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05/26/2011

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Patrick Lennon

Thank you. Was that so hard? Now, I don't think there's a big theatre in town that would go for those terms. But at least we know what we're talking about, not just some abstract, pie-in-the-sky idea.

Jeremy M. Barker

-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?

This actually relates to two other substantial issues that are themselves related: play development and royalties. Because the process of getting a play on stage with a full, paying production is so long, you can certainly argue that it discourages writing more plays. The process can take years. Similarly, because this process is a rigmarole (and look at the history of Intelligent Homosexual for a case in point) that even well-known playwrights have to go through, this ensures that a not insubstantial portion of their earnings will be eaten up by others by the time it gets to audiences. NPD is hell as has consequences.

-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?

I've lost track of how this is even relevant or otherwise separate from point 1 above.

-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?

A disingenuous question. This is a discussion about values. Paul is suggesting the not entirely controversial point that bringing a writer onstaff for say a one- to two-year contract is a good way to support his or her writing without subjecting it to the same sort of NPD show-by-show process we normally go through. Again, in Seattle all of these companies are non-profits--this isn't meddling with business or anything, it's asking legitimate questions about how we support artists and whether there are other methods. Specifically, I'd add, Paul is referencing a program that launched last year at the Arena Theater. So it is being done.

-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?

This is a ridiculous comment. Paying someone to produce an original work necessarily entails risk. Ostensibly the reason they've hired a playwright (whether commissioned or on staff) is that they (a) cannot do the job themselves with any other employee, and (b) expect the person they've hired is reasonably capable of performing the task they've been hired to do. Let's pull our heads out of artsy asses for a minute and acknowledge that this isn't so different from any other job. Why doesn't the theater have the right to change the script? Ostensibly they do--though that would likely be the director's choice, not the theater's staff. There is this magical concept of "director's theater" that's widely ignored in the US, and I can't tell you how many times I wished more directors would just solve minor problems with a script--even if just through staging against the playwright's wishes, short of re-writes. But whatever the case, this also has to do with contracts. If the theater wants to own 100% of the finished product, it should have to pay more. Or the playwright who gives it up for the same amount of money made a bad career move. Open and shut. Basic job shit. Give it up.

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

This is again a question of values. Paul is right that our regional theaters often get played to subsidize LA and NYC. And I live in NYC. I meet people who benefit from this. Paul would like people to recognize that the health of an artform in a given community--and ostensibly the health of the audiences for it--are related; using limited funds to subsidize a workshop production of Light in the Piazza for Broadway, turning Seattle into what the Catskills used to be, in other words, has little long-term benefit to the community. But besides that value question, it's undeniable that theaters anywhere offering money to playwrights improves the situation.

-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?

How is this actually different from what actors or designers have to do? The point entirely is that the project time investment to payment ratio for a playwright is very low. Actors spend two to three months on a play, typically, including rehearsals and production. The playwright can spend years. If you want better plays, or even to just better support the artists, maybe we have to figure out a different model for supporting them. Again, Paul is referencing some real, already existing things.

Lyam White

I think that Brandon is entirely correct; I also think he avoids the question somewhat. I have asserted before, probably on this very blog, that what I call "theatricians" are, or should be, deliberately allying themselves with thieves, vagabonds, and whores. At the risk of quoting a dramatist whose recent political shift has led to much rhetorical chicanery and an at-least-partially-deserved fall from favor, I always refer to David Mamet's apocryphal assertion that actors were once, upon death, buried at crossroads with a stake through the heart, and that to inspire such fear for the souls of the masses represents a fine aspirational model. The incubus and the vampire do not ask for subsidy; they feed where they smell blood and opportunity.

That said, unlike the vampire or the incubus, some of us have (just) enough of a level head to sustain a marriage; some of you, dog help us all, even have progeny; others, I imagine, may own property. We are necessarily bourgeois, in some sense of the word, and oughtn't to be ashamed. The question then becomes: How do we sustain these obligations while remaining true to the desire to create? Is simply "living on less" an option when other livelihoods are at stake? Can the patchwork of day jobs, freelance second careers, and intermittently lucrative artistic endeavors be sustained until "retirement" age (or later, given the unlikelihood of our ever being able to retire)?

I would like to point out that most of the administrators in any given arts organization do NOT make a full living from what they are paid, that the average receptionist or development worker actually has at LEAST a second job, often in addition to artistic pursuit of his or her own. This doesn't mean that there aren't unwieldy bureaucratic structures that could use some trimming, or that such workers' wages aren't nominally more steady than that of the average artist. It just means that the gulf is not so wide as imagined, and that, given the number of people who are both artists and administrators, the administrative structure might actually exist to solve whatever very similar problem preceded the current model.

I think Patrick's questions are astute, but need to be distilled before they can be treated as a prerequisite for negotiation. At root is the question of what a resident playwright DOES. Writers for television make a living because they are required to produce constantly; what they produced is then revised, processed, rolled in with the work of other writers. They are part of a staff, and get none of the luxuries of the playwright, who, while subject to the whims of actors and directors and administrators, usually gets to make revisions on his or her own terms and in his or her own voice. In other words, it's a JOB. Well and good, but would we want to see playwrighting become . . . that?

Lyam White

Oh, and the notion of you gentlemen (Paul and Scot; no offense intended in the term "gentlemen") discussing real feelings about "Angels in America" makes me wish I habitually drank with either or both of you.

Scott Walters

No, no, no. How many plays of Shakespeare did the King's Men produce? ALL OF THEM. How many was he expected to write? AS MANY AS THE COMPANY NEEDED TO KEEP THE AUDIENCE HAPPY. Is the company allowed to dictate content? SHAKESPEARE WAS A CO-OWNER OF THE COMPANY. THIS ISN'T A CONTRACTUAL THING, THIS IS PARTNERSHIP. YOUR LIVING DEPENDS ON TICKET SALES, AND TICKET SALES DEPEND ON WHETHER THE AUDIENCE LIKES YOUR WORK. SO GET CRACKING! Are the playwrights local? ABSOLUTELY. NO ABSENTEE OWNERS. ALL ON SITE. How long do they work for the cpmpany? THEY OWN IT -- THE WORK AS LONG AS THEY OWN A SHARE. IF THEY WANT OUT, OR OTHERS WANT THEM OUT, THEY NEED TO BUY THEIR SHARE.

Scott Walters

And Kushner is the best American playwright, bar none.

Scot Augustson

Brandon: I am currently drinking of the middle class well. And you know what? I am scheming of ways to get back to Bohemia.

Matthew Smucker

Isn't D.C.'s Arena theatre doing this very "put the playwrights on salary and give 'em benefits" thing? That's real, not theoretical, and a bit more recent than the reign of QE1. Anyone know if and how that model's working out one year in?

Wesley K. Andrews

Jeremy -- although Paul is a friend, I must insist that you not give him credit for my comment, which, as others have alluded to, is not an original idea. If there's one thing Paul's not short on, it's attributable comments.

Frankly I'm thrilled that I managed to derail a whole conversation. It's a blog reader's dream come true!

I don't buy that no Seattle theatre would ever put a writer on staff. Big difference between "it hasn't happened" and "never".

Alisoncroggon

The German playwright Marius von Mayenburg makes his living working as a dramaturg in the Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz in Berlin (there's an interview on TN with him where he talks briefly about what he does - http://theatrenotes.blogspot.com/2008/02/interview-marius-von-mayenburg.html). So while he isn't quite being paid to write plays, he's paid by a theatre - as are a lot of other European playwrights - to use his playwriting skills in the development of theatre. There's one model for you.

On a tangent, I'm a little staggered by this: "Every human on earth has access to peace, health or integrity right NOW, regardless of economics." Which planet is that? Surely not this one?

Catherine Porter

This is a fascinating discussion. I would just like to point out that if you look your theater administrators across the country, you will see another way, other than film/tv, that artists are trying to make this broken model work for themselves. Not only is the AD a director, but the development director is an actor, and the box office manager is also a playwright and the marketing associate is a writer, etc., etc. They may ply their artistic trade at that theater that employs them, but often not; they probably work freelance and do work at smaller organizations. But, there is no Us vs. Them. We are all Us...

Emily Maher

Paul, your essential point here (that we need to reevaluate the distribution of "wealth" to our artists) isn't a bad one, but it stems from a bad example. Tony Kushner most certainly CAN make a living as a playwright. In 2008, he received a grant for $200,000. Now I don't know about you, but if I chose, I could make $200,000 stretch for at least 3 years. And then there's the money he's made since 2008 through productions at the Guthrie and Signature and whatever other commissions I imagine he's working on.

Now, can Tony Kushner make more money writing for commercial projects? Probably. So could those underling "artistic administrators" you mention (as one, by the way, I can tell you that our livings aren't quite so comfortable either). Of course he deserves to live as well as he can - as do all of us - so take the well-paying, often artistically vapid gigs. But the argument that Tony Kushner couldn't do more than scrape by on his theater earnings alone is unrealistic. I'll bet plenty of us would be happy to make what he does on a yearly basis sans commercial projects.

