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The Real Life Drama of Being a Playwright

Scant pay and no health insurance, not to mention writer’s block and the constant search for an audience — all just part of the real-life drama for a playwright trying to make it in America today.

Those and other concerns are being addressed at a national conference, Playwrights in Mind. It’s sponsored by the Dramatists Guild of America and hosted by the Theater of the First Amendment at George Mason University.

I recently talked about it with Gary Garrison, a playwright himself and executive director for creative affairs of the Dramatists Guild of America, and David Dower, associate artistic director at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and founder of its American Voices New Play Institute.

JEFFREY BROWN: Playwrights in Mind, Gary, the purpose of this is both high and low, right? Big vision and nuts and bolts?

GARY GARRISON: In its simplest form it was a way to bring us all together. We are a national organization; our members are all over the country, so this is a way of getting us all in the same room and talking about those issues that are important to all of us.


JEFFREY BROWN: And that includes the real nitty gritty nuts and bolts.

GARY GARRISON: Absolutely. That includes everything. As we were talking about before, health insurance to how to get an agent to how to keep writing in a market that is tough. It appears at times that the opportunities are shrinking for writers, and how do you maintain your spirit and your resolve to tell the stories that you need to tell.

JEFFREY BROWN: David, how does a playwright make a living today? You work with a lot of people.

DAVID DOWER: It’s interesting, there was just a conversation over the weekend that hit the blogosphere about Tony Kushner saying to Time Out magazine that he can’t afford to make his living as a playwright. Angels in America, just two years ago received the Mimi Award which is a $200,000 reward [for] playwriting.

JEFFREY BROWN: So he can’t make a living.

DAVID DOWER: And if he’s not making a living, who is? I come at this slightly differently. We are actually in a moment of extreme abundance for new plays and playwrights, and the sense of scarcity is one that I’m really interested in. It’s something of a golden era, actually, in terms of resources and programs and expertise and money, and yet somehow we’re not feeling it and we’re not getting the best of that.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what’s the disconnect? Explain that.

DAVID DOWER: I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that we haven’t really looked at the infrastructure that we’re working without, really. We can’t say we’re working with it because it doesn’t exist, but something like this conference is an opportunity for people to get together and find the commonality, find resources to common questions. Playwrights are making a living in lots of other ways besides writing plays, but there are resources in the field, which can support more playwrights than we’re currently supporting. The playwright’s living is made through royalties, if you’re asking where does the money actually come from. We pay playwrights a percentage of tickets, so if you’re not being produced, you’re not making a living as a playwright. You start from there. Where are the opportunities for productions for playwrights, and what are the ways to change the economic systems to get more of the money to playwrights earlier? There are a lot of questions, many of which the playwrights will be talking about themselves there.

GARY GARRISON: There was an important study that was done a couple of years by Todd London called “Outrageous Fortune: the Life Times of the New American Play.” Essentially, in this book, he described what playwrights do, is they cobble together these careers in order to survive and to continue to create their art. So they are teachers and they might work in television studios, writing copy, or they might write ad copy. They find ways to use their craft to support themselves and then ultimately allow them to write their plays.

JEFFREY BROWN: But I want to understand the context a little more, because on the one hand, you’re saying sort of good times, and on the other hand, you can’t pick up a paper without reading about some major theater in financial trouble. So are theaters less likely to take risks on contemporary playwrights and new plays?

GARY GARRISON: Absolutely. I think so. You know, the thing that we don’t like to talk about is that theater is a business, of course. The artist in me, of course, wants to romanticize it and not think about those things. But, of course, it is a business and it is governed by its bottom-line figures and there are ticket prices and the like, so you have to be smart about what you program into your theater, as you have to smart about how you program your television station or whatever it happens to be. So it would be difficult to find whole seasons of new original plays. Not impossible, but probably not as frequently as a lot of us would like it to be.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’ve got this new endeavor to try to foster new and original voices. You even put some people on salary.

DAVID DOWER: Yes, we did, very happily. We have five writers on staff.

JEFFREY BROWN: Can’t be very large salaries, can they?

DAVID DOWER: I would say that they are just below what would be an actual living wage in a city like D.C., unfortunately. But the opportunity to write and then earn the rest of your living through production of these plays hopefully balances out over the period of time of their residency. They have health care. They have housing. They have a budget that they can spend on their own work, so research, travel and workshops, hiring other collaborators, and trying to put the playwright on salary as a worker of the theater not somebody who mails us something and shows up on opening night and then we send them checks and that’s the extent of our relationship. They’re inside the building. Seven of them have keys to the building. It’s a brand new building.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is this a model that you think could be replicated? What is the key to making it work?

DAVID DOWER: Well, this is what we’ve been talking about. I think that there’s something really challenging about trying to replicate this scale. This scale is made possible by the Andrew Mellon Foundation, and we’re very grateful for that. But this is a lab circumstance. We’re studying residencies by doing this, so we had to have a sort of critical mass of different residencies to study. But I think it’s less challenging than we let ourselves to believe, to have a writer, and ideally it would be more than one writer simply because writers are lonely anyway and then a writer alone in an institution is a challenge. But it’s not as hard as we let it be. And what Gary’s talking about, about how there aren’t whole seasons of new work, it’s really germane. We’re sitting here the day after Florida Stage closed, and it was Florida’s largest new play theater and all new work, and they went out of business. They didn’t just go into bankruptcy, they went out of business.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are there any other interesting experiments that you see, or when you get together and talk about this and you want to try to tell playwrights here is a possible model?

GARY GARRISON: In fact, David and Arena are paving a way for these conversations. They really started this very, very unique and extraordinary program, and my hope is that, of course, people will, as David said, they can’t necessarily replicate that program but gosh wouldn’t it be interesting if it were just to lead to other conversations. Well, we can’t do that, but how can we help a writer or two writers or three or four all over the country.

JEFFREY BROWN: Before we go, what advice would you give to a young playwright starting out or someone trying to consider making a go of it?

GARY GARRISON: I am very old fashioned this way, and I will tell you the honest to gosh truth, which is — and I teach, at NYU — so this is what I tell my students. Tell your stories. Tell them and tell them honestly. Tell it from the heart and somebody will find that story and pick it up and produce it. Or you will find your way towards the audience that you are writing for. It may not be in a 1,000 seat theater or a 200 seat, you know, whatever, that’s not necessarily what theater is. Just write your stories, because that’s the important thing.

DAVID DOWER: Engage. There’s a great story that’s just happened. Laura Axelrod, now lives in northern Alabama, a playwright who graduated from NYU’s playwriting program, and she’s started blogging herself about, hey, I live in an 18,000-person town here in northern Alabama. Am I still a playwright? And by just writing her story about here I live, I don’t know if I’m still a playwright, she’s now entered the stream of American playwrights. She’s put herself on the New Play Map. There’s something now called the New Play Map, where a writer can actually, you put yourself there and you show up on the map of the United States as a writer who lives wherever you live. Just get into that conversation, because that’s the way for writers to take charge of whether or not they’re visible. If you wait for theaters to make you visible, you will spend way too long in your own closet, basically.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. David Dower and Gary Garrison, thanks for talking with us.

GARY GARRISON: Thank you so much.

DAVID DOWER: Thank you.

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