Tuesday, January 26, 2010

About The Benjamins

I honestly can't imagine that anyone reading my blog here isn't also reading James Comtois' most excellent series on self-producing. If somehow you aren't, then get to reading. Now. It is grand, as I've mentioned before, and only getting better. Seriously, check it out. I don't know James and haven't worked with him, but, after reading it, he sounds like my kind of guy.

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.


Scott Walters said...

That is precisely my concern, J -- the next generation. And not only aren't we helping them, we're not helping ourselves. How many talented people have gotten off the rise and wandered to the parking lot never to return? What has been lost? Some will say that if they were REALLY talented, then they would have stayed on the ride. This is pure, unadulterated bullshit. My complaint about how the plays of young playwrights have little to say to people my age is based in the fact that people walk away from the ride in frustration in their mid-30s, so we are constantly (and understandably) getting the worldviews of young people. It's all connected. Also, we need to make getting off the ride respectable, an act of power, and not paint it as the act of someone who "didn't want it enough." Another one of those abusive, blame-the-victim mentalities that permeates the theatre. Toxic, it is all so toxic. It makes me sick to think about it.

99 said...

I very, very much agree with you and, to pivot out of disgust and into activism, that's why I think this conversation is so important. The more we talk about it, the more public we are about our choices and the options, the better. When I hit New York, there was no internet (or just barely), certainly no blogs, no 5-part description of what to do to self-produce. The more we can talk about it and talk about it as being about the art, not just a big middle finger to the Man (not that I'm against that), the more powerful the choice becomes.

Sean said...

I think you're exactly right, and Jimmy and I probably didn't do enough to make it clear that, although it didn't feel as if it was speaking to us directly, Outrageous Fortune is a really important piece of research, and the people considering this career should know exactly what they're getting in to.

It seems to me, though, that things like "attention" and "support" are other names for "money". The adjustment to the self-producing model is to set the goalposts somewhere reasonable, and then don't move them. If you lose a thousand dollars and you get a thousand people to see a play, then that should be seen as a home run, a complete and utter success.

And Scott, our generation of companies is quickly aging, and we're not showing any sign of giving up. Our mid-30s are long behind us, and we're still making plays. We may be the exception that proves the rule (God knows, it's hard to find *actors* who are willing to work for very little that are in our age range), but we're still doing it.

Scott Walters said...

Sean -- I wasn't suggesting that EVERYBODY suddenly drops at at mid-30s, but the statistics show that age 35 is when there is a HUGE drop in the number of artists in the so-called profession. Not surprising -- around then we start thinking "I'm too old to live like this" or "I'd like to have a family" or "What does my wife look like again?" But I'm glad you're still at it!

isaac butler said...

Ha! scott that's a good point. And I want to say this here: One of the reasons why i pursued very heavily trying to break into the industry, pretty much the only one, is that i want to be able to continue doing theatre in 5-10 years after anne and i have a kid, and i'm not entirely clear that i will be able to do that if it's not generating any $ at all. It is, in fact, out of love for the art form and a desire to figure out how to keep doing it.

Which is probably why I have to admit, seeing my friend Sean's piece angered me so much. The complete dismissal contained in the first paragraph was really aggravating, I'm glad you're walking it back here.

While I'm on that subject, tho.. I have to say, and I mean this in the friendliest possible terms... Scott, it can be hard to take seriously your claims about new plays when it's unclear that you've had much interaction with them. As a result, people (and here I'm including myself) get really defensive and your broad claims made (generally against as well as about) new plays and playwrights.

I'm saying this to highlight what I think is, in general, the achilles heel of your arguments, as I am generally supportive (as you know) of what you do and do not wish it to be easily dismissed.

99 said...

Support/attention are definitely tied into money, but are, in my mind different than just piles of cash shoved at the playwright or making money from income. In terms of making the art, I'm talking about the kind of support you get from a large institution. But that certainly isn't divorced from money. Just a different look at it.

And thanks for having the conversation.

isaac butler said...


I can also say, that having worked on some large productions, there is a level of support that isn't monetary enitrely. Having three stage managers instead of one makes my job as a director easier. Having a competent production manager makes my job as a director easier. Having someone whose sole job is making and procuring props is a godsend. Not having to xerox the scripts myself makes my job easier and allows me to devote more brainpower to the production. Being able to rehearse six hours a day instead of three makes my job easier.

