I’m going to get in trouble for this one.
For as long as I can remember, I have always been very, very, very into awards and titles. I haven’t always been good at deciphering if I wanted something because I actually wanted it or I felt like I was supposed to want it. I was the Vice President of my class in high school junior and senior year. If I was in a club in college, I’d find a way to get a leadership position. In grad school, they had a plaque on the wall of the “top graduates” and I remember looking at that every single day wondering what exactly I needed to do to get my name on there. I have multiple scrapbooks filled with Honor Roll, Principal’s Honor Roll, All Team All-League certificates. If there was an award to be won, I was going to find a way to win it.
And not because it brings me joy. Most awards feel kind of empty to me. I like collecting them and bragging about them but often I don’t actually feel excited about them. I want other people to know I’m special even if I don’t feel special. I love myself. I’m my favorite person. But I also deeply hate everything about me too. It’s something I’m constantly struggling with.
So when I came to theatre, I was initially very into the whole finalist/semifinalist part of competitions. There are so few spots that get into festivals and if you get in, you have to actually do the work but if you’re a finalist or semifinalist, you get to be part of a super cool club of people who almost made it and you don’t have to do any work. Or, rather any more. You get to add another line to your resume and move on. Win-win right?
I remember fighting with other playwrights that semifinalist and finalist weren’t rejections. They were special and important. Your play gets to be on a list. A list that theatres might check and maybe they’ll read a couple of the plays on the list. That’s not rejection……right?
Here’s where I’m at these days:
If my goal is to work on the play and truly edit it and workshop it, then being a semifinalist and finalist has the same end result; I don’t get the goal. So it’s a rejection. And from where I’m standing, I don’t really care how close I got. Either way, I didn’t get the goal. That’s a rejection and it’s a rejection semifinalists and finalists both share.
Recently, an AD said that playwrights aren’t submitting plays they actually want to work on to festivals anymore. That most of the playwrights are changing maybe a page or two but aren’t really using the process to work on the play and I had a bit of a disconnect.
Because, yeah. That makes sense to me. When your play has to be good enough to get in, you spend a lot of time editing and changing the play because for some reason companies keep reminding you that you’re competing with at least 600 other people. Most playwrights don’t want to send out their messy first draft that actually needs workshopping because it won’t get in. They’re sending the sixth draft of a play they’ve been working on for 2 years because they’re hoping that has a stronger chance than the brand new play they’re actually excited about but barely makes sense (yet) and actually needs work.
Truly, how often is taking a great risk like sending draft 1 rewarded? I wish theatre companies would release statistics of how many plays that made into their festivals were truly first drafts. My guess is it’s less than 5%.
(Personally, I do send my very first draft most times but there’s something to be said about the fact that I have never got into the major the festivals or residencies outside of Orlando Shakes.)
Why would you make yourself vulnerable enough to send such an early draft for readers to send back notes like “This character wasn’t clear.” Yeah, I know. That’s why I wanted to workshop it.
The plays that do get in are more polished. They’re draft 3 or 4. They’re much closer to “ready for production.” Oftentimes, it feels like these workshops are more about testing which plays can go straight to production rather than about actually helping the playwrights develop their work.
Because of all of this, I hate the divide between “semifinalist” and “finalist.” Here’s why: none of us have gotten the goal. None of us are reaching the testing ground. Maybe other theatre companies will read the play; maybe they won’t. I’m not sure what the point of all these lists are anymore, especially when the same names are on all of the lists. (I say this as a person who has been on a couple of lists this year.)
As far as I’m concerned, in more situations than not, all “semifinalist” and “finalist” does is create unnecessary competition between playwrights. It’s all smoke and mirrors. If a reader reads my work and they’re excited about it, they’re going to pass it on, regardless of whether it’s a semifinalist or a finalist so why create yet another barrier? Yet another way playwrights have to face off? Choosing finalists and semifinalists feels a lot like Agatha’s wink in WandaVision; no one’s getting in but here’s a little treat for your resume. If none of us are getting the opportunity, can we at least not create further division?
I get that every play can’t get in. I know theatres are looking for a way to support playwrights they love who can’t get in that year but wouldn’t it be better to just create a shortlist? Get rid of the semifinalist and finalist division and instead just create a single list of the top 10%. Out of 700, that’s 70 names. Out of 1000, that’s 100. Yeah, you’ll have to make some hard choices but that’s part of the gig. By the time you combine all the names on the semifinalist and finalist list, it’s 200 plays. Who is that helping? Theatre companies aren’t going to read all of those plays; they’re going to skim the lists for names they already know because the lists have gotten too long.
Sometimes it feels like everyone is trying to be so delicate around playwrights and I don’t know a single playwright who wants that. Rejection is 99% of what we do. We know the game and we still signed up for it. Don’t throw us a soft pitch and tell us it’s good for us. That’s gaslighting.
I’d much rather cheer on my friends who did get in and then try again next year if I think the opportunity is achievable. And if I think it’s not, I’d rather just move on. And personally, I don’t want to know if I was in the top 5% of “didn’t get in” or if I was in the top 30% of “didn’t get in.” Let’s create lists that celebrate new plays without reinforcing a hierarchy that doesn’t really matter either way.
*NOTE: Some theatre companies have finalists who do receive readings. This blog strictly speaks to when theatre companies/festivals have finalist and semifinalist status but other than “making the list” there is no development opportunity.