Mat Smart

Tips on applying for fellowships

Most of the time, when I’ve applied for fellowships, I’ve been rejected. This is a bond we playwrights proudly share. A handful of times, I’ve been lucky enough to be selected. I’ve also served on selection committees. Here are my tips for applying for fellowships – from both sides of the table.

Knowing the organization and its mission

First and foremost, read the mission statement of the organization and the description of the fellowship. Make sure you’re eligible and that the fellowship is of serious interest to you.

If you can, go to an event at the organization. Read their website. Look at the writers they have worked with in the past. Do you know any of them? If so, drop her or him a line, tell them you are applying and ask questions.

Writing the statement

I think this is the hardest part of any application.

Be genuine. If you write something that feels bullshitty, that’s exactly how it will read. Be honest and positive. Give in-depth thought to why the fellowship would be helpful to you and how you would use it. However, don’t overstate that it would change your life or make your career.

Stay away from negativity. Even if you’re feeling down about the whole playwriting racket, don’t complain or vent in your statement. As a selection committee reader, I’m shocked at how many statements say something like, “I don’t have big fancy productions on my resume, so I doubt you’re even reading this.” People on selection committees do it because they believe in the organization and that the winner could come from any application.

Write about your challenges and how you’re confronting them. Write about what inspires you. Don’t try to crank out your statement the day it’s due. Give it some time. And don’t recycle too much from other statements for other applications. Statements are tough, but clearly articulating your goals in an application is a worthwhile endeavor that can be illuminating – regardless of whether you receive the fellowship or not.

Choosing the play to submit

Submit the script that you consider to be the best example of your work. However, don’t submit a play that’s too old – probably no more than three or four years. And it’s best not to submit a play that’s too new. You should have at least heard it aloud once or twice – ideally more. An application deadline is one of the best reasons to get a new play ready. Invite friends over to read it aloud, get their questions and thoughts, do a rewrite, and then submit it once you feel like it’s a strong, fresh showcase of your work.

Bio/résumé

If the application says you can submit either, choose the one that best highlights your accomplishments. A bio shouldn’t be longer than half of a page or three-fourths of a page. A résumé shouldn’t be longer than two pages. Do not submit a 10-page curriculum vitae like you would for a teaching application.

If you have collaborated with a director or other artists that have worked at the organization, it’s best to use a résumé that lists those people by name.

Letters of recommendation

You should ask a professional theater artist whom you’ve worked with, respect, and feel comfortable asking for a letter of recommendation. If you really don’t feel comfortable asking someone, you probably shouldn’t. It’s important to have a recommender that truly knows you and your work. And if they happen to have some prestige in the industry – that’s great – but don’t just ask the fanciest person you know who barely knows your work. Also, start asking your recommenders at least two months before the deadline.

Format

Make sure your play and résumé follow standard formatting techniques. (See examples.)

A lot of applications now request a single PDF with all of the materials. I used to have such a hard time putting this together because my résumé, script, and supporting materials were all different documents with different margins and formatting. In Word, just go to “Page Layout” then “Breaks” – then in that drag down menu, find “Section Breaks” and “Next Page.” You can insert a section break so that the next part of the same document can have different margins, page numbers, etc. I just learned this last month from a stage manager and it’s made applications so much easier.

If there’s an interview…

If there’s an interview, re-read your statement and revisit the organization’s website and mission statement beforehand. Think of two or three things you’re working on that you’d love to talk about. Think of two or three questions you’d like to ask. Be yourself. Know that you’ll say at least one stupid thing that you’ll wish you could do-over. It happens. Don’t beat yourself up.

General tips

  • Don’t do the application last minute.
  • Have a friend proofread it. It is very easy to tell if an application was thrown together.
  • Once you submit the application, treat yourself in some small way – and then try to forget that you’ve applied. Almost always, results take longer than the dates provided.
  • Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Keep looking for new opportunities. They’re out there.
  • Every application is worthwhile whether you are selected or not. It’s a chance to revise your play, re-evaluate your goals, and have more people come in contact with your work.
About the author
Mat Smart
Mat Smart is a Playwrights' Center Core Writer. He writes plays about his hometown (Naperville, a suburb of Chicago) and his travels (he’s been to all 50 states and all of the continents). He received the 2015 Equity Jeff Award for Best New Work in Chicago for The Royal Society of Antarctica (Gift Theatre), which was developed at the Playwrights’ Center in PlayLabs 2013 and inspired by his three-month stint working as a janitor at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. Mat’s newest plays include Midwinter (commission from the Denver Center Theatre Company, workshop at the 2016 Colorado New Play Summit) and Eden Prairie, 1971, inspired by his three years living in Minneapolis from 2008 to 2011. He recently returned from South America where he spent time volunteering on an organic farm outside Mendoza, Argentina. More about Mat »