Playwriting Contest Provides Opportunities to Windsor-Essex Writers

Davod DuCjene in Autopsy by Alex MonkThere’s a lot of talent in Windsor-Essex, scattered across all fields, all industries, and all arts. One thing Post Productions recognized early in its existence was: there are a lot of talented writers in our community. So we asked ourselves … how can we help them get their work noticed? How can we help them make a bit of money from their talents and maybe provide a gentle nudge toward the next level of their careers?

The answer had to involve collaboration, because that’s the Post Productions way. And it had to involve playwriting because, well, that’s the company’s bread-and-butter: producing plays.

And so the Windsor-Essex Playwriting Contest was born. The idea was simple at first: create a contest that gave writers who were either born in Windsor-Essex or live in Windsor-Essex a chance to submit their work to a panel of judges who would select the best entry, which would be produced as part of Post Productions’ next season alongside legendary playwrights like David Mamet, Sam Shepard, Peter Schaffer, and Diana Son. We decided we wouldn’t discriminate between people based on their prior experience or success; the contest would be open to writers both established and aspiring.

But Post Productions also had an ethical issue with contests in general – namely, only the winners tend to benefit. That seemed unfair and counterproductive. Couldn’t there be a contest that aimed to help everyone succeed eventually, whether they won or lost? Couldn’t there be a contest that benefitted everyone who entered?

So in addition to ensuring that clear criteria were created for judges to apply – thus ensuring fair decisions – Post Productions decided to treat the entire contest as a developmental opportunity with the long-term goal of helping playwrights develop their craft over time.

Every writer who submits receives detailed constructive feedback from the entire panel of judges, each member of which has read their work closely using the contest criteria. Any writer who makes it to the second round of the contest is encouraged to use the feedback they’ve received and resubmit within a few weeks – whereupon they receive a second round of notes regardless of the decision. And everyone – whether they made it to round two or not — is encouraged to apply the feedback and resubmit their work the following year. It’s basically a way to get your work read by multiple people who are invested in your long-term success. The worst thing that can happen to a writer who submits to the contest is that 4-5 people read their work carefully, make detailed notes about its strengths and weaknesses, provide ample suggestions to help them build on the strengths and address the weaknesses, and receive genuine encouragement to try again.

With the deadline for the 2020 contest coming up soon (April 30th), 519 Magazine and Post Productions thought it might be helpful to call attention to the characteristics that helped previous years’ winners succeed – and provide some advice to writers to help them refine their work before they submit.

Two plays won the 2018 contest – Alex Monk’s Autopsy and Joey Ouellette’s A Haunting in E Flat. Why two? Well, none of the finalists were long enough to be produced alone and these two had common themes, which meant they could work together effectively as a double-bill. But, of course, they wouldn’t have won without their individual merits. Both scripts featured well-realized characters, an effective balance of drama and humour (not strictly necessary, but definitely a plus), intriguing premises, and their themes fit the Post Productions brand.

(A side note: the winning playwrights also had vastly different levels of experience. Whereas Ouellette had written many plays before, and had them produced across North America, Autopsy was the first play Monk had ever written.)

The 2019 winner – Edele Winnie’s Pry It From My Cold Dead Hands – still wasn’t quite long enough, but it was such a strong script that the judges couldn’t turn it down. It had all the strengths of the previous year’s winners, plus it had one characteristic that made it stand out immediately: a strong, unique, personal authorial style – a voice. Winnie didn’t write quite like anyone else. There was a “voice” that shone through the script from the first page to the last, which made the story distinctly hers. This is a difficult characteristic to explain and understand. Think of it this way: if you compare a book by Stephen King to one by Anne Rice they don’t sound remotely alike when you read them aloud. Even though those authors are contemporaries writing in the same time period, and they’re from the same country, and they work in the same genre, their writing styles – their voices – are distinct. You’ll notice it in the words they choose, the rhythms of their sentences, the details they focus on when describing people and places, their preoccupations. A writer’s voice comes through in their choices – and it develops over time, with practice. The more you write and revise your own work, the more your choices become yours instead of imitations of choices made by writers you admire.

The judges focus on these kinds of characteristics because they’re captured in the contest criteria: character, plot and structure, dialogue, theme and genre, craft, and brand compatibility. The judges’ scoring rubrics contain detailed breakdowns of each of these criteria.

