Kali Creatives talk about their role as writer, actor or director delivering new writing for production.
How to Lay Out a Script and Send it to a Theatre Company
Dramaturg Penny Gold offers advice on laying out a script and sending it to theatre companies.
Please do not read what follows as ‘instructions’ – it is just for your information and a bit of advice. Writers are creative people and do not need slavishly to follow rules – on the other hand, it is wise not to make your life more difficult than it need be.
Most theatre companies that do new work are willing to read unsolicited manuscripts – they are on the look-out for emerging talent and are not just interested in established writers.
Bigger companies will probably have a Literary Manager who will be your point of contact. In smaller companies, it may be the Artistic Director who is the best person to approach. In either case, your script is likely to be sent to a Reader who will report on the nature, quality and potential of the play. Of course, judgments are not infallible (it is often a matter of taste) but even if you don’t get an encouraging response it is nevertheless wise to at least consider the comments that are made to you about your work.
Do first look up your chosen company on the net – they will probably give you advice about submissions eg. what things they are looking for, if they want scripts sent in hard copy or electronically etc.
To give your play the best possible chance you need to make it look attractive and easy to read and follow.
THE FRONT PAGE
Show the play’s title boldly and your own name clearly. Also, include contact details (your address, email and phone number) and that of your agent if you have one.
It is wise to put a note asserting your copyright.
THE NEXT PAGE (or pages).
Give basic preliminary information to enable the reader to understand the set-up of the play.
• A character list. Only include the details necessary. Long descriptions are not recommended, particularly descriptions of personality which the reader should be able to glean from the text itself
• The name of each character (beware of androgynous names: Chris could be a man or a woman, so make the gender clear)
• Unless irrelevant, give an indication of age eg. 30s; late teens etc
• Give an indication of relation to other characters if relevant eg. Jack’s mother; Sarah’s best friend etc.
• Give an indication of appearance if relevant eg. very short and fat; withered arm and heavy limp; an attractive man etc. Remember theatres will be casting actors, not identikit people so do not be very specific unless it is crucial to the role eg. you can, if you must, say ‘long blond hair’ but to say ‘blue eyes’ is silly.
• Define class, ethnicity and origin if relevant eg. posh English; Bengali; British-born Asian; mixed race – white/Afro-Caribbean etc.
• Add a description of accent if relevant and not apparent from the dialogue style eg. marked Yorkshire accent.
• Indicate employment if relevant eg. GP; ex-miner etc. However, this may be quickly clear from the text and need not be stated in advance. Some minor characters are only present because of their professional function eg. Nurse, and do not necessarily need personal names.
• Indicate the number of actors likely to be required. If you think doubling (or even trebling) would be possible, say so eg. Could be played by 6 actors. But don’t be too ambitious with this and remember that actors need time and space to change costumes etc. If a doubling is significant, say so eg. Young Janet doubles with old Grandma – the kind of woman she fears she might turn into.
• Voices off (eg. shouts in the street) may be pre-recorded and not require extra actors.
You may wish to explain signals you include in the text eg.
/ indicates an interruption
… indicates speaker trails off etc.
You can invent your own conventions.
Place and Time
This can be quite generalised eg.Calcutta in the 1880s or more specific eg. A modest semi-detached house in a London suburb, Christmas 2017. If there is deliberately no particular time or location, say so eg. Could be anywhere; Sometime in the future.
Remember that the resources of theatre companies vary and also that the designer has specialist skills of her/his own. Therefore try not to be over-specific. ‘A cosy sitting room with several armchairs, a sofa etc. and a bookcase, one exit to the kitchen’ is fine. More detail than this is likely to be unwanted and unhelpful unless crucial to the action. It is perfectly legitimate to ask for a bare stage in which place and time are established only by a few readily movable props and lighting changes. This is often a good plan though of course is not likely to suit a detailed naturalistic play.
Now we come to the crucial bit…
There is no need whatever for this to be bound unless the theatre specifically requires it. However, pages must be numbered.
Print and Layout
The object of the exercise is to make the text clear and easy to read.
Do not choose a very small typeface and do leave decent space between the lines.
Make clear which character is speaking. Make an obvious distinction between the speeches and the stage directions. Beyond this, there are no hard and fast rules and different writers may favour different layouts. It is almost unheard of for a theatre to specify a particular layout in an unsolicited manuscript although they may have a house style when they go into production.
