fbpx The Real Reasons Playwrights Fail | HowlRound Theatre Commons
Essay by

The Real Reasons Playwrights Fail

Essay by

There is a widespread defeatist attitude among “emerging” playwrights that the system is broken. It’s impossible to make a living. We don’t have enough time to write after making rent. Sexism, racism, commercialism, stupidism runs rampant in established theaters (i.e., theaters we can actually make money at). Development opportunities are imperfect, too short, too finite. Theaters just need to do our plays already. We’ll do all the work we need to do on the script in rehearsal, trust us; your audience will come, trust us; you won’t take a bath on my play, just do it already—no really, the theater will die if you don’t support new work, assholes. Dear Artistic Director of a Major Regional Theater That Will Only Do New Plays by Playwrights Who Have Won Pulitzers: Fuck you. Sincerely, The Future of Theater That You Are Killing. On a bad day, that is what we “emerging” playwrights will say.

I am not qualified to speak for all “emerging” playwrights, but this is often how I feel and what I hear over coffee or whiskey or the internet. I am not qualified to speak for all “emerging” playwrights because I am a straight, white male, and I don’t have a trust fund. I live on the $19,000 to $31,000 I make per year from a combination of playwriting royalties, commissions, fellowships, teaching, and working part-time at a real estate company.

I am not qualified to speak for all “emerging” playwrights because I like to write linear plays with dramatic action and a climax where the protagonist makes a decision that changes him or her irrevocably. The diversity of we—the “emerging” playwright—is vast and necessary and I am unable to speak for all of us. However, this is what I believe, with all due respect to my peers: our general laziness, inability to commit, defeatist attitude, lack of talent, and unwillingness to truly listen and change are the real reasons we—the “emerging” playwright—fail.

It’s Not Enough
We—the “emerging” playwrights—are fucking lazy. This is what we don’t want you to know, Dear Artistic Director. Most of us don’t really know how to keep working on a play. Not what it really takes. To get a play where it needs to be—to get a theater to pull the trigger on a new script—you have to be relentless, indefatigable. You have to love the actual working on the thing—the actual writing—so much that there is an inevitability about it all. Every day you spend six hours writing, eight hours temping, three hours sending business emails and you know it’s not enough. You’ve had a ton of workshops at fancy places where you’ve stayed up all night writing for weeks on end. You’ve finally integrated that big note. It is not enough. Writing a play, revising it, really working on it, staying open to the good and bad criticism, really reworking it, getting it out there, seeing it through to production, dealing with poor casting, weathering pans or rave reviews, reworking it, getting it done again, reworking it, repeat for the next script, repeat— all this is an act of love. It has to be.

In the end, our approach to our own work is the only thing we can control—and I believe that you have to love the doing. You also have to love the chase, love the absence of any resemblance of fairness, justice, or due course. And as long as it doesn’t make you too desperate or crazy—there is a nobility in this endurance, in this brand of foolishness. There must be a sense that “I am going down with the ship.” And frankly, it is a commitment that I don’t see many emerging playwrights make.

So all together, how about we “emerging” playwrights stay away from the defeatist attitude? It’s bad for business.

The Good Life

I believe the life of a playwright is fucking great. We make up shit and if we ask big, messy questions in a compelling, theatrical way—if we’re good at getting scripts, projects out there and constantly improving—people will pay us to do it. People will fly us around the country for it, around the world. Parts of the system suck, but there is a lot that is working about it. There are a lot of places that do new plays, know how to nurture them, and will pay a playwright real money. Sure, it’s hard to make money writing plays, but try making money writing poetry. Granted every dollar you don’t make writing, you have to make doing something else—and that can add up to not many hours writing. But I still think there’s enough time in the day, if you are driven, to be a playwright.

Mat Smart at a desk.
Mat Smart. Photo source: Daily Herald

So all together, how about we “emerging” playwrights stay away from the defeatist attitude? It’s bad for business. Let’s stay away from it by thinking about companies like 13P and Workhaus Collective—theaters like Playwrights Horizons and City Theatre in Pittsburgh—organizations like New Dramatists and the Playwrights’ Center. Defeat defeatism by opening up your laptop at the beginning or end of the day—no matter how much other shit you have to do. We can all take matters into our own hands. It does us no good to sit around and complain about having our hands tied, even if Dear Artistic Director is already on the third knot. You know what? I take back the fuck you, Dear Artistic Director. Just do your thing. And I’ll do mine.

All Playwrights Are Not Created Equal
One thing we “emerging” playwrights don’t like to talk about is talent. There is a sense that the wealth should be spread around—that prizes, fellowships, and productions shouldn’t keep going to the same playwrights. But the reality is that some writers are flat-out better than others. Yes, art is subjective and there is a vast gray area. Yes, plays that are deserving of production get overlooked for a wide variety of good and bad reasons. However, as you get to know a playwright’s body of work, it becomes very clear who was born to do this and who wasn’t. Even if that playwright is “emerging” and still developing his or her voice—the pulse is there or it isn’t—and if it is there, the only way a playwright can truly fail is by quitting.