LalaTellsAStory

Look at the Arena model y'all. A lot of bold (yet strikingly obvious) answers in that.

http://www.arenastage.org/new-play-institute/playwright-residencies/Arena-Stage-Project-Residencies-Fact-Sheet.pdf

The only criteria for "hiring" is that the theater TRUSTS the playwrights. That's all. That's why they will produce at least one of their plays. Because plays aren't their full selves until production.

Playwrights are paid because is IS a 40+ hour work week. It's a constant work week actually. Playwrights can be working on numerous projects (often at once) all of which they deserve that $40k. Kids shows, ensemble shows, musicals, straight plays, small comedies, large dramas, docu-dramas, translations. And some of us really like to teach - so throw that on the pile too.

$40k means that they don't have to work at a starbucks or bar or temp job which distracts, exhausts, demeans their true talent.

And if major theaters are finding it so hard to get "excellent" plays? Maybe they should pay their playwrights more so they have time and mind to - y'know - write excellent plays.

Paul Botts

As someone who's worked in professional theater on both sides of the stage, and for whom professional theater artists are at the treasured core of my personal life, and whose favorite thing in the whole world is successful introducing people to America's amazing contemporary theater sector which is I believe to be this society's greatest unrecognized cultural achievement....for me Gianni T. nailed it. "Quit whining" isn't simply a knee-jerk reaction, it's a specific and fact-based prescription for useful change. Wish that weren't the case but from my lifetime of experience I have to admit that it is.

I also shared Brandon S.'s reaction to Kushner's throwaway line that became the headline of this post: my vacuum-of-fact-and-logic alarm is clanging loudly. The scent of straw men is indeed strong here, no argument there at all.

Paul Mullin

Thank you Emily, Lauren and Paul for your recent additions to this comment stream.

Since it has become so long, I'd like to remind everyone that I began my post with these two questions:

"Is this true? Is it significant?"

It seems Emily is saying no to question 1 and Paul is adding an even more emphatic NO! to question 2, while reiterating a "quit bitching" for good measure.

Frankly, though, I think Lauren's comment is most helpful since it offers a real, tangible and TESTABLE alternative. I think we will all eagerly watch Arena's program and hope for it's success.

Steven Gomez

Arena Stage intrigues me in their ability to finish fiscal years in the black in this "big theatre is dying" age. This despite building a beautiful new $125 million performance center. Sure, corporate and power donors allow this, but it makes me wonder how Arena's able to make it work over time while Seattle LORTs are apparently scratching and clawing to survive year over year.

Christine Bernardi

This is a question for Paul. I think a lot of us are reading your statement about arts administators to mean that your opinion is arts administrator salaries are taking away money that could otherwise go to playwrights. Is this what you meant?

I ask because I'm an arts administrator and my salary has always come from money my staff and I have raised through fundraising for the purpose of supporting a theatre infrastructure. Donors are supporting us because their priority is keeping the theatre in business. The consumer is choosing what to support.

Whereas the money we pay to playwrights in the form of a royalty comes from box office income. Box office income is usually not enough to cover all the production costs so there's no money left over in that scenario to give more money to the playwright; such money would have to come from cutting what we pay everyone else involved in the production, or from separate fundraising.

If we make cuts in other areas of production, what should we cut? Are you suggesting that we increase the royalty playwrights receive, or that we create full-time staff positions for playwrights and raise money to fund those positions?

Again, I can't take any money that I use to pay my administrative staff and give it to playwrights, because all that money has been donated for the restricted purpose of running the company.

Paul Mullin

Thanks, Christine.

Do you mind if I answer your questions with some links?

Michael van Baker, Editor and Publisher of Seattle's The SunBreak just posted a piece wherein in he hints at some overlooked efficiencies that might be achieved. http://thesunbreak.com/2011/06/01/arts-marketing-for-dummies/

I also suggest you read some of my core essays, like "Theatre Takes Place: Why Locally Grown Plays Matter" (you'll find here: http://www.paulmullin.org/just-wrought/2010/01/locally-grown-draft.html) because the hub-and-spoke, NY and London centric model of play-making is both a disservice to playwrights and audiences that crave theatre that has more to say about the times and places of their actual lives.

Shakespeare wrote for London, after all. And he wasn't paid in royalties, he was an owner, a stakeholder. There's a false divide in the mechanics of American theatre that I think a lot of us are looking to bridge.


