Having had to negotiate reading 50+ submissions at a time (on more than a few occasions), I favor asking for 10-page samples. This is not a wholly favorable practice; it frequently provokes pointed questions about the legitimacy of vetting scripts.
And of course I have had ethical issues with this. Does my asking for an abbreviated version of your play cheat us both by not having the full product at hand to judge in its entirety?
But, as one who has 50+ full-length plays to wade through, and as someone with little to no assistance in reading the aforementioned 50+ plays, does it make my jobs as literary manager and producer easier?
I've weighed the pros and cons of abbreviated samples, with fairness as the primary criterion:
By asking for the first 10 pages, I get the beginning of your play, and thus I should know two things:
• The specific importance of your inciting moment, what I call the Passover Factor: What is making this day/moment in time special? Why does this play need to exist? And;
• Is what is happening indeed interesting enough to get me through 10 pages of dramatic action?
Play readers need to judge as best we can what our audiences might think were this text inflicted upon them. It's not enough for me, the initial arbiter, to like it, although that's a definite plus because I will favor its further consideration for production. And to assume that my judgment is of a critical and professional proficiency to instantly and infallibly detect all Scripts of Unusual Caliber is self-righteous poppycock. But if I have the first 10 pages I can make a fair assumption about (again) two things:
• The efficacy of the opening of the play, and;
• The remainder of the work, which I can reasonably expect to be equally compelling. If your first 10 pages kick my ass, I'll gladly ask you for and read through the rest, waiting for the grand payoff. If your first 10 pages don't grab me, then I can safely deduce that the rest will similarly glaze my eyes over.
Remember, I have 50+ plays to read and judge to the best of my ability. And “to the best of my ability” means just that. Few folks admit to play-reading fatigue. One person can read only so many plays before they get tired and lose the energy needed to fairly critique each successive play. If I have to read 50+ complete plays, all ranging from 45 to 95 pages, I'm going to lose my shit.
But if I have to read only 10 pages, I can not only process the bulk faster, leaving me more time to coach my actors, design the posters, sell tickets, and clean the theatre's toilets, but convince myself that I am judging fairly every play on my desk. The job is easier, and my time is better spent.
And as I read those ten pages, I have to imagine the audience experiencing those 10 minutes of performed script. That’s a long time to wait before the play shows its power.
Before we go any further, let me state for the record that, as an eternally hopeful scribbler of dramatic material, I want everyone to read my entire play through. Why? Because they are damn good, and I want literary managers to have the whole things to judge. (Yes, I see the contradiction here.)
Theatres, in order to achieve their noble goals of Producing Killer Art For The Masses, spend an inordinate amount of their time asking for money so they can stay open, have electricity, pay their taxes and rents, maintain heating and cooling systems, pay directors and (we hope) the actors, and keep the artistic director brimmed with skinny double soy lattes and Ramen noodles. All these items are highest on the “Necessities We Absolutely, Positively Need to Pay For” list
What's far down said list is “People to Read All These Damn Submissions.” That is, people who know how to read plays. People with experience who know how to read plays. We've all seen the opp line: “Give us six months to a year to get back to you.” It could be they have only one or two people to read every play submitted. It could mean they really want to dedicate time to making sure they find the best work. Most of the time, I think, it means both.
And as long as I'm ranting, let me briefly discuss opps that ask for a second option: “Send us your best 10 pages,” or more commonly, “a 10-page representative selection of your play.”
Why is this different from asking for the first 10 pages? Simply because reading the first 10 pages takes us chronologically into your magnum opus, the same as the thousands of future sold-out audiences will experience. That's important. But if the playwright cherry-picks an arbitrary section of the work, the reader cannot reasonably extrapolate the assets and liabilities of the whole work. We're getting what the playwright feels is the best part of the play. I don't want that. If this is the best 10 pages, then I have to think the rest of the play is less compelling.
So why not just ask for the whole play and stop reading after 10 pages? Seems like the perfect answer, no? I remember someone telling me to “just get through the first one hundred pages” of this particular novel, and then “It will all pay off.” Granted, the second hundred pages were thrilling, but if I had not been urged to stick with it, I would have set the book down for lack of interest. Likewise, theatres can't have someone push you back into your seat through the first act waiting for act two to spark joy or other emotion. We all want your work to be fantastic, and sometimes we carry on reading counting on that glimmer of hope you showed in the first 10 pages, waiting for the worthy payoff that many times, sadly, does not come. For us, that's precious time spent.
In this society which undervalues, or in some cases, negatively values the need for art to flourish and creativity to stir up the coagulated Zeigeist Soup, theatres have one overarching job: survival. The need to do whatever they can to pay the rent and the staff, keep the grid functioning, and find 30-foot hamster wheels for their ex-lover's surrogate father's updated version of Hamlet, now set in a steampunk Habit-Trail. They need plays that are sure winners. And they need to make sure they accrue those sure winners as efficiently and as fairly as they can. It behooves every dramatic writer to make those 10 pages count.