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Patrick Lennon

So what does the system look like where a playwright can make a living? For the sake of discussion, ignore for the moment where the money comes from. Playwright is never going to be a 40-hour-a-week salaried job, just as writing a book isn't. The writer of a novel only "makes a living" if they get a large advance to cover the cost of writing the book, or if they sell a significant number of copies.

So what does that look like for playwrights? What are you asking for? Maybe I just missed it, but I feel like I read a lot of "playwrights don't make money" posts, without any "this is what I actually want to see" posts. Where in the process do playwrights make more money? During the writing? During performances? And who gives it to them? The theatre company? A publishing company? Some other entity? Then we can start talking about where that money actually comes from...

Wesley K. Andrews

Patrick --

I'd like to see a world where our venerated theatres are straight-up *employing* writers, on a salary with health benefits.

I don't really see why you're equating playwrights and novelists; they work in fundamentally different industries.

Scot Augustson

Patrick: I have no solution. Theater is a terrible business model. It can't really take advantage of economy of scale. The essentials it provides {a)Providing an event for people to gather at, and b) telling stories } can be found elsewhere for much cheaper. But, there is something maddening about the fact that there are (a few) people making their living. Yes the admin staff. And also the folks in the tech unions. I would not begrudge anyone a job with a living wage. But when I go to a show I can do without a pretty set or nice costume, but can't live without good writing and acting.
Again, I can look back (with my "way back" machine ) and see how this came to be and nobody out there is evil. There is no giant pile of gold in the basements of theaters across this land...but it is still maddening.

Jim Jewell

Wes, you really don't see any relationship between how two writers make a living? You can find a difference between the industries, but there is also a lot of resonance.

I'd argue that separating playwright and screenwriter is more artificial. That playwrights make their "actual" money from TV or film isn't very surprising.

And this is where the connection to the novelist comes in. A published novelist can expect to have earned a couple bucks per hour on his/her first couple of books. To make real money, they have to bank on previous success to get an advance, or get optioned to TV or film.

My point is I find it unsurprising that writers of all sorts can't make a living writing what they want to write, and have to find other ways to make their writing pay.

But, I agree with you on what you want to see - more artists as full-time staff, including writers. And I'd like to see that paid for by cutting the salaries of senior management.

The industry can't survive on a model where theatres regularly pay over 5% of the annual operating budget to just the salaries of the AD and MD.

Gianni Truzzi

Oh, give me a friggin' break. Tony Kushner has never really tried to make a living as a playwright. Let's face it, the guy wrote an epic pair of plays over 25 years ago, and has done practically nothing since. I count one critically well-received box office bomb (Caroline or Change) and two complete messes (Homebody/Kabul and now Intelligent Homosexual's Guide). This level of productivity is not from someone who is seriously trying to make his living as a playwright.

You want a good example of someone trying and succeeding to make a living as a playwright? Talk to Steven Dietz. He's written 40 original plays and adaptations over the last 30 years, a volume which ensures a steady royalty stream. Of course, even he has to teach (I assume he has to) to live comfortably, but he's chosen (after giving it a brief try) to not write for films or television.

But so what if he does? That's what actors do, pick up a commercial or a role on a soap or some film work in addition to doing some stage roles. So do designers and directors -- why should playwrights be any different?

And you think you've got it bad? Try journalism these days. So quit whining.

Paul Mullin

Thank you all for the great discussion here. I always think my best posts are the ones where I sit back and let smart folks make good points.

Jim Jewell's suggestion of trimming senior management wages just enough to pull a playwright on staff is as common-sensible as it is deeply provocative.

Wesley K. Andrews

My point is that adding a playwright to a theatre's staff would be relatively easy; novelists don't have that kind of institutional infrastructure. Also, seeing a play and reading a book are totally different and work in fundamentally different economic ecosystems (The Hearst Foundation in one, Amazon.com in the other)

Of course there are similarities.

