As mentioned yesterday, a group of blogfolk are making their way through the new book/study Outrageous Fortune that looks at the state of the new American play in the early 21st century. My first post on the subject was here; today, I’ll be discussing chapter two along with playwright Matt Freeman. Other writers will (thankfully) take charge of subsequent chapters.

The second chapter of Outrageous shines a light on the sadly pitiful economic status of most playwrights. Holy Moses, it’s depressing. The numbers as presented are pretty stark: more than 60 percent of surveyed playwrights bring in less than $40,000 a year from all sources; more than half of that income comes from sources unrelated to their work as a playwright; and a mere 15% of their income comes from actually writing plays. Even the most successful of all playwrights, we’re told, are lucky to earn as much as $20,000 a year over an extended period of time from playwriting itself.

I’m currently making my way through William Baumol and William Bowen’s seminal 1966 study Performing Arts: The Economic Dilemma (note: Baumol served on the Playwrights Project Committee in connection with this book from 2001-2009), and it’s striking how similar the story was then to how it goes today. I unfortunately don’t have the book with me at the moment, but suffice to say that, back then as well, if playwrights were to strike it rich it was going to be from the sale of movie or television rights to their work, and in the meantime, they supplemented their income with money from lots of other sources (including spousal and family wealth). [UPDATE: I’ve checked the book, and indeed, the average playwright in the mid-50s earned less than a tenth of his or her income from plays, and about 40% from non-writing sources.]

As others have pointed out, the playwrights interviewed by the authors of Outrageous Fortune don’t exactly represent a random cross-section of the playwriting community in the United States. The top-down-driven sample is heavily biased (as the authors fully recognize) towards playwrights who have “made it” to a certain degree, regardless of their career stage: either by being produced regularly, winning awards, graduating from pedigree MFA programs, participating in well-known workshops, etc. I actually don’t think this is much of a problem for the purposes of the study: the point, after all, is how much it sucks economically to be a playwright, and the authors of Outrageous Fortune can point to these results and say, “see? even the successful ones can’t make a buck in this town!” It’s also pretty comparable in that sense to the Baumol and Bowen study, since I believe similar methods were used to identify playwrights.

Among the more poignant findings is that even when playwrights do get productions of their work, it can be an economic bane as much as a boon. A month is taken from their productive lives during which their compensation may not make up for the expenses they incur being in an unfamiliar place. And when they get back, they haven’t been writing or hustling for gigs in the meantime.

The chapter offers a brief examination of playwright-reported differences in earnings and productions by race and gender. Interestingly, the qualitative and quantitative data diverge somewhat here; while a strong frustration with perceived barriers to minority and female playwrights was conveyed in focus groups and interviews, the surveyed respondents reported no major differences in the actual money they earn from their professional activities. It should be noted that this sample of “successful” playwrights was underweighted compared to the United States population of African American and Latino individuals, so it does seem fair to conclude that fewer people of color “make it” as playwrights, either because fewer of them try or because of discrimination of some sort. However, the same could not be said of female playwrights, who made up nearly half of the sample; nevertheless, female playwrights were more likely to describe themselves at an earlier career stage (it’s not reported how this matched up with age or number of productions). It also seems likely that there are things not being captured by the study, such as many respondents’ perception that minority or female playwrights show up more often at venues or showcases specifically designed to highlight “underrepresented” work and less in more “mainstream” contexts; it could be the case that this is so but that the money nevertheless works out to be  more or less the same.

The chapter devotes additional attention to the problems with the professional “track” for playwrights going through MFA programs, including the now-famous stat that 90% of the playwrights in the survey who had received advanced professional training got it from one of seven schools (the total is 42% of all surveyed playwrights). A bit of lip service is given to the  moral quandary of asking aspiring playwrights to pay tens of thousands of dollars for training in a field where the remuneration potential is hardly robust. The term “emerging” comes in for some abuse, and the authors lament that there is no room for the mid-career artist.

The few bright spots appear to be teaching in academia (writers enjoy it and the schedule suits them, though it obviously feeds the beast that is the Professional Playwright Track) and working in television (where stimulating creative possibilities abound, though in a different sort of sense than the nonprofit theater).

All in all, it sounds like a pretty huge clusterfuck to me. I don’t know why anyone would try to be a playwright for a living. But then I hang out with composers, so what the hell do I know.

