Play Writing - Placing The Play
( Originally Published 1915 )
Good plays are always wanted, and the anxiety to get hold of them is very great, the multiplicity of theatres increasing the demand. But is it to be wondered at, that a busy and harassed manager is not in a position to give serious thought to the enormous mass of written or printed matter that is being perpetually brought under his notice?...It is a marvel that managers are as patient as they are, when one thinks of the absolute rubbish that is constantly asking their suffrages...
Going "through the mill" is not a pleasant operation, but it is the only way to get associated with the grist.—FRANK ARCHER, How to Write a Good Play.
Don't ever send in a play without first having obtained permission to do so. Don't, when it is in, worry the manager about it too soon or too often. Don't write to the papers about your ill-treatment....Do not argue with managers, but accept their decisions, and appear to be impressed with, and grateful for, their views...Be guided by common sense in your tactics. Do not send drawing-room comedy to the Adelphi, and sensational melodrama to Terry's. Do not try to talk Mr. Toole over into playing a heavy, emotional drama, because you will only be wasting your own valuable time, to say nothing of that versatile comedian's....Send one-part plays to the actors or actresses that they would best suit....Mind, however, that the play is a one-part play; actors do not relish rivalry. And take care that the part suits your man all through.—Play-writing: a Handbook for Would-be Dramatic Authors (By "A Dramatist. ")
And after you have performed the Herculean labors involved in the writing, criticising, revising, and copying of your play, you find that your work has only just begun! Next you have to consider the task of getting the play "placed."
For achieving this highly desirable consummation since "no man is a recognized dramatist till he is produced "—there are various procedures. You may mail your play to a manager, to a "star," or to a play agent; or you may carry the manuscript in person.
What happens to plays mailed or expressed to managers?
That depends. Write to the average producer, and he will reply that, if you will send him your play, he will read it as soon as possible. If you call on the manager yourself —and succeed in seeing him—he is likely to assure you of just that much. One producer frankly asserts that, since not one play out of a thousand ordinarily received is worth looking into, he is much too busy a man to read plays against such odds. To attract his attention the author must have first gained the interest of some noted actor, or must submit a record of some successful minor production.
Most theatrical firms employ play-readers, who perhaps occasionally recommend promising manuscripts for production. It is quite true, however, that though, according to recurrent newspaper interviews, most managers are actually on the lookout for undiscovered dramatists, they often seem unwilling to seek these elusive wheat-grains in the oceans of chaff which flow in via the post office.
Copyrighting the Play
Playwrights are frequently warned in more or less direct language that in submitting manuscripts indiscriminately they run the risk of losing the ideas of their plays, when novel, if not the plays entire. Of course, modern copyright arrangements insure a certain amount of protection. By filling out a blank and sending it with one dollar, a ten-cent revenue stamp, and a carbon copy of an original play to the Register of Copyrights at Washington, the author can obtain a certificate of - copyright good for twenty-eight years. This certificate, together with evidence that a producer has had access to a copy of the play, makes a basis for a damage suit against the producer, when he brings out under another title a strikingly similar piece. Perhaps this accounts for the fact that many managers carefully avoid mentioning the title of any play in their letters: "I have received your play," they will write, or "I have read your play;" but they rarely make any further identification. Anyhow, it is notorious that producers are often harassed and victimized in the matter of plagiary accusations.
Manager and Actor
The experience in submitting plays to managers, if only because of the delay, is usually disheartening. Sooner or later, the author is tempted to try the play broker. Some of these agents are reliable. If they like a play, they will say so; and sometimes they will succeed in placing it for production. Then they will charge a commission of ten per cent. of the author's profits, which is a very reasonable fee indeed, since the agent looks after the drawing of contracts, the collection of royalties, and all other necessary business. However, some play brokers also have a habit of storing manuscripts away indefinitely, even after having warmly approved them.
There remains the actor. If he reads your play and becomes interested in it, he will of course be likely to urge its production by his manager. But actors, too, are busy people. They often carry trunkfuls of manuscripts about with them and find time to read none. And as a rule, when the actor glances over a play and finds in it no part suited to himself, his interest in it as a working possibility ceases.
The process of seeing a manager usually includes making an appointment by letter, waiting long beyond the hour named, accepting rebuffs from the Napoleonic office-boy, and at last being dismissed by the producer himself with scant encouragement. Play brokers can generally be seen with less delay. In the event of an interview, few managers, actors, or agents will do more than take a manuscript and promise to read it at some indefinite future date. And personal visits rarely accomplish more than do courteous letters toward securing immediate action. Obviously, watchful waiting is usually the only practicable policy for the beginner.
Producers' promises to read, doubtless for the most part made in good faith, are often not fulfilled before the author's patience has become exhausted. One rising Western manager, for example, agreed to consider an amateur's manuscript. After it had been in his office for some months, he replied to an inquiry that he was much interested in the play and would in all probability produce it. At the end of eighteen months, the author requested its return. Meanwhile, the manager had written some fifteen letters of excuse for postponement, while he was repeatedly announcing through the press the acquisition of new pieces, and his desire to consider manuscripts from "unknown" authors.
