Picking a Play
Before you can be a producer, you have to have something to produce. That means you need to find a play. Where do you look, how do you decide on a script, and what are the rules you need to obey once you find the script you want?
Finding a Play to Produce
The internet has significantly changed how we look for plays. While plays continue to be available from a wide variety of "bricks and mortar" publishers, and your search may ultimately lead you to one of these anyway, there is a rising tide of other options.
Of course, if you're looking for a play for young actors and/or audiences, our top recommendation is YouthPLAYS. With everything from ten-minute plays, one-acts ideal for competition and festivals and full-length plays and musicals--and authors ranging from talented new voices to award-winning playwrights and composers, we think you'll find a lot of great choices.
But there are many sources to consider. We can't promise this is an exhaustive listing of publishers, but it's a big one:
YouthPLAYS, once again, the best place to go for plays and musicals for schools, youth theatres and professional theatres for young audiences, as well as colleges and community theatres, with an easy to use website and a choice of digital or hard copy script
Playscripts (publishes a number of plays by the authors of this site, so we like them too, and they have an easy to use website)
Dramatic Publishing (which also took over the Anchorage Press Plays and I.E. Clark catalogues)
Samuel French (which took over the Baker's Plays catalogue)
Music Theatre International (musicals)
Theatrical Rights Worldwide (musicals)
Tams Witmark (musicals)
Original Works Publishing (primarily for adults/edgier fare)
Pioneer (which also took over the Contemporary Drama Service catalogue)
Theatrefolk (middle school and high school)
Beat by Beat Press (musicals for children)
Rights and Royalties for Dummies (and Smart People Too!)
Playwrights support themselves through the payment of royalties on the performance of their work, and so when royalties aren't paid, that's a playwright's rent or her food or his phone bill. Further, violating copyright can be a very expensive proposition (it's subject to up to $150,000 in statutory damages per violation). So it pays to know the rules. They're simple.
- To produce a play, you must get permission from the playwright or the playwright's agent (e.g. a publisher) in advance. That generally means you have filled out a contract or licensing agreement, and have either paid the royalty or made arrangements to pay it.
- The major exception to #1 is if the play is in the public domain. Generally speaking, plays written before the early 1900s are in the public domain (e.g. Shakespeare, Marlowe, Moliere, etc). But here's the catch: if a play was written in another language, even though the original play (for example, Tartuffe by the French playwright Moliere) may be old enough to be in the public domain, the translation is often quite recent and still copyrighted--and will require a royalty. When in doubt, do not assume a play is in the public domain.
- Payment of royalties is required regardless of whether admission is charged or whether a play is performed for profit or whether the cast/crew is paid or whether a play is performed "for educational purposes." The only time royalties may not be due is if the play is performed in a closed classroom as part of the curriculum (or occasionally as part of a one-time charity benefit if everyone else is waiving their fee). In other words, if you are reading my anti-bullying play Thank You for Flushing My Head in the Toilet and other rarely used expressions as part of your English class and no other students, teachers or parents are invited, you may not have to pay royalties. Always check with the playwright or publisher to be sure.
- You must purchase sufficient copies of the play for your cast and crew. You cannot photocopy the script or any part of the script, unless you are specifically given a photocopy license (some publishers, like YouthPLAYS, offer these). Still, with budgets being tight, are there any ways to save money on scripts while still obeying the law? Here are two examples--one is reasonable, the other is not.
UNREASONABLE: A play has a cast of 10, all substantial roles, and you buy 3 copies and say that the other actors shared.
REASONABLE: A play has a cast of 40, but 20 of those roles are basically extras. You buy 25 copies, giving each principal a script and having the 20 extras share the remaining 5 scripts. That could be OK.
- Whenever you perform the play in front of people who are not cast/crew, it counts as a performance--for which you must pay royalties. This includes in-school performances, previews and invited dress rehearsals. It is your duty to pay a royalty for EVERY performance of the play, not just one. So if you perform the play at four school assemblies, you owe four performance royalties, not just one. If you add performances later, make sure you pay the additional royalty.
- You'll often hear the term "fair use" thrown around. This refers to the practice of taking a small excerpt from a copyrighted work--for example, a few lines of dialogue from a play--for purposes of discussion or to use in another work. An example of "fair use" of After Math might be that you use 2 or 3 sentences of its dialogue in your English paper to support the idea that students can go through school entirely unnoticed. It does not allow your English teacher to copy entire scenes of the play and hand it out.
- Just because a play or a monologue is on the internet does not mean that it is public domain. It is usually still copyrighted, and you must get permission to use it.
Want a handy one-sheet on this? Here it is!
Royalties can vary fairly widely. Professional productions will pay a percentage of the box office (be prepared to send the playwright or the playwright's agent/publisher your box office statements) ranging from 5-10% of gross receipts. Amateur productions will typically pay a fixed rate per performance. Full-length plays run anywhere from $50-$100 per performance (with musicals and plays of authors like Neil Simon being somewhat--and sometimes substantially--more), while one-acts can range from $25-50, depending on length. Very short plays (10-minute plays) might be $15 to $25 per performance, depending on the company.
