The Playgoer: "Outrageous Fortune"

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Friday, January 15, 2010

"Outrageous Fortune"

Lots of theatre folk are talking about this book, a meaty study on just what is going on with playwrights today. Written by a team headed by New Dramatists chief Todd London and published by Theatre Development Fund (TDF) it's called: Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play.

Its thesis? "The relationship between playwrights and theaters is essentially broken."

That's the way TDF head Victoria Bailey bluntly put it to the Times, at least. A theme familiar to blog readers everywhere, but now it's in print!

I haven't gotten around to reading it myself yet, but hope to soon. Meanwhile, if you have, you might want to participate in the veritable reading group Isaac has formed at Parabasis to hash out every detail of the thing, chapter by chapter.

Meanwhile, more highlights from the Times summary:

Playwrights say artistic directors are obsessed with selling tickets in spite of their nonprofit missions and with pleasing board members by favoring world premieres or playwrights who are already admired by critics.“We heard from artistic directors who admitted that they’re all going after the same 10 playwrights to produce their work, which is largely about getting prestige in their field,” said Todd London.
Maybe that helps explain this phenomenon.
According to the study, the average playwright earns $25,000 to $39,000 annually, with about 62 percent of playwrights making less than $40,000 and nearly a third pulling in less than $25,000.
Hm. Don't those numbers seem optimistically high?

David Adjimi is chosen as a probably good example of a representative "successful" early-career playwright:
David Adjmi, an award-winning playwright whose drama “Stunning” was produced Off Broadway last summer by Lincoln Center Theater’s program for emerging writers, said he earned as much as $40,000 from his plays in some years and as little as $5,000 in others. Mr. Adjmi said he had never had health insurance and lived with his mother in Midwood, Brooklyn, for a time in his early 30s to save money. “I was unable to write plays for two and a half years because I was temping to pay my rent, and money that I did make from playwriting went to fill a bunch of cavities that I’d let build up,” Mr. Adjmi said.
But then Oskar Eustis chimes in with some really disheartening "realism":
he said, playwrights need to understand that theaters have serious business concerns that limit their ability to favor playwrights over audiences. “There is always room for artistic risk taking and experimental theater, but if we’re going to have a theater that matters, we have to make theater that people want to see,” Mr. Eustis said. “If as a field we resent that criterion, we’ll doom the field to oblivion.”
But if The freakin' Public can't afford to "favor playwrights over audiences" then who can??? Too big to fail, I guess.

Christ, can't someone at least get into the business of just putting on whatever they believe in without caring if anyone likes it? Anyone???


Esther said...

Well for the sake of argument, I agree with Oskar Eustis. What would be the point of putting on a play that no one came to see, no matter how much you believed in it? I mean, you could do it for yourself and your friends in your basement and if that makes you happy, go for it! But I would imagine most playwrights want an audience bigger than themselves and their family and close friends. I'm not saying give up your artistic integrity but if you believe so strongly in what you've written, shouldn't you be able to make the audience believe in it, too? Otherwise, have you succeeded?

Dr. Cashmere said...

The problem with Eustis' formulation is that it seems to assume, as does Esther's comment, that people just don't want to see artistically adventurous work.

But there are a bunch of companies in New York and elsewhere that consistently refute that argument.

The choice isn't between playing to an empty room and making theatre people want to see. The choice is about who theatres see as their audience.

I grant Eustis that if he wants to attract 60-something suburbanites, he probably needs to trim his sails artistically.

But it isn't at all clear to me that New York can't sustain at least a single large theatre that just takes the best scripts they can find and puts them on--using the best directors, actors, designers, etc.

I actally always thought that's what The Public was supposed to be about.

Anonymous said...

How about that leadership over there at the Public!

Anonymous said...

I think Eustis should change his title from Artistic Director to Audience Navigator -- which is really how he describes his job.

Very very sad, pathetic, and sort of the final nail in a very thin coffin.

Tom Shea said...

What kind of "business" would that business be, then?

Anonymous said...

Tom, what kind of "business" is a "not-for-profit" business....? An oxymoron if ever there was one.

George Hunka said...