As well as intangibles like... having someone who makes coffee for every rehearsal and having a near-unlimited pile of ricolas makes my job easier. That might seem petty, but those things (along with affording better rehearsal studios) contribute to a more comfortable working environment, and an easier working environment makes it easier to do better work.

All of these things are caused by money, but I don't get any of it. It's not about wanting a theater to give me money personally (although that helps too).

Sean said...

It's really difficult to be completely clear on these internet tubes, but my point is that all of the examples of support that we talk about, ultimately are about money. I'm talking as a producer here. A director or a playwright might very well eschew his or her own financial gain in order to have three stage managers or endless coffee/ricolas, but to a producer it doesn't really matter when the bottom line is "X Dollars".

I can tell you that in our company we do everything we can to steer money away from expenses and toward people, so if we have a thousand dollar budget for sets and costumes, we'd rather hire a designer (or two) for eight hundred and give them a budget of two. But, again, there is a bottom line, and when you're producing on our level, the slightest nudge can mean No Show At All.

And Isaac, I went back to look at my first paragraph, and then several other first paragraphs, to see what might have frustrated you and I can't find a dismissal anywhere. Which means I don't know what I'm looking for, not that you're wrong. I'd be sincerely thrilled to talk to you about it privately if you have a minute to email me.

99 said...

I definitely see your point, Sean, absolutely. And it is hard to sometimes to get the elusive stuff of a conversation over the interwebs.

The notion of valuing people over things, that does cut close to the bone. If I'm being totally honest, as a playwright, or even a producer, it's unfortunately my natural response to want to give the designer a budget of $800 and pay them $200. That's not right. That's the thinking that leads us down the path of the A.D. getting $100K and the playwright getting $1K. $200 can buy a helluva show. It's hard to remember that sometimes. It's harder to still to face the cold hard reality that, though we'd like to live in a world where the designer makes $800 and has an $800 budget, we don't live in that world.

I guess, in terms of the elusive stuff, in these conversations, it is hard to parse out that the folks who go the institutional route aren't "selling out" or "cashing in" just for filthy lucre and feather beds. But that the love of money remains the root of all evil.

cgeye said...

The other thing about The Money: When this conversation started in earnest a couple of years ago, the big deal was how theatre artists went into the profession with the best intentions, to the best schools their loans could get them, and found themselves so heavily in debt it affected their freedom to take further risks.

That's not being childish about those choices; it's literally choosing between health insurance or a car, or having a family life or going it alone for a while longer. The kicker, as Prof. Walters and you have pointed out, time after time, was that during the rise of the regional theatre system, that *was* the path -- and we had an economy that didn't punish people for not buying into their career at 18.

Now we have to figure out what's left to love, what we need to survive, and how do we connect to what's left of that better past, to create a better future? Maybe the greatest motivator in this ongoing conversation has been the economy. When the richer patrons go to their own lives for protection, all we have left is us. Maybe it's always been that way, but the possibility of money was too shiny to ignore.

99 said...

cg- I think you're definitely about right about what's needed. What we've got isn't working and what we did led to what we got. So how do we take the good bits, minimize the bad and start off on a new path? That's the question, right?

Kent B said...

Alright Mr. Holtham,

You and Scott and James and everyone else keep bringing up really wonderful points. You guys are all incredibly intelligent and I've found your musings, banter, and experiences terribly exciting. This issue, specifically, has spoken to me to an incredible degree, and I am taking the advice, opinions, and general commentary from you and your contemporaries and going to try to put some of this into practice. I have just moved to NYC 2 1/2 weeks ago. I know very few people in this town, but am anxious to do my own work. I am technically still enrolled in my final semester of graduate school and am supposed to be out here completing an internship (which I am doing as more of a day job). I am planning on using some of the money from my student loans to finance a self produced production of one of my scripts, and try to form a theatre company (using the advice of yourself, James, Scott and others). Over the next three months I'm planning on keeping a blog which will detail this process. This is what I've got so far:


Scott Walters said...

Kent, I am glad you are finding this so useful. But I would be remiss to my own values if I didn't ask this: why in the world would you try to start a company IN NYC??? Do you think there aren't enough companies there? Why do people insist on bringing coals to Newcastle. I bang my head against this wall over and over. For people with imaginations, why is it so hard to imagine doing theatre someplace else???