In the present state of vaudeville, except for the rare one-act play theatres, there are almost no producing managers, as in the "legitimate," to whom playlets may to any purpose be submitted. Few if any booking offices or other business enterprises connected with the variety stage will consider unsolicited manuscripts with a view to production. There are, however, play brokers who frequently place sketches; and vaudeville actors are usually on the lookout for next year's "vehicle." One means of getting a sketch seriously considered for vaudeville is to arrange for a "try-out" that the booking office reviewers may witness. This, of course; is beyond the possibilities of the average author.
And so it goes. Nevertheless, the self-confident pseudo-dramatist will not allow even an apparently endless series of rebuffs utterly to dishearten him. The prize is no trivial one; and, anyhow, a good fight is its own reward. There are many interesting stories of frequently rejected plays that. eventually won renown for their authors. Mr. Augustin MacHugh, for example, is quoted as saying that in at least three offices his farce, "Officer 666," was never taken from its wrappings.
The secret history of many latter-day stage successes would, indeed, make interesting reading, if all the facts were available. Certainly, if rumors are to be credited,
"The Great Divide," "The Witching Hour," "My Friend from India," and "Paid in Full "—not to mention dozens of others—would each serve as the subject of a prominent chapter, as "D'Arcy of the Guards" has done for a whole book.
Meanwhile, from time to time unheard-of playwrights do become known through the submission of manuscripts, by mail or in person, to producers, brokers, and actors. Moreover, there remains at least one other possible opening, and that is the stock company.
The Stock Company Opening
Nearly every American city of considerable size now has its resident troupe of players. Many of these companies occasionally vary their repertoire of standard successes with "try-outs" of new plays. A proved play is, of course, a valuable property; and resident stock managers are often willing to wade through piles of manuscripts in the hope of securing a promising drama. Plays are generally produced by stock companies upon terms providing for a joint ownership of future rights, three-fourths or two-thirds accruing to the author. The manager, having demonstrated the worth of the play in stock, endeavors to place it with some regular producer and naturally in this effort enjoys unusual opportunities.
From time to time stock managers, newspapers, and various organizations conduct contests, in which the prize is a production of the winning play. These contests have frequently resulted in bringing promising work to the producer's attention. All in all, the stock companies probably offer the most satisfactory opportunity, though a limited one, for the young writer seeking a hearing.
Terms of Contract
When the play has at last been accepted by the metropolitan manager, there arises the question of the terms of the contract. Most producers have regular forms, which they submit to new- authors with but slight variations. Some managers will offer to buy a play outright, for, say, five hundred or a thousand dollars. Others will stipulate that after the payment of fifteen or twenty thousand dollars royalty the author shall relinquish all proprietary rights in the play. Ordinarily, however, the terms of the contract give the new . author from three to five per cent of the gross receipts, with perhaps a sliding scale, following an initial success, of five per cent. on the first four thousand dollars a week; seven and a half per cent. on the next two or three thousand; and ten per cent. on all additional receipts. Naturally, dramatists of established fame get more generous terms. When a play is accepted, even from a beginner, an advance royalty of from two hundred and fifty to a thousand dollars is often paid.
The contract in any case should stipulate that the play is to be produced within a given time limit—six months or a year from date. If possible, the manager should be bound to give a definite number of performances each year to retain his control of the piece; and details, such as weekly box office statements and payments of royalty, manuscript changes, and the ownership of novelization, foreign, and stock rights, should be included in the agreement. However, in view of the manifold difficulties of securing even so much as a hearing, the unknown author may well be willing to accept any honorable terms pro-posed.
The Play as a Collaboration
After the acceptance and the contract, there remains what many authors regard as the hardest work of all—the production. The beginner can, of course, leave his manuscript to the producer and concern himself with it no further: indeed, it is more than likely that he will be fully urged so to do. However, he may have insisted on a clause in the contract giving him the right to participate in such changes as are deemed necessary. And in any event, he knows he must stand or fall by the play as it is performed, rather than as he wrote it.
A well-known novelist, who has produced a single piece for the stage, is quoted as saying, "The reason that I do not want to write another play is simply that I want anything to which my name is attached to be wholly and entirely mine." On the other hand, it must be remembered that an acted play is always a collaboration, not only of author and actors, but also of producer and audience. All the possibilities in any one manuscript are rarely foreseen by any one person, not even by the author. And, while some plays have been spoiled through bungling manipulation at the hands of the incompetent, many others have been virtually infused with the breath of life through skilful and experienced production. "It's a wise author that knows his own play when it is acted;" and certainly a foolish author that complains when his half-baked work has really been lifted out of mediocrity.
The amateur dramatist who has finished, typed, and copyrighted a new play should watch the columns of the newspapers and especially of the higher class periodicals devoted to the stage or to the writing craft, for announcements of play-reading bureaus established by managers, of prize contests of various kinds, of the immediate wants of noted actors, and of such opportunities as are afforded by the semi-professional playhouses or companies. If he feels confident that his drama is adapted to the needs and abilities of some particular "star," the author should address the player, usually by letter, asking permission to submit his manuscript. In dealing with play brokers, it is generally best to select those of established reputation. And wherever possible, the beginner should endeavor to interest in his work the manager of the local stock company.
Above all, throughout the often trying experiences of the unknown author seeking to "place" his play, let him resolutely keep a stiff upper lip in the earnest conviction that sooner or later such merit as his work possesses must be recognized.