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Be Specific!

Some playwriting contests know exactly what they're looking for. logo

So, you've written a new play. But rather than being the traditional, full-length model, your piece falls into a more obscure category. Maybe it's just 10 minutes long. Or it's set in Kansas around the turn of the century. Or, better yet, it's a 10-minute play set in Kansas around the turn of the century.

You wonder: How can I ever possibly get this produced? The truth is that there are playwriting contests looking for authors just like you, who've written about the specific subject of your play.

The logo for the year 2000 edition
of the Actors Theatre of
Louisville's National Ten-Minu
With each passing year come more and more contests looking to build a reputation for their "uniqueness." Some have interesting names, like Theatrix's Drop Your Shorts Competition (a 15-minute play festival) or the Mixed Blood Theater Company's We Don't Need No Stinkin' Dramas Playwriting Contest (for comedies or musicals dealing with politics, race, or sports). Others have even more interesting premises, such as the International One-Page Play Competition.

"With a generic play contest, I think it's harder to have judgment criteria," says Rob Bundy, artistic director of the Stages Repertory Theatre in Houston, Texas, which sponsors the Texas Playwright Festival, the Women's Repertory Project, and the Hispanic Playwrights' Festival. "When we specialize like this, we have an easier way of saying what we're looking for."

"There's a lot more activity in the new play field than there used to be," adds Michael Dixon, literary manager for the Actors Theatre of Louisville's National Ten-Minute Play Contest. "[Theater companies] have discovered how much fun and how rewarding it can be to create new work for the theater--and they want to create work that will speak to their audience and will be appropriate for their artists. Those issues drive the focused kind of contests we're talking about."

Established in 1964, the National Ten-Minute Play Contest was one of the first such competitions to acknowledge the importance of innovative playwriting styles. Over the years, winners have ranged from well-known figures like Lanford Wilson and Joyce Carol Oates to relative unknowns. Like other, similar competitions, the National Ten-Minute Play Contest is great for young writers because the form allows them to complete a play, polish it, and move on.

"Not all ideas are full-length ideas, and not all ideas are longer one-act ideas," Dixon says. "Some subjects are perfectly suited to a ten-minute exploration, which forces you to address the issues of developing good characters, creating conflict, and dealing with theme all at the same time. In plain sense, you just don't have time to waste."
Now, writing a short play may sound tricky, but did you ever think it was possible to write a ten-minute musical? Michael Koppy thinks it is. That's why he established the Ten-Minute Musicals Project in 1989. "You can create a whole story in a 30-second commercial if it's well constructed," Koppy argues. "You're not going to get to who the main character's mother and father were, but it's down to essentials." As producer, Koppy has received over 600 submissions from 15 countries and five continents. Of these, the project has selected 19 for development, representing the work of an impressive list of lyricists and composers including Barry Manilow, Peter Tolan (who scripted the movie Analyze This and has written for The Larry Sanders Show), Toni Tennille, David Ives, and Terrence McNally.

Koppy's general criterion is that each submission be a short, contemporary musical theater piece between seven and 20 minutes in length. "You can always cut," Koppy says. "We had a piece that came in this past fall, written by Helen Chayefsky [Paddy Chayefsky's daughter]. She did a nice job, but everybody told her she should expand it. I said, 'No!' "

Though the length of the works submitted is the main focus for some of these competitions, a good number of them focus on plays about a certain geographical region or state. The Great Plains Playwriting Contest, for example, came into existence because of a simple desire to voice the experiences of people who live in that area.

"It seemed to me that the University Theatre [of the University of Kansas] was going to remain in Kansas forever," says director Del Enruh. "So I thought it might be an interesting idea to develop a contest which seeks out scripts that deal with any aspect of life on the Great Plains, from the earliest times until today." The competition averages 25 submissions a year, and not only from local authors; Enruh receives a significant number from writers who don't necessarily live in the region, but may have some connection to it in their family history. "We also sometimes attract scripts from desperate playwrights who have nothing to do with the Great Plains," he adds. "They're just hoping to find a place to produce their work."

According to Harry Wong, artistic director of the Kumu Kahua/UHM Playwriting Contest, his theater company's contest began as an effort to spark the playwriting interests of writers in Hawaii and the Pacific Islands. "I worked for a year in Washington, DC, and there was a large tradition of theatergoing there," Wong says. "Here in Hawaii, there was no similar tradition. What this contest has done is allow people to think of theater as a form in which they can express themselves. And, because we are willing to produce these plays, more people here are beginning to choose to write in the dramatic form."