Avoid adding a lot of instructions to the actor within the text. Some may be necessary eg. ‘JACK: (joking) You bloody bitch!’ But ‘JACK: (angrily) You bloody bitch!’ is definitely unnecessary and is likely to irritate both the reader and even more irritate the actor.
It is always helpful to indicate any lines that are to be spoken to the audience. It may well be the case that you wish a monologue not to be a ‘thinks’ passage but a comment to those watching. In order to avoid monologues looking too dense on the page it is often a good idea to increase the spacing between each line.
The main thing is to allow the speeches themselves to do the work. A well-written play conveys personality, tone, meaning and story through what the characters say. This does not imply that they always mean what they say and they generally don’t need to explain themselves overtly – this often feels crude and amateurish unless we guess they are deceiving themselves or lying. Subtext is often all-important and is admired. Remember the ‘less is more’ principle.
For examples of two acceptable possible layouts see
(Please note this is copyright material do not copy or distribute.)
Number your scenes and if relevant, specify the location at the top of each one. Also specify the time if this is relevant eg. Jack’s front room early the next morning.
You do not need to divide your play into Acts unless you wish to do so. However bear in mind that any play of ninety minutes or more will almost certainly need an interval and you may well wish to indicate where this should come. A change of time, location or tone in the story may well be the appropriate point for an interval and contribute usefully to the impact of the piece rather than merely being an unwanted interruption.
Be realistic about the practicalities of your scene changes.
Sets: The style of presentation can be minimalist and this will allow quick changes of location eg. if the fact that we are in the kitchen is indicated only by a character holding a cooking pot and another drying a dish with a cloth you can easily then move to an office indicated only by a desk on the other side of the stage. However, unless you are writing for a very grand theatre with a revolving stage, you will not be able to accomplish such an instant transition if you specify a fully equipped cooker and a fridge that opens and then move to a fully equipped office.
Similarly be aware that Actors have to get from one supposed location to another. Just crossing the stage can work fine in a minimalist style but if you expect a change of costume etc. you must give time for this to happen. You could perhaps insert a section featuring a different character, or a musical interlude or a special effect eg. a slow dimming of light and then a brightening to indicate time passing.
Film inserts can be interesting if wisely used. If you wish to include sequences presented on screen you need to indicate this clearly. Remember that while film may seem like a useful shortcut it can be expensive and can also, if not carefully judged, detract from our belief in the main live action.
If your play involves the use of terms or language, be this technical or foreign, that is likely to be unfamiliar to a lay reader, it can be helpful to add a little glossary of translation or explanation. You may wish to put this at the end of the playtext or as footnotes on the page on which the words appear. As you will see, as in all the advice offered to you here, the object of the exercise is to allow the theatre company to which you have sent the play to read and understand it with the maximum fullness and ease.
The matter of rights is extremely important when it comes to production. If you use pre-existing film or visual images or music you will need to discuss with the theatre whether these will need copyright clearance They very well may.
Any quotations of text from the work of others will be your responsibility to clear. The current basic rules of copyright are that a work is in rights up to seventy years after the death of the author or after the first publication, whichever is the later. Even quoting a single line of in-copyright poetry will require clearance. This may be easy and cheap or it may not be, depending on the characters involved. Prose quotes can be longer and are generally less problematic.
When you send in an unsolicited manuscript you will not be expected to have sorted all this out but it is worth being aware of potential issues. Further down the line, always check the position – don’t just assume it will be OK and no one will notice.
Unless a company states they are looking for short plays or are prepared to consider a taster of your talent, they generally want to see scripts that are at least 75 minutes long – widely regarded as the minimum duration for a ‘full-length’ play. 90 minutes is more common.
You will probably be asked to cut anything over 2 hours.
How do you estimate duration? I wouldn’t rely on a word-count though some theatres mention it as a method. My reasoning for rejecting it is that a sequence such as:
A: Hmmm…. I don’t….You see, I don’t…
B: Please, just try to go on.’
can take infinitely longer than a stream of ten times as many words from an excitable couple pouring forth enthusiasm.
I suggest that you read (acting out) a few pages of your script, timing yourself. Then multiply up by the number of pages all told. Try and allow for physical action if there is a lot of it. With good spacing and almost no monologues, you will often find the script runs at a little over minute a page. Your estimate will inevitably be rough, but it is the best anyone can expect. Like art itself, it is not an exact science!
