Neither Actor/Server nor Adjunct Professor Novelist
Emerging Playwright Economics
Two prevailing images rule my life as an emerging playwright.
The first, a fact I learned through hours of practice and studying writers’ lives: writing takes time. Though some great gems, like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde spill out of the author’s pen almost unbidden, the “suddenly” complete creative product arrives usually after many hours sitting in a chair at a desk battling the empty page.
The second, a myth that society flings at me: artists must suffer greatly for their art—mainly financially. I call this a myth because many artists, especially these days, do not produce great masterpieces from unheated basements while subsisting on ramen noodles, though hordes of interns and post-grads live in this way. But this myth is based on a stereotype, meaning it does appear true for a majority of artists. True, a few outliers will produce genius out of poverty and scant funding. And another small group will persevere to publish, produce, perform, or showcase their masterpieces. But for most of them, the journey will not end in great wealth or even financial stability. The art and many long hours of work required to create it, as Patrick Healy pointed out in “Offering Playwrights a Better Deal,” rarely translate into equal compensation—and so the “starving artist” myth persists.
I want to fight this myth. I have to. I am a playwright, committed for better or worse, and though it would be ‘easier’ to find somewhere else to channel my passion for imagination, communication, ghosts, failed reality show contestants, and bad poetry, scriptwriting won’t let me turn away.
I want to fight this myth. I have to. I am a playwright, committed for better or worse, and though it would be “easier” to find somewhere else to channel my passion for imagination, communication, ghosts, failed reality show contestants, and bad poetry, scriptwriting won’t let me turn away. I love solving how to put something on stage and will work and wait for years to craft an answer. In this early stage of my career, this means funneling a majority of that creative energy into solving this problem: how to keep writing and making theatre while not giving in to the “starving artist” myth.
At the beginning of this year, writer Ann Bauer challenged the myth’s persistence with her article “‘Sponsored’ by my husband: Why it’s a problem that writers never talk about where their money comes from.” The literary community exploded with comments and responses to her personal career confessions: she has published multiple novels, but only found enough stability to write from her husband’s financial support. Her call to artists for honesty about the source of their incomes inspired a flurry of equally honest essays and new conversations about the cutthroat nature of the publishing industries. I followed the conversation with gusto at first but began to lose interest. Why? I couldn’t find myself in their stories, not completely.
As an English major/fiction writer turned playwright, I find myself caught between career advice from the literary and theatre realms. I’m not an actress, juggling auditions but protected by unions. I’m also not a novelist or poet chained to my desk, yet able to promote finished novels or poem collections with editors across the world. So without a trust fund or wealthy spouse, which career path will lead me from stable day job to writing the next great plays?
An artistic director recently echoed the advice my parents and many others have offered throughout the years: work in a bookstore or a restaurant, serve customers, and write plays in the meantime. That would be a great idea if the retail and service industries didn’t leave me emotionally tapped, unable to write a single word—and I know I’m not the only one who can’t function long-term within that industry and its standard salary.
When family and friends suggest I turn toward teaching at the university level, I show statistics about academia’s flood of qualified humanities doctorates and the realities of adjunct teaching. I could luck out with a full-time teaching job—it's more likely than one of my plays getting picked up for productions across Broadway, the West End, and regional playhouses everywhere. But that's a lot of money and brain time to devote to thesis projects and tuition before I determine if I actually want to take that risk. I haven’t ruled it out, but I’m not putting all my eggs in that basket either.
Knowing friends forward me more insightful resources, like Ann Patchett’s introductory essay to This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. Patchett charts how none of these paths—serving, adjunct teaching, or creative writing alone—provided her with the support necessary to write novels. She found a happy medium in writing for periodicals like Seventeen and Vogue. But that’s part of what Ann Bauer’s original article referenced: print media only sheds jobs every year. Freelancing remains an option, but not the same solution as Patchett’s.
And what are playwrights doing?
I read through Sarah Ruhl’s latest book of essays for every nugget of advice, attended every possible networking meeting of the Playwrights’ Guild of Canada, and still pore through the playwright’s biography in every program I receive, whether dead or alive, female or male, emerging or established. I still haven’t found the path that aligns with the skills I possess and the dollars and cents reality I face.
I’m beginning to think this will be a never-ending quest, unless I turn to look in a different direction.
It might be true that in this generation, in this post-recession, digitally obsessed and globally connected world, the only voice any artist can trust is his or her own. The mentor might already be dead, at least in the old sense of the word. Expertise might be possible now and perhaps we, the up-and-comings, are better poised to accept, adapt, and thrive in the new climate of freelance contracts, multimedia platforms, and niche markets than they are. Or that may be a load of hooey—something every new generation thinks of those who came before. Maybe my situation is no different than any young person starting out in the direction of her dreams, theatre and playwright status aside.
What I do know is that my anxiety settles when I imagine that my story hasn’t been written because it breaks all the rules. It doesn’t include me quitting writing under any circumstances, it doesn’t include stretching myself thin for years between a day job and multiple creative projects, but it also doesn’t ignore the stark realities of the arts and the economy. I carry all the advice I receive from writers and theatremakers with me, trusting that no one piece will light my path but that I can puzzle them all together to create the playwright’s life I need.