How the World’s Most Frequently Rejected Playwright Survives
written by Donald Drake
Several years ago, I made a profound discovery that has enabled me to weather the storm of criticism, rejection and inevitable, transient depression that is the lot of so many playwrights. What I discovered was how to make rejection work for me. Since playwrights spend far more time dealing with rejection than watching their plays being produced, every playwright should know about this.
I will explain how I made this discovery and what it has meant to me.Might not be the best way to survive rejection, but it might work.[/caption]When I started writing plays 26 years ago and finished my first script, I mailed it out to several theaters and waited. And I waited. And I waited some more. I was still waiting as I finished my second play six months later. I sent my second script out to several theaters. And I waited. I was not enjoying playwriting.
Finally I got a response, in the form of my self-addressed, stamped envelope, which contained my first script and a form letter saying the theater didn’t want my script.
Though this was disappointing, in a strange way I felt validated. At least someone had read the script. There was a living, breathing human being on the other end of the line, or so I assumed in my naiveté. Other experienced playwrights conceded that a living, breathing human being probably did put the script into the return envelope, but what proof did I have that anyone actually read it.
Two months later I received my second rejection. The letter attached to the script said “I enjoyed learning about the characters; they are multi-dimensional. Also, I enjoyed the dialogue and how it worked effectively and moved the plot along.” But the theater didn’t want to do my play. This rejection surely proved that the living breathing person had read the script before putting it into the return envelope, though my more cynical fellow playwrights pointed out that no specific characters or specific plot points were alluded to.
Then I got the best rejection ever. The letter said: “I want to let you know that I intend to give my whole-hearted support to your play as a potential candidate for our season. Thank you for a fascinating new play.” Again no specifics were mentioned, but could theater people be so sadistic to say this about a play they had never read? Yes, I was told. I never heard from the theater again.
I brushed the cynicism aside. “Thank you for a fascinating new play.” The phrase kept coming back to me several times during the next couple of months as I pounded away at my computer with renewed enthusiasm, working on my third play. My initial sadness over not getting a production was being replaced by the joy of knowing that my work was being appreciated, though, admittedly, not enough to be produced. Every day when the post lady arrived with my mail, I eagerly looked for the tell-tale, 11-by-13-inch manila envelope, which would contain my script and hopefully an encouraging rejection letter.
I had discovered that I could lift my spirits by simply changing focus. Instead of looking for a production, which rarely if ever happens, I started anticipating nice rejections, which were now happening fairly frequently. I decided to capitalize on the discovery by keeping detailed records of the rejections. And so the Drake Rejection Database (DRD) was born. Ultimately the DRD would show what theaters sent the best rejections (by far the best come from England), the elapsed time between submission and rejection, the number of plays or sample dialogue pending, the total number of rejections to date and many other facts.
I started attacking rejection with abandonment. I came up with a clever way to identify theaters that did not even open envelopes but just threw scripts onto a pile or even worse into the trash can (though I suppose the trash can is no worse than a stack of scripts that will never be looked at). Slyly, I included with the synopses and sample dialogue I sent to theaters a self-addressed postcard with three boxes the assistant, to the assistant, literary manager could check.
“Please send script ___”
“Please don’t send script ___”
“Don’t send any more scripts ___.”
Theaters that never sent back postcards could be assumed to never open envelopes that contained unsolicited scripts. This ploy identified the bad theaters, the ones to stay away from. But how could I identify the good theaters? The answer to this question was contained in the rejection letters I was receiving. Any theater that actually commented on one of my plays was by definition a good theater. I made use of this vital information by including in the DRD abbreviated comments from theaters. For instance, a DRD entry for my play Final Edition looked like this:
COMMENT-FINAL “We are interested in your writing and would be eager to read and consider any other new plays that you might have.”
By doing a computer search for just “COMMENT,” I could identify theaters that were actually reading plays and choose them as the first theaters for future submissions.
Though I didn’t realize it at the time, the DRD would turn out to be an invaluable tool in quantifying the way theaters handled scripts and treated playwrights.
A few of the discoveries:
- The likelihood that your unsolicited script will be rejected or totally ignored by a theater is 99.57 percent. That means no production, no showcase, no staged readings. Zip.
