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How to Set Up an International Playwriting Competition

Edwin Wong
45th Annual Comparative Drama Conference
Rollins College
Orlando, Florida

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.

Orlando, Here We Come! – Risk Theatre 2023

Yeah! Just got accepted into the Comparative Drama Conference in Orlando, Florida, March 30 to April 1, 2023. The Comparative Drama Conference is an international, interdisciplinary conference founded by Dr. Karelisa Hartigan at the University of Florida in 1977. Every year, approximately 200 scholars are invited to present and discuss their work in the field of drama and 2-4 new plays receive a staged reading. The conference draws participants from both the Humanities and the Arts. The papers delivered range over the entire field of theatre research and production. Over the past 40 years, participants have come from 32 nations and all 50 states. Each year a distinguished theatre scholar or artist is invited to address the participants in the Keynote Event.

Here’s a copy of my proposal and bio that I went in a few months ago:

How to Set Up an International Playwriting Competition


Have you ever wanted to take a dramatic theory from the page to the stage? One way to do this is to create a playwriting competition. In 2018, I did exactly this. I had a new theory of tragedy identifying the dramatic fulcrum as a low-probability, high-consequence event. After teaming up with a local theatre, I launched the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition (risktheatre.com). The competition awards $14,000 in cash prizes each year in addition to running a workshop and staged reading for the winner. The competition is now in its fifth year.

Over the years, people have asked me for advice on how to set up a playwriting competition. In this talk, I’ll go over the logistics from partnering with a theatre to setting up the website, finding jurors, funding, and getting the word out. I’ll also share with you the lessons I’ve learned along the way. In every way, it’s been an amazing journey. The competition has opened doors for me and introduced me to new friends and experiences along the way. I’d love to share my story with you. Bring your questions.


Edwin Wong has been dubbed “an Aristotle for the 21st century” by David Konstan at NYU for exploring the intersection between risk and theatre. He has published two books and over a dozen articles and book chapters on this topic. In 2022, he was one of three international academics to receive the Ben Jonson Discoveries Award for his work on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In 2018, he founded the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition, 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.

– – –

The nice thing about this acceptance is that it shows that the Risk Theatre Competition–now in its fifth year–has reached a certain stage in its development. I’ve proposed talks on how I set up the competition at different conferences in prior years, but there was little interest. With people I’ve known, run across, and chatted with in the past, however, there always was interest: “How did you set this up?” has always been a common question. But, until the competition got into its fifth year, it didn’t have enough “street cred” to interest conference organizers. I’m grateful for the opportunity to share my experiences at the Comparative Drama Conference in 2023. And the experience has taught me a critical lesson: when you have a dream, persistence over time is the key. Success isn’t measure in months and years, but in decades.

Keep going, friends. Never stop.

– – –

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil


Stats, stats, stats!

IT’S A WRAP! THANK YOU, assiduous playwrights, for entering! The 2021 competition is closed to entries (https://risktheatre.com). Your scripts are being carefully read by professional jurors (who will remain anonymous until they determine the grand prize winner late August). Stay tuned for the grand opening of the 4th annual 2022 competition–an announcement will come soon.

This year, 122 plays have come in from 3 continents (Europe, Oceania, and North American) and 4 countries (USA, Australia, Canada, and UK). Here are the country breakouts:

USA 101

Australia 2

Canada 14

UK 5

Of the American entries, 73 are from the east and 28 are from the west. Of the entries from the east, 22 are from New York and 14 from Los Angeles. Go New York and Los Angeles!

The breakdown between male and female entrants stands at 75 men and 47 women. Prior to the twentieth century, I only know of a handful of female tragedians: Elizabeth Cary (The Tragedy of Mariam the Fair Queen of Jewry, 1613), Hannah More (Percy, 1777), and Joanna Baillie (various plays and a theory of tragedy based on the emotions, nineteenth century). Thank you to assiduous reader Alex for writing in about More and Baillie.

Last month the https://risktheatre.com/ website averaged 43 hits a day. The top 3 countries clicking were: US, Canada, and UK. Most clicks in a day was 287 on August 15, 2020 when we announced the 2020 winner: THE VALUE by Nicholas Dunn. Best month was March 2019 with 2372 when we announced the 2019 winner: IN BLOOM by Gabriel Jason Dean. All time views stand at 27,520 and growing. So far, so good for this grassroots competition!

