Daily Dojo

Repost - Never Do This …

Below is a repost of a bit I wrote about submission fees called Never Do This . . . I’m reposting it due to a discussion taking place on other boards … it applies primarily to play submissions … there are excellent TV and Film fellowships that ask for submission fees and they are well worth it because, well, you get a year long paid fellowship (well paid, too, the Nicholl is 30 grand) but for the most part, theatres … in my experience, not worth it, imho, of course.

Here’s the original post:

This is for all the young playwrights out there -

Back in the late eighties, I think it was, Billy Crystal and Christopher Guest did a year on Saturday Night Live and they had this routine, which I’m sure you heard, and it went something like this –

This one time, I had this stapler, a really good one, one of those factory staplers . . .

Industrial strength . . .

Yeah, very strong, and I would be looking at it, and before you knew it, I had . . .

Stapled your eyelids to your forehead . . .

With no effort, none at all . . . I hate it when that happens.

Yeah, I hate it when that happens.*

Why do I bring this up, young grasshoppers?

Because how often have you seen, in either Backstage or Craigslist, the following ad:

Dynamic and exciting new theatre company, ONLY ABOUT US, hot and happening, ear to the ground and hearts in the heavens, is seeking new plays! Two or even three plays will be chosen for our development series. Chosen scripts will receive a director, three hours of rehearsal and an actual staged reading.
Please send scripts to:

888 West 88th Street.
New York, NY 10069

Please include a $45 reading fee (checks made out to OAU Theatre Company) and a stamped, self-addressed envelope.**

We see a LOT of these ads, don’t we? Every week. Every day.

I hate it when that happens.

So what’s wrong with the above, you ask? A lot, but to wit, the READING FEE is what’s wrong with the above posting.

Write this down and don’t forget it.


Never, ever do that. Ever.

Companies, especially independent companies (but not only) often do this and it really frosts my ass because it is a total rip-off.

Yes I said rip-off, you read that right, I said rip-off.

I hate it when that happens.

A theatre shouldn’t require you to pay to be considered, anymore than an actor should pay to be able to audition. It’s just fucking unethical. As a writer, you get no guarantees your play will even BE read, much less seriously considered.

Not only that, your money goes to support other people’s work that you may not admire or even like. In fact, you don’t know where your money goes. It’s basically a scam.

The company above asks for a reading fee. Now let’s say that they get a hundred submissions. How much is that? $4,500 dollars, right? Right there is a two or three week run in a small theatre in New York. You’ve just funded a run of a show for them with your reading fee.

And it probably will not be a run of a new work, it will be a chesnut play, like MIDSUMMER, and on their off-night, Monday, they’ll do a reading of a new play that no one from the company will attend because they have the theatre rented for the whole week anyway. So they’re not even renting a space for your reading.

That’s what they can do with only a hundred submissions from hungry playwrights.

But they will get MORE than a hundred, they will probably get anywhere between five hundred to a thousand submissions (believe it, I used to work in a lit dept) and if they get a thousand, they just made $45,000 dollars. In essence, they are asking struggling writers to fund their company and their entire season.

What do YOU get out of it? Nothing. An unpaid intern may read your script, but more likely is it will go unread and the theatre will choose a script from a writer that they already know, who didn’t pay the reading fee, and is dating the artistic director.

I hate it when that happens.

Even more terrible, let’s say that they DO do a reading of a new script by a new writer, it will most likely be a scattered affair and the artistic director will mysteriously be unable to attend, the actors will be disinterested and only your friends in attendence. If you’re lucky, there will be no talkback, but only if you are lucky.

The sick part is, as I mentioned above, many times a company like that put all their funds into a full production of THE CHERRY ORCHARD, a hip-hop version of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE or a male version of THE KATHY & MO SHOW. I’ve seen this hundreds of times, a theatre company charges reading fees to young playwrights and puts up an old creaky play everyone’s seen hundreds of times.

What’s more, for $45 dollars you can put up your own staged reading, you can rent a studio for that amount, post an ad for free on Craigslist for actors (or ask friends for referrals), send out an email announcement and BING! You have a reading. And you will probably get a better turnout.

Some companies promise more than a staged reading, they may promise a full workshop production, once your script is read and you’ve paid the reading fee. Should you do it?

No. For the same reasons as above. There’s NO way to insure your fee is well spent by them, that your work will get read and equal consideration. More often than not, the workshops will go to writers that the theatres already know. And where did your money go?

You shouldn’t pay for consideration, ever.

Sometimes the reading fee is not $45, sometimes it’s only ten bucks, and you figure, why not, it’s ten dollars?

No. Don’t.

This is old news to most seasoned playwrights, but if you haven’t heard this before, hear me now. Don’t pay reading fees.

No agent would ever pay someone to read a script that they represent. No established writer would pay someone to read their newest script.

Why should you?

Save your money and take a class, rent a space and start a workshop, or even put up the show yourself. Don’t pay someone else to ignore it. Reading fees are terrible.