Emerging or Languishing?
Lastly, I think most of us “emerging” playwrights are dinosaurs. We don’t change, we don’t adapt, we don’t truly know how to truly listen to criticism and rewrite in an effective way. I am involved with various development programs, as a playwright and in other capacities, and I see this time and time again. Plays often get a bit stronger, stay about the same, or get ruined—but rarely does a play blossom from a good play into a great play. Rarely does a mess of an act two turn into anything else. Rarely does an act two truly further the dramatic questions/situation of act one in a rigorous, meaningful way. We need to better learn when to hold to our guns and when to imagine things anew. Sometimes ego should be taken out of it. Let the play go wherever it needs to go. Sometimes that’s the worst thing to do.

It’s widely discussed that many plays languish in a constant state of development, but I also think playwrights—especially “emerging” playwrights—languish in this same state. Between workshops, between the seventh and eighth draft of a play, between productions—how do we keep growing and changing? But even new plays that receive productions are often half-baked. Perhaps the answer is that it’s hard to write a great play and hard to produce a great show, but then what can we do to get better at what we do? The system may be broken, but there’s also a lot that’s broke-down about us “emerging” playwrights along with it.

Too often we use the same process, make the same mistakes, and expect a different result. If we look inward to ourselves, not outward at the system, what can we do? I think it has to do with listening—to each other, to our collaborators, to our audience and primarily, to our hearts and guts. We “emerging” playwrights need to kick each other’s asses more, challenge each other more, invest in one another more, and be more honest with one another. I expect this rant will piss some of my peers off, but it comes from the place of hoping we can lift each other up. We can do our part to fix the system. Can we shed the “emerging” label? Can we figure out how to arrive?


Add Comment

The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

Newest First

I've been a playwright for decades and Mat Smart's words ring loud and true - well, maybe, excluding the expletives (big grin). The wonderfully talented actress Jessica Tandy once said when asked to what she owed her success, "Just keep showing up." The wonderful playwright William Gibson once said, "I love being a playwright; it's theatre I can't stand." He was, of course, referring to what happens once a playwright goes through years of research, writing and rewriting to get embroiled in the private readings, staged readings, workshops, previews, etc with everyone telling you how to write a better play. And then, it's the input and temperaments of directors, actors and technicians. Is it all worthwhile considering the frustration and rejection? I didn't choose to become a playwright; it chose me. It was a natural progression after years of being a professional actress. A friend once asked, "Can you make a lot money being a playwright?" My answer, "Anyone who becomes a playwright to become wealthy is an idiot; and I prefer not to think of myself as an idiot." Sometimes, no matter how hard you try not to become something, it chooses you; and you find a way to survive. Why? Because it's like breathing, water and nutrition; you need it to survive. The director of a major artistic think tank once told me: "The average person may wake up in the morning with a dream of writing the great American novel, painting a beautiful picture or writing a provocative poem. Fewer may dream of becoming a performing artist. Rare is it that someone dreams of becoming a playwright. On a practical note: All of the arts hurt for money. Theatre seems to lie at the bottom of the artistic food chain. It's ironic, because some of the first people to want to impress their friends and colleagues with expensive theatre tickets are the well-to-do who often look down on "emerging" playwrights, actors, etc. I hope that I can continue to wake up and dare to envision a new play, invite the characters into my head, give them life; and then, let them take over as they allow me to share their world. No one ever promised us playwrights a garden of Eden. Being a playwright isn't for "sissies." Get over it and put a smile on your face. People will wonder what you're up to............................

*sigh* All this is fine. But it's also a little like reading an article written by an abusive spouse about how if they keep trying and adjusting and pouring endless hours of commitment into the relationship, he'll change, I know he'll change. That metaphor only goes so far, of course. But there are at least THREE problem areas that hold emerging playwrights back: 1) The things you state. Not working hard enough. Not knowing what it really is to revise. Not acknowledging that some people have to work twice as hard to be half as good. 2) There really is a dearth of paying (or even non-paying) development opportunity. This means that many writers who have reached a certain level then plateau because they can't get the kind of support they need to move up to the next level. Talent only takes you so far in the theatre because it is a communal art. And if we were all working harder, close to the same number of playwrights would still be failing, because let's face it, there's not going to be a magical new play market that just opens wide up because we did the work. 3) Education in playwriting starts too late. I wrote my first play when I was 22; that's my own fault in part, but at no point before then did the many academic and artistic mentors I had suggest that I merge my love of writing and my love of theatre by writing plays. Literally, a graduate degree in Performance Studies was recommended to me BEFORE anyone ever said, "Hey, have you considered playwriting?" Again, in the end I've got to take responsibility for what paths I took and didn't take, but of COURSE playwrights who don't even get started till they're 20 haven't developed the complete arsenal of habits, skills, persistencies, and connections they need to succeed until they are past 30 and have therefore lost a decade to just getting their feet under them.

None of that is any excuse for stagnation; we've got to work hard or get out of the game. But the reasons you listed are not the "real" reasons playwrights fail. They are a few of hundreds of reasons why some playwrights fail. And there's no reason not to acknowledge that.

Once you get past what's clearly designed to hit people in emotional places there's a good question at the end: what can we do?

Change what it means to be successful. Abandon the idea that success is getting that sliver of recognition from the system everyone hates. Find awesome collaborators and audiences in theatres nobody talks about. Make good work. Repeat.

Be happy being the busiest playwright nobody's ever heard of.

Yes. Yes, yes, yes. I've been at this for almost ten years, and all four of my plays have been produced. Many people I know who do this work would suffer from the same shortcomings in any other work. The life is NOT easy - but when one is successful, it's a delight. You spoke it well. Thank you - and - yes!

