It's a situation many of us are familiar with: you've finally chosen a show, secured a venue, set the dates, even procured a cast -- but now the production is looming, and you have to figure out how to advertise the thing. Problem is, there's no budget, little time, and you're not what anyone would call a graphic designer.
As a designer myself, I'm here to tell you that you don't need a lot of time, money, or a graphic design degree to create effective publicity designs for your show. What you do need is a solid grounding in the principles of design, and an idea of what choices will save you money -- and this post is a quick lesson in both!
There are five main principles of design: balance, alignment, repetition, contrast, and hierarchy (B.A.R.C.H.). They all work together to create something pleasing to the eye and effective from a communication standpoint.
Balance provides stability and structure to a design. You can think of it as various elements on the page having different visual "weights." If you distribute them evenly, or in a way that creates some tension (leading your eye from one point to another), then you've used balance.
Alignment creates a sharper, more unified design, creating invisible connections between elements on the page.
Repetition strengthens a design by tying together otherwise separate parts and creating association. You can think beyond repetition of content into repetition of font styles, layout styles, colors, etc.
Contrast is the most effective way to create emphasis and impact with your design, and should be obvious: big/small, classic/modern, thick/thin, cool/warm, smooth/rough.
Hierarchy creates organization, guiding the reader through the reading process. It visually identifies and ranks the importance of the information you're presenting.
Balance: The large type on top is balanced by the smaller but more condensed type on the bottom.
Alignment: There's a clear vertical line that starts with the "l" in "long" and leads the eye down to the production information.
Repetition: The same typeface (Futura) is used throughout the poster, and the words in the title share a common motif (the sinking letters).
Contrast: The black/yellow makes for easy visibility, and the size difference between the title and the rest of the text makes the title pop.
Hierarchy: The more important the text, the bigger (and/or more bold) I made it. This is a simple and effective way to create hierarchy.
Now you've basically got a degree in design principles. Congratulations! You can also try putting yourself into a designer mindset: pretend that your production is a client, and you've been hired. Think about the audience, the message, the motivation for your publicity campaign -- what do you want to communicate about the play? What do you want people who see your design to do after they see it (buy tickets, I hope!)?
Above all, know the play. Know your intent. And, from a practical standpoint, make a list of everything that needs to go on your poster/program/what-have-you. Otherwise, inevitably, you'll forget something important. Or misspell someone's name.
When you're sketching out ideas for your new publicity designs, make sure to keep B.A.R.C.H. in mind, as well as what's appropriate for the play and your audience -- and don't be afraid to make lots of little thumbnail sketches! They don't cost anything and they'll help more than you think in formulating ideas and layouts.
What's that? You have a design idea, but you still don't have any money, and you're freaking out? Deep breaths! Here are some simple tips to keep costs low:
- Keep your design black and white if you can. Consider printing on various colored papers to add interest.
- If you must use color, create a design that also works in black and white. Being able to print both versions saves some money.
- Create your own imagery to avoid copyright infringement or having to pay for image rights.
- Consider hand illustration/lettering (or find an artistic student or teacher who will volunteer). This is an easy way to create instantly interesting and unique designs. Just make sure it will copy/print well!
- Make your designs part of a campaign. Spread digital versions of your poster art / fliers via Facebook and Twitter. You can also go viral in an old-school way by asking local businesses to post fliers.
- Need to boost your budget? Leave ad space on your design for the program and sell some ads.
Here are some examples of super-cheap fliers for events I organized in college. They were all hand-drawn with black marker and copied onto colored paper stocks. They stood out because of their unique aesthetic, but they could not have been any cheaper to make.
If hand-drawing and hand-lettering isn't really your thing, but you don't have access to design programs like Photoshop or InDesign, never fear! You can use standard programs like Word and Powerpoint to create publicity designs. Here are some technical tips for digital design:
- Make sure your design is sized to fit standard-size paper stocks. (8.5 by 11, 8.5 by 14, 11 by 17)
- Watch your margins! If you don't leave enough space, information will get cut off.
- Make sure your design looks good printed at 100% size (and not just zoomed in on the computer). Is your type all legible?
- In Word, the "format" menu is your friend! Use this especially for text format. The most important fields are indents and spacing.
- Also in Word, right-click on images to open the format menu for them. This will allow you to control how text fits around, in front of, or behind the image.
- Powerpoint can sometimes be a better layout tool than Word.
- For a great deal more control over image and text layout, consider downloading Gimp (http://getgimp.com/) for free. It's Windows-only, and has similar capabilities to Photoshop.
- Always save your files as PDFs for printing as opposed to Word or Powerpoint files. This ensures that you won't have any issues with fonts being changed from computer to computer.
