Hello, there. You might recall that I’ve been participating in a group blogging effort organized by Isaac Butler around Theatre Development Fund’s recent publication, Outrageous Fortune. I’m rather late in my final dispatch – you see, in the middle of all this a meme started going around the theatrosphere that it’s important to “RTWT” (read the whole thing, for you internet n00bs) before commenting, so of course I had to wait until I had finished lest I look like a fool for jumping the gun. In the meantime, a bunch of other smart people shared their opinions, which I encourage you to read as well.

For me, Outrageous Fortune is above all a reaffirmation of the perils of the winner-take-all economy in the arts. Looked at from almost every conceivable angle, one can find evidence of severe stratification in the theater world, both among artists and among the theaters themselves. This stratification has implications not just for the dollars and cents but also for the kinds of opportunities available to artists, the kinds of work they find themselves doing, and the artistic vitality of theater as a whole. It is a powerful indictment of market forces and a demonstration of why philanthropic and public subsidy matters in the arts.

Since there’s a lot going on in Outrageous Fortune and it’s kind of hard to keep track of it all at times, I thought it might be helpful to lay out something like a giant map of the motivations and territorial features driving reality. It’s sort of unorganized and I’m sure it could be improved with your help, but at least it’s a start and hopefully begins to draw a clearer picture of the key issues at stake.

So here goes. Let’s first look at motivations, shall we?

What playwrights want

  • Full productions of their work
  • To make a living writing plays (or at least as a playwright)
  • Freedom to write experimental or challenging plays

What artistic directors want

  • To produce the Next Great American Play
  • Plays that will bring them and their theater national recognition
  • Plays that will connect with their theater’s audiences
  • Plays that will not expose their organization to great financial risk
  • Money from funders

What funders want

  • Financial health of the theaters they support
  • To support new play development
  • To support wider and new audiences for theater

Now for some facts and assertions:

  • The vast majority of theaters have small budgets and small audiences.
  • A playwright cannot make money from small-budget productions.
  • The theaters that have large budgets and large audiences tend to be concentrated in major cities, particularly in New York.
  • The vast majority of playwrights have limited notoriety and have not yet written a Great Play.
  • The playwrights that have notoriety and have written critically acclaimed plays are concentrated in New York.
  • The media environment for new plays is concentrated in New York.
  • Media reaction has a strong influence on audience interest in and financial success of new plays in New York.
  • The financial and critical success of past productions has a strong influence on whether future productions happen or not nationally.
  • The financial success of a show is dependent on audience reaction and the cost of the production.
  • Audiences are more likely to come to shows in which the name of the playwright is familiar.
  • Audiences are less likely to come to shows that feature unconventional narrative forms or challenging material.
  • A greater number of parts for actors increases a play’s production cost.
  • Unconventional technical or stage requirements increase a play’s production cost.
  • Playwrights feel that a track record of full productions is necessary for writing great plays.
  • There are a limited number of slots in any given season for full productions of new work.
  • Personal relationships are very important for driving production opportunities for playwrights.
  • Personal relationships are hard to form and cultivate outside of one’s geographic sphere.

So let’s put this together and consider the incentives of different parties. We see that:

  • Since playwrights want to make money from their plays, they are incentivized to try to work only with big-budget theaters.
  • Since big-budget theaters are concentrated in New York, personal relationships are important to play production, and personal relationships are best cultivated in person, playwrights are incentivized to concentrate in New York.
  • Since artistic directors want to program Great Plays, they are incentivized to work with playwrights who have already proven that they can write Great Plays.
  • Since artistic directors want plays that will connect with their theater’s audiences, they are incentivized to program plays that are written by well-known playwrights and conventional in narrative.
  • Since artistic directors want plays that will not break their budget, they are incentivized to avoid plays that have budget-breaking features like large casts or technical requirements, especially if the playwright is not well-known.
  • Since the vast majority of playwrights are not well known and playwrights want to have their plays produced, they are incentivized to write small-cast plays in conventional narrative forms and with conventional technical requirements.
    • This is in conflict with playwrights’ desire to write experimental and challenging plays.

