Thursday, March 03, 2011

PAY YOUR DUES, PLAYWRIGHT or The Economics of Playwriting

In response to Josh Conkel’s earlier posting about class in the theater and the subsequent article in the Guardian….

Josh Conkel says in an earlier posting (and I agree) that a lot of great new voices who actually have something interesting to say about different socio-economic experiences don't have the opportunities that writers of financial privilege do. I think this is a very complicated issue and I'm going to put in my two cents - as well as explain where I'm coming from, personally.

Some theaters are quite cautious about alienating their subscription base with discomforting tales of class differences, but I think that many theaters are very interested in plays that address class in fresh ways. So why aren't we seeing more? I think it has to do with the economics of playwriting.

It’s not just about going to a great school or having an MFA: how many people can afford to live a playwright’s life?

It’s so expensive to live in New York City. So if you’re dedicated to being a playwright (or artist in general) you have to find a job that a) pays your bills b) leaves you time to write and c) leaves you time to shmooze and network.

Part of the reason that there are so many voices of financial privilege out there is that they have the time. If you don’t have to have a 9 to 5 job you can spend your days writing and you can spend your nights meeting more people to help you get your plays on.

Well, what about when playwrights start to get a little successful? Can’t you poor playwrights just sit tight until you get a play on? Let’s not forget that theater, at least at first, still doesn’t really pay that much.

Certainly not enough to live on. So the poor playwright has to continue to have a part time job (even if they had a great review in the Times) while the financially privileged playwright can devote all his/her time to the momentum of his/her newfound success.

I don’t come from money but my parents prioritized my education. I did go to a lot of great schools (on scholarship). But when it came to getting an MFA – I wasn’t interested. Why would I burden myself with a crazy debt that writing may never pay off? I also considered film school for awhile – where in addition to debt you also have to fundraise for your own projects. No thank you.

So I took the poor writer’s route and took very crappy jobs that allowed me time to write. (I have literally never made more than 15k per year since moving to New York.) I was a barista. I was a writer’s assistant. I was a dogwalker. I was a babysitter. And I continue to do weird jobs to make ends meet. While these jobs don’t directly help my career in any way they allow me the time to write and provide tons of writer’s fodder. I met a ton of weirdos. I learned to make a great soy cappuccino. I once pulled a tampon out of a pugle’s butt (his owners wondered why he had had a stomach ache for the past week).

But it was hard. And it was especially hard to get my writing out there without a community. I guess that is what MFA programs and Yale is for. While I had studied theater at a great school (Stanford) we weren’t really known for our theater department and there were virtually no theater professionals from Stanford in New York City. Compared to the Goodfellas-esque Yale mafia, the Stanford presence in New York resembles those pathetic Italian drinking clubs in the basements of brownstones in Carroll Gardens.

Finally, I went to Williamstown Theater Festival, determined to meet people. And I did. But it was expensive. I was a directing intern – so while they provided free housing they they didn’t pay me. I had to save money from my tip jar earnings and sublet my apartment over the summer. It’s not the festival’s fault – they don’t really have that much money either. I guess it’s just the way things work. At least I wasn’t an apprentice though, they have to pay a few k just to go.

After I met those people, I met more people. And eventually I got into Youngblood, which has been a very centering force in my life.

But how do you take that leap from artist to artist-that-people-care-about without resources?

I decided to produce my own feature film last year – which I wrote, directed, edited and acted in (yeah, I'm one of those hyphenate assholes). The film is called “Five Days Gone” – it is largely about class and I’m very proud of it. It wasn’t that expensive – but it was way more than I had. Luckily, I had help. My boyfriend Sam and others helped me fundraise for the film – without their support I would have never been able to make it.

For me, this was the first thing that I did after college – and I graduated five years ago.

I also recently found out that I’ll have my NYC play premiere this summer at Second Stage’s uptown space (see earlier blog posting about The Talls). So it feels like things are finally starting to come together.

