Monday, June 6, 2011

Can You Make a Living as a Playwright?

There’s an old joke about playwrights.  They say “you can make a killing, but you can’t make a living”.  And it’s true.

What they mean is, if you have the good fortune of the theatre gods smiling on you (a big IF), then perhaps you will get a BROADWAY production which may garner good reviews and a Tony award.  This play will then be published and consequently produced in every regional theater for the next two years and then possibly be performed in some summer stock and/or community theaters for a few years after that.

It is the playwright equivalent of winning the LOTTO.

And you have about the same odds.
Angels in America 
There has been much blog buzz about the recent statements made by Tony Kushner in a Time Out interview.  

Mr. Kushner is perhaps the greatest American playwright living and working today (Angels in America, pt I & II) with major productions going on, on Broadway, and off, with tons of commissions and has garnered many awards. 

Here’s the comment that brought about the buzz:

“I make my living now as a screenwriter! Which I’m surprised and horrified to find myself saying, but I don’t think I can support myself as a playwright at this point.”

This comment was picked up and commented on by Seattle playwright Paul Mullin 

And then also responded to by the Arena Stage New Play Blog

First of all, we have to ask, is this even an accurate statement for Mr. Kushner?  What does he mean by make a living?  Yes, he’ll make more money writing for HBO, but Mr. Kushner has done quite well for himself solely as a playwright with Broadway productions, publications, grants and commissions. 

Second of all, why should we expect that playwrights could make a living?  There are far too many actors out there who don’t “make a living”.  The average take home pay of a professional Equity actor is probably not more than $20,000 - $30,000 a year (from theater, not from TV and film, mind you).  And I would gather that’s a high albeit rough estimate. 

Is that making a living? And let's be honest, there are many professional actors who aren't making anywhere close to $20,000/year.

I think all of us would agree that all artists should be paid for their work and should be paid well enough to not have to have a full-time or part-time job doing other things besides their art.  Unfortunately, we live in the U.SA. which is not a nation that believes in or supports the arts.  I would love to change that, but don’t see that happening any time soon.

Many people in this country are surprised that you even have to pay for royalties for a play.  What? You pay the playwright to do the show?  And you pay your actors?  People don’t just do art for free? For the “love of it”?

Having a playwright on salary and giving them health benefits is a radical idea.  Thank God for Arena doing something just like that.  They have five mid-level playwrights on salary for three years each.  They will produce at least one of their plays that they write during that period.  That’s pretty awesome.

But again, that’s like a mini-lottery.  Who decides those five playwrights?  There are thousands of writers to choose from.  The amount of playwrights in the Dramatists Guild is somewhere around 6,000.  Now, we have to admit, not every playwright deserves to be on salary, just like not every business major graduating from college deserves to be a manager or CEO or a corporation. No, let’s say only about %10 might be really good and/or mid-level.  That’s still 600 playwrights.  If you had to choose six people out of that, you’d have a 1% chance of getting a salary position.

These are the odds. 

I’m not saying we shouldn’t make money.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t get paid for our work.  I’m saying maybe we should reevalaute our expectations given current circumstances.  Would I like to live in a country that pays playwrights and other artists decent wages?  Yes.  Will I make efforts to change that in our country.  Of course.  Will it happen over night?  No. 

There's been a lot of discussion in the theater world about this very topic--especially given the recent publication of Todd London's book Outrageous Fortune.  Molly Smith, of Arena Stage, will be at the Dramatist Guild national conference, as will Mr. London, so I'm sure it will be a topic if debate this coming week.  

A few years ago, I was interviewing an established award-winning playwright, who was also writing and directing movies, and said something about making a living as a playwright.  He responded, "That's like saying you're going to make a living as a poet.  No one makes a living."  

So it's not just Tony Kushner saying these types of comments.

I don't believe we should think of writing plays in the same terms as playing the LOTTO.  I do feel there should be more avenues to make money doing theater, in general.  But for now...well...If you’re writing plays because you think you can make a living, I’d have to say to you….um, don’t give up your day job.

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