Tag Archives: starving artist

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.

A Playwright in Today’s World: To Sell Does Not Mean ‘Sell Out’

Vanessa Garcia

by Vanessa Garcia 

How do we make a life in the theater in the twenty-first century while still managing to pay our bills?

The myth of the starving artist is, unfortunately, alive and well in some sectors of the arts—particularly in the theater. I can say that Art saved me, but as in all complicated endeavors, I can also say the opposite. I can say that Art tried, many times over, to murder me in my sleep. My desire to live my life as an artist forced me into ghettos where I dodged bullets, and into days in which the only lunch I could afford was a stolen handful of nuts from a Whole Foods bin. This is not romantic. It’s stupid. I eventually decided: no more.

And I’m not the only one. Artists everywhere have surfaced and said: no more. No more mythic Icarus ramming itself into the sun and melting into the ocean. There’s a way in which that same Icarus can fly, spanned wings across the sky, safe, and yet still beautiful, even awe-inspiring. What I want to argue here, is that the theater and the performing arts are lagging behind other arts—we’re standing in the wings, while the action is taking place on other people’s stages. Television writers, novelists, Young Adult writers, illustrators—all of these artists have found a way to embrace millennial capitalism (for lack of a better term; call it “late capitalism” if you like)—and the theater has been late to catch up.

This is a vision acutely in line with the contemporary generation of neo-hipsters and millennials. “Today’s ideal social form is not the commune or the movement or even the individual creator as such; it’s the small business. Every artistic or moral aspiration—music, food, good works, what have you—is expressed in those terms. . . call it Generation Sell,” wrote William Deresiewicz in an article for The New York Times in November of last year. “Our culture hero is not the artist or reformer, not the saint or scientist,” continues Deresiewicz, “but the entrepreneur. (Think of Steve Jobs, our new deity). Autonomy, adventure, imagination; entrepreneurship comprehends all this and more for us. The characteristic art form of our age may be the business plan.”

To sell does not mean to sell-out. At least not the way it used to. The playwright can either play-in or lose out.

The novelist has already adhered. “These guys [contemporary novelists] are acutely aware of the multiple audiences for which they write,” says Szalay, whose upcoming new book is entitled The Novel After HBO. He continues: “For a generation of novelists that began to achieve fame and distinction in the early twenty-first century—like Michael Chabon, Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Lethem, Colson Whitehead, Junot Diaz, and Dana Spiotta—the term ‘sell-out’ just doesn’t apply.”

For performing artists to be able to adhere, our attitude towards money has to change. In a recent article. “A Dancer’s Retort,” in The Huffington Post, Brittany Beyer, dancer and associate editor of The Dance Enthusiast, also calls for a new form of operation in the performing arts. She writes:

One important issue is the dance artist’s attitude towards money. Many of us have been brought up with the idea that our field is beyond a job— to be an artist is almost a sacred calling. If you have ever danced you will understand. We love our art form and have the conviction that it does others good. With integrity and passion we put our bodies—our very selves—on the line to create. Our work is beyond a job description; in many ways it is a life’s practice or a life’s mission. How does one monetize that?

Healers are “sacred” too, aren’t they? Doctors, for instance. And we pay them, don’t we? We pay them a bundle. There is a whole other discussion here about health care in this country and about what we do and do not value socially and who gets access. The point, for now is—why should artists be poor? Other life missions and practices are paid for. If we pay people to heal our bodies, why shouldn’t we pay them to heal our souls? Perhaps this seems trite, cheesy, or too sincere. But, I think it’s true. And, truthfully, I don’t care about it sounding “too sincere.” Irony is no longer king.

We cannot live without money. We cannot produce art without money. It seems to me impossible not to monetize the result of an artistic process. And, it seems sillier still to pretend like art and money have nothing to do with each other. As soon as artists realize this, the better off we will be. This mindset becomes dangerous when producers, not creatives are the one monetizing—particularly producers who are more interested in the money than the art (not all are like this, I should add). The clearest solution, again, seems to be for the artist/playwright to be tied to the production—to become, like in television, a “Showrunner.”