David Dower

Hey, y'all-- it's late on a Friday after a long week with the resident playwrights and stuff. But I'll make a commitment to answer more fully over on the New Play Blog this weekend (http://newplay.arenastage.org/)and will tweet the link to anyone still paying attention to the question by then. Meanwhile, if you're curious you can read there now about residencies in a bunch of different places and how they are working. It's not just Arena by any means.

Short answer on our program: results are all over the place after the first 18 months with five writers on staff. There are answers to some of the questions, in the writers' own voices, found in the monograph published last winter. All this and more hiding in plain sight on http://www.arenastage.org/new-play-institute/

Re: Outrageous Fortune one year later? Lots of things, big and small, have changed for the better. Todd London will be speaking about this very subject at the Dramatist Guild conference next weekend. It'll be livestreamed over #Newplay TV and archived there if you can't watch live. http://www.livestream.com/newplay

Keep up the interest, and take your curiosity out for a spin in the #newplay conversation-- you may find answers and allies there...

David Dower
Associate Artistic Director
Arena Stage
Find me on Twitter: @ddower
Get on the New Play Map: http://www.newplaymap.org
Read more on Howlround: http://www.howlround.com
Explore the #Newplay Sector: http://www.arenastage.org/new-play-institute/

Aaron Andersen

I may regret this, but I'll out myself as an arts administrator and speak against this whole overused "the model is broken" complaint. I'm sure some will say I'm defending the status quo. I'm not defending it, but I am learning to respect it.

The reason that actors and playwrights don't make enough money and don't have steady employment is that there are just too many scrapping and fighting for the work, and willing to be paid nothing or almost nothing to do it. Theater artists just starting out actually will pay to work, in the form of buying their own costumes or supplies, or financing a production on their credit cards. How do you compete with that? Not by demanding an upper-middle-class wage unless you've proven that your plays are really, really good, and popular.

What I do is financial and budget analysis for a large symphony orchestra. I get paid well enough. But it's true that I would get paid perhaps 25-30% more for the same work in the corporate world. Why should I get paid more than some playwright who is actually creating some new product that keeps the arts industry vital (or a composer, in the classical music world)? Basically, it's just supply and demand. There aren't 5,000 of me beating down the door for every paying finance job in the arts.

Some people look at this and say "the model is broken." But the talent pool in the arts is not a model that was designed by some brilliant engineer, that can be simply redesigned by a better engineer. Model is the wrong word. Ecosystem is a far more apt word. And ecosystems don't pursue some optimal result for a mission or vision. They pursue equilibrium among a set of cooperating and competing forces and inputs and players. In equilibrium as we know it, you have to pay people more to take arts administration jobs (which are often tedious, and staffed by former or failed artists) than you have to pay them to write a play or direct one or act in one.

You can certainly try to tweak ecosystems. There are a lot of different ecosystems with different points of equilibrium, and there is no reason to believe yours can't change. But you have to realize that to tweak it, you are going to throw it out of equilibrium, and you will only be successful if a new equilibrium is found that works with your tweaks. There is no guarantee that will happen. You might very well just throw the whole system out of whack with loads of unintended consequences for a few years until it returns back to what it was before.

I'm not suggesting you shouldn't try, but you have to understand what you're tangling with.

David Dower

OK, here you go-- posted over at the New Play Blog:
Say What? On Playwright Residencies and Making a Living in the #Newplay Sector http://bit.ly/luMzti

Paul Botts

What Aaron Andersen posted above is the single best description of actual reality on these subjects that I've seen in years. That's dead on the money, pun intended, across the board. Bravo!

DW Gregory

See Arena Stage. Playwrights in residence for 3 years, paid $40,000 per year ... nice gig if you can get it.

Speaking as a playwright with a full-time job (in publishing), I'd say you can ask a lot more of the playwright than one play a year if you hire them and pay them a living wage -- they can provide dramaturgy services, lead post-show discussions, partner with the Lit office -- and impress your donors at fundraising events. If you have nothing else to do BUT write, you can crank out a lot. Working full time with a long commute, I'm good for about one new full-length per year ... at least that's my aim.

At some theaters, the Lit mgr is a playwright, so that's not new -- but that's not the same as having a playwright in residence on staff, and saying "this is the person writing for our company. We are committing to him/her for the next two/three/five years." Not manageable for a lot of small theaters but it is for some of the bigger LORT houses, for sure.

jane

great discussion. thank you

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