The rant is so opposite of how I work or how I talk to colleagues. I approach process with patience, respect and self-respect. I would never be so presumptuous as to prescribe anyone for "ass kicking." Spewing does not analyze and diagnose problems. Raging does not teach. I listen carefully to the quiet, knowledgeable voices I'm lucky enough to meet. The screamers I shut out. Susan Goodell

Thank you Matt. I will read this article again more than a few times.

The strongest thing to me, on my first read-through, was hearing that you are a teacher as well (because that's what I will be returning to soon enough).

Apparently Shakespeare and Moliere had extra jobs to support themselves. But I needed to hear it from a playwright in this day and age.

Thanks again.

-- Karl.

Really? Are you saying that it's all the playwright's fault that so few theatres are willing to risk producing new plays? That if we got off our duffs and sent in more submissions more regularly there would be more theatres willing to produce new plays?

I stumbled upon this site after reading another commenter's negative blog regarding Mat's post. After reading Mat's post, I wasn't outraged. What could've sparked the vitriol in the negative poster? I then read all the comments, pro and con, then re-read the original post, thinking I might've missed something. Again... no outrage.

Could it be that because I'm also a white male who creates linear stories with rising dramatic action with protagonists who're transformed through their experiences/action to arrive at a new place/state of being/understanding (i.e. character arc) that I'm in lock step with Mat? Could we have both drank Kool-Aid from the same washtub?

The blogger that redirected me here (and others) may've been reacting to their own prior frustration and stymied efforts.

Mat and I may have a similar (classical) artistic philosophy, but his post went beyond that. His post had to do with the artist's art, the artist's relationship/dedication to his art, and the reception it receives from the market.

Forget minority, LGBT, or whatever, a good story is a good story, one that appeals to a particular theatre's subscribers, or a wider audience. Personally, I favor the Human Condition, the universality among us all. If I can empathize with the story, no matter the character, that's when you've hooked me. Make me care. And, as a writer, I have no axe to grind, don't demand that my viewpoint must be heard, and don't think it must be a conspiracy if my expectations aren't met. But many playwrights believe they're being censored or ignored because of the themes in their work. Get over it. Work harder. Love what you do. Write what speaks to you. Work it again and again. Only you can write your stories. And do it over and over. If you achieve no satisfaction, try something else.

Even though it's Mat's opinion, I think he speaks the truth. His post serves as a call for all playwrights to take ownership of themselves and their art (and cut the bullshit). Yes, the market is competitive. Yes, talent doesn't always win out. Sometimes, the one who works harder, gets more notice. So work harder. It's an art. And no slight to MFA folk or other theatre majors (and I've known many after working in theater for 15 years), you don't deserve to earn a living doing your art. Sorry, that's another truth. You chose it. Live with it.

I played it safe and earn a good living doing something else other than theatre, but I still continue to write, publish, produce and earn a few dollars here and there. And don't say you can't write because you have a job, or two. I work over 50 hours a week at my bill-paying job and write like a madman during my off time. So, stop your bitching. It is what it is. Keep at it, or don't.

Do what you need to do to feed your soul, but also do what you need to do to care for others who depend upon you.

It's okay to hate me. I don't care. And it doesn't matter. Hold a mirror to yourselves and ask the questions that need to be asked about personal responsibility. Like Mat, I also speak the truth.


Great piece. Harsh and honest. I think it is often forgotten that "emerging" playwrights are in a terrible position. If I am producing or directing a show, I can choose between your work or Shakespeare or Mamet or Pinter or (enter famous well known, loved, and tested author here).

Playwrights are competing against the entire cannon of work that has been created over centuries, so the work only gets harder as time goes on. To be relevant and necessary, the playwright must touch something deeply meaningful, timely, and contemporary.

My only quip with the blog is the constant deference to some Artistic Director in the sky. Anyone writing with the aim to please this strange deity will be finished as the taste of this artistic director is certainly not the same as his audience and not even close to those outside of his/her theatrical circle. The best way to an artistic director's heart is to gain the love of his greatest doner. In some ways there are no free minds in this "broken system." In the end none of these things make your play better--so if you are writing to prove to others how good a writer you are, stop. Very few people care.

Inspiring. Blunt. Honest. It may piss people off, but no one can have a real argument against it. --Like any good piece of literature or advice.

Yeah! What's an "emerging" playwright, anyway? If emerging playwrights die before they fully "emerge," are they failures, or do we give them a pass because they made it past the first level of acceptance, which is - what?

Is the failure of playwrights even worthy of discussion? What are playwrights trying to succeed at? Did Buchner fail?

Describing the craft as if it were some kind of summit one climbs and either reaches the top or does not seems a disservice. If one writes a string of fabulous hits then loses one's gifts and dies drunk, broke and alone after writing a bunch of box-office bombs, is that playwright a failure?

This post might better be titled "Why being a gatekeeper is a pain in the ass, and how you can help me."

Writing plays is hard. Most people can't do it, and the ones who try typically suck at it. But describing failure without any real measure of what "success" means, well, come on, how helpful is it?

Thank you, Mat! Your words are wise and a great reminder to keep focusing on DOING THE WORK. Work on the play, work on networking, work on research and (sometimes) most importantly to work on ourselves. Our CHARACTER.

I have been an "emerging" playwright for over 20 years now and I recently completed a new draft of a play I first wrote in 1993. It's a much better play now because I am more self aware and have more craft and, most importantly, more discipline and patience than when I first started writing.

