adjudicated by theatre professionals. Visit www.adfa.ca for more information.
An independent production involves forming an ad-hoc theatre company, specifically to produce your play. You hire actors and a director (unless you direct it yourself), rent a venue, publicize the show in the local media, and somehow attract an audience. Again, it's a difficult process, but can be extremely rewarding. If you choose to hire Equity artists, you must adhere by the specific policies for hiring equity personnel. For details on equity guidelines consult their website at http://www.caea.com.
Forming your own theatre company:
You also have the option of forming your own theatre company to mount a full season of shows. This is a huge endeavour and should only be pursued after several independent productions have been mounted first.
In either case, be sure to send invitations out to every Artistic Director in town to come and see your work. While it's unlikely that your independently produced play will transfer to a larger theatre, it is likely that your name will become known, and your next play will be read and considered by all the right people. That's what marketing yourself is all about.
Sign up for APN's E Newsletter and stay up to date on the many play submission deadlines, festival submission calls and playwriting opportunities.
12) How do I find a director?
It is important to find a director you feel comfortable with and whose opinion you trust and respect. If there is a director that you are familiar with, it is a good idea to try contacting this person first. Ask your friends and peers in the theatre community for their advice, as well.
If you are unsure of who to contact to be your director, look at the directors involved with theatres where you are interested in producing your play. Assess whether the plays the director works with are similar in form or genre to your plays. It helps to have a director with experience in working with plays similar to your own.
If your script is in development through one of APN’s programs, the dramaturgs can offer suggestions of directors who may be suitable for your play. Speak with other theatre professionals for their input. They may have suggestions for you based on their own experience.
13) What should I look for when re-writing?
Ninety percent of playwriting is rewriting.
Once you have completed the first draft of your script, you can look forward to an ongoing process of revising your play. Though it is a gruelling process, your creativity can flow just as much in these subsequent stages as when you completed your first draft.
Before you begin your revisions, it is important to give yourself some time away from your script so that you can approach it later with a clear and objective eye. Read your entire play from beginning to end to get a sense of the work as a whole. Try reading it aloud so you can get a sense of how the characters sound.
Consider how your play may have changed from your original intention. Has a new character emerged as the protagonist? Has the central conflict/dilemma changed? Don’t get discouraged it this is the case - plays often have minds of their own. You may have much to reconsider, from the backstory of your play and your characters' intentions, to the arc of the plot and the central theme.
Rules to abide by when revising your script:
- Find the spine of your story – what is the central dilemma or conflict?
- Let words go: do not become too attached to words, phrases, pages, or scenes. This can only be a detriment to you. Never insist that you keep material, but always save each draft of your work in case that material belongs elsewhere.
- If in doubt, cut it out: if the material is not essential to your play, it most likely does not belong and should be cut. Any twinges of uncertainty are clues that you should let the words go…
- Less is more: Audiences love to make connections or fill in the missing gaps on their own. You don’t need to spell everything out for them.
- Look for ways you can combine characters and scenes.
- Reconsider your title as you proceed through your drafts. As your play changes, you may find that your title needs changing too.
- Scan through your play thoroughly: anything that bothers you, however remotely, needs reworking. This takes considerable patience, but is necessary.
- When you give your script to someone for their advice, be sure this is an individual you know and trust.
Once you feel confident that your play is ready to enter one of APN’s development programs, a professional dramaturge will give you suggestions, specific to your play, regarding the best way to proceed at this point in the revision process.
14) How do a get a second production of a play?
The best way to get a second production of your play is to contact and send a copy of your play to theatres that may be interested in producing your work. Consult the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres (PACT) for a listing of suitable theatres.
Perseverance is the key to getting your play produced a second time. Be prepared to spend money on photocopies, postage, and long-distance calls - these are worthwhile expenses in the long run.
15) Will APN produce my play?
Like other Playwright Development Centres across the country, APN does not produce the plays we develop. APN feels it is important to let the many producing theatres in Alberta do what they do best, while we focus on what we do best, which is developing plays and playwrights.
APN is an organization devoted solely to the dramaturgical development of plays. While we do not produce plays, the work we do in play enhancement increases your chances of having your play produced in the future.
Once your play is at a point where it is ready to be produced, APN’s dramaturgs can offer you suggestions on which theatres may be interested in your work.
16) Can you help me with my musical?
APN does not specialize in developing musicals, nor have we any associates that are experts in music. Although, we have, in the past, hosted workshops for developing musicals. Stay in the loop about our upcoming workshops by signing up for our E Newsletter.
17) Will APN be my agent?
APN is not a literary agency. In their book, Strategies: The Business of Being a Playwright in Canada, Caroline Russell-King and Rose Scollard identify the following as literary agents you can contact: