I'm selling off a bunch of my hiking gear on Craigslist, and if you've ever sold anything there you know you typically get a slew of interested responses, but only a couple of real bites. There are people who are interested and say they'll pick it up at your apartment so you change your plans and then they don't show up but then they want you to hold the item for them. You juggle a bunch of people like this, until finally you get one person who ponies up the money and the rest are still sending you email wondering if you can still drop off that Thermarest sleeping pad they want to buy for ten dollars at the State Street T stop at rush hour.
My gut response is to simply stop communicating with people. "Leave me alone." "You should have come over last night and picked it up like we agreed." "You snooze, you lose." "You want me to what?" I mean, that's what people would do to me, or rather, that's what I assume people would do to me.
But I'm not going to do that. Manners that I've been taught to me, plus a feeling that communication is so important in this world between even strangers, compels me to write emails that say, "Sorry, dude, but someone grabbed the tent with cash in hand. What can I say?" It's closure. At the very least it's acknowledging the other person's place in this world.
Here's where we move into submitting plays. It's that "acknowledging email" from theaters that so many playwrights complain about. Or rather, that lack of any kind of communication from a theater that acknowledges that the theater got a script or declined it even when faced with a mountain of submissions. No closure.
I got to thinking about this last night during my usual nightly bout of insomnia. I usually spend at least a couple of hours a few nights a week on the couch with the laptop due to lifelong sleeplessness. I try to use the time I'm awake in some sort of productive pursuit. Last night I was checking through submissions I've done recently, and came to a theater's site that said, "We've announced the plays for our festival." I wasn't one of the chosen, and I got to thinking, well, a letter or an email would have been nice. I mean, this is a local Boston-area theater.
And here's where I started really thinking.
This particular theater (no, I'm not going to name it, but you'll see in a second that it's a fairly typical small theater) asks for email submissions only. And according to its site, it received about 800 submissions. That's a lot, and you might think, that would be a lot of emails to send out. It's a small theater with a small overworked staff and they're busy.
Well, sorry, I'm not buying it. And I'm not trying to bite the hands that feeds me, but this is a simple fix that will go far in keeping the dialogue going between theaters and playwrights.
First, small is good. Small means simple. And since so many theaters ask for email submission, I'm assuming they have some amount of computer skills. Using fifteen-year-old computer technology, especially theaters that ask for email submissions can capture the email and make a mailing list. It's that easy. It's something we all do. Those playwrights who aren't accepted can receive a very simple email saying that the theater has received so many submissions we can't answer everyone individually, but thanks. Lots of theaters do this, but lots don't, too.
And you know, this is kind of the dark side. Don't tell me you're busy. Everyone today is busy. Not just theaters. Everyone. So, it's not that you're busy, it's that I'm unimportant. Yes, that's exactly the message you're sending, because if my name were Sam Shepherd, suddenly you wouldn't be so busy anymore, would you? Playwrights aren't asking to be treated like royalty. We understand where we stand in the scheme of things depending on our level of success. We understand Sam Shepherd trumps John Greiner-Ferris. But that doesn't mean you can't use some simple courtesy and technology to keep relationships positive.
This isn't a slam for all theaters, because there are plenty of theaters who do communicate. It's meant more as a suggested solution to a relatively simple problem. Even a tweet or a status update of a Facebook page goes further than no communication at all. Really, with today's options, there really isn't any excuse for not communicating. "Thanks to everyone to submitted. Here are the winners." Or even, "The flu swept through our offices and we're behind in answering our mail. Please be patient."
And just so we don't end on a downer, here a few examples of theaters that do communicate. At the top of the list is the O'Neill Center. You get an email that they received your play. You get an update. You get an email address and phone number if you have questions.
Locally in Boston, Boston Playwrights' Theatre always sends a nice little note. If your play doesn't make the Theater Marathon, Kate still writes a nice little personal note on the rejection letter. Throw a check in what I call the "collection basket", that box that stands in the lobby, and you're sure to get a nice note from Kate or Jake thanking you for your generosity, even if it's only ten bucks.
Sarah Fleishman or Dan Hogan at Club Passim in Cambridge will always hand-write a little note on correspondence. It's a nice personal touch that keeps me coming back.
Jessie Baxter, the literary manager at Fresh Ink, a Boston area theater that had its very first round of play submissions this past year, sent me a thoughtful email that made it clear that she had read and considered my work.
Both the Lark Play Development Center and The Playwriting Center have always been nice and responsive to questions and submissions.
Again, this post isn't meant as a slam to theaters. Again, I've received plenty of emails from theaters telling me they got a script or that they won't be using it. I think for that reason theaters that don't communicate stand out as being an anomaly.
We talk a lot in today's theater about the "dialogue" and the "conversation." We're talking about what the "new theater" will look like. Communication among ourselves--between all theater artists--I think is key to the future of the theater.