A Life in Theater
I’ve been working in the American theater, making my living, such as it is, for the past forty years. In all that time, I’m not ashamed to say I’ve never earned more than $45,000—and that was a year that included residuals from a major motion picture I was lucky enough to have had a role in. I’ve worked as a director, a designer, a technician, and as an actor. I served in the army, I’ve taught, I’ve scraped the insides of gasoline storage tanks, loaded supplies onto luxury riverboats, cleaned toilets at a truck stop, telemarketed, painted houses, and filed paper for various institutions, none of which had anything to do with the arts. I have never waited tables—a fact I’m almost ashamed to admit.
In that time I have founded three organizations, run a couple more, directed nearly 100 plays and acted in as many. I have owned property, raised a child who went to college, paid for by my wife and I, owned automobiles, traveled to Europe and other places around the world.
Why the litany?
My education was of the liberal arts variety at a small college in Southeast Iowa that had a one-person theater department. My major was not theater. I was a General Studies major. That major was one of the results of my generation’s rejection of structure. I had an emphasis in philosophy and I took all the theater courses that were offered. While my parents paid for some of this (the first two years), I managed to pay for the rest myself. I have inherited no money and was not the recipient of family largess. I, like most people, graduated with debt.
I am a worker. I don’t say that from a Marxist perspective. I was raised and live in a working class city. I come from a working class family—emphasis on “working.” My father worked three jobs most of the time because that’s what you did if you wanted to raise four children. Eventually, my mother also worked because that’s what you did if you wanted to send your children to college.
When I decided I wanted to make my living in the theater, there was a reaction of horror that ran through the family—nothing that most of us haven’t experienced in one form or another. What they did not understand was that I had found my vocation and I was serious about “making my living” in theater. I’m not talking about money. I’m talking about embracing a life that brings enrichment that has nothing to do with money. Theater is a place to engage in the struggle with myself and with the world around me. And I’m willing to bet that there is not a single person reading this who made a decision to spend their life in the theater because of how much money they could make. We enter with and for passions, ideals and a sense of purpose. Because the truth is this: taking vows to a life in art is taking a vow to poverty. There is no money in art. None.
The question I feel the need to ask repeatedly, both publicly and rhetorically, is “where did you get the idea that choosing a life in art was going to lead you to a bourgeois, middle-class existence?”
Oh, I understand the pressures, after spending what can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars on a Tony undergraduate degree and more on a Tony graduate degree, to make a middle class living. And I also understand that people with children need to make money to support the families they want to have. But who said it would be easy? For the record, I begrudge no one who achieves a bourgeois middle class life.
In Todd London and Ben Pesner’s book Outrageous Fortune playwrights talk about the fact that they have to teach, edit or write copy besides playwriting to make ends meet and they say it as if it were an injustice. I have to say I find that astonishing.
I’m talking about embracing a life that brings enrichment that has nothing to do with money. Theater is a place to engage in the struggle with myself and with the world around me. And I’m willing to bet that there is not a single person reading this who made a decision to spend their life in the theater because of how much money they could make.
The question that comes to mind for playwrights and every other kind of theater artist is “Well, how badly do you need to do this in order to express something that’s burning inside you?” If it’s badly enough, we find a way.
Our theater has been corporatized, leading many of us, given the current climate of thought, to believe that we should be getting a piece of the pie. It’s the standard position, these days. Because it is, indeed, the cultural standard. There are a few “corporations”—Guthrie, Arena, Denver, Berkeley Rep, Lincoln Center, and so forth—that harbor what so many of us think we want.
But my admonition is “be careful what you wish for,” especially those of you who feel you have a deep conversation you want to have with your community, whomever constitutes that community. Do you want committee meetings? Do you want to be doing work that needs to serve the corporation so it will bring in the dollars to turn on the lights and keep the palaces operating?
Early in my theater life I was Artistic Director at a community theater in a community of about 100,000 in Southern Michigan. This was a theater that embraced Shakespeare, Moliere, Miller, Robert Anderson, musical comedies and new plays. I directed six plays in nine months each year and my salary was $9,000. My twenty six-year-old self went home frustrated every day at the notion that I was having no effect on anyone, let alone the community in which I lived, and I was getting nowhere in terms of my own personal economic progress.
At the end of my tenure there, I was stunned to read an editorial in the local newspaper asserting that though the work was not always perfect, it nevertheless would leave that community forever changed because there was never the absence of an idea and always a clarity that we, artists and community, were engaged in acts of intimacy that could never be spoiled by presumptions of what should have been and how much money should have changed hands. It was a moment that I return to almost religiously.
The organization I currently run is devoted to alleviating some of the troubles that come with the kind of choice I’ve been describing. PlayPenn is not the only organization that does this. It’s the one I know intimately, so it’s the one I’m going to describe in terms of the “what” and the “how.”
First off, it is worth saying that PlayPenn was founded because of what I considered a paucity of new play production in Philadelphia. The impulse was a local one. Since our founding, and by no means only because of PlayPenn, Philadelphia has experienced an explosion in the production of new work. That PlayPenn has supported work that has gone on to have a more prolific national presence is a welcome added benefit.
Every year PlayPenn takes applications (it has held steady at about 600 for the past few of years) at no charge to our playwright applicants. In the interest of narrowing the field, my close colleagues and I read through 10–20 pages of a script, the writer’s resume and a statement of development intentions. We make choices about what we’d like to consider further and send a shortlist of 100 or so plays each to three readers.
Our list of readers is made up of a group of 100 or so theater artists who work in the Philadelphia professional theater community. It’s important to know that our readers read for us because of their commitment to the community where they live and work. Their written evaluations are all reviewed with the next step being a process of further narrowing by the staff to a list of thirty plays. At that point in the process, we empanel a group of eight Artistic Directors and Literary Managers geographically representative of the country who work at organizations that are devoted, in some measure, to the production of new plays. These panelists are paid. The panel arrives at a list of finalists from which the staff, taking the many practical considerations that we face into account, chooses the six plays we invite to the conference.
Once we’ve invited a playwright to the conference we give that writer the opportunity to work with a director of their choice. We bring writer and director to Philadelphia for casting. Once the conference begins, we take care of travel, housing, provide a per diem and make sure artists are as well taken care of as our resources allow. We make an environment suitable for work.
I love my work. I make very little money. I envy the incomes of garbage men. But I would not trade my life of working long days, raising money, engaging in public relations, practicing accounting, and very pleasurably reading plays, for anything. Yes, I have to do other things to keep myself afloat and at this late stage of my life in the theater am blessed that those other activities are directing or acting in a play, now and then. When I do those other things, I am enriched in ways that for me are unsurpassed. But it makes things rather difficult in terms of managing the other parts of my life. Can that be a struggle? You bet.
It’s what I bargained for.