Examples I've made using Word:
And here's one using Powerpoint:
See? It's totally possible! Just remember the design principles, keep things simple, and soon you'll have a publicity design that looks great, fills seats, and won't break the bank. Good luck!
The Florida State Thespian Festival is the largest high school theater conference in the galaxy. The squirming mass of more than 7000 students, chaperones, educators can be seen from space.
Every state festival is different. Florida’s is like a giant theater swim meet, with competitive events at unnervingly specific times (“Your adjudication starts at 8:47AM.”), and an army of uniformed student volunteers who wear clear plastic earpieces, like they are teenaged Secret Service agents. They also manage the quantum scheduling tangle of mainstage and one-act performances seemingly around the clock, a daily workshop schedule, college and scholarship auditions, and the high emotions of design, tech, acting, and vocal adjudications. Yet it everything seems to just happen. It is an organizational wonder.
For several years I have adjudicated playwriting for Florida with fellow writers Janet Allard and David Nugent. About six weeks out, we each get a refrigerator-sized box of 25-page scripts, which we read, respond to, and rate on a five point scale: Poor – Fair – Good – Excellent – Superior. For the first two days of Festival, we meet with each of the 40-odd playwrights for a 15-minute conversation. On the last day we lead a series of playwriting workshops.
I’ve been so grateful for the consistency of our adjudication team; we’ve become a solid team in terms of our approach to adjudication, which we like to structure as a conversation with the writer. Frequently, we’ll find ourselves giving the same kind of note over and over and over. What we wound up talking about a lot this year was conflict, or more specifically, lack of. So here are a couple of assumptions that we’ve seen playwrights make, and my thoughts in response.
“Conflict is when really bad stuff happens to the characters.”
No, it’s not.
Say that it’s Festival and your playwriting adjudication is at 8:47 AM on Thursday morning. On Wednesday night you check in to your hotel, which is hosting a convention for golfers, and they practice their putts in the hallways until 5AM, seeing if they can get a chip shot off your door. You oversleep. At 8:13AM, you take the elevator downstairs, but it gets stuck between the 2nd and 3rd floors. Then the cables break and you plummet to the ground, cushioned by someone’s costumes for the junior version of Amadeus, and the door crash open into the lobby. It’s now 8:21AM. Out the glass doors, you see the festival bus pulling away. The driver laughs maniacally and speeds off. You can see your troupe-mates faces pressed up against the windows, screaming. Oh, no! What will that mean for your one-act competition? The troupe has worked so hard on their adaptation of Dante's Inferno, even though it was asterisked for bad language and drug use, and you felt really good about it, especially the mime sections and the teen jazz orchestra. Then, as you’re running toward the convention center, at 8:38AM, you feel like you can just make it, and that’s when you’re attacked by zombies.
This is a bad morning at Festival. But dramatically, is it conflict? No. Bad things happening to your character is not conflict. More bad things happening to your character is not more conflict.
Sometimes the temptation is to keep adding awful events to your play. An abusive family, a car crash, and then a terminal illness, all in 25 pages.
This suggests to me, your playwriting adjudicator, that you don’t really know what your play is about. And also, you watch too many Lifetime Movies of the Week.
Do your characters do terrible things to each other? Yes. Good. This is conflict.
The play emerges when the conflict is urgent, intimate, and immediate. Conflict happens because the decisions that characters make put their relationships at risk. Is the play really about a playwright and a zombie? Great. They need to know each other, want something from each other, and make decisions that betray their weird zombie-human friendship.
The rest is context. And context can be bad. But context isn’t the play. Context is the external. Conflict is the internal. Context is the larger metaphor.
Say there’s a brutal storm outside. So show us the brutal storm raging in this family, at this moment. Say there’s a tornado. Show us the whirling destruction inside a friendship. Say there’s a tsunami. So show us the tidal forces that overwhelm a pair of lovers. In a play, the story is small, and the metaphor is huge. If you write the personal story, the story will provide the larger meaning, it will do the work for you, whether the play is set in the Renaissance, in a mental institution, or on Mars.
“Conflict means the characters hit each other.”
No, it doesn’t.
Physical violence is sometimes an indicator of conflict; more frequently, it indicates that the playwright doesn’t know what the play is about. Physical violence can become an easy out.
A gunshot isn’t de facto conflict. A punch to the face isn’t de facto conflict. Just because “It happens in life” doesn’t mean that the event is earned in the story. It may be that your characters hit each other, or kill each other, at the very moment when you are least certain of their actual conflict. What you might be going for is that characters don’t’ hit each other; they hurt each other. Sometimes, the worst possible thing that can happen is that a person opens their mouth and the exact wrong words come out.
Here’s a conflict: Your playwriting adjudication is at 8:47AM, you come in needing me to give you a Superior; I’m an adjudicator, I need to prove I’m a good judge by not giving out any Superiors whatsoever. We are at odds.
The stakes are high: You feel like a Superior will validate you at school, and if you go back with a Good, or even an Excellent, your reputation may be ruined, your hopes for social and academic advancement dashed. I feel that giving out easy Superiors invalidates my hard-earned experience and long-developed judgment. Maybe last year I was too easy, and this year I have to work hard to save my job.
By 8:49AM you realize that I have no intention of giving you a Superior. Are you going to hit me?
(I mean, will that be your first strategy?)
And will I hit you?
No. The real tension is, what will we say to each other? And then, because a play is based on failure (I try to get what I want and my first strategy fails), what do we do next? Whatever choice we make in terms of strategy, in terms of decision, we have a positive intention. We have a desire, an objective, a need. And if we fail, our life will be ruined. Will we lie? Cheat? That doesn’t work either. So what do we do next? Conflict escalates. The play doesn’t happen to the characters, the characters happen to the play.
You say: You are not only a terrible judge, you are a bad human being. You are beyond mean. You have killed my creative spirit. And I say….
Here’s a go-to list as you write the draft of your play for next year:
- Conflict isn’t when bad stuff happens. Conflict is when your characters happen. Make that the bumper sticker for your Playwriting-mobile.
- Conflict is there even before the beginning of the play – it doesn’t “develop.” Strategies develop. But conflict pre-exists lights up. These characters need their objective before we even meet them – they are in action when they walk through the door.
- Objectives are active, urgent, immediate, and personal. The play happens now, not tomorrow, not last week. It happens because these characters have a powerful, present-moment need.
- Keep your characters in the room together. When you are tempted to let them leave, make them stay. Even a dramatic exit – when a character slams the door! Bam! – can let your characters off the hook.
- Keep your characters talking directly to each other. Be wary of the temptation to have them text instead of talk. Put your characters face to face.
See you next year!
--C. Denby Swanson
C. Denby Swanson is a 2007/2008 NEA/TCG Playwright in Residence with Zachary Scott Theater Center. She graduated from Smith College, the National Theatre Institute, and the University of Texas Michener Center for Writers, and has been a William Inge Playwright in Residence, a Jerome Fellow and a McKnight Advancement Grant recipient. Her work has been commissioned by the Guthrie Theater, 15 Head a Theatre Lab, Macalester College, St. Stephen's High School, and The Drilling Company and featured in the Southern Playwrights Festival, the Women Playwrights Project, the Estro-Genius Festival, and PlayLabs 2002. In 2006, she was in residence at New York Stage & Film (through P73) to develop her play A Brief Narrative Of An Extraordinary Birth Of Rabbits, which was also included in the Writer/Director Lab at the Playwrights Center, and workshopped at Cornell College in Iowa as part of New Plays on Campus grant. Her play The Death Of A Cat received its world premiere at Salvage Vanguard Theater and was subsequently a finalist for the PEN Center Literary Award for Drama. Most recently, her full length adaptation, Atomic Farmgirl, was workshopped at the Culture Projects Impact Festival. She is a Core member of The Playwrights Center in Minneapolis, an alumna of the Lark Theaters Playwrights Week 2005, a former Artistic Director of Austin Script Works, and on the faculty at Southwestern University. Her plays Honour, Governing Alice, Everything So Far, The Atomic Adventures of Nikolai Nikolaevich are published by Playscripts, Inc..
On a chilly evening last November I found myself wandering through the empty, warehouse-lined streets of Bushwick. I was new to New York, and I had been told that Bushwick was a “hip” neighborhood in Brooklyn. But as the cold air nipped at my fingers and ballet-flat-clad toes, I began questioning my decision to come out at all. A friend of mine was sound designing a short play for Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company and I had promised I would attend, but I was skeptical as to what kind of art I’d find among the maze of warehouses. I was about to give up and head home, when I stumbled upon the address.
I entered the venue tentatively and was certainly surprised by what I found. The space was packed with buzzing people. I quickly staked out a spot by a wall (the seats were already filled) and went to retrieve my free beer. This was going to be good.
The show that I saw that night was part of Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company's ongoing Saturday Night Saloon series. The Saloon featured six serialized plays--a zombie western, a space epic, and a supernatural, "Upstairs, Downstairs" piece, to name a few. Each short play was highly stylized and combined different cinematic/comic-book genres with varied theatrical styles. The result was a highly original and entertaining show, akin to a live-action comic book or modernized old-timey radio show. The crowd of devoted fans, who would no doubt return for the subsequent installment, was raucous.
Vampire Cowboys started in 2000, as a collaboration between then grad students Qui Nguyen and Robert Ross Parker. Both Nguyen and Parker studied traditional theater, but the two bonded over their shared love of comic books, action movies, and pop culture. In a recent interview, Nguyen said, “We wanted to create the kind of theatre we always wanted to see – a kind of theatre that was both fun and philosophical, hysterical and emotionally engaging." Parker added, “I’m always interested in the combination of disparate elements, embracing both the high and low brow, the place where fart jokes and philosophy meet and have tea.”
Producing a successful and popular theatrical production is no easy feat, but for the Vampire Cowboys, it’s the norm. The innovative, "geek" theater company, won an OBIE award early in 2010, and they are also recipients of a Drama Desk award.
To my delight, Vampire Cowboy Trilogy by Nguyen and Parker, has recently become a Playscripts published play. The three part script perfectly embodies the winking tone and comic book aesthetic of the group that made them famous. In the first act of the play, a paranormal detective takes on the case of a mysterious stranger. In act 2, we are presented with cold-war era crime fighting duo Captain Justice and Liberty Lady, who must stop the communist super villain, Hooded Menace. Act 3 tells the story of your typical teenage warrior princess, battling the likes of alien cheerleaders, and of course, high school. Qui Nguyen talked about the experiences that inspired him to write Vampire Cowboy Trilogy:
"Growing up inArkansasin a fairly homogenous environment, my folks wanted me to have strong Asian role models. So instead of allowing me to watch things like Rambo, Mash, or shows that depicted Asians as bad guys, they fed me campy Kung Fu movies to help keep my yellow-esteem high in a land full of black and white. And it worked."
For innovative and contemporary New York theater, look no further than the Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company. Vampire Cowboy Trilogy, is a great place to start--this fun play epitomizes the company's point of view, and it is equally accessible to theater people, high school students, and the general public alike. After that cold, wonderful night last November, I knew that I would be a fan of the Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company and Bushwick for life.
--Lizzie Martinez, Playscripts' own Comedian
Playscripts is excited to announce the arrival of our new Marketing Director, Lane Bernes. Lane comes to us from Zinio, where she managed social media and merchandising. In addition to her marketing background, Lane is a playwright and has been produced at The Bloomington Playwrights Project, The New York International Fringe Festival and The Estrogenius Festival. Her play, The Mercy Swing, was nominated for the Cherry Lane Theatre Mentor Project. Lane's unique background makes her a welcome addition to the Playscripts team. We are very excited to begin the new year with her on board, and look forward to the great work ahead!
What brought you to Playscripts?
I was ecstatic to find a role that combined two things I’m passionate about: marketing and plays. I also have 50% of the Playscripts paperback collection in my apartment.
What did you do prior to Playscripts?
My previous jobs have all been in the publishing world, in a marketing role. I’m lucky to have worked with amazing brands like Robb Report, USA Today and Zinio.
What marketing trend can play producers take advantage of to market their plays?
Facebook Ads! They are super easy, and one of the best ways to find new audience members.
What play or playwright has made the biggest impact on you?
Dennis J. Reardon. He was my first playwriting teacher and is an amazing story teller.
Just for fun, were you in any high school productions?
Yes! We did Alice in Wonderland when I was a freshman, and I got to be a card because I could hold a back-bend while the queen played croquet.
You can find Lane on twitter @lanebernes
I was in a supermarket the other day and was shocked to learn that once again, I was not named People magazine’s sexiest man alive. How many times do I have to go through this? In any event, I plan to use this snub to fuel my creative process for years until that magazine comes to their senses and realizes that my sultry brown eyes and prominent forehead are every bit as attractive as that guy from The Hangover.
I’ve failed a lot in my life. A lot.
Anyone who tries to do something artistic, or something difficult, or something challenging, is going to face a lot of failure. If it were easy, everyone would do it. And the people who succeed are the people who allow failure to fuel them, rather than destroy them.
At this point, it’s easy to wander off into clichés. Such as:
Never give up. Ever. Even after you are dead. Especially not then.
I think we can all take a page from Hamlet’s father and realize that if he had given up after he had been poisoned and buried, he never would have gotten his hollow revenge from beyond the grave.
But clichés become clichés because they’re often true.
There are so many examples from my own life – here are a few:
- In college, I signed up to be in a short story writing class, and I was not even allowed to be enrolled in the class because my story was deemed to be too bad. (Who knew that a story about a talking bagel being attacked by a pigeon wouldn’t strike the fancy of the professor?) Now, I am a creative writing professor and I yearn for the day when someone writes a talking bagel story for me.
- I got rejected from every grad school I applied to. (except one.) In fact, one day I received a rejection letter from a school I really wanted to go to, and when I set it down, I realized I had also gotten a second rejection letter at the same time. I was so upset that I threw the opened letter as hard as I could against the wall. (Do you know what happens when you try to throw paper really hard? Yeah. A whole lot of stupid.)
- Every year my college gave out an award for the best humorous writing to a graduating senior. The year I entered, for the first time in a decade, no award was given because “no one was deemed worthy.” Yeah. That one stung.
I could go on and on. Now it’s not like I think about these perceived slights every day (only most days), but because the artistic life is so difficult, you need something to keep you going. And believe me, the desire to “show `em” is a pretty strong motivator. I still fantasize about those people who rejected me looking in the newspaper and cursing themselves as I win my fourth-consecutive Pulitzer Prize and, almost unimaginably, my second Nobel. Hopefully, they’ll all still be alive and will have just enough faculties left to rend their hair and wail piteously as I make yet another acceptance speech.
I want to make one other point, one that is perhaps less clichéd than my first point. Most of the time, the reason you fail isn’t because of other people not believing in you, it’s because you simply aren’t good enough at what you’re doing. I probably didn’t get into that short story writing class because my story was actually pretty bad, and I didn’t get into grad schools because my play wasn’t very good.
Happily for me, I got better. And the reason I got better is that instead of blaming everyone else (I blamed them a little bit), I also blamed myself. And while that can lead to lots of sad nights, it can also help you learn and improve. You can’t learn anything if you give up.
So – embrace failure. Learn from it. And show `em.
Darn you Bradley Cooper and your piercing blue eyes and boyish grin! (Notice, however, that we have an equal amount of scruff. Hmm.)
Visit Don's website: http://www.donzolidis.com/
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Flipping through the TV channels or on a trip to the movies, you might notice that fairy tales are everywhere this fall. ABC and NBC are in on the action with Once Upon a Time and the darker Grimm, and last year’s Red Riding Hood was just the start of a slew of fairy tale films being produced for teenage audiences. Just outside our office here at Playscripts, Inc., a shiny two-story billboard has gone up, advertising Universal’s Snow White and the Huntsman--we can’t seem to get away! But then again, why would we want to? Fairy tales endure for a reason: they’re compellingly simple at times, but can also be deeply symbolic. They’re familiar, but also endlessly malleable, able to adapt for any audience or storyteller. It’s no wonder they’re making such a comeback on both the big and small screens. But take a look through the Playscripts, Inc. catalog, and you’ll find that fairy tales have been going strong on the stage for quite a while! In fact, with so many different types of fairy tale plays available through Playscripts, you won’t have any trouble finding a fairy tale adaptation that will work for you and your theatre’s needs. Whether you’re looking for short plays or full-length, plays performed for young audiences or by young people, or whether you want to create a fairy tale just for adults, here are some plays that will have your audience charmed:
For schools who’d like to give their young actors some fairy tale roles to chew on, but who aren’t looking to tell the familiar traditional tales, Jodi Picoult’s musical Over the Moon or the rollicking play The Brothers Grimm Spectaculathon by Don Zolidis are both large-cast comedies that bring together characters from many different stories into one zany plot. Both shows are appropriate for schools, with Over the Moon recommended for middle and high school actors and audiences, and The Brothers Grimm Spectaculathon, available as a full-length play and as a one-act, recommended for high schoolers. High school fans of NBC’s crime drama Grimm will also get a kick out of Jonathan Rand’s Law and Order: Fairy Tale Unit, which combines comedy, crime, and big bad wolves galore. Forensic teams or one-act competitors will find a lot to love in Charming Princes by Emily C.A. Snyder, a clever and empowering Cinderella story with a twist, that runs only 15-25 minutes.
Community theatres or high school troupes interested in telling a more traditional story should take a look at Bob May’s Snow White and the Magic Mirror or Timothy Mason’s adaptation of Beauty and the Beast. These two tales draw less on Disney and more on their European ancestors for inspiration, and subtly update the tales for the stage while remaining true to their original forms. Both are full-length, and could be performed by either young actors or adults.
For adult troupes who perform for young audiences, a sure winner in the fairy tale category is Elizabeth Wong’s Amazing Adventures of the Marvelous Monkey King, a wild 45-minute comedy loosely based on Chinese folklore that is full of, as the main character says, “crazy excitement!” A darker, full-length take on Eastern folklore for young audiences is In a Grove: Four Japanese Ghost Stories by Eric Coble. These four haunting tales are not light fare, but can still be performed for a younger crowd, and give any audience a taste of magic. If comedy and more widely familiar tales are still your taste, Marjorie Sokoloff’s adaptation of Snow White, meant to be performed by children’s theatres, is a fun and forgiving look into the mind and motives of the evil Queen.
Finally, even adults get to have grown-up fun with fairy tales--why not?--in Billy Aronson’s “thoroughly bastardized,” dark comedy version of Little Red Riding Hood, in which any inappropriate insinuation is laid bare, and no path left un-wandered-from. At 20-40 minutes, this fairy tale is a delightful bit of adult nonsense.
So don’t let all the magic happen in Hollywood--there are fairy tales to be told by every kind of theatre group, for every kind of audience!
-- Cate Fricke, Playscripts Intern
For the uninitiated, here are the basics of Texas' public high school one-act play contests, as administered by the University Interscholastic League. According to the U.I.L.'s website, "The League's One-Act Play Contest, founded in 1927, is the largest high school play production contest or play festival in the world. More than 14,000 Texas high school students in more than 1,000 plays participate in 300 plus contests, which take place from the beginning of March through the three-day, 40-production State Meet One-Act Play Contest in May."
The U.I.L. was created by The University of Texas at Austin in 1910 and it exists to provide educational extracurricular academic, athletic, and music contests. The U.I.L. has grown into the largest inter-school organization of its kind in the world.
Here is how it works: Every public high school is categorized by size, (1A schools are the smallest and 5A schools are the largest, with student populations at or above 3,500 students, in grades 9-12). Then, schools in each classification are grouped into "districts" based on location. If you are teaching in a 3A school in Houston, for example, you will be placed in a "district" with other 3A schools in the Houston area. Districts usually contain 6 or 7 schools. Districts with 8 schools are broken into two "zones". Each school prepares a 40-minute minute one-act play to be presented at the district or zone contest. To attempt to level the playing field, schools are limited to a simple unit set of gray cubes, columns, flats, ramps and stairs. The plays are performed back-to-back on the day of the contest, and a judge declares a winner and an alternate who then advances to the "area" contest. "Area" winners advance to the "Region" contest and "Region" winners advance to the “State Finals” where a state champion is crowned in each of the five size classifications.
What does this mean to the Playscripts author? Simply put, each year over 14,000 Texas high schools are looking for a 40-minute play to use in this competition. In my experience, the kinds of plays that are normally done at this contest include 40-minute cuttings of well-known and/or classic plays. A list of last year's plays from the state contest can be found on the U.I.L. website. Once a play has appeared at the state contest, it becomes a popular choice for teachers the following year. So, if a school has success with your play, it could lead to dozens more production around the state. If you have a play that can be cut to 40 minutes, I recommend doing it yourself. Teachers can ask for permission to cut, but your play is much more marketable if it is already in a format that can be used in this contest. The contest rules are rigid, and any school that exceeds the 40-minute running time is disqualified. So, teachers are looking for plays that have an established production history in the 40-minute format. Also, the U.I.L. has a list of approved publishers, including Playscripts, and a list of pre-approved plays, but the U.I.L. must approve each script submitted. Teachers sometimes must cast their one-act play from a class whose roster is not flexible. So, a teacher may need a 40-minute show with three boys and fourteen girls, for example. If your play fits those requirements it immediately gets to the top of that teacher’s reading list. Playscripts’ powerful search tool allows teachers to search by cast size, so be sure your plays are listed in every possible casting scenario. If it is possible to do your play with fewer actors (by doubling roles) or with more (by un-doubling roles) be sure your description on the Playscripts website reflect this.
The U.I.L. one-act play contest offers a unique opportunity for a playwright to have his or her work showcased at one of the largest contests of its kind in the world.
Just over a month ago, I received a phone call from a prominent Artistic Director at a major regional theatre. (As you can imagine, this is something like getting a phone call from Santa Claus.) It went something like this:
PROMINENT ARTISTIC DIRECTOR: What are you working on right now?
ME: Oh lots of things. Lots and lots of things. So many things it would blow your mind.
PROMINENT ARTISTIC DIRETOR: Can you send me a copy of a new play?
ME: Um… Yeah, just give me three or four weeks.
PROMINENT ARTISTIC DIRETOR: Great. We want to choose our season for next year by the end of the month.
Now, as you may have guessed from my suspicious use of the ellipsis, there was no such play in the works. At that moment in time I had exactly nothing in the works. I had essentially given myself four weeks to write a new play from scratch worthy of production at a major regional theatre. Not easy.
So, faced with an impossible deadline and the highest stakes imaginable, I did what I always do: procrastinate. I spent some time on facebook, I commented on writing forums I had no business commenting on, I checked the baseball stats from the 1985 season (I wish I were making this up – I was actually doing this), and generally wasted time until panic set in.
Panic is usually enough to get me going. I spent three weeks in panic mode, wrote about forty-five single-spaced pages of terrible notes, started and abandoned three terrible plays, and spent quite a bit of time smashing my head against the floor in hopes that such an action would result in a fine, well-made play that would win me awards and make me famous.