My award-winning book, eBook, and audiobook (narrated by Coronation Street star Greg Patmore) THE RISK THEATRE MODEL OF TRAGEDY: GAMBLING, DRAMA, AND THE UNEXPECTED hit the bookshelves in February 2019 and has sold 2680 copies. A shout out to everyone for their support—all proceeds fund the competition. The book is a winner in the Readers’ Favorite, CIPA EVVY, National Indie Excellence, and Reader Views literary awards as well as a finalist in the Wishing Shelf award.

Please ask your local library to carry this exciting title. To date, the book can be found at these fantastic libraries: LA Public, Bibliothèque national de France, Russian State Library, Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel, Senate House Library (London), Universitätbibliothek der Eberhard Karls (Tübingen), Brown University, CalArts, Palatine Public, Pasadena Public, Fargo Public, South Texas College, University of Bristol, University of Victoria, Greater Victoria Public, Richmond Public, Smithers Public, University of Colorado, Denver Public, McMaster University, Buffalo and Erie County Public, Rochester Public, Wheaton College, South Cowichan Public, Vancouver Public, Hillside Public (Hyde Park, NY), Scarsdale Public (NY), Indianapolis Public, Okanagan College, Concordia University, University of British Columbia (UBC), University of London, Wellesley Free, Tigard Public, Herrick Memorial, Gannett-Tripp, Charles J. Meder, Westchester College, Cambridge University, Fordham University, SUNY Cortland Memorial, SUNY New Paltz, SUNY Binghamton, Glendale Public, Benicia Public, Santa Clara County Public, Glendora Public, Cupertino Public, Milpitas Public, St. Francis College, Noreen Reale Falcone Library, Southern Utah University, Daniel Burke, Manhattan College, Humboldt County Public, Santa Ana Public, Azusa Pacific University, Biola University, CUNY, Westchester Community, University of Utah. Let’s get a few more libraries on board! Reviews of the book can be found here:

Edwin Wong on Risk and Tragedy: The Literary Power of High-Stakes Gambles, One-in-a-Million Chances, and Extreme Losses





Here are links to YouTube videos of me talking about risk theatre at NNPN and CAMWS panels:

Don’t forget me, I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

Review of NEW DRAMATURGIES – Mark Bly

Routledge, 2020, 121 pages

Reading Bly’s book was a special treat. Here’s the story of how I came across his wonderful book. The National New Play Network (NNPN) invited me to speak at their “We’ve Been Here Before: Theater & Crisis” panel earlier this year. The panel took place during the pandemic and was live-streamed on Zoom. With over 300 people watching, I must admit I was a little nervous. But it was well worth it: one of the folks tuning in was Mark Bly. Sometimes fortune smiles on you. He was interested in what I had to say and got my contact info from Jess Hutchinson, NNPN’s engagement manager. Mark and I struck up a dialogue and exchanged books: I sent him a copy of my theory of tragedy: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected and he sent me New Dramaturgies: Strategies and Exercises for the 21st Century Playwriting.

In New Dramaturgies, Bly presents nine exercises to unleash the beast within the playwright. Are you too focused on writing about personal experiences? No problem. Try “Bly’s myth exercise” and see if your writing takes on a more universal and timeless perspective. Are you experiencing writer’s block? No problem. Try “Bly’s sensory writing exercise” and see how touch, smell, taste, hearing, and the other senses unlock a train of words, rolling and rambling over one another. Are you worried that the forward momentum of your play has stalled? No problem. Try “Bly’s character’s greatest fear” exercise and kickstart the action. As Holly Hepp-Gálvan, one of Bly’s former students, puts it, these exercises “not only get writers writing” but “set them on fire.” The excellent thing about this book is that Bly gives you successful applications of his exercises by his former students, many of which have become top names on the stage and on the screen. That way you can see the exercise in motion. I love it.

When I was younger, I thought to name something after yourself was a prideful thing, something to be avoided. With this mindset, if you were starting a car company, you would name the company after an agile animal such as “Jaguar” instead of naming it after yourself like how Henry Ford did. Now I’m older, I’ve changed my mind. Putting your name on your work gets you skin in the game. When your name is on it, you tell the world you stake your reputation on its quality. Your name, after all, is on it. For example, if you were considering two similar gyms, which one would you instinctively trust more: “The Forge World Class Gym” or “Tom Yankello’s World Class Gym”? Why this digression? All the playwriting exercises in the book are in Bly’s name: “Bly’s music memory exercise,” “Bly’s Einstein’s dreams exercise,” and so on. I like that. Bly has skin in the game. When he says his exercises work, he has a stake in it: his name.

