A few posts on the art and business of playwriting have come my way. First, there’s Terry Teachout’s rather mournful but still hopeful “The Playwright’s Reward” that appeared in the 30 September Wall Street Journal (both mournful and hopeful particularly because Mr. Teachout is a newly-minted playwright himself). But more informatively, there’s Steve Waters’ post at the Guardian today, which references Mr. Teachout’s column.
Mr. Waters thanks his lucky stars that he has an academic job to support his playwriting work. But the genuinely interesting passage is not in the blog post itself, but in a comment there by “Riverman,” who started writing professionally forty years ago, had some success, and has seen the ground shift in terms of the self-supporting playwright. It is worth quoting at length, because it opens a window onto several developments in the business of playwriting that have laid out the field for the professional dramatist in the recent past. Of course he is writing about the British theatre culture, not the American, but some of what he says is valid for these shores as well:
I “subsidise” my theatre work by writing for radio. I’m lucky — I get regular commissions and am given pretty much free rein over content, within the obvious constraints, language-wise and thematically, dictated by the format. But just to give some context, about 5 years ago, in a doomed attempt to get back into TV, where I hadn’t worked for over 15 years, I was persuaded to “write” an episode of Eastenders. I didn’t enjoy it one bit — my style isn’t exactly right for the show — but got through it, and earned over three times what I would have earned for thirty minutes of radio work. And I spent only a fraction of the time on it that I would have spent on an original radio piece, or even an adaptation. You’re dead right — we work for minimum wage at most, unless we’re very lucky, or one of the great and the good who have been admitted to theatre’s inner sanctum where their names are spoken with awe. This elevation can be pretty arbitrary, mind, depending as it does on critical patronage and directorial whim, and if your face doesn’t fit, regardless of the quality of your work, you don’t get in.
When I started writing professionally in the late ’70s — and through to the early ’90s — if a play was a hit, then the TV and Movie rights were almost automatically bought up, and if a production ensued, or a few drafts of a screenplay, then you multiplied your earnings at least five-fold. But, of course, back then, there were fewer playwrights and fewer new plays. Competition was fierce but rarely cutthroat, a situation which changed with the explosion in university creative writing courses and theatres setting up their own courses for, inevitably, younger writers. It all began to change about 20 years ago, and much as I’m happy with change, I think the model we have now is unsustainable. It’s a very crowded marketplace these days, and though I know some writers could get their shopping lists onstage, that’s not many of us, so I find the idea that we’re all hoovering up commissions and then not delivering a bit puzzling. I’d probably have a heart attack if a literary manager actually picked up the phone to call me — they rarely even do you the courtesy of an email reply these days. And then you see some of the dross they commission and despair.
I’ll probably attract flak for saying this, but the incessant search for the “new” should only be one part of theatres’ remit. It was always there, to a point, on the fringe, but has become so all-pervasive now that it threatens to hothouse young talent only to consign it to the “salt-mine of Holby City” while leaving commercially and critically successful older writers out in the cold. What’s left is a sort of dramaturgical orthodoxy that I honestly believe is stranglng our theatre-writing culture. We’re also stuck with directors’ theatre all over again — got something burningly urgent you need to write about 9/11? “No, but I’ll commission twenty slivers of thought on the subject, from twenty different writers, and give it a fashionably ‘directed’ production. Should be quite an ‘event’.” Sorry to sound so cynical, and I hope nobody thinks I’m unfairly caricaturing the situation, but there’s a horrible predictability to the way things have turned out. Most of the things we did naturally well in this country for many years have been McKinseyed either to death or into a new and ugly shape, and many in the theatre and academe have collaborated in the creation of this deracinated, star- and novelty-driven theatre that guards its ever-shrinking place at the table of public discourse so jealously that it’s prepared to jettison most of the things that made it matter in the first place.