For those writers wanting to know more about what the judges are looking for, Matt St. Amand and I wrote a detailed guide called “So You’re Writing a Play”, which you can find on the Post Productions blog (http://www.postproductionswindsor.ca/blog/so-youre-writing-a-play).
In the contest’s first year, we realized we’d made some errors in our eligibility criteria. Then, in the second year, we found errors we’d missed the previous year. At this point we’ve come to expect that we’ll find new things to fix every year. We’re only human after all! For example, in 2018 we didn’t specify that entries had to be plays – so we received several musicals. And all of those musicals had some merit, something interesting or admirable that could be developed into a fascinating production. But we don’t consider ourselves capable of fairly judging musicals. We enjoy musicals, certainly, but we don’t think it’s fair for us to evaluate them. And besides, musicals tend to be big – big scale, large casts, just not the right sort of thing for an intimate environment like The Shadowbox Theatre. But there was one musical submitted in 2018 that we thought seemed pretty much perfect for Korda Artistic Productions, so we advised the writer to send it to them. If Korda produced it, we’d definitely go see the show. And now, Arts Collective Theatre has created a contest for new musicals. We’re excited by that!

Honestly, the best thing any writer can do to win the contest is pay close attention to the contest criteria, especially as detailed in that blog post. The second best thing: watch a lot of plays – especially the kinds of plays that fit the Post Productions brand: intimate, intense, provocative. Watching plays will give you a sense of what’s realistic and even possible onstage, a sense of pacing, an understanding of what sorts of scenes work in an intimate environment. But, okay, the THIRD best thing you can do (and maybe this is the most important)? Read play scripts. Read a lot of play scripts – especially good ones by well-regarded playwrights. They earned their reputations. Analyze what makes their scripts work and think about what lessons you could draw from their work for yourself.

It’s important to have a firm understanding of what a play script is, because it isn’t the same as a film or television script – they’re different media. And a play script is very, very different from a novel. Experience writing for other media will help you – absolutely – but you want to make sure you understand the conventions of this particular medium.
But there are two elements important to all forms of storytelling that we often find missing in the submissions we receive: conflict and stakes. Let’s look at conflict first. Without conflict there’s no drama – or comedy. Conflict creates purpose, momentum, suspense and, well, interest. There really isn’t much of a story at all unless there’s conflict. That doesn’t mean that a script needs to contain fights or quarrels. At minimum, it means either a character wants something but has trouble obtaining it, or that different characters have incompatible desires. If Sarah wants to go to the movies tonight but her boyfriend Billy wants them to stay home and play checkers – that’s conflict. Small-scale conflict, sure. Conflict nonetheless. Now, if this conflict is the initiating event of the story, that means the next step will probably involve one of those characters attempting to either circumvent, solve, or overpower the other character’s desire.

It’s possible for a skilled writer to turn a minor conflict like this into a compelling story, but usually higher stakes are needed. When it comes to any conflict, we should ask, “What’s at stake here?” And the answer is always connected to something the characters care about. Consider Sarah and Billy again. What’s at stake in this conflict? Not much on the surface. So add a detail. Maybe this conflict is the last straw for their relationship; they’ve been disagreeing about all sorts of little things for days, or one character takes this conflict as a symbol of everything that’s wrong with their relationship. Now there’s a lot more potential drama to be mined from this conflict because there’s something at stake: a relationship that matters to each character. If neither character cared about the relationship, nothing would really be at stake.

Depending on how the writer decides to use this conflict, this scenario could play out as a straightforward drama, a poignant tragedy, a farcical comedy, a horror, a science fiction story – anything. A skilled writer can turn this into any kind of story just by making different choices. Think of every story you love and ask yourself what the conflicts are in those stories, and what’s at stake. Odds are you’ll find a lot of variety across all genres.
We’re coming up on one of the most exciting times of the year for Post Productions. This is when we get to discover what people have written this year; at least, what they’re willing to share with us. We never know what to expect, and each year we’ve been surprised by the kinds of stories people are telling, by the quirks of their characters, their twists and themes and conflicts.

This year’s winning script will be produced as part of Post Productions’ 2021 season (assuming we all survive the pandemic!). Its author will be invited to take part in the audition process and attend rehearsals, if they wish. And most importantly, the winning author will receive 10% of gross ticket revenue from the production of their play. That’s gross ticket revenue, not profit – we aren’t playing games, here!

To learn more about the eligibility requirements, deadlines, and process of the 2020 Windsor-Essex Playwriting Contest, please visit the Post Productions website: http://www.postproductionswindsor.ca/playwriting-contest.html

James Stone in A Haunting on E Flat

Cast of Pry It From My Cold Dead Hands by Edwle Winnie

Photo: Photo by Nicole Coffman and Fay Lynn
Photo: Photo by Nicole Coffman and Fay Lynn
Photo: Photo by Kieran Potter and Fay Lynn
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