To be fair to Oskar Eustis, the Public has been home to Mark Russell's "Under the Radar" festival over the past few years -- he does deserve some credit for that in terms of presenting adventurous performance work.

I'd also suggest that Eustis' comment regarding "theatre that people want to see" is an observation of a more pragmatic than artistic nature. While he did inherit Joseph Papp's Public Theatre and its legacy, the cultural world has changed since Papp died 1991. Papp's Public Theatre was not competing against five hundred channel cable TV or Netflix, let alone the enormous number of new theatres that have opened downtown since his death, theatres that largely took up where the Public left off during the darker years (Akalaitis and George C. Wolfe) between Papp and Eustis. And it's been a long time since plays by Adrienne Kennedy, Wally Shawn, Sam Shepard, Eric Bogosian, Thomas Babe and John Guare flourished on its stages (many of them simultaneously). Though this latter may say something about the quality of new plays.

Playgoer said...

I agree with George that Eustis' comment (as disappointing as it is) should be read within the context of what he HAS done to put challenging and unpopular work on the Public's many stages. Collaborations with and hosting of other entities, like "Under the Radar" (which didn't originate with the Public remember) and the LABrynth have brought a lot of interesting work in. There's also that other tenant, "Summer Play Festival"--but the work there has hardly been innovative.

Most of all, I would salute Eustis' own initiative of the "Lab" series: staged workshops for $10 a ticket, running about a week each.

So it seems he sure has tried to get around the various obstacles to not caring what the Public subscribers like. But this quote unfortunately makes him sound resigned. Maybe there was a lot more he said that wasn't included.

Anonymous said...

You know, it's not exactly a crime against art to care what your subscribers like. Subscribers are not lowest-common-denominator idiots whose terrible taste must somehow be circumvented by the geniuses who run theaters. They are, especially at the Public, people who are willing to commit hard-earned dollars, even in a recession, to supporting a theater. And I would suggest that the Public, of all places, rewards them with a great variety of work--not just the regular season plays, but Shakespeare in the Park, New Work Now, Public Lab, Under the Radar, etc.

Holding onto those subscribers is important; it actually helps pay the salaries of the Public's employees, because contrary to what you might think, there is not an abundance of rich folks running to stuff blank checks in the pockets of artistic directors who don't care what the people who come to their theater think of their work. Paying attention to subscribers does not equal pandering to them, and "just putting on whatever they believe in without caring if anybody likes it" is a mark of arrogance, not integrity. A good subscription theater shouldn't be programmed as a popularity contest, but it shouldn't be programmed as the self-venerating result of one person's taste either.

Sorry to rant, but I hate the attitude that audiences are a necessary evil--and by the way, I don't think most playwrights would be very interested in having their work produced at a theater that doesn't care if their audiences like it or not.

Dr. Cashmere said...

The idea that audiences are a necessary evil or that theatres should be programmed as the "self-venerating result of one person's taste" are straw men. No one is arguing for either.

The question is: Should artistic directors and theatres champion the best work they can find, and then work to build an audience to sustain that work? Or should they figure out the scope of work that's palatable to the kind of people who typically show up and then pick from that pool.

It's hard to know for sure what Eustis thinks based on the quote, but he certainly seems to be advocating for the latter approach.

That's dispiriting, even if you agree (and I do) with the George and PG that the Public has been involved, lately, in more interesting work than its large, well-funded local peers.

George Hunka said...

There's been something of a shift from traditional script-oriented plays in these theatres (the central focus of "Outrageous Fortune") to more performance-oriented work, both at the Public's UTR festival and at the New York Theatre Workshop. I frankly think this is a good thing. Dramatists should be able to appreciate theatrical work that isn't script-oriented, and even appropriate ideas and concepts from that work into their own writing; and, vice versa, it would be interesting to see text once again moving more towards the center of performance work. (Certainly Elevator Repair Service, in taking their own texts from Faulkner and Fitzgerald, make prose fiction central; and the Wooster Group has in the past done new plays by people like Jim Strahs in addition to classic texts.) Perhaps this is an opportunity to bring drama and performance in closer proximity to each other, and undo some of the more radical decentralizations of dramatic text in theatre. In my experience, however, most NY dramatists remain unfamiliar with their colleagues in performance, and many performance troupes don't appear to have much contact with NY dramatists.

