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?