- A little more than 41 percent of your scripts won’t even be read. I base this on the fact that 597 of my submissions prompted no return postcard or any other response. It was as if I had thrown the scripts into the trash bin on the way to the Post Office.
- The chances of winning a competition are much better than having an unsolicited script done by a theater. Four percent of the 300 plays I submitted to contests won first or second prize.
- Four hundred and thirty-five theaters in the U.S., Canada and Great Britain (and this includes the tiniest of the tiniest) claim to produce unsolicited scripts, but you can’t prove it by me. I sent 22 different plays, mostly full-lengths, to these theaters and got no productions. My reward was 835 rejection letters, mostly form letters. If you assume that the 597 submissions that were totally ignored constituted rejections, that would bring my rejection total to 1,432. The grand total rises to 1,720 if you include competitions that I didn’t win. Surely that entitles me to the title “The World’s Most Frequently Rejected Playwright.” So much rejection is not necessarily bad. In writing about a hugely successful playwright who had had experienced much rejection in his career, a Philadelphia Inquirer columnist wrote: “The irony of it, of course, is that the people who succeed the most are the people who have failed the most, because they are people who have tried the most.” (I have that quote enlarged and in a frame next to my computer, just below the framed manila envelope a theater returned to me with the words “REFUSED Return to Sender” scrawled in filter-tip blue across the front of it.)
- There is a thin, silver lining to this growing dark cloud that I am presenting. Twenty percent of your rejection letters will include encouraging comments. The comments contain such words and phrases as: “promising,” “exciting,” “well crafted” “thought provoking,” “eager to read any other new play you might have,” “much to admire,” “remain interested in your work,” “compelled by your writing,” “moved by the brave way you handled such a delicate situation.” I’ve received 167 such rejections but none of the theaters offered to do anything with the plays they were commenting on.
- The chance of getting an agent, if you haven’t had a major production, is about zero, though I don’t have large figures to support this. Just for the hell of it, I sent letters, CV and sample dialogue to 10 agents listed in the Dramatists Sourcebook asking to be represented by them. Only three bothered to reply and none of them wanted to represent me. One of the three replies was from a playwright, working as an agent, I had met in a competition where our two plays were being done. She said she wasn’t taking on new playwrights but she would pass my script on to other agents in her firm. I never heard from anyone.
I don’t want to give the impression that I have never succeeded with any of my plays. I have been a winner in 11 national competitions. One of my plays was done at the O’Neill. I’ve had four showcases, three of them in New York City, and seven productions. One of the productions was done in a theater where the literary manager was a best friend and another production was done in a theater where I was well known to the artistic director, which in itself says a lot about how to get a play produced.
In the 26 years I have been writing plays, I have made about $10,000 in grants, winnings from competitions and actual payment by a theater for a script. This is offset by the $8,876 I spent for script duplication, stationery and postage. Still I made a profit of $1,124. Having spent 34,000 hours writing plays during this period, my compensation comes to 3 cents an hour. (This doesn’t include the $3,000 or so I spent mailing scripts to competitions, so I guess I can’t even claim that meager profit.)
If I had achieved none of these things, would my philosophy and the DRD have been enough to sustain me? I would like to say yes, but I doubt it. I don’t think I could keep on writing if I cut out the middle man and threw all my scripts into the trash can myself after finishing them the way crossword puzzles are discarded once they’re completed. The distant hope that something could come from all this writing is probably necessary.
But this doesn’t change my take-home message. I have proven beyond doubt that any playwright who writes stage plays primarily to get produced or make money is delusional or masochistic. The joy must come from the writing itself, solving the myriad of problems that arise in creating a play, just as you enjoy fitting together the pieces of a puzzle to form a picture with no other reward expected.
I’m in particularly good spirits at this moment, which probably accounts for the fact that I am writing this, after thinking about doing it for several years. Much of the good feeling is coming from writing this essay and discovering that I have accomplished more than I thought. And one of my plays, written with another playwright for the Philadelphia Fringe, is currently in rehearsal. But even after the play closes and regardless of how the critics respond, or don’t respond, I’m sure I will continue to be a happy playwright.
I have scripts or sample dialogue pending in 78 theaters. And the DRD tells me that I will assuredly be receiving 15 letters of rejection with very encouraging comments in the coming months.