That said, I do want to do a small smidge of pushback about one bit of his analysis. In this post, he says:
So when I read the lamentations that playwrights only make $30,000 a year off their playwriting, or that theatres with an audience base of 15,000 subscribers are unable to expand it to 20,000, I can't even comprehend how that's being revealed, or seen, as some sort of problem.He also links to Sean Williams, who writes:
Everyone who's talking about the economic downside of theater, they aren't talking to me, and they aren't really talking to anyone who's producing alongside me. And yet, we're all, actually, pretty happy. And none of us is broke.In a way, both are sentiments I agree with, obviously. What we do shouldn't be about the money, and, even if it was, there are far, far, FAR easier ways to make money than devoting your life to theatre. I knew that going in. I really did.
A lot of the criticism and pushback on the findings from Outrageous Fortune and the discussion that's been going on seems to come around to this idea that the chief complaint is that we're not making any money off of our art. I know I've fed into that. I want to make a couple of points:
- A clear picture of the economics of a life in theatre really doesn't do anyone any harm. If this is the life you're going to choose, you should know what's what. It also keeps us from feeling isolated. I struggle with money, struggle with living a poor theatre life in an incredibly expensive city. But it feels like it's just my struggle, that I'm just shit with a budget or drinking too much or whatever (which, let's be honest, I probably am.*). Seeing it in context of a community that's under financial stress puts in perspective and makes it actionable. It doesn't have to be this way. There's nothing integral to the life of a theatremaker that requires being broke all the time. The greater concern for me, from those stats on what playwrights make isn't that the playwrights are only making 15% of their income from playwriting; it's that playwrights are only making ~$30K a year, mostly from non-theatre sources. That puts people under a lot of financial stress in this day and age. The really scary thing is that this hasn't changed, significantly, in a decade or two. It's not a system built for longevity or depth of field.
- The much more real and much larger concern, at the end of the day, is the art. Like I said here, "The system we have is not producing great art or happy artists or satisfied audiences." And I do mean that as an indictment of the institutional theatre system; the indie system is producing some kick-ass art, happy artists and some pretty satisfied audiences. Unfortunately, the institutional system is what sucks up all the focus, a lot of the attention and most of the air. That's something that has to change. It's not going anywhere, not really, but we, as a field, have to reorient ourselves. Re-direct our energy. Before Outrageous Fortune and the other studies came out, it wasn't as clear that this system was mucking up the work. Some great plays were coming out, some exciting things were happening. It seemed like a few new names at the top, a few tweaks and it could be saved. I don't believe that anymore. I don't believe that truly great art will be developed in the institutional theatre system. It may pop up on their stages from time to time, but that's it.
This isn't borne out of bitterness with my meager earnings as a paycheck or anger at having to keep a day job. It's borne out of frustration that the work isn't better, the artists aren't happier and no one (or rather very few people) who are tasked with such things seem to care. When you're in the institutional theatre system, the very strong sense is that it's all a problem of money. If we just had more grants, more funding, bigger donors, all of our problems would drift away. Reading OF and reading the conversations has convinced me, solidly, that's not the truth. The rot runs deeper and is more pernicious than that.
I know, for the folks who checked out of the institutional system early on and have been making their way, this is like, I don't know, 1991 and "Smells Like Teen Spirit" just came out and now all the A&R guys are sniffing around the clubs in Seattle, looking for the next big thing. Or, you know, Garth Brooks is putting out a grunge record. Joel Schumacher doing a Dogma95 movie with Colin Farrell. We're a bunch of carpetbaggers who've just realized that you've got a good thing going. We're not. It's not a ploy for more cash, or a whine that we gave the system our all and all we got was a gold watch. It's saying, "This shit used to be fun. How do I make it fun again?"
For guys like Scott, it's also about the next generations. Hell, for guys like me, too. I love young playwrights and have worked with them over and over again. And they're running into a meat grinder. If we shrug our collective shoulders and say, "Well, that's just the price of the business we do," we don't help them. We don't let them know there are other paths, other ways. When I got out of college, I moved to New York because it seemed to be the thing to do. I interned at a small theatre because it seemed to be the thing to do. I went to grad school because other writers I knew and I liked went to grad school. I worked with small theatre companies, run by grad school and college friends. Always the sense was, this is just the first step, my apprenticeship, before moving onto a place where there was more work, more artistic challenges, and more support. Now I see that that place doesn't exist, despite the way it's sold. So I'm going where I'm loved, where I can do the work I want to do.
Yeah, I bought in. I paid for the ticket. I got on the ride. That's on me. But now that I want off, I don't want to just leave everyone else on the ride. I want to make sure they know there's an exit. That's why this conversation is important to me. That's why I've spent this much time on it. I'm making myself late for work right now to write this. Because this ride is going nowhere and I have a lot of friends on it. Let's get off together.
*If my folks are reading this, I kid! I kid! I exaggerate for comic effect. I've never touched a drop of the stuff in my life! I swear.