Proposal Guide for Playwrights
New Work Manager Mark Pritchard and dramaturg Ian Rafael Ramirez break down the components of an effective proposal for a new play.
Hundreds of proposals land in the inbox of Malthouse Theatre’s Artistic & Programming teams each year. The pressing question for playwrights is always: how do I stand out?
Proposals are challenging to write. You’re trying to describe a project that you haven’t written yet, with enough clarity to make it sound cohesive and compelling. Often at the beginning of a project you have more questions than answers, and be concerned more with what you haven’t discovered yet than with what you’re confident about.
A strong proposal navigates these tensions while giving the reader enough information to be ready to invest in the project. Proposal-writing requires you to map out your ideas on the page, distilling the many possibilities that lie within the project down to a tentative hypothesis that will form the starting point for the project. Acknowledging that it’s a starting point, it needs to contain enough kinetic energy to inspire the reader to see its originality, its potency, and its viability.
At Malthouse Theatre, proposals often form the foundation of a script commission. They allow the team to have an informed discussion about a proposed project, and work out whether it’s something we want to support within the resources we have. And in embarking on what may be a multi-year journey with the writer, with a view to programming it on our stage, the proposal gives us some clear common ground to start from.
This guide offers a skeleton for what we find constitutes an effective proposal for a new play. There is no one-size-fits-all template, but we hope this guide helps playwrights in facing their ideas and outlining what they want to make in a compelling, concise, well-structured manner.
A Basic Structure
- Begin the proposal with a brief bio of who you are and the past works you have done. This is also an opportunity to segue into how this new work is situated in the context of your past works. What is it building on? How is it different? Why are you wanting to make this work next?
- Introduce the project and what it is about. Give us the essential dramatic premise or concept of the play, and the backbone of the overall themes, ideas, and style. You might then situate the play in the larger context of the present sociocultural and political climate, or contextualise it in relation to other works or research or your own personal investigation. The general questions to factor in are: What’s the concept? What do you know about the project? Why are you making it? What are the questions you want to ask? What do you want this play to do?
The next three sections could be in any order, depending on what’s most important to understanding your project:
- Characters: This section might include an outline of the characters and an overview of their arc in the narrative. Be sure to address cast size, and any doubling that you want to build into the writing. How many actors are needed? What kinds of bodies will we see onstage? Who are the key characters, and how do we meet them?
- Plot or Shape: Outline the arc of the story, and how it plays out onstage. Invite the reader to journey with you through the play. You may not know the whole narrative yet, so just give us the points of departure and perhaps, any key events you think might happen, and even the destination if you know where the play might land. It may not be final, but some key events and points of action can help us engage with your sense of narrative and action. How will the narrative begin? How does it end? What are the key narrative engines? What kinds of things might happen
- Form: Describe how the story will be told on stage. This could be structure, but also style, genre, key production elements, or how the audience experiences it. For example, It’s in three parts / it’s a verbatim documentary / surrealism / realism / it all takes place in one room / cabaret / short vignettes / overlapping scenes / interwoven monologues / there’s live video feed / the audience play roles in the story / the audience wear headphones / the whole play happens inside a car. You might have a specific Malthouse Theatre stage or seating formation in mind. How does the story play out? What do we witness onstage?
- Process: After you have provided information about the work, the next segment you need should delve into your creative process. You might have a specific process in mind, a rough timeline, a first step, or need certain resources or support beyond just time and money to write the play. Outline the phases of creative development, as it informs the New Work Manager of some budget and production requirements. How would you like to develop the work? Where will you begin? What do you need from us? Are there any other partners involved? How can Malthouse Theatre assist in your process of creative development?
- Audience: You might like to speak to a specific audience with this play, or be making this work in order to have a certain kind of conversation with the audience. You don’t need to generalise or over-egg this question, but if you have important thoughts about your relationship with your audience then here’s where to share them. Does the writing centre a certain audience? Do you already have an audience base in Melbourne? Who do you want this work to speak to, and how does the work try to speak to them?
