Who's Your Audience?

by Jacob Coakley

SD Editor Jacob Coakley
SD Editor Jacob Coakley
Artists face many along the way to production, but it’s never wise to forget the ultimate one.

I was reading one of the blogs on TheatreFace.com—You do go their regularly to check our daily blog posts, share your photos and join discussions with other theatre makers, right?—and one of our playwright bloggers, Marisela, was writing about submitting a play package. In case you’re not a playwright, when you submit a play for a workshop, or a reading, or sometimes just to a theatre anymore, many times you are instructed to only include 10 pages. The theory goes that if they like the 10 pages you send them, they’ll ask to see the rest.

Marisela quoted Elissa Goetschius, a D.C.-based director and dramaturg and former literary manager at Woolly Mammoth, on Twitter advocating sending in ANY 10 pages from your script, as long as they were your best. This shocked me. A lot. The idea that the 10-page sample would be anything other than the first 10 pages seemed antithetical.

My first indignant counter-example was to be Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” Would that still be as powerful a piece of music removed from the rest of the symphony? Well, yes. It gets excerpted all the time. It may be because it’s so familiar to us, but the triumph and the exhortation still come through. Is it more powerful when placed in context with the entire 9th Symphony? Of course. But as an excerpt, it’s still thrilling.

Then I thought of quality. A large part of the purpose of a 10-page sample is to weed out the crazies and those who have no talent. Believe it or not, you can tell pretty quickly if a writer is any good or not. But that doesn’t change if you’re looking at the first 10 pages or the last 10 pages.

But the audience! My mind wailed. What about the audience? What about the patrons who have paid to see a show and don’t have the luxury of skipping to the end? What if your first 10 pages are a mess, and slow, and don’t bring people into the world at all? The audience is being shortchanged! I thought I’d hang my hat on that. And then it occurred to me: Who is the audience for a script sample? It’s not, in point of fact, a theatre patron honor bound to at least make it to intermission. At this stage in the game the audience is the reader, then a committee, then a literary associate or manager, then the artists you’ll work with to shape the play, and then the theatregoer. The most important audience at the sample stage is that first reader.

There are many stages a play has to go through before it gets in front of a paying audience, and it’s important to remember who your audience is at each stage of the game. Once I reconciled that in my head, I could (begrudgingly) admit that Elissa may have a point. I’m still not completely sold on it, though. Because, ultimately, the theatregoer is your audience, and it doesn’t matter what audiences you’ve pleased along the way—if you can’t engage a theatregoer from the very first instant, from page one, then whatever you’re doing isn’t working.