The Playgoer: Playwrights in TV Land--II

Custom Search

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Playwrights in TV Land--II

Lots of questions (in Comments) after the last post on this over what exactly the terms of a standard New York playwright's contract are and how much "subsidiary rights" they really have to grant to a producing company. Once I can sort out all the terms of the debate myself I will try to inquire further with the Dramatists Guild for clarification. Meanwhile if anyone other than Joshua or The Anonymous Dissenter (no aspersions on either) care to weigh in, please do so here.

I'm glad this LA Times article provoked so much response. Anytime theatre artists talk openly about the economic circumstances they work under, it hopefully opens some eyes as to what it takes to be a practising actor/playwright/director in today's New York.

The playwrights interviewed here are obviously already "successful" in that they're now earning good money on television. But that doesn't mean they're already out of touch with what the average struggling dramatist has to go through. Their testimony proves that the New York Theatre cannot sustain the careers of playwrights as lauded as Warren Leight (who won a Tony for Side Man) and Diana Son (whose Off-Broadway Stop Kiss is probably done somewhere in the country every day).

And sustaining is what this is all about. I believe the health of the American theatre is directly related to the health of the theatre professions in America. This is the greatest difference between the theatre now and the theatre fifty years ago. There are potentially just as many great stage actors now as then--but there's a lot less supporting the profession now, and thus encouraging and keeping them on stage. Same with writers. The unions are doing their best. (Except for the playwrights, of course, who don't have one.) But when the sheer number of plays produced is down, and especially down on Broadway, there's not much they can do. Under the current system, it's only on Broadway that actors can win Tonys and command liveable wages. Usually only a Broadway production can give a new script by an unknown writer sufficient currency in regional theatre and with Sam French and Dramatists Play Service. (This is beginning to change, thankfully.)

In short, what the Warren Leight example teaches us (and, please, I'm not pointing to him as an example of pity--obviously he's more successful than most writers) is that one hit play does not a career make. Remember that when a writer like Leight can even earn a few hundred thousand off a play, that only begins to pay off the debts he/she has accrued over the pervious ten years of obscurity.

And it only gets a writer through maybe the next year or two if they don't put out another hit, which everyone expects to be just like the first.

Before we consider the playwright's problem solved when they get one $400,000 windfall, let's just remember we live in a world where people in business command salaries in the hundreds of thousands year after year for just showing up. (Not to mention hefty "parachute" and severance packages when they basically fail.)

So if it's fallen to TV to basically subsidize the American theatre--by paying actors and playwrights a liveable wage to keep practicing their craft--so be it. But keep in mind, this is what a true National Theatre or network of regional repertory theatres is supposed to do: provide steady employment. It's what the Federal Theatre Project sought to do by putting theatre artists to work, on anything, anywhere. That's the legacy of subsidized theatre we need most right now.

PS. Isaac gives a window onto the economic calculus of his own life as a freelance director that's equally instructive.

No comments: