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Play Publishing 101

Playwrights’ Corner
On open dictionary sits next to a bust of Shakespeare

I’ve learned many valuable lessons two months into my apprenticeship at The Lark. I’ve had the privilege of witnessing playwrights pour their hearts and souls into their work. But after getting a deeper understanding of the artistic process, I couldn’t help but wonder what happens after a playwright deems their play “finished.” I sat down with Peter Hagan, President of Dramatists Play Service (DPS), sponsor of Playwrights’ Week 2017’s Meet the Writers event, to ask what emerging writers can do to get their work published.

CHRISTOPHER REYES: What qualities do you look for in a playwright when deciding to license/publish their work through DPS? What kind of playwrights/plays do you look to publish?

PETER HAGAN: Well, we have all kinds of playwrights, so there’s not any particular “kind” of playwright that we look for here. We look for good writing -- and good writing takes many forms, because there are many, many different kinds of playwrights. We do want to take on plays that we admire and the writing of which we admire and there’s also a practical element to it as well. We want to take on plays that we think we’re going to be able to license in the future that are going to get other productions. That isn’t always the case because, sometimes, a writer with whom we’ve worked for a long time and whose plays we’ve published over the years may write something, which is, if not unlicensable, may be more difficult to license than others and that doesn’t mean we’re not going to publish the play, we may simply publish it and not have a whole lot of actual productions that we’re able to line up. But we do want to be able to make a commitment to a writer for the length of their career.

CR: How does DPS discover playwrights? Do new writers typically get submitted to DPS from agents or does DPS discover the writers first and then see if they can license/publish their work?

PH: Both. We definitely rely on agents. There are a lot of writers out there and there are probably not as many agents as there used to be, but there are certainly enough that we need them to bring writers to our attention particularly when it’s a first production- a first time writer. We talk to people in the business and writers are brought to our attention that way, so it’s a mixture of things. Sometimes we’ll notice a writer and it’s not brought to our attention by an agent. Really, it’s like any situation in the theater, whether it’s how an agent picks up a new writer, or how a theater may discover a new play. Sometimes it just happens by chance. We want to explore every avenue in making sure we are familiar with all the new writers that are out there.

We look here, we look at what’s happening in the regions. I just got back from London and I saw nine plays in seven days, so we like to get a jump on what might be coming here -- both with writers who have already been published (not always by us) and some writers we’ve never heard of before.

CR: Once you’ve decided to license/publish a piece of work, how does the process continue for a new writer?

PH: If it’s a writer that has never been published, usually we’ll pick that writer up on the basis of a small production here or sometimes in London or, more rarely, out of town with an eye towards what we think is going to be happening with that writer in the future (in the same way that a theater will put a writer in a small space to start off with in the hope that they will be writing a play for their Broadway space some years down the line). When we pick up a writer early in their career, we hope that they appreciate our attention to them and the fact that we took a chance on them when they were someone that no one had ever heard of. We try to get them early on and show them that we’re devoted to their work and their careers.

CR: Have you ever licensed/published a play that hasn’t been produced?

PH: It’s very rare, we have done it, but it’s very rare for us to take a play on and publish it before it’s ever actually had a production. Usually, by the time we get the play, the writer is ready and satisfied with it, the writer has had a production of it where they’ve worked out the kinks and gotten it to a state where they are ready for it to be published and then we take it from there.

CR: What advice would you give young playwrights looking to break into the industry? How could they grab your attention or the attention of an agent?

PH: My first advice, keep writing and get yourself involved, if you can, with a theater company that can do your work. When I say that, I don’t mean some fancy, you know –- not Manhattan Theatre Club or Playwrights’ Horizons -- that would be great, of course, but a lot of small theater companies put together by people of like minds exist, and if you can get yourself attached to a place like that, that’s a great way. Get yourself associated, if you can, with organizations like The Lark. Take as much advantage of all of the play development entities that are out there: The O’Neill, The Lark, New Harmony, PlayPenn in Philadelphia. There’s so many of these organizations out there and don’t ignore them. Try to become a part of them. Go to the theater. A lot of new writers think “oh I can’t afford to go to the theater, so I never go to see what’s out there.”  There are many ways to do it. I think it’s very important for, particularly new writers, to see what’s out there -- to see what’s being written -- to see how people are approaching theater because it changes all the time. So those are the two things: keep writing and become a part of the theater community and I don’t mean just in New York, become a part of the theater community in whatever your city is, because it’s all over this country.

CR: What are your thoughts on new, unpublished playwrights pursuing an MFA?

PH: There are terrific MFA programs out there, there’s no question. There are wonderful theater training programs out there, but that’s a very personal decision for people to make. I know wonderful playwrights who haven’t even graduated from college and I know some people who are extremely educated who are terrible playwrights, so I don’t think one necessarily goes with the other. I do think that the experience of getting an MFA, of having a long higher education in the theater, can be very valuable to people. Particularly, if you are looking to expand your knowledge or looking for ways to expand your knowledge of what has gone before -- the kinds of writing, theater history, which I think is really important for writers to be aware of. Some people can do that on their own and do it well and some people need the structure of the university, some people work better in a situation like The Lark where they work with their peers in a kind of organic way of working on a play in a non-judgmental arena, some people need to have a professor that’s going to really ride herd with them, but it’s a very personal decision, so I would never say to somebody “you have to go out and get an MFA.” But if someone said they wanted to do that, I say go for it, you know?

CR: Earlier you said that “writing takes many forms.” What does good writing mean to you and to DPS?

PH: One of the things that I discovered, unlike when I was an agent, is that I can’t simply take on a play or say that we’re taking on a play simply because it is to my personal taste. There are many plays which we publish that are not to my personal taste, so we have, I think, a really good team here, whose tastes are very catholic. I know when I send a certain play to a particular employee of DPS or have that person go and cover the play in performance; I can kind of tell already what their response is going to be, because I know what the particular taste is. And then, it’s a matter of deciding whether the collective opinion of the group here -- and I think it works this way with most of the licensing houses and publishers -- but the collective opinion ultimately decides whether it’s a play that we absolutely have to have and want to go after or it’s something that we don’t think is going to fly at all.

CR: Do the conversations happening around the theater community ever affect what you publish?

PH: I do think the conversations happening in the theater community at large do affect what we try to take on, so for instance, there is a very vital conversation that’s been going on for a while now about the voice of women in the theater and how they are, or they are not, represented as playwrights or as producers or as directors, etc. So it shines a light on that particular issue and makes us think that we need to be more active in that area as well, and direct our focus there to make sure that we’re not missing out on anything. Having said that, I think DPS, in that particular arena anyway, has had a pretty good track record. I actually did a study a couple of years ago looking at how many women playwrights we had compared to what the figures were saying for women playwrights being produced overall and we actually did pretty well, our percentages were higher than the average.

But all of that said, I think it’s important that we focus on that in the last year or two. Recently, we’ve been more focused on and have been receiving plays from trans* playwrights, so that’s a reflection of what’s been going on. Always, and I think this has been going on for quite some time, we try to make sure that we’re doing everything that we can to have a catalogue, the diversity of which reflects the diversity of this country.

One thing I want to go back to just briefly in terms of what kinds of plays that we do here, really the answer is all kinds of plays. The plays are so widely and wildly divergent in their subject matter and the way they’re presented and the theatricality can be everything from a straightforward, four-wall realistic play to the wildest and everything in between. There really is no limit to the kind of play we take on.