Thursday, January 14, 2010

Countries for Old Men (and Women)

This has gotten a bit lost in the shuffle of Outrageous Fortune and the lists of productions bouncing around. The Innovative Theatre Foundation has released this survey of the demographics of the Off-Off-Broadway theatre community. Not the audience, but the participants. There's a lot of good info in here, a lot of things that sync up with the various conversations going on.

Here's a bit about the methodology:
A total of 4136 surveys were collected. Of those, 41 surveys were discarded (17 respondents indicated that they were not actually theatre artists but simply audience members; 12 respondents did not provide enough information to be statistically acceptable and 13 surveys were duplicates) and not included in the results of this report. The remaining 4094 surveys were viable.
Not a bad sampling, I'd think. The key findings?
Statistics of interest include:
- 85% of the OOB population holds a college degree. This is 58% higher than the national average
- 86% voted in the 2004 presidential election. This is 22% higher than the national average of 64%
- 68% of respondents are age 21-40
- 53% of respondents are female
- Income level of Off-Off-Broadway artists is near the national average, and slightly below the NY state average
- 91% of respondents live in New York City
Emphasis added. Because this is kind of what jumps out at me, especially after reading Gus and Matt's responses to Outrageous Fortune. Here are some key grafs from Matt:
I have been working with a single theater company (more or less) in New York City since about 2004. Just over six years of productions. Do we produce on the scale of Manhattan Theater Club? No. Have I gotten reviews and publications and all that other nice stuff? Yes. Do I still work, and work hard, in an unrelated field to make ends meet? Yes, yes I do. Still, when I read chapters about the nomadic lives of playwrights now, I felt a bit happy to know that's not my position.

In fact, lots of playwright driven theaters exists Off-Off Broadway. Electric Pear (Ashlin Halfnight); The Brick (all artist driven); Nosedive (James Comtois); InVerse (Kirk Wood Bromley); Blue Coyote (me, David Johnston, David Foley and others); Gideon (Mac Rogers), Flux (Gus produces his own plays, certainly). I could go on. This is common in Off-Off Broadway.
And now Gus' conclusion:
Flux Theatre Ensemble functions under this artist/producer, long term collaborative model. I believe that artists can and should be responsible for the consequences of their plays in a community; and I believe a producer should have their hands dirty with the theatre they're making. The silos of our specialist corporate culture may no longer be the ideal for making theatre. But whether you are a traditionally structured company or one of Travis Bedard's bands, all roads to recovery lead one way: to the audience.
(You should definitely check out his life cycle/equation for the fate of new plays. It's really spot-on.)

And again from the demographics from the NYIT survey:
Age Range
The highest concentration of respondents (24%) fall into the 26-30 age range (see graph 1). The average age of OOB participants is 36 years old, and the median age is 33 years old. The national average age is 36 years old, and the median age of New Yorkers is 38 years old.
In the graph referenced above, 56% of the OOB participants are under the age of 35, 31% over the age of 40. Other nuggets include:

- 50% single or divorced vs. 23% married (with another 18% living with a partner). This is roughly the opposite of the country's population (51% married, 30% single).

- 91% childless.

- 67% earn less than 50K a year.

Also: "Only 10% of the respondents reported that their sole source of income was from their work in the theatre. 40% of respondents noted having full-time employment outside of the theatre. 28% noted holding a parttime job (see graph 14)."

They helpfully break the respondents down by role in the theatre. For the playwrights, much the same things are true.

- 62% under 40.

- 42% single.

- 91% childless (or at least without children living with them).

- 61% making under 50K/year.

According to the data, a third of the people who identified themselves as playwrights earned between 30K and 50K a year (see graph 91). The average income for this group was $41,802 which is higher than both the national average and the average for the overall OOB sample group. This averages an hourly wage of $20. 8% of respondents from this category reported that their sole source of income was from their work in the theatre. 70% of respondents noted having full-time or part-time employment outside of the theatre.
All of this is incredibly present to me, at 36 years old, single, childless, falling right in the income levels here, working full-time outside of theatre. In terms of finances, there isn't much difference between what happens in the OOB scene and what's described in the lives of "successful" playwrights in Outrageous Fortune. Which is scary, in general.