Anonymous said...

"The question is: Should artistic directors and theatres champion the best work they can find, and then work to build an audience to sustain that work?"

Sure they should. But the way to do that is not heedlessly, by "just putting on whatever they believe in without caring if anyone likes it." In fact, one really good way to do it, if you run a theater with multiple stages, is to compromise--to use some stages to put on shows that you think your subscribers will like in the hopes that, once they trust your taste, you can use that trust to expand their taste into new areas. Using popular work to subsidize the kind of adventurous work that may have an inherently limited audience is a perfectly viable business model--and even non-profits need business models.

And by the way, why is it so dispiriting that the Public thinks to a degree about programming "for the kind of people who typically show up"? I;m sorry, but that reeks of downtown anti-audience snobbery; the minute somebody subscribes to something, they're assumed to have bland, bourgeois, unadventurous taste. Those people are your base; take them for granted at your peril

Dr. Cashmere said...

Anonymous and I clearly have different ideas about how theatres should program their seasons. Fair enough.

Still, a few final points and questions:

1) Anonymous' case against focusing programming decisions around artistic merit rather than the perceived tastes of subscribers isn't being made against the backdrop of a theatre landscape full of stubborn, mission-obsessed artistic directors who just don't care what anyone else thinks.

Quite the opposite: Nearly all the large nonprofits in New York have "compromised" themselves to the verge of artistic irrelevance.

That, I think, tells us something.

2) Relatedly, and to make it more concrete: If, say, Oskar Eustis himself "heedlessly" programmed the best work that he could find, does anyone really think that the Public's "business model" would collapse? Would the audience completely disappear?

I doubt it. In fact, I suspect Eustis would argue that he does something pretty close to this right now.

So it's hard to understand why such a prospect seems so threatening to Anonymous. Or why roundng up the best work you can find would be viewed as "anti-audience."

3) I'm curious what kind of work Anonymous thinks has an "inherently limited audience" and what rules of thumb s/he uses to determine this.

I'd grant that Richard Foreman's plays--at least the ones not featuring Willem Dafoe--probably aren't ever going to sell out Giants Stadium.

But with most other work that a theatre like the Public would consider producing, I'd guess that things are much murkier.

The assumption that there exists a discrete category of "adventurous" works that subscribers need to be cajoled into tolerating seems a lot closer to "anti-audience snobbery" than anything I've suggested.

Anonymous said...

I have to say, as someone who has written for the theatre until very recently (I am moving on), I really don't know why anyone should be writing for the theatre in this country. The environment is enormously inhospitable and all the AD's - like Eustis now, I guess -- are always scurrying to find the next "hot" thing that will "sell" at their theatre. Which is great for them, I guess, except they often have no idea what is going to be a "hit" and no means to prognosticate what the final product is going to be with that script in production. So really, it's a hollywood model! Which is a lot more interesting when you get paid a living wage, not 5 grand.

If Eustis "needs to favor audiences over artists" whatever that means -- and I think it means a LOT to ADs all over the country, frankly -- then great. But with a hostile producing environment, and a hostile critical establishment, and no money, and not a lot of creative fulfillment, why would anyone stay in the theatre?

George Hunka said...

Because, for some of us, there is no other art form that provides the tradition, aesthetics and history for what it is we wish to express through the speaking human body on stage. None of the things Anonymous mentions (the hostility of the producing and critical establishments and the lack of money) should really matter, if one is true to one's muse, or whatever you want to call it. One wants to produce experiences in the theatre impossible in any other form.

I would hope that all dramatists feel this way. If not, true, they're in the wrong line of work. Some other form like TV or film might be more suitable, and godspeed to them.

And what Dr. Cashmere says, I think, is valid. Richard Foreman will never sell out Giants Stadium. But why should he want to?

Playgoer said...

That last Anon's point about how no one knows in advance seems a pretty pertinent one. Maybe the question we should be asking is not whether it's good or bad to have a show that your audience likes, but: what's the PROCESS Artistic Directors go through to determine (i.e. guess) whether a play will be liked by the audience or not? And is that process at all valid? Or even successful?

Anonymous said...

