Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Tony Kushner: Can't Support Himself as a Playwright

"I make my living now as a screenwriter! Which I’m surprised and horrified to find myself saying, but I don’t think I can support myself as a playwright at this point. I don’t think anybody does." -- Tony Kushner, in Time Out.

My question to you: if Tony Kushner, who I would argue is the best playwright in America today, can't support himself as a playwright, can anybody? And if not, should Kushner's statement be seen as an earthquake that might lead to the examination of the overall theatre business model?

I think it should be seen that way, and taken to heart, and every playwriting professor across the US ought to put that quotation at the top of their syllabus.

16 comments:

Tj Weaver said...

Being a double major in English and Musical Theater with aspirations of becoming a successful playwright, this is very disturbing news. What will it take for America to finally appreciate the level of hard work and talent that goes into live theater? Will playwriting teachers now have to teach screenwriting because just being a playwright isn't enough to pay the bills? Very frustrating.

Scott Walters said...

I would suggest that we, as theatre people, need to reconsider whether the current business model is sustainable. Look back at history -- how many playwrights were there that only wrote plays? Many of them also ran their own companies or theatres, e.g., Shakespeare, Moliere. Perhaps the days of specialization have passed.

nick said...

No earthquake here. Normal weather. Only the naive would consider playwriting a profession where you could make living wage. Playwriting professors suggesting otherwise are perpetrating a pyramid scheme.

Ian Thal said...

just to throw this out there: Kushner's plays are very challenging in scope and content which might scare a lot of companies from producing them, so while he is arguably one of the best, how often do his works actually get produced, compared to his cohort of established playwrights of the baby-boom generation?

Because in my neck of the woods, I see Mamet getting produced far more often than Kushner (as much as I would like it to be the other way around.)

Dustin said...

Was there ever an era of specialization? Playwriting is a tool and should be used as such. You cannot be just a playwright just like you can not use just a hammer. To build a play one must use other materials and grab from their own experiences. The only experience that being a playwright, or anyone within the scope of art, is to know what it's like to be a broke artist.

All artists have a responsibility to become experts at everything. Then you will have all your materials. Then you will have something to build.

Scott Walters said...

Nicely said, Dustin.

Paul Mullin said...

Scott,

Thanks to your initial post we're having a great discussion of this very issue over at Just Wrought: http://www.paulmullin.org/just-wrought/2011/05/tony-kusher-cannot-support-himself-as-a-playwright.html

Cheers and thanks as always for the great work!

Paul Mullin

Scott Walters said...

Hey, Paul! Yes, I saw, and left a comment myself! Great to be connected again!

Scott

Sean said...

Mamet does even more screenwriting than Kushner does, not to mention producing. Sam Shepard supports himself by acting. I don't think there's anyone at that level, or any level, that can possibly support themselves exclusively as a playwright. It's just a matter of economics; there's astronomically more money in tv and film than there is in theater, and pound for pound it's more expensive to produce theater. There's no backend, no overseas distribution rights, no DVD sales. It's not, and never will be, as profitable as the tv and film industries. As such, there's not as much money to go around, so they look elsewhere to suport themselves.

That said, I don't think that's such a bad thing, nor should any playwright be looked down upon for taking on such work. Any more than an actor should be looked down on for taking TV or film work. Some of the finest stage actors in the business do film, and we don't seem to look down on them for that.

Screenwriting can me a means to an end. And if that end is quality new plays that have the opportunity to be produced, then I don't see that as being a problem.

Sabina said...

nope, you cannot support yourself as a playwright solely. Many famous playwrights also double as screenwriters, theatre professors, actors, or have shitty day jobs.

Or, you can always find yourself a filthy rich patron of the arts and marry him/her and you can mooch off their money (MILLIONS OF DOLLARS, BABY)

Andrew Utter said...

This is an old lament. Chekhov said that medicine was his wife, and writing was his mistress. I think it's pretty much always gonna be like that.

Jayne said...

Yes, and yes. Please see my March 30 essay in Howlround on the monarchy of the artistic director and the question: is the playwright a collaborator or contractor? www.howlround.com

Jayne Benjulian

Ian Thal said...

The URl for Jayne's essay is: http://www.howlround.com/2011/03/30/playwrights-collaborators-or-contractors-by-janye-benjulian/

ukejackson said...

Well, since no one else has tossed this quote into the discussion:

"A playwright can't make a living but he might make a killing."

Arthur Miller

Ken said...

Yes, it is impossible to support one's self through playwriting alone. However, if your "day job" is screenwriting (Kushner, Mamet) or acting (Shepard, Wally Shawn) that's not really anything to complain about. For most of us, those fall-back jobs seem as impossible a goal to attain as getting our plays produced regularly. Therefore, we work at the real-world jobs that one can get with a playwriting degree, jobs usually completely unrelated to the arts, jobs which drain us of time and energy that we would much rather put to our writing. I would love to have my days filled with the "drudgery" of writing screenplays or acting in films.

Rachael M said...

I don't think most actors I know make a living solely doing theatre either (particularly non-union. or even solely doing theatre and film/tv/commercials. I think this is largely a reflection of the business model of most not-for-profit theatres around. It's something I've been thinking about a lot lately. I think the present system needs work.