Monday, June 30, 2008

Paying to play

Playwrights must deal with many indignities during the submission process. I usually spare you my submission-related gripes, but today's offender is too heinous, in my opinion, to pass up. I recently found a small college playwriting contest that demands a $30 reading fee -- a new record, at least in my experience (of the more than 160 theaters and contests I submitted to in the past year).

Thirty dollars. What do you need that money for, small college? Are you going broke? Does your theater dean drive a Land Rover? (I seriously would love it if the reason were "high gas prices.") We pay for copies at Staples; we pay for report covers; we pay to send our heavy scripts cross-country by priority mail; and now you want us to pay your expensive reading fee on top of it. Hey, I have to gas up my car, too.

Playwriting is very much a "pay to play" arena when you're starting out: There are playwriting group membership dues, contest fees, copies, postage, even broadband access (for theater research and e-submission). It's an unpleasant reality no one talks about. Who knows if this kind of investment prices some writers out. (I'm fortunate to have a day job to finance my marketing campaign.) I set my contest fee limit at $20, which I still think is too high, but I'm trying to get exposure as a new playwright. I just wonder if the kind of inching-up we've seen in things such as ATM fees and gas prices will bleed over into the arts. It seems that right now businesses all over the country are trying to find out just how much people are willing to pay -- how much they can squeeze before we yelp.

And I suppose it comes down to that: How much do you want it? Someone's going to be desperate enough to shell out $30 to enter this small college contest. I know I'm not forced to pay it; I don't have to enter. But I think it's excessive, predatory and sets a poor precedent. I know theaters (and colleges) are businesses that require money to operate, but when does this kind of situation stop being an award for the arts and start becoming a revenue source that happens to have a blue ribbon attached to it?

I found it interesting last winter when the Steppenwolf's literary manager told a group of us at a seminar that most theaters don't pay much attention to contest wins listed on query letters/resumes, save for two or three very large ones. This small college contest was not among them.


Craig said...
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Craig said...

Excellent comments. Indeed, it is a revenue fund with a blue ribbon attached.

If you can brace your gag reflex, there's actually an even grosser offender. The Wonderland One Act Festival, which is run out of New York by a group called "You are Here Productions," charges their playwrights $25 to submit a one act script. Then, if you win, you get the privilege of ponying up an extra $200 odd dollars to have your play produced -- for one day.

Oh, and shockingly, there are 70 "winners" who have their plays "produced."

It is indeed a sad game when artists and art institutions prey upon other artists. Where, I wonder, is the line where the only thing they are an artist of is a con?