Literary agents will pitch your script to producing theatres, freelance directors and independent producers, many of whom they have good relationships with. If a script is taken on by a theatre for development and/or production they will negotiate the deal for you and check the theatre/producer follows standard writer agreements. They work on commission – usually 15 percent of whatever your script earns.
How to get a literary agent
You need to send them an example of excellent theatre writing, ideally one that is in development with a theatre company with the possibility that they might eventually produce it. Although written with TV scripts in mind you will find a useful article on on how to obtain an agent here.
Some of the established literary agencies:
Curtis Brown is one of the world’s leading literary and talent agencies, representing authors, playwrights, film and television writers and directors, theatre directors and designers, television and radio presenters and actors.→ Website
Mainly specialises in writers for TV; film but includes theatre as well as well as book rights and children’s literature. Has useful guidance advice on submitting work to them.→ Website
Other leading agencies include:
Alan Brodie Associates have a diverse list of talent across all aspects of the industry. While they have particular expertise in representing significant literary estates, they are equally excited by working with newer writers who will become the voices of the next generation.
A small literary agency representing quality commercial and literary fiction, non-fiction and dramatists for TV, radio and theatre.
Specialists in drama and comedy for television, film, radio, digital platforms and theatre.
Founded in 1989, it represents many of the best known writers for film, theatre and television in the world. They see themselves as a boutique agency. Their clients range from newer talents to well established names, which means they operate across the complete spectrum.
Established in 1935, David Higham Associates represents writers across all genres and in all media. Their Film, TV & Theatre department looks after talented writers originating material for stage, screen and new media.
Elaine Steel is a member of BAFTA; the Personal Managers Association; the Association of Authors Agents; Women in Film and Television. She represents the PMA on the Radio Forum, the negotiating body of PMA, BBC, WGGB and Society of Authors which governs writers’ radio agreements. She was Chair of the Board of New Writing South 2010-13.
One of the oldest literary agents in London, it looks after some of the most talented writers in the industry.
After 14 years as a Media Agent Gemma Hirst founded GHA in June 2010. The agency represents a broad, eclectic mix of writers, directors and script editors working on projects ranging from children’s animation to feature films, original TV drama series, radio drama and theatre.
Imagine Talent is a small and friendly agency representing Writers and Directors across the creative industries. They claim to offer a bespoke and personal approach to all their clients and are lovely people to work with.
Independent Talent Group represents many of the most talented writers, directors and producers working in film, television and theatre.
ICM Partners is one of the world’s largest talent and literary agencies with offices in New York, Los Angeles, and London. They represent creative talent in the fields of motion picture, television, books, music, live performance, and new media.
Janet Fillingham Associates (JFA) was set up in 1992 as an independent boutique literary agency. Its clients work across film and TV drama, comedy drama and theatre including musical theatre.
Jill Foster represents writers and writer-producers working across television, radio, film and theatre.
A literary agency based in Primrose Hill, founded in 1960 by Jonathan Clowes.
Josef Weinberger Plays is a specialist theatre and musical theatre publisher and agent working both in the UK and internationally.
Agents for writers, directors, designers and choreographers for theatre, film, television, radio and opera.
Based in London’s Fitzrovia for over 45 years, MBA is a leading literary agency representing writers in all media including film, television, radio and theatre.
Micheline set up Micheline Steinberg Associates (MSA) in 1985 to develop new and established talent, and now manages an eclectic list of dramatists. Prior to MSA, she worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company and subsequently wrote Flashback, a pictorial and anecdotal history of 100 years of the RSC. She was then invited to join the renowned Margaret ‘Peggy’ Ramsay agency.
Formed in 1984 and based in Islington, they work on an individual basis with a broad and eclectic mix of clients on projects ranging from children’s animation to feature films, television & radio drama, and theatre. They are naturally drawn to original voices with passion and ambition and are respected within the industry for their thoughtful and targeted submissions.
First established as a literary agency in 1896, Sayle Screen has evolved into one of London’s leading and longest standing independent agencies, now representing writers, directors and producers for film, television and theatre.
A long established literary, theatrical and film agency dating back to 1962.
Knight Hall aims to incorporate the best aspects of both small and large agencies. They have a dedicated office in Shoreditch, and maintain a network of contacts worldwide – but also aim for a personal touch.
Founded in 1988 and manages a range of writers, directors and producers. Based in Northamptonshire.
A literary agency representing both experienced and new writers, Tennyson Agency maintains a small but high quality list of clients and welcomes new enquiries.
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