45th Annual Comparative Drama Conference
Hi Everyone. Thank you for coming. I’m Edwin Wong and I bring to you five years’ experience curating an international playwriting competition. In 2018, I set up the annual Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition. Each year, it awards $14,000 in cash. We workshop the winning play and publicly stage it on Zoom. Lots of people ask how they can start their own playwriting competition. Today, I’ll share what I’ve learned. It’s easy. You need: 1) a website, 2) word of mouth, 3) a partner theatre, 4) jurors, and 5) money. The talk is divided into five talking points.
Point one. Set up your webpage. I picked up a “WordPress for Dummies” book, bought the risktheatre.com domain from GoDaddy along with their managed WordPress solution. For a person without experience, setup took a week of minor hairpulling—I still have my hair. The webpage costs $350 a year. This includes security and a secure HTTPS site. Once you get over a thousand monthly visitors, hackers find you. You can take a look at the website right now, it’s at risktheatre.com. Theatre spelled the proper way. I use a plugin called ninjaforms to register playwrights’ info, collect PDF scripts, and process PayPal. If you want to have someone create the website, allow $2,500. That’s point one.
Point two. Word of mouth. How do people learn about your competition? There’re many playwriting organizations that will advertise gratis. I get the most hits from Dramatists Guild, followed by Playwrights’ Center, playsubmissionhelper.com, londonplaywrightsblog.com, Patrick Garbridge’s listserv called Playwright Binge, Women in the Arts & Media Coalition, and the Playwrights Guild of Canada. Social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and LinkedIn are helpful, especially Facebook, where there’re lots of playwright groups. On Facebook, Risk Theatre has its own business site. It takes time to grow the number. After five years, risktheatre.com is getting 12,000 hits a year. That’s point two.
Point three. The partner theatre. The first hitch that I encountered when contacting playwriting guilds was: “Who are you and how can we trust you?” To publicize the competition, they wanted me to partner with a theatre. This is where you pound the pavement. Theatres are selective. It’s not enough to have a fully-funded competition. The focus of your competition has to fit with their mandate. For example, I was into high level talks with a university; I would endow three $2000 scholarships and the theatre department would host the competition. But it fell through when “risk” didn’t fit the faculty’s research interests. You also want to be selective with your partner with. Reputation is everything and once you partner up, your names are linked. Hint: you’ll have your best luck pitching to artistic directors and general managers specializing in new plays. That’s point three.
Point four. How should scripts be submitted and evaluated? Consider checks and balances to keep things fair. Risk theatre, for example, asks for blind scripts. Also, I sub out the jurors; I don’t read scripts myself. We’ve had jurors from New Zealand, UK, Canada, and USA. Jurors’ identities are revealed after the competition. Here’s the system: in round one, the scripts are randomly divided between three jurors (there’re one to two hundred entries each year). That means each juror gets fifty odd scripts. Of these fifty, each juror nominates seven into the next round. The seven plays juror one nominates gets passed to juror two, the seven juror two nominates gets passed to juror three, and the seven juror three nominates gets passed to juror one. In the next round, each juror nominates two of the seven into the finalist round: the two juror one nominates gets passed to juror two, the two juror two nominates gets passed to juror three, and the two juror three nominates gets passed to juror one. After this, I arrange a Zoom meeting where the jurors meet to decide the grand prize winner. If you’re interested in becoming a juror, let’s talk; I’m always looking for jurors and the evaluation period takes place during the summer break. That’s point four.
Point five. The finances. Risk theatre charges $49 per entry. This is where the money goes. Jurors receive a $40 honorarium per script read, so of the $49—because the semifinalists and finalists are read multiple times—roughly $45 goes to the jurors. Through the $40 per script honorarium, the competition has been able to attract top talent: Yvette Nolan, Kelli Fox, Anthony Giardina, and others. Many of the jurors ask to be connected with the playwrights after the competition is over. It’s rewarding to see how competitions can be places for actors, dramaturgs, directors, and playwrights to connect.