And what surprises me most is that I now have more PASSION for the work than I ever did, and the result is that I am writing more.

Some of what I write is crap, and some of it is okay but not something that serves anyone really (I am thinking of a recent sketch I wrote - made my writing group laugh - but I decided not to put it "out there" because it was my take on: What if Charlie Sheen were a woman and lived in a trailer park, but had the same ego/aggrandized illness?

But, y'know, I decided I didn't want to ride the Charlie Sheen wave. Too sad. Too much hype. Too tragic.

So, that's what has changed for me, too - I am not wanting to put my stuff "out there" just too get seen, grab the spotlight like my younger self yearned (unconciously)for.

I want my work to have depth, meaning and craft. If it gets produced "successfully" - fabulous. If it doesn't, I still keep writing.


I loved this article. Thank you for writing it.

Lots of similarities to actors. I was just saying to someone last night that obstacles are there not for us to bitch about - but for us to open our minds to find new ways to break them down. The more obstacles, the more inventive we must/will become - which means we simply cannot be lazy. And whining is lazy. Take it from someone who wasted a lot of time whining.

Wonderful article but I object to your casting aspersions on laziness. Laziness is not a character trait. It's a miserable condition. It's a symptom of depression. If you've got it (and the closely related AADD) go to your neighborhood psychiatrist and get proper medication.

The comments on the difficulty many writers have with criticism are well taken. Unfortunately we've grown up and been educated in a very competitive, judgmental society that does not respect the value, and the necessity, of failure. Thus it does not engender a craftsman-like approach to our work which is essential to receiving and using criticism.

One of the hurdles in the marketing of our work that I have sensed (possibly incorrectly) is that the administrators and producers of theatre are not coming from the same place as either the writers or the audiences. The "theatre" is not the same creature in their minds as it is in the writers'.So they have difficulty reading new plays. I think actually the writers are closer to the audiences in this respect. Both are very annoyed at the theatres.

I absolutely love the original post. Unfortunately, most writers are lazy as shit. Sorry, just because you wrote it (you precious flower!) don't make it good. You want to compete in one of the most competitive careers on planet earth, you're gonna have to work for it. Most of you probably had the entire world handed to you, and today's particular brand of youth narcissism has misled you to believe that because a few friends click "like" on your status updates, that somehow the entire world is gonna give a shit about your angsty, boring, navel-gazing, structurally challenged "play." This post, god willing, is your wake up call. But- more likely- your desperate, screeching responses are the most impassioned thing you'll write this year before going back to that "slice-of-life" piece you've been working on that explores just how hard it was to attend college, survive that internship, and breakup with that boyfriend/girlfriend.

I got chills when I read the first few responses! Go playwrights, GO! I get that everyone takes criticism differently, but it seems that those who are offended or feel like they are being talked down to may be defeated already:( I hope this is not the case, and everyone can take it as a colleague and friend pushing in all the right ways - to not only better the field and the art, but to also highlight the business of being an artist and the ridiculous amount of work necessary (all coming from a place of love) to try to make a living doing what you were meant to do. Hats off to you all - Mat for starting the discussion in such a candid and honest way, and everyone else who takes it and keeps the conversation going...

God I love this...what a buncha f'ing whinny humps!

Matt, ok, here's a thing: Your piece actually GOT ME OFF MY ASS! Oh, and no, I'm not blowing ink pal--tis true. I'm the laziest, most talented dude I know, and that's an understatement. I don't commit. I don't write when I should. I don't network. I can't stay focused. I'm working on a play right now (hardly working) that has an ACADEMY AWARD nominee attached, and I can't garner the f'ing will to spend 20 min a day on this thing. My first play got me a best playwriting nomination from a bunch of LA theater Critics. My second play got produced (the play wasn't ready, but I didn't give a shit --go baby go!) All that and I can't ready myself, gird myself in the work. Why? Because I'm lazy and scared and entitled. Fuck I need help. But I got help from you, you dyck, I've been pounding words out like they were actually meant to live--so thank you and Gods good speed.

Let's have a drink when this baby is ready to mount. You can kick my ass in the parking lot--

As a 49-year-old writer with two children and a mortgage (but no health issues, thankfully), let me just second Stefanie's sentiments above.

There is certainly ageism in the new play sector, along with all of the other -isms that have been mentioned (some grants and programs limit acceptance to writers younger than 35, or even younger than that); and along with the money that accompanies membership in the upper middle class, there are also the connections that accrue to those who can afford to attend MFA programs. (Not to mention the explicit and implicit nepotism in some careers; members of the upper-middle-class will more likely have parents or family friends who sit on the boards of the theatres that present new plays.) The recent discussions on the blogosphere about the professional/amateur distinction -- whether one gets paid for one's work or not; whether one holds a professional degree from an accredited playwriting program -- indicates that here is yet another class distinction being promulgated by the very organizations who claim to give opportunity to other voices.

One benefit that does accrue to the older playwright with a variety of obligations is that the work does become more important and essential to herself or himself in inverse proportion to the time available for it.

I'm a big fan of personal responsibility and the saying "no one put a gun to your head and asked you to be a playwright" to keep from complaining (hey, great opening for a short play, huh?), and I agree with much of what you say about talent and laziness and the like.

