Rejectionism vs. Acceptionism in Play Submission Reading

If you are a reader for, or a manager of readers for, a theatre company that judges open submissions, are you rejectionist or acceptionist?

I think rejectionism is the standard.  By that, I mean “don’t pass a play on to the next level/give it high marks unless it deserves to go on.”  In other words, reject most plays unless they excite you.

I think acceptionism should be the standard.  By that, I mean “don’t reject a play/give it low marks unless it deserves to be left back.”  In other words, accept most plays unless they repel you.

It’s a difference in attitude.  A play in draft or early form, on the page, is a diminished thing compared to what it could be on the stage or after much development.  Not every potentially great play reveals its promise even to the keenest reader.  Every reader carries a weight of bias into their reading of their play submissions, unconsciously turning off from plays because they remind them of something bad they saw once, or because they don’t “buy” the central premise, or because the playwright is a no-name so the reader gives no credit to there being deeper subtext.

Imagine if, when giving readers in a play contest their plays, the plays were given blindly – no names on them.  Imagine the literary manager told the readers, “Now, listen, it’s a secret because this is a blind submission process, but we happen to know that Sheila Callaghan and Katori Hall submitted plays to us.  So please, for the love of god, don’t rush through your submissions or reject any because you thought it was a little weird.  God knows Callaghan’s stuff is always a little weird, so make sure you give everything as much chance as possible.  If a play seems not to be working, for all you know it’s Callaghan’s play, and you’re just not getting it.  So take your time and make damn sure you’ve tried to get it before your reject anything, because none of us want Callaghan’s or Hall’s play tossed out early because someone had a knee-jerk reaction.”

Imagine if the readers went into the submissions – the BLIND submissions, because for heavens’ sake why aren’t all play submissions blind? – with that knowledge and attitude, treating every play they’ve gotten like it could be a masterpiece if only they could see it.  In other words, if their immediate response to seeing any flaw in the play is to instead attribute the flaw to themselves.  “I didn’t like this character,” they think, “so maybe I just didn’t read it right.  After all, this could be the work a  master playwright who knows better than me.”

Well, every submission you get – even the ones from total no-names – could be the work of a master playwright who knows better than you.

So it is better to be acceptionist – to assume that any flaws are just in your reading, until you can prove and identity otherwise.  Until you can say, “Yeah, well, I read it twice, and tried to think of any actor or approach that could make that character likeable, and there’s just no way.  And there’s no way the playwright could make an easy fix; it’s too ingrained in the plot.  It’s definitely a flaw in the writing,” don’t turn the play down.  That’s acceptionism.

Acceptionism takes a little more time than rejectionism – the attitude that you know better than the playwright, and any flaw noticed is surely there and not just due to a hasty and unfair reading – but it is far more likely to raise up the really promising and great works, the ones that hold up under scrutiny and consideration, whereas rejectionism lifts up only the works that have the least potential for offense or confusion.



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  2. Tom Jones/Thomas Cadwaleder Jones · · Reply

    I really like the positive attitude expressed here. I’m just thinking out loud, so this entry may ramble a bit, but I think it is also worth discussing the nature of the “readers” who “accept” or “reject” the playscripts we submit, and consequently the entire process involved.

    Many years ago, in that age before cellphones, I had to call home from a professional theatre that was producing one of my plays. The telephone I got to use was located in what must have been designated “the script room” or “the repository of lost souls.” For, lurking in the darkness of that room, were hundreds of scripts, maybe a thousand or more, in manuscript form, agent-submitted they were, all of them, for this was a theatre that did not accept “unsolicited submissions.”

    My god, there were scripts there from playwrights far better known than I was, or have ever been, scripts from substantial playwrights that clearly had never been read, and never would be. I even found one of my scripts, submitted by my agent. The script was unread and never would be read. Talk about a “plot point” or “wakeup call” in my playwriting career. Well, sadly, such was and is the nature of the playwriting trade. But what if your script is read, which is the thrust of the blog subject I’m responding to? What is the background of the person who is going to read it and accept it or reject it?

    Reading a playscript isn’t like reading other forms of fiction; playwrights certainly know that; we write the damn things, don’t we? Sadly, most people no longer read Drama for pleasure, as was done in centuries past. Reading a playscript, in fact, has become a somewhat arcane pursuit. Frankly, I don’t think most people can do it. A workaround is, of course, to have a “reading” of a playscript. This makes the process seem somewhat like the experience of a play, rather than the silent, individual experience of a script.

    But, back to the theme of this blog response, in order to receive a “reading,” a script must past some initial reader who “accepts” or “rejects.” And therein lies the rub. I agree that “acceptance” is certainly better for the playwright and probably much better for theatre in general. On the other hand—since the so-called “gatekeepers,” or “initial readers,” may not (and most likely do not) have the training, skill and experience, required to perceptively read a playscript—to accept “most everything submitted” for a “reading” is probably never going to happen.

    Clearly, the submission process is broken, which is one of the main reasons the art we practice as playwrights is in decline.

    Let me mention in closing, that my first professionally produced script resulted from two actors finding the unsolicited manuscript I had submitted. The script consisted of a lot of two character scenes. The two actors sat around in the theatre’s greenroom reading aloud to themselves and each other the script I had sent. Fortunately, they had so much fun reading the script aloud, the two actors eventually recommended it to a director who ended up casting both of them. And so the play was produced.

    I mention this because my fifty-year experience has led me to believe that the best script readers are always going to be actors—not directors, not literary managers, not dramaturgs—but actors. In fact, when you get right down to it, from a playwriting standpoint, the two necessary elements required for theatre are: actor, playwright or playwright, actor. That’s it. Everything else is extrinsic. So perhaps it is actors—not theatres—to whom we playwrights should be submitting our scripts. Perhaps we need to develop some Internet mechanism to promote this as a process. As I said at the beginning: I’m just thinking out loud. – Thomas Cadwaleder Jones –

    1. That sounds like a scary place. A script graveyard. And no one ever does anything with them, do they? It would be cool if a theatre with a massive stack like that would just admit they’re never going to do anything with them and, I don’t know, have a garage sale. Or a giveaway. Just don’t leave the poor things gathering dust until they crumble. Even a bonfire would be better (and the finality of it might inspire someone to grab that one script).

      That’s a really interesting idea. We really have gotten quite used to the concept that plays are developed by development organizations and by theatres and producers. Actors fly above the process and just drop in to read when the producers call for them. Gosh, imagine if actors were getting personally inundated with scripts, competing for their attention to be the one that has The Role The Actor Wants To Play. That would be… well, untenable, probably, but it’s an interesting thought experiment. Hmmm.

      I think the clear thing is that we have developed a ton of mechanisms and middlemen and the like in the theatre world, and it’s hard to say which make things smoother and which make things… uh, chunkier.

  3. Anonymous · · Reply

    Whoa, I don’t know what to think.

  4. Anonymous · · Reply

    Since when are there such words as “rejectionism” and “acceptionism?”

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