Monday, September 10, 2007

I Really Do Read Cover Letters

I just completed my first full day as Literary Manager at Victory Gardens Theater. I almost feel like I've switched sides, which says something about the subconscious frustration we playwrights have with the gate keepers between us and production. I've said and written many things about how I think lit management should be done. Now I've got to put up or shut up. Please note, I will need a few months to reorganize and re-invigorate the reading system. So don't take me to task quite yet.

As they occur to me, I'll be writing a few words of advice to writers as they approach the submission process. Today's topic: cover letters.

I really do read those cover letters. Perhaps that's only because it is my first official day. But after several hours of combining through the current batch of submissions, I do have a list of things to avoid:

1) Don't say you hate writing cover letters. Or you're no good at it. Or in any other way draw attention to the fact that you're writing a cover letter.

2) Don't announce you're an amateur. There's no reason to state that this is the first play you wrote. Or you haven't been involved with theater since college. Or that 15 other theaters have rejected this script.

3) Don't announce the weaknesses of the play. Unless you are submitting to a workshop process and have been asked to explain what you want to work on, don't list what's wrong with the work. You're submitting for production - if there are weaknesses that you're aware of, don't send the script.

4) Don't just say "In response to your request...." or "As we discussed..." The people you are submitting to are reading hundreds of scripts, and have had dozens of conversations which have included "Send me that script." Give a reasonable context of the conversation. There's a difference between "Here is the script you requested after reading my synopsis on June 10th." And "After my reading on June 10th, you requested that I send you my latest work." In addition, turnover happens --I'm a case in point!-- so you can't assume that the reader of the letter will know what you're talking about.

5) Don't characterize or categorize the play. If I wanted to read "Aliens meets About a Boy but set in Italy." I would get the two scripts, shuffle them together like a deck of cards, and read them on the plane as I go visit my brother in Italy. I hear that in TV and Film, executives need that kind of context because they're not creative types. I suspect that's a rumor made up by people who wish they were executives in film. But either way, literary managers in theater tend to be writers or directors. We're creative types. Really.

I'll save a list of do's for a later post.


Amy said...

I'm always perplexed by people who denigrate themselves in introductions.

I also direct, and it's astounding to me the number of times an actor will say, right before they audition, "I'm not really good at this. . . " or "I can't sing . . ." Why tell the people casting that they don't want to hire you?!? I guess they want to lower the bar before they start . . .

David said...

The flip side of this are the letters in which the playwright goes on and on about what a wonderful, amazing, concept-smashing, groundbreaking, never-before-seen-in-the-theater-or-on-TV thing is his or her play.

I should have a more mature reaction, but to be honest, my response is "Prove it." And to be more honest, I wish more of them would. And when they don't (in my flawed opinion, at least), I must also confess to being a bit harsh.

Oh, and watch out for those cover letters that include a collage of bad self-portraits. And those unsigned, To Whom It May Concern letters of recommendation from famous but unfortunately recently deceased playwrights. (Some of which, whether or not they're even legit, have been photocopied from photocopies so many times that they're skewed on the page, grainy and all-but illegible. (Note to playwrights considering the above: Just sit on the photocopier and take a shot of your posterior... You'll at least get a laugh.)

Oh, I could go on... But instead, "Congratulations!" on your new job, Aaron. Enjoy!

Tony said...

Congrats on the new gig.

Yeah, I'd agree as ageneral rule it's probaly not a great idea to write a cover letter that makes the readers not want to read the script.