Then, because the object of the competition is to encourage people to think of theatre as a stage of risk, I send each entrant a copy of one of my two books. That costs $25. So, after the $49 entry fee, each entry actually costs the competition $21 ($49 – $45 – $25 = -$21). Many people ask that the entry fee be dropped. I could do this, but don’t, for a specific reason: the risk theatre competition has a specific agenda. Even with the entry fee, about 10% of the entries don’t fit the criteria. If the entry fee were to be dropped, we’d received thousands of entries, with many more unrelated to the agenda. The entry fee gives playwrights skin in the game. I look at the competition as a joint venture between myself and writers who are fascinated with the idea of theatre as a stage to simulate low-probability, high-consequence events. The entry fee is a ballast that will determine how many entries you get.
If you have an entry fee, you’ll get fee-shamed. I receive emails saying: “Why do you have a fee? Does your theatre also charge actors to audition?” Those are the friendly ones. People talk to you like you’re Voldemort or a Bond villain. Judas has had better days: instead of $49, the competition might as well charge thirty silver pieces. That’s why, if you set up a competition, it’s good to have a clear goal and purpose. Know why you’re doing it. One thing I’ve learned from the competition is that people who’ve made it, and not just people in the theatre world, but anyone who’s done something, must have gone through so much.
From the cash prizes to the workshop, hiring dramaturgs and actors (who are paid $30/hour), the competition costs over $20,000 each year. I fund it out of my own pockets, which I make as a plumber in the construction industry. People say: “Apply for grants.” I’ll never apply for grants. If I need to do something, I open up my own wallet. How you fund your competition will be major decision. Out of your own pocket means never worrying about the funding being renewed.
Think of the prize structure. With Risk Theatre it’s $10,500 for the grand-prize winner and five $700 prizes for the runners-up. It was set up like that because $10,500 has an impact. And with the number of entries, playwrights who believe in themselves have a good chance: last year’s winner entered every year before finally winning. I’d like to give a shoutout to the winners:
2019 Gabriel Jason Dean with In Bloom, a play about a journalist who cheats the truth in pursuit of a higher good.
2020 Nicholas Dunn with The Value, a play about the price that we are willing to pay, and how much the price costs.
2021 Madison Wetzell with The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor, an adaptation of Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound with robots, a modern twist, and a robopocalpyse.
2022 Franky Gonzalez with That Must Be the Entrance to Heaven, a boxing play about risk going awry when four Latino boxers go all-in in a system that’s rigged.
Franky’s play That Must Be the Entrance to Heaven will have its world premiere at Urbanite Theatre (in Florida) this coming June. I’ll be watching the progress with bated breath: can a play where risk is the fulcrum of the action fill the seats? If the risk theatre template of playwriting can help playwrights and theatre find new audiences in this risk age, I’ll be so happy.
Consider supporting playwrights beyond the competition. Last year ago, I published the first two winners and one of the semifinalists in the first ever risk theatre anthology. If you’re interested in seeing what we’re doing—and I hope some of you will be—here are some complimentary copies of our two books. The first one, from 2019, lays out the idea of risk theatre, the blueprint. And the second, from 2022, is an anthology of plays from the competition. These are free copies, come up and grab one after.
There you have it, the basics of setting up your own international playwriting competition: website, partner theatre, advertising, jurors, and financials. I’ll close with a tip: it takes time to get things going. Risk theatre is in its fifth year and it’s only now that things are starting to pick up. In this game, success isn’t measure in days, weeks, or months, but in years and decades. Keep going. Thank you.
Oh…if down the road you have any questions, I’d love to help, it’s easy to find me.
Bio: Edwin Wong has been dubbed “an Aristotle for the 21st century” by David Konstan and “independent and provocative” by Robert C. Evans for exploring the intersection between risk and theatre. He has published two books and many essays on this topic. In 2022, he received the Discoveries Award from the Ben Jonson Journal and has talked at venues from the Kennedy Center and the University of Coimbra to conferences hosted by the National New Play Network, Canadian Association of Theatre Research, Society of Classical Studies, and Classical Association of the Middle West and South. He was educated at Brown University and is on Twitter @TheoryOfTragedy.