Tag Archives: Outrageous Fortune

Does Size Matter?

by Seth Rozin

Seth Rozin

Seth Rozin

There have been many an article, missive, blog, and rant, even a graduate thesis in recent years about how most of Americas’ largest theatres have become corporatized behemoths lacking any kind of real commitment to taking artistic risks, representing cultural diversity on stage and off, cultivating younger and more diverse audiences, etc. In fact, almost any conversation about the professional theatre, as a field, ends up referring to that small handful of once-revolutionary theatres that have succumbed to the forces of the marketplace, and are now producing cookie-cutter seasons that include a Shakespeare, a musical, a modern American or European classic, a regional premiere of a recent Broadway hit, and maybe, maybe a new play by a not completely unknown writer that the theatre is hoping will be the next major American playwright.

These conversations—some public, most private—are especially common among playwrights, and the resentment and outrage that are expressed is palpable. The sentiment is essentially “If only these twenty-five major theatres would change their ways, our field would be much healthier, and we would be much happier.”

Underlying that sentiment are two assumptions: (1) that if all those theatres really did commit to producing plays by lesser known and more diverse writers, American playwrights would be appeased; and (2) that those major, flagship theatres are leading our industry down a dreary path toward homogenization and corporatization, and that we need them to change course in order for the American Theater to not just survive, but thrive.

Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles

Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles

With regard to the first assumption, even if all the largest theatres did produce more new plays, only a handful of playwrights—those happy few who get produced—would feel appeased. Because the numbers of playwrights will continue to exponentially dwarf the number of production opportunities.

With regard to the second assumption, expecting these major, flagship theatres to voluntarily alter their programming and operational practices, or close shop, is ludicrous. What playwrights really want is for those largest theatres to take artistic risks, produce new plays by lesser known writers, engage artists and audiences of color, etc. yet stay the same size, so that the paycheck and prestige remain just as worthwhile. That would be akin to living composers asking the major orchestras around the country to stop programming Beethoven, Mozart and Tchaikovsky in favor of works by twenty-first century composers; the simple economic reality is that the orchestras would all go out of business in a heartbeat.

At the same time, we need to stop demonizing this class of theatres for doing exactly what their substantial audiences, powerful boards, and major institutional funders are rewarding them for doing: Being large. When the only thing you are leading in is size—of budget, staff, and especially audience—bigger really is the only better.

Yoda size matters not

The conversation we need to be having is how we can educate and galvanize audiences, donors, funders, critics, agents, and other power brokers in our field to not automatically equate value or leadership with size; to not automatically reward theatres according to size; to not assume that the quality of the art has to do with size of the institution; to not assume that change can only occur from the “top” down (since history has shown us that change so often occurs from the “bottom” up).

Hard as this may be for most playwrights to stomach, the overwhelming majority of America’s theatregoers are choosing to spend their money and time at large theatres that offer fairly predictable seasons. These hundreds of thousands of patrons are mostly middle-aged and older, upper middle- and upper-class, and white. They find familiar titles and playwrights, proven classics, and New York Times-approved offerings to be comforting and appealing and reliably worth their investment. They are not clamoring for new plays. They are not clamoring for greater diversity on stage. They are not clamoring for greater artistic risk. So why should the large theatres that serve these audiences change? What incentive is there, really, for them to do anything fundamentally different?  Continue reading

A Playwright’s Career Doesn’t Make Cents But Has Deeper Value

Michael Elyanow

by Michael Elyanow

We hear it a lot about playwriting—that there’s no money in it. Whether or not that’s actually true, I had the opportunity to talk about this issue recently when I met with a young playwright, a senior at Northwestern University’s Creative Writing for the Media Program, who wanted to pick my brain about how I’ve managed to make it as a career playwright.

But first: let’s try and define make it.  I, like a lot of playwrights, struggle. I struggle to write, and to write well. I struggle to get productions, workshops, grants, commissions, and more. Like hundreds of other playwrights, I spend days putting together applications to get into conferences, festivals, and residencies. And, like hundreds of other playwrights, I receive many more rejection letters than congratulatory calls.