When I don’t have a good idea, my thought process usually goes like this:
I suck. I suck. I am a fraud. Coyotes will devour my corpse.
That was my mental state on Wednesday, two days before my deadline, with a pile of unusable garbage on my computer, and coyotes circling ever nearer. Then, as fate would have it, I came up with something. I can boil it down to this: I let go and decided to just have fun.
Fun is important. It’s what got me into playwriting in the first place. When I was writing ten-minute plays in college, the entire point was to make people laugh (and theoretically make one of the pretty girls in the audience laugh so much that she would fall in love with me). I had a lot of fun doing that, and over the month that I was breaking my brain trying to come up with something, I had forgotten about fun.
So I went for fun. And the idea came to me. Now, when I have a good idea, my thought process is this:
I am awesome. I am the best ever. I will eat those coyotes for lunch.
Happily, by the time I’m done with the play, I usually settle somewhere in the middle so I’m not completely insufferable.
Anyway, even armed with a great idea and convinced of my own awesomeness, 48 hours is too short a time period to write a 100-page play, so I begged for three more days and got them, and hammered out a play in five days. I don’t mention the five days by way of bragging, remember it took 30 days of mind-smashing to get to my five days, and eighteen years of writing for the theatre to get to those 30 days
The point, which I had forgotten, is that you can’t think of the outcome when you’re writing. You can’t say, “I’m going to write a funny and beautiful play that will be loved by all and provide jobs for six actors and win the Pulitzer Prize and some other kind of award that hasn’t even been invented yet.” If you think that way, you paralyze yourself.
I sent the play in. The Prominent Artistic Director read it with his actors, loved it, and might just produce it. Whew.
Now if I only I had another idea.
Here’s an artist’s rendition of me writing a play and thinking about how awesome I am
--by Don Zolidis
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After nearly a decade’s steady diet of university theater productions in which at least one actor if not dozens required aging via makeup and mounds of gray hairspray, I got it into my head to write a play where no such tricks were required––where young actors could play people their own age. The result was Acts of God (now published by Playscripts, Inc.), in which a dozen high schoolers cope with the emotional detritus of an F-3 tornado strike.
My dislike of forcing young actors to “play age” has not diminished. Since the advent of Acts, I have penned four full-length efforts where adults, “Peanuts”-style, are largely left out. My considerations in tackling these scripts are quite different than when I conjure plays for “grown up” theaters. To wit:
1) When writing for a professional company, economics necessitates a small cast. When writing a play intended for college or school groups, the exact opposite is true. How will we train our next generation of stage artists if we only write one- and two-handers?
2) When designing plays to be produced by cash-strapped schools, I have to consider the possibility that the producing venue might have a very limited budget. Thus, it behooves me to rely heavily on props, the kind that can be found at garage and rummage sales. The sets I devise (or should devise) are flexible, dependent not on great big flats or slamming doors but on negative space, the clever use of lighting and sound, and scenarios sufficiently powerful to lift an audience (I hope) out of its natural state of cultivated disbelief.
3) When thinking about young actors and casting, it seems to be an ongoing fact that more girls than boys are ready to audition. It’s my job, then, to write a play that’s easy to cast––or, as my mentor Chris Kazan once said, “Write parts that actors want to play”––girls included.
4) When writing for school systems, I must consider the possibility that they have no lighting grid other than a table lamp, no sound system besides a boom box, and no control over their environment beyond, perhaps, the closing of doors. So what can I offer? Challenging material, first of all, with strong emotional stakes. The play has to be about the situation and what its characters stand to lose, not about technological gimmickry which, let’s face it, can be outdone any day of the week by Hollywood (or even, most days, by the worst app on my iPhone).
5) Make ‘em laugh.
Now that I’ve laid down the law, here’s how my post-Acts efforts break the above rules. (Not that I had any choice; the muses made me do it.)
Nightjars, with a large cast of seventeen, quickly found a production slot at the Y.E.S. Festival (Northern Kentucky University, 2009), but has failed to find a publisher or a second home. I cannot entirely account for this. It contains what to me is the finest scene I have ever written, one that I cannot read without crying.
These Lonely Daughters of Liberty has gone nowhere except back into a bottom drawer where it will hopefully never again be read by man, woman or beast. It’s an attempt to tell the story of a high school girl whose father is an Aryan Nations survivalist, but it’s a bad play. With a cast of seven (one adult, six teens) it should have worked like gangbusters. It didn’t. It doesn’t.
