Yeah. A two parter. After dwelling on this for a while, I think this issue is too big to swallow in one go.
I’ve said before that I don’t personally know anyone making their living solely in theatre…and yet, by all the measurements of anyone outside of theatre, they should be. If you get a professional production — not at a festival, but in a theatre — if you’ve won awards, if your plays have been published, then you’re obviously doing really well for yourself, right? I cringe when I hear people say that.
Fact: almost no playwright, even one who gets regular productions, recognition or publication, earns enough to live on just by writing. I think most people would agree, that STINKS. I want to tell people who say this, and genuinely believe it, that Take a Bite took me five years to write. It’s been said that the audience doesn’t care how long it took you to write something — nor should they. I’ve also written a play over a weekend which was picked for NextFest in 2000. I was pondering Marathon/Sprint for months beforehand, but when it finally came out, that first draft took 10 days. You can never tell how long it’s going to take, and if you don’t have a producer giving you a deadline, you have to set your own — which inevitably gets pushed back because you also have a job. The personal return on investment in writing a play — if you look at it that way — is near zero. Or you could look at writing a play from scratch as a jumping off point. Unfortunately, I’m still looking for that “jumping off point” : it galls me to admit that nothing I’ve ever written has resulted in further work. I write a show, either nothing happens with it at all, or I produce it myself, and then I have to try writing something else.
One might speculate: “well, the reason you’re not getting paid for your work is because you’re not very good.” (Not true.) Years ago…so long ago that the artistic director has long since left and the theatre has changed its name…I got a very nice rejection letter, for a play which I’d received a grant to write, and which had been workshopped with an established director and actors. It was really, really good, and this letter said so. The AD had quite clearly read the script thoroughly, and loved it. And the letter ended with an assurance that if ever they could produce it in future, they certainly would. So. Why didn’t they?
Why don’t even apparently successful writers make enough to just write? How come so few writers even make it that far if they ARE good?
For one thing, there’s always far too little money to start with. Arts funding is the first thing to be cut when governments tighten their budgets, because it’s not something we obviously need to live. So theatres only have so much money to pay anyone who keeps the building running, let alone the artists who will actually put the show on…or write it. Theatres have to be very, very choosy in what they do. There have been some genuinely fantastic new plays done in Edmonton the last few years…and because I’m playwright, and know the playwrights myself, I know those scripts took years to get that good. Because that’s how long a great play takes. And then a theatre needs to have the time and money to do that great play. Alberta is certainly better off than a lot of places, but there’s still only so much sponsorship people can offer. And there’s only so much you can charge for tickets — otherwise audiences will say “I can stay warm at home and watch YouTube.”
And THAT is where we all need to take a break before part 2…