Okay, let’s try for some more intelligent analysis than that. This all fits in with and supports some things I’ve written before about the burgeoning ranks of committed amateurs and its implications for the sustainability of the arts ecosystem. Outrageous Fortune‘s answer for “what playwrights want” boils down to productions: not workshops, not readings, not “development,” but real productions. Preferably with the same company multiple times, so that an ongoing artistic relationship can be cultivated. Problem is, if such accommodations are made, it makes a very few playwrights very happy and shuts out everyone else in the cold. There’s no way to go both broad and deep without radically increasing the number of theaters and the resources available to them. Either that or a whole bunch more playwrights are gonna have to quit, but that doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon. This vise of competition seems to grip all artist categories, but I’m starting to think that it’s especially tight around the creators: the composers, the bandleaders, the playwrights, the choreographers, the poets. Most in this category don’t have a union or collective bargaining agreement to protect them, because the demand for their services is coming, most of all, from within. So they end up being the ones to drive movement forward on their careers, and are willing to sacrifice almost everything to do so. It’s beautiful and sad and frustrating and it’s one of the few things about the arts that makes me throw up my hands at a complete loss for how to address it.

  • Hey, Ian! Good summary. I was curious — since you wrote about the situation for people in music in your last post, do you have a sense of how this picture looks in relation to music? I guess the parallel is between playwrights and composers, although I am curious about the musicians who play in orchestras across the country –how do they fare? Do they have contracts by the gig, or more long-term? And are they paid an amount that allows them to live?

    • Hi Scott,
      The best source of information on composers’ livelihoods that I know of is the Taking Note study conducted by the Research Center for Arts and Culture at Columbia University for the American Music Center and the American Composers Forum. The story is pretty similar for composers in terms of broad strokes, though at the detail level there are some differences (for example, I was flabbergasted to learn that theaters commonly commission playwrights but don’t produce the commissioned works – this almost never happens in music). As for musicians, in particular orchestral musicians, I’ve been told that they tend to fare better financially than other kinds of artists, especially actors and dancers. At top orchestras musicians are salaried and make good money, with minimums in the six figures in several cities. And conductors can make outrageous amounts of money. But as with every other art form, once you drill down past the stars and the most prestigious institutions, the money becomes much dicier, and you’re much more likely to see ensembles contracting musicians as freelancers by the gig. Good classical players can cobble together a living wage from various sources, especially in a decent-sized metropolitan area and especially if they play an instrument like trumpet (lots of Easter gigs), but it often involves long hours and some frightfully high expenses for things like instrument purchase and repair, travel/gas, insurance, etc. For jazz musicians the economics are pretty fucked in this country – as bad as playwrights, I’d think. At least in rock/pop there’s the (small) potential of mass-market breakthrough even if the situation in the beginning is horrible, but there’s no such promise in jazz or metal.

  • Hey Ian – I share in the collective throwing up our hands in frustration for how to make a living as a playwright, as a composer, as a poet, as a choreographer (I am one…). All pretty miserable. Not sure if leading with changes in public policy or things like unions is very possible at this point (since most of our national/global attention is on non-arts matters). About the only place I sense more immediate potential for change is technology, especially the web, including FUNDING. Thanks for the post.

  • Playwrights are not taken seriously as professionals by theaters. Professionals get paid. Unless playwrights eliminate the thought of giving away part of their future royalties to theaters under the threat of losing a current agreement to produce, then we shall never have the respect and income we need to support ourselves as playwrights. And unless the Dramatists Guild takes a firm public stand with all theaters (something the Guild refuses to do—I have tried through email exchanges and an opinion piece I wrote in The Dramatist in the Nov./Dec. 2009 issue to get them to do this) and honors its mission statement to act on the playwrights behalf “without compromise,” we are left on our own. If successful playwrights do not support all playwrights, then it is everyone for him or herself. (I wrote letters to each member of the 2009 Board and Business Affairs Dept. of the Guild requesting these matters be brought up at the next meeting. The result: not a single letter, email or call in response from these very well known playwrights.) Everyone talks about the value of the playwright and the play. But tell me one literary manager or artistic director who will give away part of their future salary for years because they established their careers at a particular theater. It’s all talk. We must start out with a way to earn a living. It is basic to every industry. Without the playwright and the play there is no theater.