I Self-Produced an International Theater Contest As a Struggling Artist: No Profits, No Regrets
The New York City Audio Theater Writing Contest (NYC ATWC) was created and produced by Jason Hewett, an NYC based producer, writer, and actor. The views expressed in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of past or current employers or collaborators.
Why Produce NYC ATWC?
I’ve always wanted to produce plays — the medium doesn’t interest me as much as the stories themselves do, and the barriers I’ve usually run into when it comes to producing something are financial and logistical.
I was feeling burned out by those barriers, and overwhelmed by the impossibility of making moves in New York City. I wanted to tell good stories without killing myself on a short film or theater project. Audio production offers less hurdles to overcome than film and live theater — it may not yet be as popular, but it’s so simple and easy to produce that there’s almost no excuse not to.
So I set out to explore its potential, and I’m satisfied with the outcome.
Why a Contest?
I think that if you want to attract talent you have to invest in it. I could have asked people to submit work just for the hell of it, but that felt like a cheap ask. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in my mission, but I’m just starting out and I’m aware that I look just like everyone else who’s crazy enough to produce theater. We all want to fulfill an artistic vision and go viral and blah blah blah. As explored in finalist Two Artists Trying To Pay Their Bill, exposure does not alway suffice.
So I put my money where my mouth is and offered a cash prize.
More experienced producers warned me it’s never good to fund your own projects. After losing a ton of money on this one, I can see why. But I didn’t do this for money.
I could have set up a crowdfunding campaign, harping on my mission to create accessible theater, and waited for people to take interest. But I didn’t want to wait. And I didn’t want anyone to tell me how to do this or why it wouldn’t work. So I worked my ass off, put all of my tip money over the summer aside, and skipped going out for a while until I had enough to fund my own project.
I have no regrets.
There are contests with large budgets that offer thousands of dollars in cash prizes. Some have entry fees, and many have incredibly strict guidelines which people ignore or misinterpret and pay the entry fee to be promptly disqualified without wasting much of the judges’ time. This is how I assume many of these contests are able to turn a profit or break even
This is also how said contests seem unattainable to writers like me.
I know writers are supposed to make a habit of collecting rejection letters, and I do collect them from publications, agents, and contests that do consider my work, but when I noticed what sorts of entries won in these large national contests, I felt like I was wasting my time and money on applying — often to contests that would ultimately never respond beyond confirming receipt of my submission.
The responses were automated. Impersonal. I felt like my work wasn’t even being looked at because I didn’t have the right education or connections to even be considered. Turns out, I realized, many contests expect you to submit your work in a certain format, even if it’s not specified explicitly in the submission guidelines. The “standard submission format” can vary from contest to contest as much as an English professors’ preferences for margins on submitted papers could vary. And during the time that John Smith Theater Contest is considering Short Play A you’re not supposed to submit it to other contests? You’re not supposed to have it considered or produced elsewhere?
A Contest For Everyone
I wanted people to submit, and I wanted this to feel like an attainable contest. NYC ATWC had no entry fee; $200 $100 and $50 cash prizes; loose requirements. I only paid to put an ad on playbill, from there theater companies across the country, mostly in New York and San Francisco, passed the word along to their members. The message was clear: send me your screenplays, your stage plays, your previously produced works, your unpublished drafts yearning to breathe free…
I am proud to have received over 280 submissions from over six countries. And I responded to every single one of them.
And it didn’t take me very long to do that either; I use gmail and created folders for first round, second round, and third round entries.
Within those folders I would
1 Select all emails
2 Select “more” and “Create a filter for messages like these”, and it will generate a list of all selected emails
3 Copy and paste that list to a google doc or word doc
5 Copy and paste back into bcc section of a newly composed email
Judging The Entries
Deciding the winner was not easy, and I didn’t feel like it was right for me alone to say what voices should be heard. I brought together a panel of theater and film producers to decide the winners of this contest, and hired the best actors and directors I could find to bring this project to life.
I weeded out entries that did not fit the criteria — ones that were too long, ones that didn’t follow instructions, etc. From there, I uploaded the entries into google doc folders and assigned each panelist a handful of plays and provided links to other entries if they wanted to read more. The panelists nominated their favorite plays. Then I created a google doc spreadsheet where the panelists could access and then vote for the nominated plays by assigning a Gold (five points) silver (three points) and bronze (one point) and the plays with the highest scores would win.
It was a close contest. The semi-finalists all wrote amazing works too. I was happy to hear that many of them were able to have their work produced elsewhere. Just goes to show that it’s not about “good” or “bad” scripts, but whether or not your work is the right fit.
How Professional Was This Project?
I wouldn’t say I’m a well-known audio editor in the industry, but I am a self-taught professional. I’ve worked full time in multimedia production in NYC and on a number of professional projects including the bestselling audiobook Dentistry for Millennials.
The budget constraints certainly made this project difficult to produce, and I had to rely on my skills as an audio editor to create the best sound environments that I could while also making good use of background noise and music to cover up extraneous noises. Surprisingly, the worst sound environment was the Brooklyn public library’s recording studio. The best? The dead center of my apartment’s hardwood floor living room.
Most Productions like this are produced in a soundproof studio which can cost hundreds of dollars per hour to rent. My initial minimum target budget was $3,000, which included renting professional space. If funds were short, and they were, I would put the money towards people instead.
And I did.
I have always been a scrappy independent producer who surrounds himself with the best talent possible. I double-cast wherever possible and was able to keep the total costs below $1,200, deciding not to invest in domain hosting or any advertising, and not paying myself some $1,500 that I intended to raise for my involvement producing, directing, acting, web design, social media, SEO, casting, and audio engineering.*
It would have been nice to use better equipment, but in my experience human connection is what makes or breaks theater. Human connection is what inspired the thousands of children I performed for in Florida, who always saw past the bare-bones props that we had and the underfunded cafeteria stages that we performed on. They were dazzled by the magic of imagination and that’s what my team and I hoped to create with performing in the showcase of this contest.
*I often talk publicly about my struggles with affording healthcare and want to clarify I planned this contest during the Spring/Summer of 2019 while I was on a stable health insurance plan that covered my insulin. I lost that coverage in the Fall of 2019, and had to scramble to deal with the surprise expenses, which delayed the production of this contest’s showcase. At that point I had already paid the writers but intended to keep my promise to produce their work. I spent most of late fall and early winter working extra shifts, draining my savings, and figuring out how to scrape by with alternative medical expenses, but that’s a different story for a different time.
Bottom line: I’m not producing theater instead of taking insulin. I’m doing both.
This was an experiment and a proof of concept. In the future I don’t anticipate being able to shoulder the financial burden of a contest like this alone, and hope to fund my next project with the help of people and organizations who are interested in furthering our mission to create authentic and accessible theater.
With a larger budget we can do more for the production, like better studios and equipment, spending more time with actors by paying them more. getting the word out and inspiring more listeners to create their own theater.
In the meantime thank you so much for reading and please enjoy the New York City Audio Theater Writing Contest.