For a while, I have raged about restoring the ecosystem of the theatre, that the real estate cycle of boom and crash, the squeezing out of the middle and lower classes from Manhattan, the economic pressures we all felt over the last ten years had decimated the middle of our theatrical landscape. Without large Off-Broadway commercial houses and with less and less medium-sized theatres, we were left with the small, upstart companies and the big institutions. But, looking over this study, and listening to the conversations, I'm starting to see more and more that we do have an ecosystem. It's just not a very healthy one.

At the bottom, we have a fairly fertile world of indie theatre, lots of energy, lots of passion, lots of innovation. I've played that game a bit (though with a safety net; the company I was a part of and then helped run was safely ensconced in a larger theatre company), stayed up all night painting sets, ran around town getting props, ran more than my fair share of light boards and sound equipment. It is awesome and it is real theatre. And I do want to get back there. But I'm careening into my late thirties and thinking, Do I want to settle down? Do I want to have kids? How am I going to pay for that? How am I going to hold on to my day job when all I want to do is write and produce? I've seen some folks doing it, so I know it's possible. But it is hard.

Looking at that age graph and seeing the drop-off from 35 to 50 is breathtaking. The number of playwrights drops by half in those fifteen years. Some are moving up into higher ranks, larger theatres. Some are, I'm sure, simply leaving the business, giving up because making $35,000 a year at 40 is kind of humiliating, not to mention hard to do.

It's part of the system, the draw of writing plays that will get produced, that will move you into the institutional circuit. They dangle a big golden ring in front of your eyes and it's hard not to want to reach for it. To think, when you pull on it, a door opens into a room of luxury. The sad thing is, it doesn't. You get paid roughly the same and surrender so much more control, so much more connection to other artists, to your audience, to your work.

Is theatre really supposed to be a young person's game? We play until we have to walk out in a barrel. Or is there a way for it to be sustaining, supportive, and ongoing?


joshcon80 said...

Ahh! Thanks for typing out all of my fears for the future!

RLewis said...

Rhetorically, should this not engender at least a little respect, or maybe compassion, for the "fogeys" who have stuck to our convictions despite the bleak outlook?

99 said...

Mad props where props is due.

Kristen Palmer said...

these stats are interesting. AND the thoughts about off off theaters that coalesce around a playwright is so true - and I agree with Freeman, awesome. But - are there any of these companies (playwright driven or otherwise) that are coalescing around a female playwright? and if not, why not? seems like the gender balance is pretty even among those working in the field.

Kristen Palmer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ian W. Hill said...


There's Young Jean Lee, who has taken her company up and out of the OOB ghetto somewhat (she's now in that realm that comes up that is technically still OOB, but tends to get placed and listed in Off-Broadway as she's now known enough). I think the lion's share of 13P is female as well.

As someone who's had a hand in running OOB theatres for a few years, I think I can safely say that the majority of female-driven OOB companies I've seen have been based around a director/producer who does the plays that she wants to. I'm not sure why that is, necessarily, but you can take my anecdotal word for what it's worth.

Dennis Baker said...

"But I'm careening into my late thirties and thinking, Do I want to settle down? Do I want to have kids? How am I going to pay for that? How am I going to hold on to my day job when all I want to do is write and produce?"

I am wondering all the same questions, while in the midst of babyland. There is a reason why 91% of theater practitioners are childless, when my little girl has to be in bed by 7-8pm, how am I to be able to go to rehearsal?

The OOB/independent theater does not allow for a family because we still have to work our day jobs to pay for life and then one either chooses to devote the rest of his/her waking ours to a child or to the OOB theater that they are help run.

Thanks for bringing the struggles out in the open and hopefully there will be more dialogue around how we can have sustaining, supportive, and ongoing theater lives while still having a family and growing older.