What Are Your Playwright Best Practices?

09.22.11 | 7 Comments

CATEGORIES crowdsourcing, ideas, playwrights, the process

“…being a playwright is hard. One of my profs once said to me you have to work hard at it for at least 10 years before you start to see any movement.”
Advice For Playwrights Starting Out by Adam Szymkowicz

I read that bit of insight when I was starting out in this genre and let me tell you it lifted a huge weight off my shoulders. I may be alone here, but the knowledge that it was a marathon and not a sprint was reassuring; it calibrated my expectations, if you will. And I understood more clearly that this genre required not only talent, but perseverance.

“Actually, I’m an overnight success. But it took twenty years.”
–Monty Hall

I consider my playwright start year 2006. That’s when I officially began to focus solely on playwriting and transitioned from my old genre of Poetry.

That means I’m about five years in. And recently, while assessing my year in general, I began to wonder: am I doing everything I can so that I begin to see that movement?

So I’ve decided to ask my peers. I thought a collective brainstorm on playwright best practices would help me, and others, develop a blueprint for our respective careers.

To start off the conversation on best practices I thought I’d share one of my own.

Write A Work Plan

I got this idea from an article in Theatre Bay Area magazine. In the piece an actor was describing how they write a plan for each year to map out their goals.

Perhaps it’s because my 9 to 5 job had just finished our own massive yearly work plan, but the idea suddenly made so much sense to me. I needed a tool to help me articulate my writing goals (overall and monthly), a way to see my own progress (that I was taking scripts to their next drafts), and map out professional goals.

So I wrote a work plan and I published it on my blog. I did this for two reasons: 1) I blog about my writing process so including my playwriting work plan made perfect sense and 2) I wanted to create some sense of accountability for myself and declaring all my goals in a public space seemed the best way to keep the pressure on myself to stick to my work plan.

How does it work?

Well, first it’s a living document, which means I can add to it if a new opportunity pops up. And secondly, I do quarterly check in’s where I blog an update on all the goals that should have been met by the end of said quarter.

Has it helped?

Absolutely! This year I feel more productive and in control of my playwriting life than ever. Why? Well, I feel more productive because I’m documenting all the rewrites, new drafts and first drafts of my plays. And I have a list of all the festivals, competitions and other submissions I’ve sent off. I feel more in control because I’m mapping out my progress month to month, planning how I’ll spend my limited free time and energy on playwriting.

What Are Your Playwright “Must Do’s”?

While my work plan has helped me shape my yearly progress, I recently found myself feeling a bit uncertain. I realized that it’s not enough for me to make personal progress as a playwright (that is to improve in my craft and expand my repertoire of work), I need to articulate a blueprint for my career. I need a meta work plan, if you will.

Only, I wasn’t sure what to include in that blueprint.

That’s when I decided to go to you, my peers. To ask you, when it comes to your career:

  • What are your playwright best practices?
  • What are your playwright “must do’s”?

I’m hoping we can all take to the Comments section and build an idea bank that we can go to whenever we’re trying to figure out what’s next for our careers, whenever we’re feeling uncertain and are looking for something tangible to focus our sights on.

While I know that best practices aren’t necessarily a one size fits all kind of thing, that we’ll each have to personalize someone else’s idea/concept, I think it’s important to articulate for ourselves and others exactly how we’re leveraging the resources at our disposal to see the movement we desire.

Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.

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Marisela Treviño Orta

Marisela Treviño Orta

Playwright and poet Marisela Treviño Orta has an M.F.A. in Writing from the University of San Francisco.Marisela’s plays include: American Triage (commissioned by Marin Theatre Company, 2007 MTC Nu Werkz new play reading series, 2008 MTC workshop production, 2011 East LA Rep reading series, 2012 Repertorio Español Nuestras Voces Finalist); Heart Shaped Nebula (2011 Playwrights Foundation Resident Playwrights Showcase, 2011 Impact Theatre reading series, 2012 O’Neill National Playwrights Conference Semi-Finalist), The River Bride (2013 National Latino Playwriting Award co-winner);and Woman on Fire (2006 Primer Pasos: Un Festival de Latino Plays, 2007 full-length commission by the Latino Playwrights Initiative, 2007 Bay Area Playwrights Festival BASH, 2008 Playwrights Foundation’s Rough reading series, 2012 Teatro Luna Lunadas reading series).

