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I dig jazz and single-malt scotch.  I write plays; I direct them too. I love STAR WARS more than is healthy. I walk my dogs every day, unless it's raining or terribly cold.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Letter Rip!

by Kato McNickle
originally posted on Playwright Zoo

When you send an unsolicited query package to a theater you are an unknown quantity. Within the multitude of other packages that arrive each week you are nearly invisible. Invisible in this business means unremarkable.

In a market flush with unknown and undiscovered playwrights, how do you set yourself apart?

First off, it's not really "yourself" sitting in that pile of queries; or is it?

How have you put "yourself" in that great big pile o' manila that's sitting in the literary manager's office? Did you follow the submission instructions? Things like: did you include the requested number of pages; did you include your resume; did you bind or staple or leave free the pages as per request? Did you check the website to make sure you have the most up-to-date information for your package? Did you?

Did you spend time composing your query letter? Is your letter just a functional, nondescript front piece that says here's a list of my plays and phone number, or did you take the time to create a one-page sheet that puts you in the room with the reader.

With the exception of the play itself, the letter you send is the most important piece of paper. Your letter sets the tone, it represents you, it is the first act in an important drama; the struggle for you to get your play read and considered by a real-live-professional-theater-company. Without a strong letter, your play may not be considered.

Does your letter represent you and your play? Does it express why you write for the theater, why you have written this play, and why you have sent it to these kind, passionate people? If it doesn't, or if it does other things - like presenting your credentials or other details that are not pertinent to "this play - this theater - right this minute" then you have some work to do on writing your cover letter.

Your letter is the gateway to your play. It is also the first tool you have to state why you wrote this play for the theater. Don't waste that opportunity. Communicate your passion through that letter-- why is it important right here right now to this theater? That's the work of the letter.  Put it in there.

Organizing your cover letter

You’re sending your play or a query to a theater. What should your letter say?

Here is what your letter is not:
  • Your letter is NOT your resume or bio.
  • Your letter is NOT a synopsis of your play.
  • Your letter is NOT just a place for you to list your contact information.
Starting your letter with, “I am a playwright whose work has been produced all over the world and has received rave reviews in Cleveland…” and continues for a whole paragraph before even mentioning the title of the play is a turn-off. No one cares at this point if you’ve won the Pulitzer Prize. Okay -- maybe if you've got a Pulitzer you can put that at the top. Besides, if you've got a Pulitzer, then you've probably got an agent and the agent sends the letter, and so on. But our story is about an unrepresented playwright who needs to get a play in the door. That's you, BTW.

You have sent a PLAY – put the play – and not your bio – front and center in this letter. Your bio and resume should be included on separate pieces of paper in the package. If they like your letter they’ll continue on and read your bio and resume. If your letter has turned them off right from the get-go, how much attention do you think they’re gonna pay to anything else you’ve sent them?

Let this organizing principle guide you: Every word in this letter should be related to this particular play being sent to this particular theater by you.

Begin simply, with the basics:
"Enclosed is the new one-act play Blah Blah Blah for consideration in your Best of Blah Festival. After deciding that her life is totally blah, a woman finds herself on a beach in the South-Seas and must cast off her shell of blah or die trying. It requires two women, two men, lots of sailor hats and a beach ball."
See? That could be your opening – it can be that simple. Whoever is reading your letter knows immediately whether this play fits their requirements – a one-act with a cast of four – no set – lots of sailor hats. It also includes a one-sentence description – not to be confused with a synopsis – more like a log-line that grounds the reader in time/place/and genre. “Perfect, so far,” says the reader, so they continue on.

What’s next? Remember the organizing principle –
The next paragraph is about the play, but not about the play’s action – it’s about why this play? Why was it written? What is the play’s history?
"This play began as a real-life trip that I took to the South-Seas. After a  life-time in New York working in various art venues including many Off-Broadway, Off-Brodway, and Off-Off-So-far-off-You’re-In-Jersey-Broadway, I needed a vacation. Having a chance to breathe, I began to write…"
"This play began as an exercise for a class at the Best Ever School or University in Existence…"
"This play was written for your festival. When I read about the theme I immediately thought about the impact of Blah on society and how it extinguishes any hope of a fulfilling life. In my many years of playwriting I have always wanted to write a piece exploring Blah, and your festival gave me the perfect platform."
In each example there’s a way to bring who you are into the letter, connected to why you wrote this play. It’s better than a bio, or listing your experience, because it brings you – the human-being – into the room with the human-being reading your letter.

What is unique about you writing this play? If there’s a story to it, put it in the letter. You are, after all, a storyteller. Write the story of why you wrote this play. Why was it important? What did it mark for you as a writer?

Find that thing and put it in your letter.

Why this play/this theater/this writer right now?

That’s the question your letter needs to answer.

Do that, and the folks at the other end will want to read the rest of your play, or they at least will know that your play is not right for them and you will not have wasted their time. Either way, your letter has done its job. It has worked.


For another great FREE resource for writing great query letters, check out Write a Great Query Letter available as a downloadable book by literary agent Noah Lukeman. http://www.writeagreatquery.com/


Steve Patterson said...

As I'm passing from a nonstop writing phase to a heavy marketing phase, I too am thinking of those packages arriving on literary managers' desks, along with all the others. Every time I drop an envelope off at the P.O., a totally noncynical part of me thinks of setting a messenger pigeon free and watching it disappear into the sky. -- Steve

Kato McNickle said...

A query arriving via pigeon would certainly rate a look-see by the folks in the literary office. It sounds like a good strategy to me.