Thursday, November 5, 2015

As Long As It Needs to Be

The most frequent questions and concerns I receive from young playwrights preparing their scripts have to do with the limits that we place on script format and page count. In fact, this was the most troubling thing to the writers in a playwriting class I just finished teaching. They were constantly checking the number of pages and double-checking to see if I thought they might have enough, or too much. I tried to ease their worries by answering the question “How long does it need to be?” with the open answer “As long as it needs to be to tell the story.”

I completely understand the anxiety about these things. The majority of the submissions we receive each year come from students who are writing a play for the first time and what we request for a manuscript is different from the way a script looks when published in the books that they read and use to rehearse the school play. Luckily, script formatting comes pretty easily with a little practice. (You can find more information about the format requirements on our blog here.) While format can be managed, it is page count that causes young writers the most anxiety.

This makes sense to me, too. Young playwrights spend most of their time writing working on papers and projects for class, which often have limits and requirements. I get it: When there is a page limit, or a page minimum, you want to make sure you are saying enough, but not too much, while still writing something good. I worried about this when I was a student and, truth be told, it is something I still think about now that I’m writing my dissertation.

Screenshot from our Guidelines Page
The NJ Young Playwrights Festival asks that script submissions be “longer than 20 minutes in performance time (roughly 20 typed pages)” because that’s what we are able to manage in the production of the Festival. We choose about 9-10 plays and only have a total of three hours between the two performances to present that work. And I want all of you writers to know that while we ask for scripts that are no more than 20 minutes in length (roughly 20 pages of typed dialogue), that isn’t an exact measure of what accounts for 20 minutes on stage. Please keep in mind that if your play reaches the final round, and even if it is selected for the Festival performance, you will do a lot of rewrites and revisions to it. So, there is room to go a little over the limit, if you need to. (Please note the emphasis on little!) But please don’t go overboard. Reaching beyond 25 pages is probably too much.

But really, rather than worrying about how long or how short your play might be, try to focus on telling a good story. Make this a play that you feel confident and passionate about – a play that you are proud to share with the world and a play that you yourself would really like to see. Because in the end, that is what is most important. Tell the story first. Then edit to fit the guidelines later.

Happy writing!