If I was rich, I would have self produced a play and a movie right out of college. But honestly, they probably would have been terrible. I'm happy that it took a few years before I had the opportunity to show anything to the world. But even if my play gets great reviews and my movie gets into amazing festivals, I still have to get other work to pay my bills. I’m constantly trying to cobble together an income from odd jobs.

I look forward to the day when my writing will pay the bills. But at the same time, I’m happy that I’ve had to struggle. I’m happy that I actually have something to write about.

***Additional post-post thought/question:

Playwriting, theater, the arts in general are a crazy gamble. The system is flawed - but what is the alternative? What does it mean to be successful in theater? Does that mean making all your money from theater? Does it mean having a play up at a certain place or a certain number of fans?


joshcon80 said...

I'm all for paying your dues. Shit, I've paid enough dues for a handful of people. But what if you actually CAN'T pay your dues?

Sorry to kick the hornet's nest again, but I happen to think there's a myth of meritocracy in theater (as well as just in general, actually.) The myth makes people think that if they have enough talent and drive they can make it, when really the system only advances one sort of person.

I know there are exceptions to this, of course, but still... how do you pay your dues when they're more than you can afford? And why are some people's dues so much more expensive than others?

Monica said...

Somewhat relatedly, in terms of finance...yesterday I drew up a list of why I don't want an MFA. I had to remind myself, after a friend got into Iowa :)

- - -

Reasons Why I’m Not Doing an MFA.

1. I don’t want to be anchored to one place for 2-3 years. I want to be flexible, mobile and itinerant.

2. I don’t want my peers chosen for me. I want to surround myself with the artistic peers I choose.

3. I don’t want to go into debt for a near-worthless degree.

4. I don’t want to write papers about other writers’ works. I want to write my own works.

5. I don’t want to teach. I want to write.

6. I don’t want to edit a literary journal. I want to write.

7. I don’t want to deconstruct how or why I write. I want to write.

...there are two advantages to an MFA (from a top program) that I can see: name recognition and networking opportunities. And they're definitely not nothing. But to me, they don't outweigh all the disadvantages, and (with hard work) can be done on one's own. In other words, an MFA program can't provide me with anything I can't provide for myself.

Sorry to hijack the thread! I'm done.

Monica said...

Also, Josh: I wasn't responding to your comment, but I'm thinking about it a lot. I'm trying to be aware of the ways in which I'm privileged, and how it advantages me independent of merit, and how that affects what I write about. So. Thanks.

spatmaster said...

in response to josh again -

my point was just that the dues just don't seem to stop - from a financial perspective. and if "making it" means being 100% financial supported by playwriting (or the arts) then very, very few actual do. there is something very crazy and irrational - if you crunch the numbers - about what we're all doing here.

there are people who can't pay their dues - who can't afford it and drop out - or just continue to pay their dues and nothing really comes of their efforts. OR something does come of their efforts but they don't consider themselves successful until a) they have a show on Broadway or b) they're financially supporting themselves from their work.

i also think that new york is such a crazy scene - there are many people who succeed (by some definition) much more quickly in other places.

a good question is: how long do you continue trying? when is it time to move on? or literally, when is it time to move to a smaller community where the fact that you did anything in new york makes a massive fish in a small pond somewhere else? anyone who has been through the ringer in NYC knows a thing or two about the ins and outs of theater and could easily start one somewhere (with of course, money from somewhere or someone). or at the very least, blow the socks off some other community with their great talents.

it isn't really fair. some people never really make it. and i don't think it's because they're untalented and haven't paid their dues. there are a lot of factors. and when it comes to networking, meeting the right people for your work - people that actually believe in it - is hard. but on some level - even if you haven't been set up for it - it's vital. so how you meet these elusive "people" is up to you. AND it may not make a difference who you know because they may not respond to your work.

when i first moved to new york, i went through friends of friends and general advice meetings with professional theater and film people. one guy, who happens to be successful in theater, was very uncomfortable giving advice about how to succeed like he had. at one point, he anxiously threw up his hands and said "i don't know. i don't know how you do it. i think a lot of it has to do with luck"

and i think that's valid. some of it is just luck.

in response to Monica's posting about mfas - i feel ya!