YOU’RE AN ASPIRING PLAYWRIGHT who dreams of one day receiving a Tony Award or Pulitzer Prize. But how do you get there? A good place to start is by entering playwriting competitions for high school students, which often offer opportunities to have your work developed and produced in professional environments.

You likely know that during the Educational Theatre Association’s annual International Thespian Festival in June, student-written plays and musicals are produced as part of the Thespian Playworks and Thespian Musicalworks programs. The 2019 submission deadline for both is January 15.

If you’re looking for more opportunities, the list below is a sampling of top national competitions specifically for young writers. There are many others at the regional and local levels, so check the websites of universities and theatre companies in your area for additional options.

Eugene O’Neill Theater Center Young Playwrights Festival
Where: Waterford, Connecticut
When: May 10-12, 2019
Submission Deadline: February 11

The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center is a breeding ground for American theatre, dedicated to the development of new works for the stage. August Wilson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Wendy Wasserstein are just some of the writers who have had works developed at this artists’ haven. The Young Playwrights Festival draws on the same techniques used in the O’Neill’s professional conferences. Five or six plays are accepted every year, in addition to 16 honorable mentions. Selected playwrights can observe rehearsals, work with mentors, and participate in cold readings. Students between the ages of 12 and 18 can apply.

Sophia Chapadjiev, artistic director of the Young Playwrights Festival and the O’Neill’s director of education, offered this advice for interested students. “Remember that it is a play. Try to have a theatrical mindset,” she said. “Don’t give audiences all the answers. Find a way to surprise audiences. And hopefully have as much fun writing it as people would seeing it.” She says students often make the mistake of writing many short scenes rather than digging into moments. She also suggests exercising due diligence when it comes to research, especially if you’re writing about a topic with which you are not overly familiar.

The Blank Theatre Young Playwrights Festival
Where: Los Angeles, California
When: June 2019
Submission Deadline: March 15

What makes this competition different from others is that the Blank Theatre Young Playwrights Festival mounts full professional productions of the winning plays. In its more than 25-year history, the theatre has produced 308 scripts from young writers. Stephen Karam, a Tony Award winner for The Humans, is a three-time winner. Blank Theatre Founding Artistic Director Daniel Henning says being treated as a professional at the age of 17 is what made Karam want to continue writing. Other notable past winners include Lauren Yee (The Great Leap) and Max Posner (The Treasurer), also a Thespian Playworks winner, who have had their work produced at major theatres in New York.

“It’s important to support new people, but more importantly, if we don’t have new great plays today, we won’t have any new great plays in the future,” says Henning. Writers ages 9 to 19 are eligible, and 12 plays are chosen by a panel of theatre professionals each year. The Blank Theatre has the advantage of a Hollywood location, which means industry professionals can participate as mentors. It also helps that the festival takes place when most television shows are on hiatus. Henning says the judges look for work that is unique. Playwrights who follow their hearts make the biggest impression.

Jared Goudsmit (left) was both a Young Playwrights Festival and Thespian Playworks winner in 2018 for his script Derailed.
Jared Goudsmit (left) was both a Young Playwrights Festival and Thespian Playworks winner in 2018 for his script Derailed. Photo by Susan Doremus.

Scholastic Art & Writing Awards
Where: New York City
Submission Deadline: Varies by region

Launched in 1923, the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards is now the longest-running program of its kind. It recognizes teenagers in grades seven through 12 in 29 categories. One of these is a dramatic script category, which includes scripts for television, film, or stage. Works are judged on originality, technical skill, and the emergence of a personal vision or voice.

Princeton University 10-Minute Play Contest
Where: Princeton, New Jersey
When: Winners announced June 6, 2019
Submission Deadline: March 31

Princeton’s Lewis Center for the Arts holds an annual contest for U.S. students in the 11th grade or international students in the equivalent grade. Students are judged by members of the Princeton University Program in Theater faculty. First prize is $500, followed by $250 and $100 prizes for second and third place selections.

VSA Playwright Discovery Program
Where: Washington, D.C.
When: April 15-20, 2019 (American College Theater Festival)
Submission Deadline: January 23

For those interested in accessibility, this program is specifically aimed at young writers with disabilities and collaborative groups that include students with disabilities in grades six to 12. Submissions can be 10-minute scripts in any genre in the form of plays, screenplays, or musical theatre. Nontraditional formats are welcome. One winner is chosen in three divisions — grades six and seven, grades eight and nine, and grades 10 through 12. Winners in the senior division have the opportunity to develop their scripts at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival in Washington, D.C. You can find free resources about the writing process, including script samples, online.

Sacred Heart University National High School Playwright Competition
Where: Fairfield, Connecticut
When: TBD
Submission Deadline: TBD

Two playwrights receive an all-expenses paid week of script development at the university with industry professionals, including Tony-nominated producer Jerry Goehring (A Christmas Story). The week ends with a public performance of your work. This is a relatively new program, launched in 2016. If you are interested in Sacred Heart University’s theatre program, this is a chance to familiarize yourself with the school.

YouthPLAYS New Voices One Act Competition for Young Playwrights
When: Winners announced in late fall 2019
Submission Deadline: May 1

YouthPLAYS is a publisher of plays and musicals for young actors. Typically, those plays are written by adults, but this competition is for writers 19 and younger. Plays must be unpublished, nonmusical one-acts with two or more characters. The winner receives $200 and publication by YouthPLAYS.

For a comprehensive list of play submission opportunities, the Dramatists Guild publishes an annual resource directory, the online version of which is free to members. Current students receive a 50 percent discount on membership dues.

Every new play starts with a great idea and a lot of hard work. Perhaps one of these playwriting competitions will provide the inspiration to take your script to the next level.

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