Keep in mind that in the case of "bricks and mortar" publishers, you will also have to purchase books, which will range from $5 to $10 each, and if you're producing a musical, you will either have to rent or purchase (depending on the company) the piano/vocal books and score. So in the case of a large cast show, that may add several hundred dollars to your costs. Alternatively, online publishers like YouthPLAYS provide printable PDF files and photocopy permission, thus eliminating that expense.
While often plays suggest particular songs, or you may wish to use music in your production, most of the time, the rights to the songs don't come with the play.
Script Submission Calls
Sometimes you don't want to go through publishers to find your next play. You may want to go directly to the source: the playwright. If you have a particular playwright in mind, these days, it's usually not too hard to find an email address. If you can't, if it's a playwright of some note, that writer is likely to be a Dramatists Guild member. Contact the Guild, and they will pass along your communication.
But what if you just want to find a great script? You may want to post a call for script submissions. At YouthPLAYS, we do submission calls regularly, and we've learned they need to be done with care. Otherwise, it's easy to end up with a large stack (hopefully just a virtual stack) of scripts that don't meet your needs. Here is a step-by-step guide to asking for scripts:
- Think about what types of plays you want. What is the range of running times you'll consider? What cast size (or range) do you want? What about the subject matter? Are there any content limitations? (For example, no profanity, because your space is in a church or you're a school group.) Do you want scripts that are previously unproduced? If so, how do you define a production? A definition we often use at the Alliance of Los Angeles Playwrights is produced in front of a paying audience with actors who are off book. Another definition (more likely at the professional level) would be a production with Equity actors.
- Think about how you want authors to contact you. Do you want them to email the full scripts? Snail mail them? Send you a query letter in which they tell you about the play and themselves, but not send the play itself? We recommend that you save money and the environment, as we do at YouthPLAYS, by taking your submissions electronically. Our own policy is that we only accept queries from authors we don't already represent (authors we already represent may send us full scripts, as they are more likely to understand our needs). One, you can learn a great deal about the ability of the writer just from reading the letter, and two, this cuts down on a great deal of unnecessary reading: we only request scripts that we feel are a potential match for our needs.
- Create a submission call. Here's a (real) sample:
YouthPLAYS, a coalition of dramatists dedicated to theatre for young actors and audiences, is looking to expand our list of authors and seeks unpublished plays and musicals to market to schools, youth and children's theatres and other groups.
Directed by playwrights Jonathan Dorf and Ed Shockley, YouthPLAYS effectively acts as a green publisher by allowing customers to read scripts in their entirety as non-printable PDF files, and making printable versions available for producers to print what they need once royalties are paid. This approach maximizes delivery speed and minimizes our carbon footprint. Please visit us online at www.youthplays.com
We're interested in one-act (15-50 minutes) and full-length plays and musicals, as well as monologues (of roughly 6-8 minutes) and 10-minute duets. We particularly look for plays with large casts, casts that are flexible in size or gender, and predominantly female casts, but we are also interested in small cast plays for children that use adult performers. We're also looking for adaptations of classic literature. Ultimately, we're willing to look at anything of quality, but please keep in mind that plays need to be of interest to young people, and either be able to be performed by young actors in primarily age-appropriate roles or adult actors performing for young audiences.
To submit, please email your script as a PDF, Word or Final Draft file, along with a cover letter that describes both the play and your own background, to firstname.lastname@example.org, Attn: Script Submissions. We will acknowledge receipt, but it may take several months for your script to be considered, so we ask that you please be patient in the interim.
Thank you, and we look forward to reading your work!
The sample explains specifically who you are, what you want, how you want it to be sent and approximately how long it will take for a decision. Since YouthPLAYS is an online publisher, there's no question that our authors get royalties from productions of the scripts we represent; that's how we all make our money. But since you're doing a call for scripts to produce, you may want to make it clear that you plan to pay royalties (a few companies don't, though this is wrong and greatly frowned upon). For example, you could add a "Royalties will be paid according to Dramatists Guild standards" to your announcement.
- Get the word out. Among the places where people post script calls:
The Dramatists Guild of America
The Alliance of Los Angeles Playwrights. Email your call to email@example.com.
The Official Playwrights of Facebook.
En Avant Playwrights.
The Playwrights' Forum
- Be prepared for an avalanche of scripts. If you are receiving submissions electronically, a quick acknowledgment is usually a good idea.
- Read the submissions and make your decision, or if you don't find anything suitable, start looking at publishers' sites again, or contact a playwright with whom you'd like to work and commission a play.
Special Handling of Musical Materials
When performing straight plays (i.e. non-musicals), you purchase acting editions or, in the case of an online publisher like YouthPLAYS, you pay the performance royalty and receive a printable PDF file. Regardless, you don't need to worry about returning your scripts, and you can mark them up as you see fit.
But in the case of many musicals, you'll have to rent piano-vocal books and musical scores. If this is the case, be sure only to write in pencil (which must be erased before returning the materials), and check the return deadline carefully. The last thing you want is to incur additional fees for not getting your materials back in time. While your cast, crew and musicians should be responsible for erasing their own marks, you'll want to go through the materials as well; no reason to pay for a "damaged" book if you can avoid it with a quick flip of the pages.