Here's how it has worked for years. A playwright sits at the local coffee shop and types out this wonderful script...it could be the next Broadway sensation or it could be a load of garbage...she doesn't know. So what does she do now? In many cases if our Heroine, Susie Q. Playwright lives in a big enough city there are probably one or two theaters in her area that will have a new play program as part of their regular season. If they're awesome enough all they might already have a wonderful guy called "A Dramaturg" who can be responsible for reading new works and making sure that they get developed and possibly get them into the theater's regular season. If there isn't a regional nearby a Google Search will provide a list of several thousand new play competitions or theatre companies that are looking for new plays. Before we go any further lets see the cliff notes version of how New Play Development and Programming usually works.
New Play Development: A Cheat Sheet
Staged readings: So you want to see how a play works in front of an audience without investing a lot of time and money up front? Just print the script out and put it in the actors hands and have them read it out loud in front of an audience. This can be in the form of sitting on stools in a row to actors getting up and walking around in costume but still reading off of a script. This is either done as part of the revision process to show the playwright what could be better or as a way of selling the script to other publishers and venues by inviting them to the reading.
Open Submissions: You either send your play to a particular venue through the mail or email a pdf. A Dramaturg or Administrator and a group of volunteers reads the mountain of scripts that come in and rank the good ones. A small portions of the good ones are either considered as part of their regular season or are chosen for inclusion in a showcase or staged readings.
New Play Competitions/Festivals: These work just like Open Submissions but the end result is a showcase designed just for showcasing the submitted work. These can be either staged readings or full productions and the host organizations range from the grassroots to national leaders in the performing arts.
Self Production/Residencies: I lump these together because they're basically two sides of the same coin. In a residency a playwright works full time at one theater and, among other duties like teaching classes or office work, gets paid to write one or more plays and is usually guaranteed a production with the company. In self production the playwright either fronts some of the money to put on a play in league with a theatre company or puts up all the money and is responsible for giving putting the show up herself. Self Production has had a bit of a stigma attached to it because it was considered a "money over talent" ploy but nowadays with the advent of the internet it's become a lot more common.
That Seems Pretty Easy...
And it does. And most of the time it really is. The Ye Olde Internet Community has made it very easy for anyone who has written a play, no matter who they are, to get into the game and submit. But like every vestige of the analogue world the Internet has caused some serious changes to the Game Plan. Suddenly playwrights were seeing that their usual way of getting work out their just doesn't work anymore. In the next few parts of the series we'll take on each method in detail and see how the plan has changed in the recent years and how new strides are being taken to make New Play Development a big thing again.
This is just a cheat sheet. there are several less-common methods of new play production out there. Do you have one that you think I missed? Post a comment below. Look for New Play Smell Prt. 2 next week.