- References: Provide some key references for the New Work Manager to look at, to help us understand the look and feel of the project, or the ideas that are informing your thinking. What is it like? What are your influences?
- Conclusion: Take the opportunity to leave a long-lasting impression whether it be more questions to your work, a provocation, or any final word. Whatever it is, it will be the last bit that the New Work Manager will read.
- Sample writing: It’s not essential, but attaching some scene sketches for the proposed play can help bring the concept to life, and show us the style of writing you’re pursuing. If you’re finding it difficult to write about the play without writing it, then you should feel free to knock up some prototypes to show us. And if you’re new to playwriting, we’ll want to see the quality of your writing before we invest in a project.
- A conversational tone is generally best. Avoid clouding your proposal in overly academic language that may detract from what’s engaging about your idea. Read Malthouse Theatre's website to see how we describe projects.
- Bullet points can be incredibly useful in keeping your proposal clear and concise, especially for the scene/story breakdown. They help us focus on the specific images and events that we’ll see in the play, separate from the backstory and offstage events that might be discussed in a synopsis.
- Images can be useful, but they can also be distracting, creating clutter and confusion that doesn’t add to your proposal. If you’re including images, make sure it’s clear as to why you’re including them. Is that an image we’ll see on the stage? Is it a portrait for a specific character? Is it an image of a film or artwork that you’re explicitly referencing, or just one part of your mood board for the project? If you are using images, separate them out and label clearly what they are and why you’ve included them. If you don’t know the history of the image or who created it, you should find out before including it.
- Having a sense of our recent work will help you position your concept as something we might want to be doing in the future. It also helps to be aware of what other works are out there that might be in similar territory to what you’re proposing, and who else is exploring similar forms and ideas.
- Avoid generalisations and grand statements. Broad assertions about the artform, the audience, the zeitgeist, our company, or the state of the world can come across as naïve, and make a concept seem ill-conceived and reactionary. The world is complex, and we want art that engages with that complexity.
- There’s no need to overreach with your proposal as to how ‘radical’ it will be, or how many hot button issues it will straddle, or how many adjectives it will attract. A play that does three smart things well is usually more enticing than one that promises to do everything.
- The contemporary relevance of a project will usually be clear in the idea itself, without much explanation. Resist the urge to justify your work in terms of the current news cycle. ‘Why now’ will be a question in our minds, but a strong concept will usually answer for itself.
- Read over your proposal (or ask a friend to) and see for yourself if it holds water. What questions come up? What aspects distract you from the point? Imagining the reader as a seasoned theatre maker with a critical eye, what areas might they have hesitations about? These questions might be answered through the process of writing the play, but gaping questions can leave a proposal looking fragile.
- Think about how you describe the play in casual conversation. If there’s an aspect that always comes up that helps the project make sense but isn’t yet in the proposal, you should include it.
- Remember this is a conversation starter. Nothing needs to be set in stone. The project will grow and change, but it all starts with you making an offer of what you want to make.
This guide is our way of sharing what we’ve learned about making a strong proposal. These are tips we hope will help writers outline their projects, write better grant applications, and make pitching to companies a little easier. Everyone does it differently, every company has different priorities, and through practice, you’ll find the format that best suits your work and your process.
If you’re struggling with making some decisions about your project, we recommend Anne Bogart’s essay Violence. Anne Bogart is a hugely influential theatre director. Here, she writes about the importance of violence in the creative process, and how decisions both shut down and expand possibility.
Mark Pritchard is the New Work Manager at Malthouse Theatre. He first worked with the company through the Besen Family Artist Program in 2013, before joining the artistic team the following year. Mark oversees all our play commissions and new work in development and is the dramaturg on Season 2021’s Because The Night.
Ian Rafael Ramirez is an independent theatre artist from Manila, Philippines, and a graduate student at The University of Melbourne. He is also a researcher whose interest is in unpacking and investigating queerness and queer performances in the Philippine context. Ian is currently undertaking an internship in Dramaturgy at Malthouse Theatre.