Marisela is an alumna of the Playwrights Foundation’s Resident Playwright Initiative, a former member of Playground’s writers pool and a member of the Bay Area Latino Theatre Artists Network. Currently Marisela is working on two new plays: Wolf at the Door and Alcira.
Marisela Treviño Orta
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  • Kari

    Great post! I, too, have a spreadsheet that tracks all of my submissions and rejections over the years.  The one thing I can’t get a handle on is how to write faster. I’m working on it.

    I also might be applying to grad this year. We’ll see.

  • Playwright must-dos from a non-playwright: 

    1. Build you personal board. A group of people (say 3-5) that you hold yourself accountable to. Part of the struggle in freelancing any activity is the lack of accountability – help yourself out.
    2. Find advocates! You can self yourself everyday, but I give infinitely more weight to a third party recommendation. Even a biased recommendation isn’t empty. The more people you have touting your work the better chance the people who will love producing it will find it. 

    3. Get some skin in the game. Don’t always wait for producers. Pay for a reading yourself and invite folks to hear your work that was (ostensibly) created to be heard. 

  • Completely agree with Mr. Non Playwright there.


    1.  Find one or two people whose editorial opinion you trust implicitly.  They might have dramaturgical or editorial experience, and that would be great–I have two such people I trust who don’t know one another but whose opinions on my writing usually line up, and so I trust their eyes.  Whether they have experience or not, if they can read your work and tell you what works and what didn’t–and you can see their points–then stick with them.  You might not incorporate every idea or issue they bring up, but it’s good to have that outside set of eyes.

    2. Set that schedule.  Now that my kids are in school all day, my week breaks down into design days and writing days, with one day that’s a wild card for whichever needs more attention that week.  It’s flexible, but it works.

    3. Do readings.  Get into your community.  Self-produce if need be.  Don’t spend your money on contests whose prize might be a reading, spend it getting your work in front of an audience.  Maybe it’s a reading, maybe it’s a production, the important thing is getting more than a select number of readers to know your work.

    I know there are more things…I may be back later…

    • Also, try what Jane Espenson likes to call “writing sprints.”  Set yourself thirty or sixty minutes and write whatever.  Maybe it’s a free writing to see what comes out, maybe you’re actively working on a specific project.  But set yourself that time and don’t let anything distract you from it.

      You might be surprised by what comes out, and you might find yourself writing faster and more assuredly the more you do this.

      I tend to write fast, but that’s because I trained myself to write on a television series schedule.  If you know you have X amount of time to turn out Y number of pages, you’ll get it done.

  • Marisela Treviño Orta

    Here are some additional best practices I didn’t go into on the blog post:

    1. Develop and raise your online profile: This goes along the lines of what Travis was saying about finding advocates. The way you do that is by meeting people, networking. But networking sometimes feels icky if it’s solely motivated by personal gain, so perhaps think of it as relationship building. Theatre is a collaborative art form, meaning there are lots of artists involved in bringing a play to life. So getting to know a variety of artists behooves us. Also, the only way people will think of you as someone they might want to work with is if they even know who you are.

    And how do you develop and raise your online profile? Well, I think Twitter is a good example of how to engage in conversation with lots of great theatre peeps in an online space.

    2. Connect with other playwrights locally. For the past few years I’ve been co-hosting a quasi quarterly pub night with Tim Bauer (another Bay Area based playwright). Pub night has no set agenda, unless you count good drinks and good conversation. The idea is to just hang out and get to know your fellow playwrights (other theatre peeps are welcome, too) and find out what people are working on and what they’ve been up to.

  • Anonymous

    Work plan should include writing, networking, and marketing activities. Have to set time aside for all of these. My writing work plan includes hikes by the lake, BTW.

  • Inspired by a panel at the last Playwrights Foundation Bay Area Play Festival I made not a one-year plan but a personal five-year plan.  Not sure which is better; yours looks pretty interesting and maybe doing both is a good idea. But I do notice I’m being more industrious not only with my writing but also with my submitting now that I have the plan.

    One thing I do is go to a lot of readings and, when I believe I have something useful to say, take part in the talk-back sessions. That way, theatres get to know me better and I get to know their interests better so that I know what is appropriate to submit to them, which may be broader than what is ultimately made part of the season.

    In a way, this is a bit of a sacrifice in that I like to be surprised, and this takes away for the ability to truly see a production for the first time. But it is also rewarding to watch my fellow playwrights’ work develop over time, so it is fun in its own way.

    Which brings me to my overarching tip: don’t do something just because it will make a good impression and get your name out there. Do it because you love it.