I'm not sure all the 'whining' you are hearing is from emerging writers. In fact, there are so MANY different opportunities for emerging writers (especially those under 30) that hopefully we are all counting ourselves lucky.

There is something that happens to the mid-career writer that Todd London's book addresses. In addition because theaters all want that world premiere, it has made it difficult for a play to have a life beyond its first production. (something NNPN and others are beginning to address),

In addition, I would tread lightly when calling the race and gender parity discussions that are FINALLY being put in the foreground of discussions with producers, guilds and each other, whining.

If 50% (or more) of our country's playwrights are women, but only 14-17% of LORT and above productions are written by women. Obviously we have much to examine and challenge in this paradigm.

It's not that you can't talk about these things because you are a white male, but you might not fully see or experience that ceiling/wall until you are older or unless you were not a man and not white. I have experienced ageism as a writer in far more blatant ways than I ever did as an actress, which was a great surprise to me.

And finally, when it comes to earning a living. An emerging writer can live on 19-31K: raman noodles, cheap rent, a futon and perhaps roll the dice and go without health insurance. A 40 year old writer with 2 children, health issues and a mortgage, is going to seek and speak out for different things. Hear the things they are fighting for, it will benefit YOU later.

No one put a gun to our heads to become playwrights, true. And hopefully we're all trying to be better playwrights, both in our work and in the ways in which we can support each others' work and each others' causes.

Might I suggest investigating Chicago Dramatists Theatre and a man named Russ Tutterow. He has created a space where playwrights feel good about developing. And he does it with kindness and calm (wisdom your well-spoken insights could benefit from).

What's wrong with working our asses off to create our own opportunities instead of waiting for us to pick us like that doggie in the window?

I’m generally all for spurring conversation/debate. But it bums me out that this pits playwright vs. playwright. I’m sure there are lazy playwrights, talentless playwrights (and talented lazy playwrights, and disciplined talentless playwrights). So what? Same deal with the focus on the tax bracket. Don’t think it’s relevant.

That said, I think some of the criticism I’m seeing of this goes overboard a bit. And I think it’s a shame because there are some valid points here:

1: Everyone thinks his or her plays should be produced more. I’m a white straight male and (according to me) am vastly and tragically underproduced. I don’t generally complain about this, besides to my immediate family.

2: I don’t (usually) blame ADs. I’m sure they’d almost all love to produce more new plays and pay playwrights more. Unfortunately in this climate they’re more concerned with survival, which means fewer risks.

The reality is there are fewer opportunities out there. So we all want a piece of a shrinking pie. But I still think/hope that we can root for each other here and agree with Joe that good plays can turn on audiences to go to the theatre. So let’s keep writing and share the love.


I think you wrote this piece as much for yourself as you did for anyone else. And that's not me being critical. I'm more than ok with it. I have no problem with anything you said, because it's just what you think, it's an opinion, and I'm glad you have one. I want you to write the Next Great American Play. So please do whatever it takes to do that. Also, I want every playwright who commented on here to also write the Next Great American Play. Because then we'll have a lot more Next Great American Play(s) and everyone will enjoy going to the theater again.

So thanks. I'm going to go get back to work on my, well, this one I'm working on isn't that great, but it is NEXT.

What tone-deaf, condescending trash. I've met you, Mat, so I sadly can't question whether you've ever been in an American theatre...otherwise I'd wonder...

Not sure I accept your premise that playwrights "fail" for lack of effort or talent, though I have certainly seen my share of writers who want to quit after the third draft. Those are writers who are nowhere near working at a professional level.

And certainly, it helps to be a great talent.

But even talented writers who are willing to work very hard at their craft often have a hard time getting their work out in the world in a meaningful way. The simple fact is there are more scripts being written than there are outlets for performance, so in the professional theatre, at least, we're dealing with a buyers' market--and it's a market that operates on the basis of personal connections. For that reason alone, a lot of individuals are at a deep disadvantage. Not everyone has access to the pipeline; we can't all go to Yale, after all, and individuals who come into playwriting later in life--after they have responsibilities, families, mortgages, etc., as well as full-time jobs, will have an especially hard time of it. It's hard to pop all over the country going to conferences, attending festivals, etc., when you get two weeks' vacation a year. That's just a reality for a lot of writers.

It is a tough nut to crack.

Which is not to say these barriers cannot be overcome through dogged persistence and sheer determination. Indeed I'd go so far as to say dogged persistence, a winning personality, and supreme self-confidence will trump talent many times. I won't say every time, but we've all seen enough bad plays produced to know that talent alone is not the determining factor.

But I heartily agree that to sustain one's self as a playwright requires that you love the ride; you have to love the process of writing plays, because very often it's the only payback you get for a long, long time--the sheer pleasure of creation. You can enhance that pleasure--and advance your craft--by being more proactive, getting to know other writers, directors, actors in your community and trying to create opportunities for yourself.