Two much newer efforts remain largely untested. Ten Red Kings deals with on-line gaming addiction, and its collegiate heroine, Margot, is sent in short order to a wilderness-style rehab camp. No phones. No computers. No iPods. Margot, a skilled World of Warcraft player, is so close to her on-line avatar that said avatar, Nightwatch, becomes part of the on-stage action (along with several trolls and a smitten wizard who thinks Nightwatch is the hottest thing since butter). By story’s end, Margot is back at home and ready to put the brakes on gaming, but Nightwatch, unsurprisingly, has other ideas.
So here’s a story that speaks, I hope, to young people’s actual experience. The subject is certainly ripe for hilarity, but it’s also quite serious, and I have made no attempt to provide a pat ending. Margot, just like an alcoholic waging an ongoing tug-of-war with drink, is engaged in a battle that will last a lifetime. Is this appropriate for teen drama? Absolutely. Teens, like most savvy adults, know that the really hard questions don’t come with ready-made answers, and they are rightly suspicious of those who provide them.
Not that the close of Ten Red Kings is grim. It isn’t. Negativity isn’t any more useful in theater than is Pollyanna optimism.
What else does Ten Red Kings offer? A flexible set designed around a few primitive benches, a “window,” a campfire circle, and a computer hutch or desk. The play also requires computers and peripherals, several fairly specific masks, and, to top it all off, a lethal-looking sword. I have rationalized my inclusion of these items as being A) artistically necessary, and B) less expensive, even in aggregate, than a “kitchen sink” set.
That takes us to My United Nations. Like Ten Red Kings, the play features a female lead and a mid-size cast (eleven). One character is intended to be played by a real adult, not a student; the rest play high schoolers. Samantha (Sam) Morgan is having trouble keeping her facts straight. Is she the Secretary General of the United Nations, or is she simply the Secretary General for her school’s Model United Nations, an involved but ultimately “pretend” after-school club? Either way, her classmates are behaving very strangely, as is her assistant, and there’s a voice in her head urging her to do some very scary things. Act Two begins on a quieter note, with Sam admitting to her in-hospital psychiatrist that she understands she is a schizophrenic, and that at least half of what she’s been experiencing is delusional. The question becomes, will continuing her United Nations scenario put her fantasies to rest, or will they send her permanently over the edge?
With My United Nations, I have shucked off my rule about solid sets. The play requires a realistic interior––half classroom, half hospital ward––together with one window and two firmly emplaced doors, one to be used by those who inhabit Sam’s fantasies, the other by those who are undeniably real (her physician, et al.).
Further, to really make the set successful, Sam should have a hospital bed. An impossible build for a high school, yes, but not so hard to rent (from a medical supply company). Is the play appropriately cheap to produce? Overall, probably still. At least it’s not a “costume drama,” requiring rentals of everything from ballroom gowns to top hats and bustles. But I have clearly strayed from the straight and narrow of my own precious playbook. (Wretched muses. It’s all their fault!)
So, in terms of sensible playwright behavior, I’ll give myself a B+ (or a C- if we count These Lonely Daughters…, which I do not). And of course I’m hoping that the dramatic merits of each piece outweigh any and all set-related, cost-related or cast-related drawbacks. Ten Red Kings has drawn serious consideration from two colleges so far, but is not yet set in stone for anyone’s season. My United Nations is too new to have reached beyond my basement office, although its first concert reading will be scheduled shortly (relying, as I always do, on the perennially talented performance majors at the University of Evansville).
Will either play follow in the footsteps of Acts of God, and appear under the auspices of either Playscripts, Inc. or some other publisher? Perhaps. But the Catch-22 of theater remains firmly in place: To get published, a play must first be produced. And to be produced, a play must first be published.
Now, if anyone would care to step forward and break that fateful chain, please, give me a shout. That’s how Acts of God got going. Two venues, the Evansville Civic Theatre (Evansville, IN), and Thomas Worthington High School (Worthington, OH) agreed to produce Acts despite its newness and despite my, at the time, marginal track record. (Thank you, Chris Tyner, and thank you, Bronwynn Hopton!)
Time now for me to get back to work. A grown-up piece, my current project, all of ten minutes long, featuring a state-employed arborist attempting to measure a whopper of an oak. Will it be good? Or, more to the point, will it have a cast of thousands, or require an on-stage tree the size of a house? I surely hope not.
Until next time, dream hard. Write harder.
--by Mark Rigney
Mark Rigney is the author of Deaf Side Story: Deaf Sharks, Hearing Jets and a Classic American Musical (Gallaudet U. Press), some thirty-five published stories and numerous plays including Acts of God, Cavers, Roots in a Grey Garden, Bears and Burning Mona Lisa in the Reptile House (winner of the 2004 Panowski Playwriting Contest).
Visit Mark's website: http://www.markrigney.net