Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Be a Playwright or Make a Living: A Study Says You Can't Do Both

Posted By on 12.23.09 at 01:21 PM

Is theater becoming a "lost art"? That's one of the concerns addressed in Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play, a new book funded and published by the Theatre Development Fund. According to co-author Todd London, a former Chicagoan and artistic director of New Dramatists in New York, the book seeks "to paint the most comprehensive picture possible of how plays get written and produced in America. . . . On one hand, we have a playwriting profession that is larger, better trained, and more vital than at any time in our history. We also have a profusion of highly professional theatres with a deep commitment to new work. On the other hand, we have a profound rift between our most accomplished playwrights and the theatres who would produce them, an increasingly corporate theatre culture, dire economics for not-for-profits, dwindling audiences for non-musical work, and, perhaps most troubling of all, a system of compensation that makes it nearly impossible for playwrights to earn anything resembling a living. By telling this story--with firm statistical and anecdotal evidence--we hope to stimulate both conversation and action in the theatre field." The book is available online for $14.95.

London—an Evanston Township High School alum—co-wrote the book with Ben Pesner, content producer for TonyAwards.com, and Zannie Giraud Voss, a professor of arts administration at Southern Methodist University. The authors surveyed 250 playwrights and nearly 100 not-for-profit theaters, most of which specialize in the production of new plays.

TDF provided a list of key findings reported in the book, including:

"The relationship between playwrights and producing not-for-profit theatres is a collaboration in crisis. The two groups studied are deeply divided in how they view each other, the audience, and the successes and obstacles of the field of new play production.

"In economic terms, it is virtually impossible to make a living or sustain a career as a professional playwright in America. The royalty system of payment that grew out of the commercial theatre has proven ineffective in the not-for-profit world. Commissions are too small to pay for the time it takes to write plays and rarely lead to production. Large grants to individuals continue to dry up. Substantial bodies of work regularly go unproduced. Mid-career is the crisis point for playwrights, and the new play ecosystem has nothing in place to help playwrights through it.

"When it comes to new play production, an emphasis on premieres—by artistic directors, the press, boards of directors, and funders—is the operating principle. This 'premier-itis' means that plays rarely get the continued life they need to reach the kind of artistic completion that results from second and third productions. It also means that playwrights can't earn from their plays in an ongoing way, as there is often no income stream, because of the field's 'one (production) and done' practices.

"New play creation and production in America has downsized in every way: cast size, size of venues for new plays, expectations of artists and audiences alike, and, even, ambition.

"Our theatre is losing the audience for new plays at both ends, as current, mostly homogeneous theatregoers age and die, and as younger and more culturally diverse audiences fail to take their place. Playwrights blame this on the conservatism of the theatres' leadership. Artistic directors believe that playwrights aren't writing for their theatres' actual audiences.

"Under all the division and concern over the state of new play creation, development and production is the widespread fear that theatre as an art form has been pushed to the margins. Writers and artistic producers alike are looking for ways to move it back to its place at the center of the conversation that is American culture."

Yet, ending on an upbeat note, the study also reports "hope for the future," saying:

"There is enormous, field-wide energy and commitment to new-play production. New-play activity is almost certainly at an all-time high in the not-for-profit theatre. Some of this activity, geared toward new and better practices, holds the promise of improving the systemic problems explored in this report."

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