I think of this book as a series of nine studies or études, similar to the Etudes Liszt and Chopin wrote for the piano. Like Liszt and Chopin’s Etudes, they are short exercises that work on specific techniques. And just like Liszt and Chopin, Bly has condensed many years of learning into these Etudes. Although it’s a short book, it’s long on the gems. Here’s one concept Bly recounts (quoting neuroscientist Eagleman) that fascinates me to no end:

There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is the moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.

When I read this, an epiphany struck me: the third death is the death I fear. Why had I never thought of this before?–a good reason to pick up Bly’s book.

How has New Dramaturgies influenced me? It’s taught me that dramaturgs approach the text unlike academics. My teachers in the classics taught me: if it’s not in the text, it doesn’t exist. You’re not allowed to question concepts, ideas, and realities that lie beyond the text. For dramaturgs and playwrights, however, it’s different. They need to ask the questions that academics shun. They need to ask what drives the characters, and–if the answer isn’t in the text–they need to come up with their own answers. This reminds me of a series of conversations I had with director, playwright, and actor Tony Nardi. He explodes the writer/actor dichotomy by arguing that a writer, in writing, acts and that an actor, in acting, writes. Bly’s book has taught me that fascinating insights happen when you go beyond the text by asking questions such as what a character’s greatest fear or pleasure is. When an actor acts or when a critic interprets, their performance is more powerful when they go beyond the text. When writers go beyond the text, the become actors. And when actors go beyond the text, they become writers.

The series of playwright exercises in New Dramaturgies gave me a crucial insight for which I am very grateful. As part of the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition, each year I workshop the winning play. As the jurors get closer to announcing the winner, I’ve been thinking of how to run this year’s workshop. I saw how Bly’s exercises, by focusing on a fundamental aspect of playwriting, allowed the play as a whole to become what it must be. Then it occurred to me: the fundamental aspect of playwriting I would focus on in the workshop would be risk. In the risk theatre workshop, we would ask questions such as: what is at stake, why a character goes all-in on an uncertain outcome, why characters up the ante, the role of the unexpected, and so on. Many times, when you’re working on a problem and can’t come up with an answer, if you keep reading, the answer will come to you. Such was the case reading New Dramaturgies.

Book Blurb

In New Dramaturgies: Strategies and Exercises for 21st Century Playwriting, mark Bly offers a new playwriting book with nine unique play-generating exercises. These exercises offer dramaturgical strategies and tools for confronting and overcoming obstacles that all playwrights face. Each of the chapters features lively commentary and participation from Bly’s former students. They are now acclaimed writers and producers from media such as House of Cards, Weeds, Friday Night Lights, Warrior, and The Affair, and their plays appear in major venues such as the Roundabout Theatre, Yale Rep, and the Royal National Theatre. They share thoughts about their original response to an exercise and why it continues to have a major impact on their writing and mentoring today. Each chapter concludes with their original, inventive, and provocative scene generated in response to Bly’s exercise, providing a vivid real-life example of what the exercises can create. Suitable for both students of playwriting and screenwriting, as well as professionals in the field, New Dramaturgies gives readers a rare combination of practical provocation and creative discussion.

Author Blurb

Mark Bly has worked as a dramaturg, director of new play development, and associate artistic director for the Arena Stage, Alley Theatre, Guthrie Theater, La Jolla Playhouse, Seattle Rep, and Yale Rep, producing over 250 plays in a career in theatre spanning more than 40 years. Bly has dramaturged Broadway productions and has been credited as being the first production dramaturg on Broadway for his work on Execution of Justice. Bly has also served as the Director of the MFA Playwriting Programs for the Yale School of Drama, Hunter College, and Fordham/Primary Stages in a nearly 30-year Teaching Artist career. He is the editor and author of The Production Notebooks: Theater in Process Volumes I & II. Bly is an active freelance dramaturg and was the recipient of the LMDA’s G.E. Lessing Award for Career Achievement in 2010 and in 2019 was honored by The Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival with its most prestigious award, The Kennedy Center Medallion of Excellence.

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.