While setting geographical boundaries may provide a challenge, the Canadian Jewish Playwriting Contest brings specialization to a whole new level. Ten years old, the contest is only open to plays that have been written by Canadians or people with a Canadian connection, and also contain significant content of Jewish interest. "We're hoping to give playwrights an opportunity to explore their heritage and try to evaluate it in dramatic form," says Ralph Wintrob, chair of the Jewish Theater Committee. "And we want to give them an idea of what it's like to have their work staged professionally, while also encouraging Jewish actors to work through some Jewish roles they may never have had a chance to explore."

While this type of contest offers current playwrights a chance to present their work, others, like the Baker's Plays High School Playwriting Contest, look to cultivate the next generation of dramatists by finding out what is on the minds of today's teenagers. "We feel very good about keeping kids interested in theater after they graduate from high school," says Ray Pape, the associate editor of the competition. "If we can show them that they have a talent for playwriting, then they're more apt to stay in the theater, which is great for everybody."

Whether you're writing about high school, the African American experience, life in a small town, or a subject that fills only a few pages, the common message which these contests convey is simple: There is a place out there for your work. The only responsibility you have is to research the submission criteria. Michael Dixon adds: "You should learn about some of these theater companies before you send them your play, to see if it might pique their interest at all. It's worth taking into account, if you can get that information. And you can always do that by calling and asking."

[For a list of the playwriting contests mentioned in the accompanying article, along with some others that may also be of interest, go to page 3. For a more detailed listing, check out the 2000 Writer's Market and other theatrical publications.]

Annual International One Page Play Competition
Lamia Ink!
P.O. Box 202, Prince Street Station
New York, NY 10012
Award Director: Cortland Jessup
Guidelines for SASE
Deadline: March 15, 2000

Baker's Plays High School Playwriting Contest
Baker's Plays
100 Chauncy Street
Boston, MA 02111
Associate Editor: Ray Pape
Guidelines for SASE
Deadline: January 31, 2001

Canadian Jewish Playwriting Contest
Jewish Theatre Committee, c/o The Bloor JCC
750 Spadina Avenue
Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5S-2J2
Contact: Ralph Wintrob, Chair, Jewish Theater Committee
Guidelines for SASE
Deadline: March, 2000

Drop Your Shorts Competition
Box 9
New York, NY 10276
(Author must be resident of NYC area)
Contact: Helena Webb, Artistic Director
Deadline: October, 2000

Great Plains Play Contest
University Theatre of the University of Kansas
317 Murphy Hall
Lawrence, KS 66045-2176
Contact: Del Unruh
Deadline: September 1, 2000

Hispanic Playwrights' Festival
Stages Repertory Theatre
3201 Allen Parkway, Suite 101
Houston, TX 77019
Contact: Rob Bundy
Guidelines for SASE
Deadline: December 31, 2000

Kumu Kahua/University of Hawaii at Manoa Theatre Department Playwriting Contest
Kumu Kahua Theatre Inc./University of Hawaii at Manoa
Department of Theatre and Dance
1770 East-West Road
Honolulu, HI 96822
Contact: Harry Wong
Deadline: January 1, 2001

National Hispanic Playwriting Award
Arizona Theatre Company
in affiliation with Centro Cultural Mexicano
P.O. Box 1631
Tucson, AZ 85702
Contest Director; Elaine Romero
Deadline: October 31, 2000
(520) 884-8210

National Ten-Minute Play Contest
Actors Theatre of Louisville
316 W. Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202-4218
Contact: Michael Dixon
Deadline: December 1, 2000

Southern Playwrights Competition
Jacksonville State University
700 Pelham Road
North Jacksonville, AL 36265-9982
Contact: Steven J. Whitton
Guidelines for SASE
Deadline: February 15, 2000

Ten-Minute Musicals Project
Ten-Minute Musicals Project
P.O. Box 461194
West Hollywood, CA 90046
Contact: Michael Koppy
Deadline: August 31, 2000

Texas Playwright Festival
Stages Repertory Theatre
3201 Allen Parkway, Suite 101
Houston, TX 77019
Contact: Rob Bundy
Guidelines for SASE
Deadline: December 31, 2000

Theodore Ward Prize for Playwriting
Columbia College Theater/Music Center
72 E. 11th Street
Chicago, IL 60605-1996
Contact: Chuck Smith
Deadline: July 1, 2000

We Don't Need No Stinkin' Dramas
Mixed Blood Theatre Company
1501 S. 4th Street
Minneapolis, MN 55454
Contact: Dave Kunz
Guidelines for SASE
Deadline: February, 2001

Women's Repertory Project
Stages Repertory Theatre
3201 Allen Parkway, Suite 101
Houston, TX 77019
Contact: Rob Bundy
Guidelines for SASE
Deadline: December 31, 2000

Year End Series (YES) New Play Festival
Northern Kentucky University Department of Theatre
Nunn Drive
Highland Heights, KY 41099-1007
Award Director: Sandra Forman
Guidelines for SASE
Deadline: October 31, 2000

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