The Showrunner—people like David Chase of The Sopranos and Matthew Weiner of Mad Men—creates, writes, and produces; manages and markets. The Showrunner is more than just a writer. “The result is a paradigmatically neoliberal vision of the writer and his labor,” writes Michael Szalay in his article “The Writer as Producer; or, The Hip Figure After HBO,” published by Duke University Press this year.

This requires the artist to become a hybrid. Going back to the Icarus myth—allow the sun to give us energy, rather than drown us. This doesn’t mean we must always produce our own work. We can allow traditional models to merge with newer models, this too can be hybrid in nature. Technology now gives us all access to the means of production. The writer can now learn Photoshop. The creative can now market on Facebook and Twitter (and it works). The audience is used to receiving information from multiple sources. Devised Theater trends prove that audiences are open to theater reflecting the world they live in—after all Devised Theater is a form of hybridity, a place where all the artists are Showrunners in the sense that they take on many roles. Now it is time to apply this idea to the way we make money in the theater. It is our job, as theater professionals not to fall behind—not to kill art, or allow it to kill us. It is, in fact, our job to keep it alive, to keep it thriving in a world full of hybrids. It is our job to save people’s lives and to do this, we need to fully understand what it means to be alive, making and receiving art in twenty-first century America.

Vanessa Garcia is a multi-media writer and artist working from Miami and Los Angeles. She’s the founding artistic Director of The Krane, a theater/arts company. She’s currently working on her PhD from the University of California Irvine in Creative Nonfiction, and is a contributing writer to numerous publications from The Miami Herald to The Art Basel Magazine, among other journals, newspapers, and magazines. She’s also currently shopping her novel, White Light, and working on a two new plays called The Cuban Spring and The Underground.

Is Suffering Part of the Job Description of Being an Artist?

"Self-Portrait With Cut Ear", by Vincent Van Gogh

by Al Kennedy

Suffering. Now there’s an artistic word. Or so you’d think.

I have been doing my best to avoid suffering.

I have been trying to write for at least a quarter of a century, and I can say very firmly that in my experience, suffering is largely of no bloody use to anyone, and definitely not a prerequisite for creation. If an artist has managed to take something appalling and make it into art, that’s because the artist is an artist, not because something appalling is naturally art.

Just try kicking your bare foot really hard against the nearest wall. In your own time – I can wait … And now tell me how creative you feel. Just bloody sore and mind-fillingly distracting, isn’t it?

I mention this because I was recently in the company of a film producer. (I know, that doesn’t bode well for the avoidance of suffering.) We had no professional relationship at all, so he was simply chatting about life and art in the way that I find people genuinely involved with either never do. And as I quietly clenched my teeth more and more tightly against the rim of my coffee cup, the producer told me all about how necessary it was that creative people of every type should have as awful a time as possible.

You would have been proud of me – I didn’t punch him even once. Because it is wrong to punch people. It makes them suffer and suffering isn’t nice.

To his way of thinking, comfort and success are poison, the Stones never did anything good after they’d got money, Van Gogh prospered because of mental distress, obscurity and ear mutilation and, actually …

Battling Demons: Tracy Middendorf in "Miss Julie" at the Fountain (2007).

The producer hadn’t got any other examples, but he was convinced: if you weren’t hurting, you couldn’t be working. He is not alone in his beliefs. TV and film representations of real and fictional artists always go heavy on the torment. Press coverage of the arts is never more enthusiastic than when it has managed to ferret out a “battle with demons”, or at least a suicide attempt. This is partly because of the media’s steadfast assumption that the arts aren’t interesting – hence all those galleries, concerts, songs, poems, novels, cartoon strips, museums and T-shirt designs. Doom is apparently fascinating: all of us can recall how much we’ve enjoyed spending time with people who are heartbroken and/or depressed, finding them stimulating, generous and emotionally supportive by turns. Assuming that making a sculpture would be assisted by despair or hunger in a way that, say, plumbing wouldn’t be is absurd and insulting. There’s no reason to believe a plumber might be less sensitive than a pianist, or that someone who you’re assuming is more than averagely sensitive couldn’t be broken into sand and teeth by grief. It’s simply cruel to assume that any human being will somehow benefit from punishment. And the cultural white noise that links having a job in the arts to the threat of punishment cuts the arts off from people who could enjoy them, or produce them.