Wanna be playwrights who take time to sound off are wasting their time--you should be writing plays, as I have done for fifty years--if you just keep writing, you might eventually discover what it is you are trying to say, and stop all the shit about getting produced and making money. Get a job if you need money. Sophocles was a general in the Athenian army. Moliere was head of an acting troupe. Shakespeare worked in a theatre and eventually became part owner. And don't emerge until you have something worth emerging for. Walt Vail

I go on to say:

"If I were to critique one point of your article, it would be to say that you spend most of your time discussing 'emerging' playwrights. Well, what about those playwrights who are not emerging, e.g. have already emerged, can emerge no more, have withered away into crinkled, dusty petals? I mean specifically those playwrights, perhaps over the age of forty, say, or fifty, who had some success early on and may have even had some success since then, but are no longer productive?"

thanks for this article -- i feel compelled to comment -- after a brief glimpse at the other comments -- because i can see that a lot of people -- mostly playwrights -- will raise objections to what you say -- but as an actor and a sometime playwright -- i think it's GREAT -- because it so clearly delineates the factors you can do something about and the ones you can't -- looking at one's own habits and abilities -- and working harder and better are SO incredibly much more likely to bring success than whining about how unfair everything is -- the truth is everyone struggles and by and large, the people who really commit to honor their gifts -- who really show up-- are the ones who will make it -- in all the arts -- wishbones will never replace backbones -- so thanks for telling it like it is -- unpopular as it may be -- but human nature is such that for many people the endless blaming and complaining is just easier than looking in the mirror --- the older i get the clearer that is!

I'm going to quote myself from the above comment just because I'm great:

"Verily, most emerging playwrights I know spend their mornings in ritualistic self-pleasure, i.e. masturbating to online photos of satanist chicks. I am emailing this article to ALL OF THEM in hopes it should stir at least one from his habit and get him back to the Good Work! Youngsters, eh? Wholly ignorant of the gift that is ready access to your semen."

As an "emerging" playwright who works really hard every single day who is not a white male that doesn't necessarily write linear plays with dramatic action, I think your article is counter-productive. How can you assume so many of us are lazy or even say that? Like..what? Are you serious? Just because a playwright complains about the system doesn't mean they aren't as talented or work just as much as you do- or even more. In my experience of working and self-producing in downtown nyc, I have never met a "fucking lazy" playwright. Shame on you.

Largely agree with your points, if not your tone, but boy that title sure is a grabber. You've got to have a hook if you're going to get people to comment, so I can't begrudge you that.

One area to go further, though, is to point out that another way in to the system, broken or not, is the back door of producing, which not nearly enough playwrights take seriously. Now, this is not "Hey kids let's put on a show!" in-the-barn self-producing. You've got to do your own stuff well. But if you truly believe in your play, then take the time to cultivate a family of artists that does, too, and then read up on non-profit incorporation, start a Kickstarter campaign, and put the damn thing on its feet. There's no better cure for your ego than knowing people will actually be WATCHING your work: suddenly, you're not so sensitive about what needs to be edited and what doesn't. And if there's no "there" there, and the piece just doesn't work, well, guess what. You'll learn that right quick when you see it in front of an audience.

A playwright's job is to make theatre. Not just scripts, but theatre. And if you're really serious about your work, you'll find a way to do that, and figuring out that way should absolutely be part of your day-to-day routine, just as much as writing. You won't be able to use the system as your excuse for failure: you'll have to face the music if it turns out that there really ISN'T an audience for what you're doing. But if you do it and do it well, you'll not only find your voice/following/validation/rainbow, you'll also discover that "the system" is a bit more willing to pay attention to you. "The system," after all, is made up of individual professionals. And professionals like to work with other professionals, and the more you know about the ins-and-outs of theatre as a whole, the more professional-looking you'll be.

Matt, i love but I find your logic here to be kind of bollocks. The american theatre isn't a meritocracy. Lots of "lazy" (i really don't like this word, but ok) yucky writers get famous. Lots of genius writers who work hard don't get recognized. Many artistic directors don't know how to read plays. If they know how to read plays they have bad (IMO) taste. If they have good taste they don't have the money to do the play. If they have the money to do the play they can't put on the play for fear of offending their subscribers. ay ay ay... Love, David

touche Mr Adjmi,

I like a lot of what Mat says (or at least accept a kernel of validity) but this a fine riposte.

alas, the world is not -- nor ever has been -- a meritocracy. Cronyism rules the day.

the challenge -- and yes, the fluke (even Shakespeare benefited from remarkable flukes -- is to miraculously overcome that cronyism to carve a niche.


Never fear! There is a place of rest for those of us who have been tossed and ruined by the tempestuous maelstrom we call Theater.

Please visit www.thezocadero.org. There's nothing there yet, but check back in a week or so and we should have it up and running.

Regards,The Zocadero

You are without a doubt, 100% spot on. And the tone is just the right kick-ass note.

I started writing plays when I was a kid, and spent two summers at The Playwright's Center's summer program for teens (20 years ago) where I received a lot of guidance, and praise. I was 17 when I had my first professional reading; 20 when I had my first professional production. I received commissions. I was a finalist for the Jerome Fellowship three times and Playlabs twice. Awesome, talented, successful playwrights and dramaturgs mentored me and went out on a limb for me.

Still, I never really pulled it off.

Because I was lazy.I couldn't commit.And I had a defeatist attitude.

(I know I had talent worth developing, and I'm open to listening and to change, so I'm good there.)

Today, I make a great living ghostwriting books and long to get back to the unfinished plays, to the collaboration, to audiences faces, to the craft. But after years of fits and starts, it all feels lost to me now. I am a living example of the end result of all of this waffling, blaming, avoiding and complaining.

So thanks for your post. I hope someone will listen.

Tony, be easy on the fellow, he is young and impressionable.

Mathew, congratulations on this brave, brave article. Secure your doors with new locks, the angry playwrights are coming! Yo ho!

