What do you Propose?

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It’s off my chest! I’ve just handed over three play proposals to the play selection committee for consideration in the 2017-2018 season. Now all I can do is cross my fingers, hope for the best, and start racking my brains for alternatives in case my proposals don’t make the cut.

There are so many layers to the thought process of proposing a play to a theatre, and a massive part of the professional director’s game is knowing what material to suggest to which people at what time.

Here’s something that’s tough, but let’s come to terms with it: just because you love a play doesn’t mean that somebody else will. Even in a vacuum, there exists no single work of theatre that is universally loved. Also, many people don’t know every play that you would expect them to. We all have blind spots, even artistic directors, faculties of universities, and selection committees. So when you’re proposing a play, you can’t ever assume that the work will speak for itself. That’s your job – you have to speak for the work, why you believe in it, and why you think it has a home at the theatre you’re proposing it to.

So where do we begin?

Let’s say I want to propose a play to a producer (and I’m going to use that word generally to refer to an artistic director, selection committee, board of directors, etc. The person/people who make the programming decisions).

First, I have to consider my own needs: to propose a play, I have to love it enough to direct a production. Already, that eliminates a vast majority of all plays. I also need to be confident that the play is within my ability to direct successfully, and I need to know that the producer will have the minimum amount of resources I need to be successful.

Then, it’s time to get into the producer’s head and try to guess what they’re looking for in a proposal. This adds some further criteria. I’m looking for:

1. A play that fits within the general aesthetic of the producer’s programming.

This is what we’re usually referring to when we say a play is “a good fit” for a theatre, and it covers a huge range of things. Does the theatre produce classics, established contemporary plays, new plays, or a mix? Does the theatre produce political or socially relevant subject matter, or do they steer clear of it? Does the theatre think in genres (“We need one comedy, one mystery, two musicals…”) or do they have space for more complex types of work? A good way to check yourself is: can you really imagine the theatre producing the play you’re proposing, or do you just wish they would?

2. A play that the producer thinks their audience will buy tickets to.

You better believe that the marketing prospects of a show are playing a key role in season selection. It doesn’t matter if you think the show will sell, you’re probably not the one marketing it.  If the producer doesn’t believe they can successfully market your show and fill their seats, that proposal is pretty much dead in the water.

3. A play that will fit in with the other productions that the producer wants to program.

You really can’t control this one very much, because you probably don’t know what else the producer is seriously considering or has already decided will be part of their season. If the play that you’re proposing is too similar to the rest of the work, or not adding anything significant to the season, it probably won’t make the cut. What you can do to try to give your proposal a shot here is make sure that the play brings some sort of inherent value with it. Imagine the role this particular play would fill in a potential season – is it bringing enough to the table?

4. A play that the producer will think can be done with their resources (this may not coincide with your own assessment.)

If it’s clear from the script that your show requires particular costumes, a set, special effects, a large cast, musicians, or anything else that may raise budgetary red flags, it may eliminate that proposal. Even if you think you have a creative workaround for every technical issue, you may not have the chance to make your case. If the gut reaction of the producer is “no, we can’t do that,” then they won’t, in fact, do that.

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Not pictured: The play you should have proposed instead of all of these.

5. A play with casting requirements that are realistic for the producer to meet.

Producers are usually very set in their range of how many actors they want (or can afford) in their productions. Make sure your casting needs are appropriate for the producer, because very few issues will disqualify a proposal as quickly as this. Some theatres won’t put a play onstage if it has more than three actors, others want a minimum of six. Some theatres care about gender parity, and won’t produce a play that doesn’t have as many women as men. Many theatres will be worried about producing a play with ethnically specific characters if they don’t have the casting pool to support it. Don’t make the mistake of thinking your material is good enough to justify difficult casting needs. I’d bet that most producers won’t even read the first page of the script if they can’t get past the cast list.

6. A play that doesn’t take risks that the producer isn’t willing to take.

Certain theatres don’t do certain things, plain and simple. What is the producer comfortable with as far as language, sexuality, and provocative subject matter?  The material that you are personally comfortable with is largely irrelevant when assessing the appropriateness of a proposal for a theatre. Don’t try to push the envelope here – if they haven’t done it in the past, they aren’t likely to start with you.

7. A play that fits well spatially into the theatre where it will performed.

Not all plays were meant for all theatres. Certain material plays very well in intimate settings, and other material is better served by a large traditional staging. I’m sorry to say it, but your minimalist production of Miss Saigon staged in the round is going to be a tough sell for most, as will your new three-character play about jaded millennials staged in a 1,500 seat auditorium. What is the actual space that your production would be mounted in, and will the play work well in that space?

8. A play that doesn’t challenge any additional restrictions from the producer.

Look, it can be infuriating, but what seems like arbitrary limitation to you can be a sticking point for a producer evaluating your proposal. But that’s their prerogative: they’re producing the work, not you. They get to call the shots. If they give you any parameters for the material they’re looking for, take those seriously!

You probably breezed through that list fairly quickly, but each of those is a separate, critical issue to address. Any downside that your play has or criteria it fails to meet is a reason to take it off the table, and when you’re a producer swimming in dozens of proposals, any excuse to remove something from consideration is tempting.

It can certainly be overwhelming to try to find those few plays that may fit all the criteria you’re looking for, but I personally find it really satisfying to solve that puzzle for each theatre I propose a play to. Do your homework so that you don’t have to guess! You can easily research the production history of any given theatre to find out what has been programmed in the past, and it’s a great tool to inform you on what might be a successful proposal for them in the future. Looking at what IU Theatre is producing this season and what we’ve done in the past tells me a great deal about every single bullet point above, so you can bet that I used that information extensively when working on my proposals.

Check back with me next year and I’ll let you know if that worked out for me!

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About IU Theatre Department

Welcome to the 7th & Jordan blog. This blog is a peak behind the curtain at the Indiana University Theatre Department productions and student work.
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