Second: let’s define career. If you mean a reliable paycheck—nope (see above). If you mean health benefits or financial security—not a chance. If you mean a profession that steadily moves forward, increasing in stature and scope and visibility… possibly… depends… could happen one day. As writers, so much is out of our control.

In 2010, New York magazine ran a brief piece on Bruce Norris (and his then-new play Clybourne Park) that’s always haunted me. To this day, I remember it vividly thanks to the number $19,000. This was how much Mr. Norris said he earned the year before. Earned. All year. This, from an acclaimed and brilliant writer, who’s had plays produced across the world. To me, this announcement was not only a brave thing to declare publicly, it was a revelation. After Todd London and Ben Pesner’s incredibly insightful Outrageous Fortune, David Dower’s years of field study… there it was again, in bold print. In New York magazine. A monetary truth exposed.

It is indeed the rare playwright who gets to announce playwriting as a job, a real-life, full-time gig.

And I know this, I do. I knew it going into this field. And still, when this Northwestern student sincerely asked me “Is it worth it?” I found myself nostalgic for the days when I used to immediately answer that question with an unqualified, urgent, booming Yes. But these days, with a kid and a husband and responsibilities and more, my answer has grown in complexity. And, especially with young playwrights, I want to share open and honestly about where I am today with this notion of worth—of value.

Half of the time, and especially in a country where The Arts (and arts programs) are in a constant struggle for survival, my belief that the value of art trumps the value of cash remains unshaken. But then, the other half of the time, when the mail comes in and my school loans are due or my son needs a filling that isn’t covered by insurance…well, that’s where things get complicated. At what cost are we choosing to live the lives of playwrights? Or artists?

“Is playwriting worth it?”  My answer to this student was: financially? For where I am today, right now? No. But… in almost every other aspect: yes. Playwriting is worth it. But why? With the amount of energy I spend on writing, the time away from my family, the funds I shell out to attend readings and workshops in other states with no guarantee of production, no guarantee that if I do get a production another one’s coming along, what is the value of playwriting? Or better yet, what can’t I put a price on?

“The Children” (2012, Theatre@Boston Court)

For me, it turns out the answer is collaboration. Or more specifically: a collaboration that works. The experience that I had working with director Jessica Kubzansky and dramaturg Emilie Beck on The Children couldn’t be measured in dollar signs. I was fortunate enough to work with two artists who attacked the play with great care and sensitivity, who asked incisive questions, who challenged my every line but never lost sight of the origins of the play’s beating heart. When collaboration works, you leap together. You dig together. You forgive together. When collaboration works, you learn to become a better artist, communicator, listener, leader, and follower.

How many other professions make this kind of deeply personal exchange possible? Where the work includes sharing who you are and why you are? And how do you place a value on that? Can you put a price on that conversation? That dialogue? That sharing of your core identity in pursuit of a common purpose and goal?

Collaborators build something together. We hear the phrase “the theater community” used often. And that’s what this collaboration built for me. A community. A home—for myself, for my play, for ideas and emotions and a mission. These are all things I greatly value—it’s what I hold dear.

Here’s what I want to say about the money part: wherever we go, we pay for the privilege of community. Governments have taxes. Clubs have fees. Religious organizations have tithes. It’s not exactly analogous, but maybe playwriting is like Social Security. It’s something you will always pay into because it provides you a social safety net. You contribute—with money and time and sacrifice—to a community of artists who shore you up, challenge your evolution, and provide you a place in the world. In this instance, the word value can literally mean a bargain.

Michael Elyanow  is a playwright. The Children was produced in 2012 at The Theatre @ Boston Court.  A Lasting Mark, commissioned by Hartford Stage, was part of Manhattan Theatre Club’s 2011 7@7 Reading Series. The Idiot Box, published by Samuel French, was produced at Open Fist and Naked Eye theatres. Ten-minute plays Banging Ann Coulter and Game/Over were Humana Festival finalists. Michael is currently writing a play commission for the Carleton College Department of Theatre & Dance.

This essay first appeared on HowlRound.