Verily, most emerging playwrights I know spend their mornings in ritualistic self-pleasure, i.e. masturbating to online photos of satanist chicks. I am emailing this article to ALL OF THEM in hopes it should stir at least one from his habit and get him back to the Good Work! Youngsters, eh? Wholly ignorant of the gift that is ready access to your semen.

If I were to critique one point of your article, it would be to say that you spend most of your time discussing "emerging" playwrights. Well, what about those playwrights who are not emerging, e.g. have already emerged, can emerge no more, have withered away into crinkled, dusty petals? I mean specifically those playwrights, perhaps over the age of forty, say, or fifty, who had some success early on and may have even had some success since then, but are no longer productive?

(I shall resist a second quip about productivity and vasectomies. Yo ho!)

As an example, may I refer to the life of Harrison Humillionaire Cranston, who won his first Pulitzer Prize nomination at the age of 19, and would receive seven more Pulitzer nominations over the course of his life. To many of you blessed youngsters, his name may sound unfamiliar. His work has been all but wiped clean from the Western canon, to make room for such ninny-headed big-shot hacks as Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Harvey Fierstein. To those who know him, certainly, Cranston is the greatest American playwright of the 20th Century.

It's been said before that this generation lacks an appreciation for irony. Well, youngsters, THIS is irony. Mat Smart, if you truly hope to be Mat Wise, you will heed the tragic biographies of your forerunners. The greatest tragedy of all time is not Prince Hamlet's or Lieutenant Othello's. Nay, it is Good Sir Cranston's. Last I heard he was panhandling somewhere in Rhode Island, by far the worst state to panhandle in, offering professional feedback for food.

If you are "not qualified to speak for all “emerging” playwrights" how are you qualified to call them "fucking lazy"?

"I think it has to do with listening—to each other, to our collaborators, to our audience and primarily, to our hearts and guts. We “emerging” playwrights need to kick each other’s asses more, challenge each other more, invest in one another more, and be more honest with one another"

As a straight white male who writes linear plays, you fairly easily and flippantly disregard decades worth of concerns from writers who do not write from a eurocentric-male perspective. What happened to listening?

The condescension running throughout this post is jarring. It it were a simple matter of talent, why do so many extraordinarily talented writers languish for years before being produced? (The 10-20 year overnight success, is far from a rarity.)

Part of fixing the system is removing our ignorance about the position that white male privilege plays in who gets the playwriting royalties, commissions, fellowships, teaching gigs,etc.

Perhaps you chose to ignore that, but it doesn't make other writers defeatist.

I very much like what you say Matt. Although I have to say that being a Mexican Immigrant writing plays about what it means to be an immigrant, or undocumented or even a minority has its obstacles when it comes to getting play accepted.

I just attended the Humana Festival and all the play but ONE was by WHITE males or Females those females were just TWO. So, while I agree, I think being a minority has more challenges than being just a white male playwright.

I do take in consideration all your points and agree with them heartily but at the same time, I find myself getting my plays back all the time because "we don't produce this type of plays." And yes, I'm sending them to companies who want to hear about minority issues as long as they are not controversial.

The word EMERGING is important because, like in the HUMANA FESTIVAL, the plays are NEW but ONLY TWO are by what I considered "emerging playwrights" while the rest are by playwrights who have been at the HUMANA FESTIVAL before and who have published and produced plays all over the place. In fact, one playwrigth was introduced as "The most produced playwright in American during 2010." There has to be opportunities for all of us but as a minority, we always get the short stick.

Now, I'm not whining, I'm simply stating a fact and I do work hard at getting my plays out. I just think such issues as minority, genre and other facts need to be taking into consideration too.

I agree that there's a self-fulfilling prophecy at work, as well as some other points, but blaming the writers in the manner that you have is really condescending. Telling us all to stop whining and pull ourselves up by our untalented bootstraps is pretty counterproductive. You want to open up an even handed conversation with your fellow writers? This isn't how to do it. You come at it perched way up on your high horse.

While you're correct that whining, while at times cathartic, is a waste of time, you're wrong to ignore valid critiques of the current state of American Theater.

Also, the tone here is pretty condescending.

And, it's pretty difficult to listen to your audience, as you suggest, when you never get a chance to have one.

In the main, you're on point. One of the issuesfor me concerning this topic is that many playwrights can't write plays. They're actually television babies. Playwrighting is a craft unlike any other. Most playwrights of the 'emerging" generation are learnign craft in schools where old writers go to die afte tenure. These "teachers" don't ahve sucessful careers and they don't write anymore because they teach. But what are they teaching.

Also, not all the agencies, instituions youmentionare that great. 13P sucks. They just have a dynamic marketing statergy. Theate in America is fucked up and its fucked us because playwrights ain't writing plays but are writng crap instead and want audiences to pay for it.

Agreed, Owa. I have already seen far too many new plays, which whether they were good or bad, came across as the pilot episode for a television series; in fact, I've noticed one hot young talent, whose main output seems to be deliberately designed as be the first season for a cable television show just waiting to be threaded together.

I went to a seminar by an author that I admire (professionally; personally, I think he's a dick). During the seminar, he was talking about his vision of a successful author. He says that all writers are actually three jobs:

1) Artists2) Craftspersons3) Businesspersons

The first part is obvious. The Artist is the creative heart and soul of the person that has the great idea, gets fired up about that great idea, and starts writing. The problem is that great ideas aren't that frequent, and the passion that follows the great idea fizzles out pretty quickly, and thus the writing part doesn't last all that long.