Mr Hunka,

To paraphrase Brecht: food first, morals later. Or in this case art later. Yes, it's lovely to express one's self in the theatre. I'm being glib - it's more than lovely. I've dedicated the better part of my life to it. But there are other media that treat artists FAR better -- they actually treat you well...and THEN -- oooh surprise - they pay you money, so that you can continue to work.

I wanted for fifteen years to "produce experiences in the theatre impossible in any other form" - - I busted my ass to do so. It has been almost totally unrewarding. And I have achieved actual "success" in this miserable industry.

You can't do it without infrastructure. You can't do it outside of an ecosystem. You can't do it working overtime at development gigs, trying to not have your play completely obliterated by well meaning dramaturgs. You can't do it running the gauntlet of egomaniacal AD's, play-destroying star casting, brain-dead critics who function as traffic cops, and moribund subscribers from great neck who can't wait to get their dinner at Becco. And you can't do it slaving away at a temp job years after you've had your first play on at a NY nonprofit.

I hate it when people tell me: Oh, produce your OWN work. Do I have time to write plays, keep a side job, and then produce my own work???? That is, forgive me, totally bonkers.

So, you're telling me that I am not a man of the theatre? Because I refuse to put up with this anymore? I AM a man of the theatre. But I also like myself, and I am SANE.

A friend of mine once said "You're not just alive to write plays, you're also a person, and you need to be a human being"

The poverty was kind of ok when the cultural assumptions were different, but -- as Mr Eustis reminds us in this repugnant, badly written article -- at this point we've got big swanky theatres who are IN BUSINESS, and artists WHO ARE NOT IN BUSINESS trying to work FOR THEM. It's an unsustainable corporate model, and there is something massively wrong with this picture, and it is not my responsibility to solve it. So don't tell me that whoever can't stand the heat should just get out of the kitchen and that "none of the things Anonymous mentions (the hostility of the producing and critical establishments and the lack of money) should really matter, if one is true to one's muse"

They actually matter terribly. We can't carry the weight of all this ourselves. IT's a war of attrition, and the victories are Pyrrhic, and I give up.


George Hunka said...

Well, then, give up -- don't do it. Nobody is pleading with you to stay, certainly not me, and you must act upon your principles. But I don't think you should necessarily be congratulated for taking a brave stand of what exactly -- submission? Because "that'll show 'em"? Because it won't.

Self-production is of course not for everyone, as I've said time and time again. That I do so myself is my own decision, even with my full-time, non-arts-related side job -- it is possible, even if you decide to dismiss this effort with the characterization that it's "totally bonkers." For me, for now, it's the way to go.

We all have to put food on the table and many of us have to put food in the mouths of people other than ourselves. There's no nobility in poverty, as Brecht also well knew. But make no mistake: you're leaving the kitchen entirely of your own volition; the theatre will still be here long after we're all gone. It was still there in 1660 when the theatres reopened in London after thirty years of darkness, that too the result of government and religious disapproval. Art forms do not die, however attractive "the death of ..." rhetoric may be.

Anonymous said...

I'm going of maybe not my own volition but velleity. I am a playwright that can't function in the current ecosystem of american theatre, and I am not a producer, a director or designer, I just want to write in a dramatic form. If you like self-producing, that's great, bon chance. I'm approaching middle age, and I'm sick of the crap. Au revoir.

Anonymous said...

"Anonymous' case against focusing programming decisions around artistic merit rather than the perceived tastes of subscribers isn't being made against the backdrop of a theatre landscape full of stubborn, mission-obsessed artistic directors who just don't care what anyone else thinks.

Quite the opposite: Nearly all the large nonprofits in New York have "compromised" themselves to the verge of artistic irrelevance.

That, I think, tells us something."

All it tells me is that you don't like most of what the nonprofits produce. If there's a larger meaning than that, it escapes me. You accuse the non-profits of lacking artistic irrelevance....but to whom? You, clearly. But not their audiences. And not the artists who are produced there.

Also, my case doesn't position "artistic merit" and "the taste of subscribers" as opposites. Yours does. I think they often co-exist quite comfortably.

Anonymous said...

This last Anonymous is clearly Lynn Meadow.

Sup, Lynn!?