Brandon J. Simmons

I am not clear on what "bread and butter" is, or what it means to "support myself." I'm curious as to how much money Tony Kushner made from plays last year (grants, royalties, etc), or the year before. $500? $0? $25,000? The quote you included from Kushner makes an impact because of Kushner's name, but without specific figures (I only glanced at the interview in Time Out but I don't see a specific figure) a statement like "I can't support myself writing plays" elicits from me the question "If you're real commitment is writing plays and making your money that way, why are your finances not in line with that commitment?" Creative steps toward changing the way playwrights make money is a honorable and worthwhile task, but simply stating that one's personal finances aren't ideal doesn't communicate anything beyond that simple fact, and certainly does not implicate anyone other than the speaker himself. I am an actor and playwright, and I have never made more than $20,000 in a year. In the past two years I've brought in about $12,000 per year. I live with extreme comfort; I eat well, have intelligent interesting friends, and I'm doing work that nourishes my soul. I have no children, no mortgage, etc, but I do have student loan debt from an elite private college and two credit cards. But more to the point: the fact that I have no children or mortgage or second mortgage or car or retirement plan etc...these are personal choices in line with my commitments, not symptoms of a culture who's values are out of whack. I guess my point is I don't mind that playwrights don't make as much money as arts administrators. I don't think that would necessarily be good for art, and I don't think it would necessarily be good for culture. It would simply afford playwrights the same opportunity for personal comfort enjoyed by the middle-class. But I'm not a playwright because I want to be comfortable. And I do not want to see plays by middle-class playwrights.

Scott Walters

If you want to see a model, read your theatre history: Shakespeare wrote multiple plays a year, was a partner in the company, and a co-owner of the theatre building. The freelance model simply doesn't work.

Paul Mullin

Ah, nice! It wasn't long until we got the "quit your whining" comment.

I do wonder though, what makes you think, Gianni, that anyone's whining? Seems to me that Scott, Tony and I are just pointing out facts. But to take a step further, is it whining to ask for a more equitable distribution? Or is that simply off the table in a Tea Party America?

No where did I make the claim, as Brandon would like to suggest nonetheless, that playwrights are entitled to a middle-class living from their work. And he knows this. But we still get, even from talented artists like Gianni and Brandon the "shut up and quit your whining and stop questioning the status quo" or the "why the fuck should care about the middle class anyway" lines of argument. Red herrings tossed at straw dogs. You'd think you could do better than than mouthing the existing power structure's least creative arguments for them.

Something more creative, perhaps? Or let them defend themselves, perhaps? There's a whiff of the kapo in underpaid artists defending overpaid administrators, or maybe it's just Stockholm Syndrome.

Scot Augustson

(Paul: Off topic, but next time we have a beer, let me tell you what I really think about "Angels in America.")

Patrick Lennon

I too question Mr. Kushner's comment. Does "I can't make a living" mean "I can't afford to have an apartment in LA and NY and fly between the two regularly"?

But, back to my point. I can accept the idea of staff writers, and I applaud Jim for going so far as to give a decent suggestion for where the money comes from. But before I can buy in completely, I need more details.

-What is expected of the playwright? One play a year? Two? Four? How do you account for the differing speeds at which writers work? Can you force inspiration?

-What is expected of the company? Are they to produce every single play? One a year? Only the plays that they want to produce? Are they allowed to sit on a play for a couple of seasons, precluding the playwright from generating royalties elsewhere?

-How many playwrights are we talking? The Rep produces 7-8 shows a years, how many of those would you like to see coming from how many staff writers?

-Is the company allowed to dictate content, or do they just take what they get? Where is their quality control? If I paid someone $40,000 a year (let's say) for 2 years, I'd expect something out of that. What happens if the company doesn't want to produce any of the plays the writer offers them?

-Who are these playwrights? Would you demand that they be local? Or can the company bring in anyone they'd like to work with?

-Are you envisioning playwrights working for the same company for their entire careers? 2 years, 5 years? Do they have to leave town to get a job at another company when their current one has had enough?