And now for some consequences:

  • Playwrights (of all career stages) only want to work with large-budget theaters, and theaters (of all sizes) only want to work with famous playwrights. Thus famous playwrights and large-budget theaters have all the opportunities they want, whereas small theaters and non-famous playwrights face tremendous competition for thin slivers of opportunity.
  • Because New York is the center of the theatrical universe, New York-based playwrights with critically reviewed New York performances have opportunities to be performed nationally whereas non-New York-based playwrights have few opportunities for performance anywhere.
  • There are consequences for actors as well; the trend towards smaller-cast plays means fewer opportunities for actors, in a field that already had far more aspiring actors than roles available.
  • The plays that receive big enough productions to have a chance at a national profile are increasingly small-cast plays in conventional narrative forms with few technical requirements.
  • Because artists have few opportunities to get plays produced and can’t make a living from productions at smaller theaters, a smaller and smaller pool of artists will have repeated production opportunities. The Next Great American Play will come from this tiny pool of artists or it won’t be discovered at all.
  • Because new playwrights must endure years of obscurity before they might make any money from their work, playwrights who have some means of self-funding have a tremendous advantage in the marketplace over their peers who have no other means of support.

Note that these are all natural market forces at work. There are clusters and power-law relationships in evidence in virtually every creative industry. Funders could and do provide counterincentives to avoid the worst excesses of the market, but because funders’ top or near-top priority is the ongoing fiscal health of the theaters they support, they severely limit the good that these counterincentives can do. Fundamentally, we are going to see a near-total death of obscure, challenging, expensive new plays unless someone decides to make it happen and take responsibility for it financially.

  • Ian: Damn. Given your facts, assertions and consequences, guess now I have to RTWT. (I don’t even RTFM if you get my drift.)

  • Kate

    Because New York is the center of the theatrical universe, New York-based playwrights with critically reviewed New York performances have opportunities to be performed nationally whereas non-New York-based playwrights have few opportunities for performance anywhere.

    I confess I haven’t read the book so I don’t know if this is your synopsis of what it says or your own conclusion. But I don’t think New York is the sole arbiter (and I say that as a New Yorker). A hit at nationally known regionals such as South Coast Rep, CTG, The Goodman, Signature, Seattle Rep, Long Wharf etc, can launch a playwright. These institutions often have connections with commercial producers and with their NYC counterparts (SCR and MTC have co-produced many times). Of course, as you also point out, opportunities at these nationally recognized venues are hard to come by. To their credit most of them have development programs for newer playwrights and often produce them on their smaller stages. This can provide the breakthrough a playwright needs.

    • Hi Kate,
      It’s very much my interpretation of the book, not my own experience. But one thing the book emphasizes is that the regionals often look to New York for inspiration and that New York theaters often don’t consider a play to have truly “premiered” until it plays in NYC. I’m sure there’s probably more to it than that, but overall it doesn’t sound like there’s nearly as much local programming going on as there could be, esp. outside of NYC, LA, SF, and Chicago.

  • Kate

    It’s true that regionals are looking for validation but I think a hit in a major theatre towns, not just New York, will often encourage them to produce a show. A hit at the Goodman or Steppenwolf or CTG may be enough. Chicago productions are often reviewed by the NYT and Variety, buzz from Chicago is followed on NYC based theatre sites and Chicago reviews are linked on sites such as BroadwayStars. Major LA and SF productions and productions will also receive some national profile although not quite the same as Chicago. I agree it’s still a very short list of locations and the number of new plays spots available across these “national regionals” is still relatively small. The situation isn’t helped by the diminishing number of respected reviewers and feature writers. If nobody’s writing about a fantastic production at ART, how can it obtain a national profile? Finding a way to transmit the buzz more broadly is pivotal. There should be a common portal with b-roll video, background material and reviews all available. Right now the material is split across the various company web sites and trying to get an overview of what is happening regionally is tedious.