A Craftsman, on the other hand, is all about showing up on time, working hard every day to perfect his craft. It's not about the great ideas, and it's not about the passion. It's about working every day, no matter what, whether he has a good idea or not. It's about writing through the dull days and the bright days, the hard days and the easy days. The Craftsman sets a goal and a pace, and it follows that pace (at a minimum) every day, no matter what. And a good Craftsman knows that you have to work every day, and if what he did today wasn't any good, well... hey, now he knows what doesn't work, and tomorrow he can write something and not make the same mistake.

Now the Artist gets very emotionally attached to his great idea, to the passion that inspired this particular piece of writing, and so it's very hard for the Artist to step back and say "Hey, this isn't working." That's where the Businessman comes in. The Businessman takes the Artist and locks him away in a cell, and then commences to rip out all the Great Emotional Parts That Aren't Really That Great, listens to criticism from peers, and actively looks to see what works and what doesn't. Emotion doesn't come into the picture at all.

The Businessperson also goes out and sells their work. They send out their work to anyone who would want to read it, they network, they market, and they hustle. The Businessperson is a salesman, a marketer, and a public relations specialist.

Any successful writer, according to this author, has all of the above criteria.

And so to get back to the topic at hand, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that many playwrights have quality issues which stem from a lack of one (or more) of the above "jobs" of a writer. Most playwrights are artists. All playwrights are artists, I should say. You wouldn't write a play if you weren't an artist. So let's assume all playwrights are artists.

Which leaves us the Craftspersons and Businesspersons. Now I'm going to go out on another limb and say that the most successful playwrights are the ones who write every day. Maybe they don't write an entire scene or even an entire monologue, but every day they wake up, they sit down at their computer or typewriter or notepad, and they write, whether it's good or bad.

I know a lot of "playwrights". I don't know a lot of "playwrights" who write _every single day_. Many playwrights lack the Craftsperson aspect.

But even more so, many playwrights lack the Businessman aspect. They think "Hey, I (the Artist) have produced this magnificent opus. Produce it!" And they don't get out there and sell it. They don't get out there and market it. They don't get out there and network and make connections and actively find people to produce it.

Even more so at the writing level, many playwrights don't have the Businessman come in and cut out all the crap. They don't cut out all the scenes that don't work, because oh my gosh, I just spent six hours writing that scene, and I'll be damned if I cut it!

And so I must respectfully disagree with Adam S. I don't think talent is elusive, and I don't think it's immeasurable. I don't think it's entirely subjective.

Talent isn't just artistic vision or writing skills. It's easy to tell who has talent and who doesn't: the ones that incorporate the Artist, Craftsman and Businessman aspects are successful, and the ones that don't... well, they're not.

And so I conclude my rant. Thanks for reading if you read this far. Enjoy.

To further unpack my "thank you very much for saying what a lot of theatre bloggers aren’t": Certain bloggers, when decrying the problems with the system, seem to really be asking "why are my works not being produced?" often with the subtext of entitlement stemming from having an MFA or having what they feel to be the correct political ideology.

Now, if something is broken, it's not that I'm personally not being produced (I'm very early in my playwriting career) it's that when I attend readings or productions of new works, I'm seeing far too much mediocrity.

I agree with a lot of what you have to say but I think talent is an elusive and liquid thing. Based solely on the next play someone writes, they can become more or less talented. Some people peak early, some late. If you're lucky, you peak early and everyone notices you then. If you're even luckier, you can peak over and over like Edward Albee.

I think it is possible to work hard and become more talented...for some people. And it is also possible to squander the talent you have.

Hi Mat,

Very interesting. I read this as a reward for having put in my hour from 6-7AM today on a new draft of a script that really needs to sing better, before I go to meetings all day. I love that feeling. On that level I'm kind of with you - on the "just keep doing better" level.

But I think you're glossing over a few things - you mention you're white and male (I am too), and that you make conventional plays (I don't), but then you don't really take that into account throughout the article. Meaning, the system may not be as broken for you as it is for someone of color, a woman, or a woamn of color making non-traditional work.

It's not that that work or those artists don't get produced, they do, sometimes. It's just that the actual opportunities are fewer and less remunerative.

Also - it's great that you can live on $19-31K. I can't because I need to keep my 2-year-old in diapers. So if that's the pay scale for a successful emerging playwright, then it begins to cut out people with kids, with families they have to support, and that to me says "broken." Or at least broke.

The point is to include as many voices as possible in the conversation, to ask those reading and considering our work to honor many aesthetics and processes as valid, and to greet what we propose with imaginative leaps as well as critical subjectivity.

I really admire the spirit of this, but I think it's both possible to always be holding ourselves to a higher standard, as you suggest, and always be trying to fix a broken system. It will work better if we're holding ourselves accountable and asking the system for more.

"I expect this rant will piss some of my peers off, but it comes from the place of hoping we can lift each other up. We can do our part to fix the system. Can we shed the “emerging” label? Can we figure out how to arrive?"

On the contrary...this rant fired me up.

I'm getting up tomorrow and sending out eight submissions.

Then I'm getting some actor friends together to read the next draft of my new full-length.

Before the end of the week I should get the Kickstarter going for the self-production of another play of mine.

Thanks for kicking my ass Mat.

Great article.