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.

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I'm confused by this article. The author never states what she is doing for a living now. Wasn't that the point?

Fair question. After working in retail throughout the fall, I found a position as a live-in mentor and support for two women with developmental disabilities. But it's a short-term position so I'm still seeking the solution to where and how I can continue creating and promoting my writing.The point though was to focus less on my personal struggle than to give voice to the way creating theatre can feel like a lonely path, one that doesn't quite line up with writing not for performance.

Thank you for this honest article!

I'm not much older than you, but I'd like to share one career path that no one seems to have mentioned. This path was very difficult for me, of course, but I think it's doable and provides the kind of life experience that gives you something to write about.

I spent eight years working as a teacher - both in high school, and then in middle school. I taught English in a private boarding school, and then I taught theatre in a large public school.

Teaching can be exhausting. It's a lot of work, obviously. However, it pays far better than adjuncting and affords you the opportunity to have your summers (mostly) off while still drawing a paycheck. I was able to write over the summer while teaching for the rest of the year - and, though many other teachers would find this undoable, I wrote during the school year as well. Sure there were nights where I graded papers and found myself incapable of any creative thought, but there were times when I could put an hour or two in before sleep. Teaching offered me many other rewards as well. First, I was involved deeply in the making of theatre. I usually directed the high school plays at first, and any involvement with the creation of theatre is going to help you in your writing. I learned a lot as a director, and as a technical director building the sets.

Second, when I began to teach theatre full-time, mostly focusing on the art of acting, I came to a new understanding of the craft. I spent my days wrangling teenagers, but I spent my time wrestling with Shakespeare, Miller, O'Neill - I kept abreast of new writers, I tried to teach them where I could. My days were spent fully immersed in the world of theatre as witnessed through people brand-new to it.

Unlike a retail job, or a serving job, or even an adjuncting position, my day job put me in the middle of other people's lives. I learned about others' stories. I learned to respect the differences and challenges that kids faced that I, with my privileged background, did not. I was creating a life where I had something to write about.

Finally, I felt like I was watering the ground in a way, preparing future theatre lovers for the day when I might have a show at a professional theatre.

I struck gold when I decided to write for my students. I had never considered writing for young people, but I soon discovered that, as a middle school teacher, I was in possession of the greatest thing a playwright could want: a theatre. A theatre I didn't need to pay for. And a ready troupe of actors I didn't need to pay.

Essentially, I turned my middle school classes into a repertory theatre. I'd write a show, we'd produce it, put it in front of an audience, then start the process again. Writing for young people gave me a freedom that I didn't experience as a "professional" playwright - I could write a play with 20 characters (in fact, I needed to write plays with 20 characters) - I could set them anywhere I wanted. I could be as outrageous or fanciful as I wanted. I set no limits for myself.

I won't go into all the details of my career - but my plays for young people, once published, became so popular that I was eventually able to quit my teaching job - (one of my one-acts routinely gets 300 productions a year) it took years to build up that kind of audience, and enough work where I could support myself with my plays, but I was able to create a baseline of income for myself.

I mainly write "professional" plays now - the kind of plays I wanted to write when I started out, but the experience of writing dozens of plays and producing them myself was far more valuable than my M.F.A.

Obviously, I was pretty lucky here. But I think that if you try to find a career that allows you some kind of creative outlet, and gives you life experience, you're going to help yourself in ways you can't anticipate.

Thank you so much for sharing. I have considered teaching at certain points but have been afraid to commit. I know from my teachers, the champions who challenged and shaped me, that it involves so much work and sacrifice--like anything worth doing. But I don't know if that's what I am called to be.I would love to work with more high school theatre and theatre for young audiences. It's important that great writing and passion go into those formative teaching moments. I will have to look up your plays!

A very nice piece. You're not alone-- and there is an eternal quality to this question. When you don't produce something tangible, the world doesn't tend to pay tangibly for it. I think we figure it out step by step-- adjunct til we just can't anymore, work at Whole Foods til we can't, and then figure something else out. It's just part of the pattern of life for most artists.

I agree with most of what you are saying--that's what being a gritty, perseverant artist is all about, trying every form of work to see what kind of life to craft that will also allow us to craft great art. What I do want to change is the idea that this struggle is unique or essential for artists. I know friends in science and engineering careers who feel as lost as I do at times. Artists lives can have unconventional patterns, but they don't *have* to be that way to inspire great work.

Tweeted about this article yesterday, wanted to give a more complete response. When I said I do not have a job as a playwright, I meant one that pays me to write for them. (I very much have a job as a playwright to engage communities with challenging subject matter and prompt them to ask questions). Rather, I have a job (financially), so I can fund myself being a playwright. My disposable income is spent on memberships, submissions, scripts of my contemporaries, books and magazines, and self-produced shows. In a way, I'm proud of this, though. Okay, I understand that getting a grant, winning an award, becoming a paid fellow, etc. would make the financing of all of this a lot easier. But, I can still create theatre without those. I can still write and perform plays in my backyard, at bars, or on the street. The benefit of this is that I am able to afford myself more agency in what I say and what I can speak about/against.

Thank you so much for sharing! This is exactly what I think I want. Or at least what I think can be amazing about being a playwright in this day and age. It's about sustaining the creative production and if you are funding yourself through meaningful work that cooperates with the other job, playwriting, then that's amazing. I hope I get a chance to hear about those backyard, bar, and/or street plays you're writing.

This was nice to read, if only because it reflects so many of my own recent thoughts and struggles. Always good to know we're not alone. Let's just keep at it till our Genius grants show up.

Or we find a new way to finance different sorts of grants. Or time, energy, et cetera to apply to more grants. I'm so glad you found this encouraging--you are not alone and your recent thoughts and struggles are helping move the whole field of artists forward.