Tony Kushner: “I Don’t Think I Can Support Myself as a Playwright.”

Tony Kushner

Tony Kushner can’t make a living writing for the stage. America’s most prominent playwright confessed in an interview published in Time Out New York earlier this year that Angels in America doesn’t pay the rent: “I make my living now as a screenwriter. Which I’m surprised and horrified to find myself saying, but I don’t think I can support myself as a playwright at this point. I don’t think anybody does.   I’m developing a series for HBO .”

Kushner is right. American playwrights — not even one of his stature — do not earn the bulk of their living writing plays. Many teach, while a growing number of younger ones write for series television.  The trend seems to be: new playwright attains notoriety and success writing plays, realizes he/she can’t make a living at it, jumps to movies and/or television to make real money. The well-meaning intent being that a big-bucks TV salary will financially support the writer, allowing him/her to keep writing plays. What often happens? They write fewer plays.  Some never return to the stage.

Some do.   Itamar Moses, for instance, writes for HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”, which isn’t stopping him from turning out stage plays (his latest effort, Completeness, just closed Off Broadway). Jon Robin Baitz had a devastating experience in Los Angeles  creating and writing the new ABC series, “Brothers and Sisters”. He left the TV show (or was fired, depending on who you ask). After a year of wound-healing and soul-searching, Baitz rediscovered that his true writing home — where he was happiest and where the work was most meaningful — was the theatre. He pulled from a drawer some old notes he had scribbled years before: an idea for a play. And wrote his best new play in years, Other Desert Cities (earning rave reviews at Lincoln Center, now transferring to Broadway).

Playwrights “going to Hollywood” is nothing new. It’s been an ongoing exodus since the 1940’s.  Even so, Kushner’s statement is jarring and disturbing.

“I don’t particularly want to do it,” says Kushner. ” I think that it’s a mistake to do it. So, yes, I’m very worried about it, because I think that a lot of talented playwrights wound up producing much less than they should have, and progressing less surely than ought to have, because they’ve spent a certain amount of their creative life doodling around in Hollywood. I think it’s had a baleful impact. Some writers’ work has just been destroyed by it. ”

“Having said all that, I’m deeply trying to make money in Hollywood, like every other idiot in the world.”

Theresa Rebeck

Playwright Keith Huff, who wrote the recent Broadway hit A Steady Rain, now writes for  the AMC show “Mad Men.” Seven of the nine people writing for HBO’s “Big Love” are playwrights. David Mamet created “The Unit” for CBS, and widely produced playwright Theresa Rebeck has written for TV since the 1990s while remaining prolific as a playwright. Marsha Norman, Adam Rapp, Craig Wright, Eric Overmyer, Aaron Sorkin, Robert Schenkkan, Suzan Lori Parks, Marlene Myer, John Belluso, David Rambo, Alan Ball, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Jeffrey Sweet, Richard Greenberg … the list goes on and on.

“Theater is now viewed as a way of getting a staff writing job on TV,” says Warren Leight, the show runner and developer of “Lights Out” who won a 1999 Tony Award for the jazz-inspired play Side Man. “For a lot of guys now, it’s a means to an end. And the end is, ‘How do I make a living as a writer?'”

No one can begrudge playwrights for going where the money is. They need to make a living like everyone else.  And the money is good in TV. Playwrights  can earn more in two weeks of work on a TV show than they will with a commission for a play which may take them years to write.

The question is: what important new plays are not being written for the American Theatre because a playwright is writing for television?

The deeper question is: what does it say about our culture?

7 responses to “Tony Kushner: “I Don’t Think I Can Support Myself as a Playwright.”

  1. It’s disturbingly bourgeois and suburban for any artist to say, “I deserve to be paid enough for my art so that I need never do anything BUT my art.” You ask what this condition says about our culture – I think it says we’re a generation of selfish brats who feel that we’re enormously entitled, with no reason to back it up. Never in the history of the world have those who choose to be artists been guaranteed comfort and stability. If you want that, you should expect to whore yourself out.

  2. No, Trick. It means playwrights are badly paid.

  3. Lauren Jane Heller

    Well, that’s a sad thought. Art is what makes our culture breathe, and the idea that playwrights are having to spend most of their hours writing shows for TV networks that are generally accommodating the lowest common denominator means that people who could create works that could live on for generations may never have the time to write these plays. That we (as a culture) value The Bachelor over the latest broadway hit is certainly a sad reflection of our culture, but the reality today is that the stage simply can’t hold the same audiences at TV.
    The biggest shame isn’t that playwrights are writing for the screen, but rather that they can’t write with the same freedom for TV as they would for the stage.

  4. It’s the difference between “value” and “worth”. No play will ever have the same worth — in terms of money, budget, revenue generated, audience numbers — as a TV show. But in terms of what we “value”, what we hold important, what awakens meaning and enlightenment in us and helps make life matter and make us feel most alive — isn’t that the purpose of art? Of being an artist? And as long as our culture values “the making of money” more than “the making of art”, the artist will forever struggle.

  5. Plays don’t sell product. Want to earn more money writing plays?…put in some advertising!

  6. One wonders what the climate for playwrights is ‘across the pond.’ Obviously, Martin McDonaugh has made the leap ‘into the abyss’ of film (better than tv).

  7. Lots of artists in many societies have been supported financially for making art. It doesn’t make them spoiled or self-entitled, it really just shows where we have priorities.

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