The reasoning behind the reading fees, when I’ve discussed it with a few folks asking for them, is usually as follows.

A) It takes a lot of work to read all the submitted plays. We need to pay someone to read all of them.

Duh. It takes even more work to write the plays, trust me, it take a lot longer to write a full-length play than it does to read it, and as struggling playwrights we don’t ask you to pay us BEFORE we write the play, do we? Actually, that comes later.

But hey, you’re the one who wants unsolicited new works, you’re the one choosing to parse through hundreds of badly written plays to find one or two good ones, it’s your choice, you pay for it.

If reading hundreds of full-length plays is too much work, ask for ten-minute play submissions. You can read them fast and tell in ten pages whether the writer is any good or not. If they’re good, ask them if they have longer works or even to write a play specifically for you.

B) We are a non-profit theatre, and it goes to a good cause.

So is the Roundabout Theatre, one of Broadway’s biggest, so why should I give money to you and not them? Why not support The Signature Theatre, which has a lovely tradition of producing just one playwright all season, per season? I love them, by the way. Both of those theatres actually pay their playwrights.

But the short answer is, am I giving you money to support your theatre or giving you money to read my play? If it’s the first, why is it called a reading fee? And more importantly - How do I know my play will even get read?

C) It’s the only way to find new voices, new undiscovered work.

No and no. First of all, your theatre doubtfully will find anything decent within the slushpile of plays you’ve received because most playwrights who have talent and skill already know better than to pay a reading fee.

Secondly, there are many ways to find new, undiscovered work. Mostly by referral, you want to find a great writer few people know about, ask an actor you like. He or she WILL know a good writer and recommend them (I love actors, they’re my best friends). Ask a director. Ask a writing professor or teacher, any promising students. Someone who’s been around knows someone good who deserves a break. I know several.

Last and most important, see plays. If you go see plays and readings, especially in the independent theatre world, you will see someone who can write like a bastard (I mean that in the best way possible) who has work yet to be discovered.

Really, what you are doing, as a company, when you charge a reading fee is you are taking advantage of writers and they get little to nothing out of it. It’s terrible.

Now you may be a company that actually READS the plays, that actually puts the reading fees to good use in parsing through the new works and not funneling the cash into the artistic directors vanity project, a remounting of the Boy George musical (because it wasn’t really appreciated the first time around), you may be that honest.

But how would I, or anyone, know that? Why should I pay you and get nothing in return?

Playwrights, not only do I recommend you NOT pay a reading fee, I also recommend that you do NOT support a theatre company who charges them. Don’t go to their shows. And tell them why.

There ARE a few exceptions, places where paying reading fees is worth it, primarily applicable to screenplay fellowships (Nicholls is the largest, which is a 30,000 dollar screenwriting fellowship and accepts plays as samples) and television writer programs. Big point, these are from large institutions and the rewards for the discovered writers are large and financial.***

These are for screenplays, however. I don’t, at least at this time, know of comparable theatre fellowships were you have to pay reading fees. They may be there. If so, a fellowship is a very different thing from production consideration. They are not charging you to consider your play for production. No one reputable does that.

Nor should they.

And nor should you.

Reading fees. Never do that.

Better to staple your eyelids to your forehead.

*First note - The Billy / Christopher exchange was written by me, but based on characters created by Billy Crystal and Christopher Guest. Like a television spec script for Will & Grace or anything, it’s just a sample and while I created the exchange, I don’t own the characters, nor am I claiming such. It’s a mini-spec script.

** Second note - Jack Meoff and the ALL ABOUT US Theatre company is fictional, created by me as an example and you should not by any means send them scripts or money. Plus the address is located roughly in the middle of the Hudson River.

***Third note - If anyone is aware of fellowships for playwrights that require reading fees and are worth it, feel free to add them to the comments below. All knowledge, in the end, is good for all of us. Plus, I like comments. Leave a comment. Even if you have nothing special to say other than “Hi.” It makes me feel warm. Click on comments and you’re golden.


I should add, the main difference between screenplay submission fees and theatre, that I’ve been able to tell, is that the legit screenplay organizations (like the Nicholl, or the Disney Fellowship) is open only to non-pros … if you’ve made too much money (I think it’s like 5 to 8 grand a year) as a screenwriter, you’re not eligible for the fellowship, which is a real job … the Nicholl is a year long gig where they pay you what totals out to be thirty grand while training you. Thus, it’s not for people who’ve already established themselves. So there’s a good reason for a submission fee. Unlike, say, the O’Neill playwrighting thing, where any and everyone has to pay a submission fee, and what you get, in the end, is a staged reading of your play.

There are screenwriting competitions that are ripping you off for the submission fees, sure … but no legit agent, manager or production company would charge you a submission fee for your screenplay, and if they did, you shouldn’t pay it no matter what.

Professionals get paid, they don’t pay.

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