If these questions sound like they are trying to destroy the idea, it's only because I care. I am genuinely curious. I am so sick of people complaining without offering a solution. I'm not singling you out, Paul, this is a universal problem, and one of my biggest pet peeves. So I'm happy to see concrete ideas, but I can't support them fully without answers to questions like these.

Brandon J. Simmons

I've made a promise to myself to do the laundry. If I can complete this task within the next 45 minutes I will respond ENERGETICALLY to Paul's comments!

Paul Mullin


While your questions are good ones, there's something disingenuous, surely, in enumerating 23 of them in one comment, and then saying effectively "I cannot fully support change until I get these answered."

These are absolutely details that should be worked out. But we cannot even get the theaters big enough to implement them to come to the table.

So come on, who's zooming who with 23 questions? You remind me of the kid in Uncle Buck.

Gianni Truzzi

Of course you're whining, Paul, don't pretend you're not. But my pointing it out doesn't mean that I'm defending the status quo. And I know better than to expect you to shut up. :)

The "Infinite Jest" report was certainly eye-opening to me about how poor the situation for playwrights is. For example, Kushner's quote doesn't even touch upon the issue of how theaters demand a huge piece of a playwright's royalties, a matter of real concern and fairness. Those are real issues.

But your characterization of "underpaid artists defending overpaid administrators" is ridiculous. Everyone in the arts, including administrators, are underpaid relative to the money their skills and experience could fetch in another field. That criticism has become a caricature that doesn't reflect reality. Regional theaters are not the dark satanic mills where capital profits at the expense of exploited workers. I'm quite impressed that, compared with most other fields (Hollywood, Wall Street or the technology industry), theater is surprisingly equitable -- it's mostly equally unfair to everybody. That's less praise for theater than it is condemnation of everywhere else, of course.

But what these oft-floated criticisms overlook (in my view) is that film, television, commercials, advertising, etc. are part of the economic ecosystem in which artists work. And being an economically successful artist means learning how to include them in your career plan.

You can't just look at theater, you have to look at the whole set of opportunities available to you as an artist. Sure, if you try to make your living entirely from theater as an artist -- be it actor, playwright, designer -- then you'll fail because its not supposed to work that way. I wish it could, but it doesn't, and pounding your head against that wall doesn't make you a purer artist, it only makes you a schmuck.

Or a whiner.

Patrick Lennon

I believe I said, and I quote, "without answers to questions like these." I don't need an answer to all 23 questions. I don't even, necessarily, need an answer to any one of them. A hypothetical answer to a similar question would suffice.

Obviously many of these questions are details to be worked out later, but you won't get the people with the money to come to the table at all unless you start answering some of them, at least hypothetically. Hell, I don't have money, and I won't take the proposal that seriously if you're going to dismiss my questions out of hand.

I think Scot has the most astute comment of this entire conversation - theatre is an inherently shitty business model, and every single theatre artist is deluding themselves if they think they deserve to make a decent living at it (unless of course your definition of "decent living" fits in with Brandon's comments, which I wholeheartedly agree with).

Paul Mullin

Point taken, Gianni. I'm a schmuck. Or a whiner. Or, come on, you can go the extra step: a schmuck AND a whiner. Yours, as you know, is a position held by much more powerful people in Seattle theatre than the two of us.

But holding that position doesn't necessarily excuse them, or you, if you've decided to join the conversation, from dealing with the issues.

Otherwise, why respond so assiduously here? Surely someone somewhere along the line taught you that it doesn't pay to engage a troll. If that's all I am, so be it. But what do YOU want to see happen. Or is it all good? You just want to make sure that the nasty troll doesn't convince anyone otherwise, do you?

Claim your territory, Gianni. I'm claiming mine and, look, I've done so without name-calling!

Paul Mullin

Okay, for Patrick's sake and Brandon, and of course, gentle Gianni's, I would just refer everyone to my actual post, instead of the red herring that keeps getting raised here, namely that Tony Kushner deserves a living as a playwright.

Let me nutshell it for you to save you the trouble reading: I did NOT say Tony or any other playwright DESERVES a living writing plays. I said that it is noteworthy that he cannot manage one nor can any playwright I know, but that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of arts administrators that make perfectly comfortable livings.

I think this is evidence that something is out of whack in our art form. If you think otherwise then simply say so. No need to counter an argument that was not offered. It's beneath you.

Wesley K. Andrews


The questions you asked are the sort of questions that make sense for contract negotiations, and they are all perfectly answerable in a way that fits each relationship. You're raising logistical, not philosophical, issues.

Also, we essentially already have this sort of staff relationship in regional theatres with directors, in that the AD is generally expected to direct a few plays a year. Why can't that kind of relationship also exist with a writer?

Gianni Truzzi

Forgive me, Paul, my use of the terms were not directed at you specifically, but more abstractly to an attitude. But I can see that a personal attack was the obvious reading, despite my lack of intention. This is why I seldom engage in comments. Also because assiduously is the only way I seem to know how write anything without a lengthy edit.

Anything involving Tony Kushner will get me going, it seems. If you want, I can join Scott and you for that beer-filled discussion on "Angels" -- sounds like he and I can both give you a dramaturgical earful. :)

I come from a circus family, where I learned that life is hard and the trick is to find a good hustle. Theater is a lousy hustle, kid. You've gotta find the one that works for ya.

Wesley K. Andrews

And should I be posting my resume in this comments thread? p.s. Your donors will love me.

Brandon J. Simmons

We have created a scenario in which there is US and there is THEM; there are those who DESERVE something, and those in power who WITHHOLD something. But I choose not to exist in this very definitive context, and that is my choice. Yes there are structures in place. But I choose not to endow those structures with any power whatever. You might say is it not a matter of my personal choice: they have power whether I believe it or not. I simply disagree with this. I do not believe in power except the power of my presence and my word. And I do not think that more money makes people more peaceful, healthy or whole. Every human on earth has access to peace, health or integrity right NOW, regardless of economics. And anyone anywhere can create art, regardless of who is getting paid. That's the beginning and end of it for me.

Brandon J. Simmons

Well, pooh. I just noticed Paul's comment about deserving. Well, I have to go so I can't address that now. But thanks for the enlivening conversation!

Patrick Lennon

It boggles my mind that no one will even attempt to answer even one of the questions I posed. Why all the excuses? You can't just say "Here's an idea, it's sound, we'll figure out the details later." Nope, sorry, not happening. It's not sound until you prove that it's sound.

Philosophically, I love the idea of a staff playwright. But logistically, I don't think it's workable. I won't dismiss the idea outright though. Because I like it. So I would love for someone to prove me wrong.

But instead all I get are excuses. I'm willing to bet it's because you're all just as afraid as I am that the idea is unworkable. So you hide behind these excuses, and think you've done your duty.

If you think the system is broken, it's not someone else's responsibility to fix it.

Wesley K. Andrews

Oh, for Pete's sake....

Q: What is expected of the playwright? One play a year? Two? Four? A: Two.

Q: What is expected of the company? A: Workshop both plays, produce one, hold production rights for a maximum of three years.

Q: How many playwrights are we talking? A: 1 - 4, depending on the venue.

Q: Is the company allowed to dictate content, or do they just take what they get? A: The AD is creative consultant and editor.

Q: Where is their quality control? If I paid someone $40,000 a year (let's say) for 2 years, I'd expect something out of that. What happens if the company doesn't want to produce any of the plays the writer offers them? A: You take a risk, and if not satisfied, don't re-hire.

Q: Who are these playwrights? Would you demand that they be local? Or can the company bring in anyone they'd like to work with? A: Either a home-grown writer, or they require the writer to move to the community.

Q: Are you envisioning playwrights working for the same company for their entire careers? 2 years, 5 years? Do they have to leave town to get a job at another company when their current one has had enough? A: Depends on the length of the contract.

Or, you know, different details depending on the contract.

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