William Hurley as the struggling playwright in Athol Fugard's "Exits and Entrances at the Fountain Theatre.

If we follow this kind of thinking to its logical conclusion, we are about to encounter a tsunami of art from pensioners. They will be inspired by living below the poverty line and dying during cold winters. That, or their rage at having, perhaps, been part of the generation who saved the country from Nazism and created the welfare state, only to be screwed over when they’re at their most vulnerable by a parliament filled with self-obsessed looters. Maybe they’ll even have illnesses: arthritis, or the risk of a nasty fall. The producer’s merrily sociopathic thinking could, if we allowed it, imply that if CS Lewis was productively devastated by his wife’s death, or Eric Clapton by the loss of his son, or Britten did well after his mother died, then bereavement (the closer the better) should guarantee a thriving career. I’m a writer and greatly admire both Chekhov and Robert Louis Stevenson – maybe I should try to contract TB. That would, of course, be insane – at which point we have to deal with the cliche that a spot of mental illness is supposed to be a good thing if you fancy knocking off a poem, or a tune everybody can hum.

The myth of the suffering artist is part of the wider myth that sinking into abjection will somehow cleanse and elevate the poor and/or unconventional, eventually leading them on to glory. Those who are not led on to glory will be unworthy and deserve to fail. Economic Darwinism will crush them as they should be crushed. This kind of pressure can’t, naturally, be applied to nice people David Cameron might meet at parties or have gone to school with, because they would find it unpleasant. And might be crushed. This kind of thinking divides human beings into categories, as more and less human. Art almost inevitably does the reverse – hence, I have to assume, the established insistence on extra-special suffering, just for artists. Because suffering keeps artists quiet, just as it can weaken and muffle anyone else.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, artists have access to a creative way of life that can sustain them through dark times. They have used, and will use, their crafts to transform what they can of life’s pain and loss and fear into something communicative and alive. This can be a generous and lovely thing for all concerned and can produce healing, as can anyone’s triumph over adversity. It doesn’t mean anyone needs to be rendered abject – by others, or themselves.

The rather more personal problem I have with the myth of the suffering artist arises when I meet young and new writers and find they are intent upon suffering, rather than writing. It can seem that wearing black, moping, engineering car-crash relationships and generally being someone nobody wants to sit beside on the bus could be a shortcut to writing success. Surely, when so many writers seem bathed in fascinating disasters and have such wonderful scars, then scars and disasters would save us effort, focus and the development of our craft? Well, no. In fact, without effort, focus and development, we won’t have the skills to present even rosy sunsets and charmingly eccentric families with saleable adventures to the waiting reader, never mind the kind of stuff that wracks the soul and is personal and precious and must be handled with care and precision and respect.

Karen Kondazian in "The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore" (Fountain, 2007)

Apart from anything else, I hate to see people being unhappy, and people being self-inflictedly unhappy is doubly sad. A writer being purposely unhappy when writing provides such a glorious and unpredictably rewarding path through life … well, that’s borderline criminal. If the budding writer just settled down and wrote, then he or she would become more and more who they are happy being, and might make things other people can like and feel happy about, too. Better still, the sheer effort of getting better, of pushing sentences to shine brighter, of fumbling about in the dark of half-formed ideas and feeling foolish and lonely and scared – that’s more than enough suffering to be going on with. And, even better than that, when you’ve taken your exercise for the day, you’ll feel great. You’ll be tired, but you’ll have dignity. You tried your best and maybe learned something and if not today, then tomorrow – who knows how good you might get. Onwards.

Al Kennedy is a novelist and writes for The Guardian.