Fascinating Discussion: ‘Tony Kushner Can’t Support Himself As A Playwright’

It started with Scott Walters at Theatre Ideas, when he noticed a paragraph in a mostly straightforward Time Out New York interview with Tony Kushner and posted about it:

“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?

Across the country in Seattle, Paul Mullin picked it up and posted his own thoughts:

Somehow this nation can support hundreds upon hundreds of regional theatre artistic directors, managing directors, development directors and adjunct staff—a whole class of workers that can only be described as “artistic administrators”; but even our very best writer for the stage must go to film and television for his bread and butter.

We all nod sagely and agree the system’s broken.  But if you want to fix it—do more than watch sadly as it dies the death of ragdoll—then I continue to suggest you follow the money and ask impolite questions.

And then, in Paul’s comments section, the discussion gets really fascinating. Go read!

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18 thoughts on “Fascinating Discussion: ‘Tony Kushner Can’t Support Himself As A Playwright’

  1. Isn’t this what Outrageous Fortune was attempting to address a couple of years ago? I’m hoping the Outrageous Fortune conversation has been moving forward, instead of the blogosphere starting at square one again with the above posts.

  2. How depressing, to learn that Tony Kushner is unable to make his living from his work as a talented, award-winning, frequently-produced playwright. I wonder how many other talented American writers are experiencing the same dire straits, but have not revealed this to the public.

    What are some solutions to this problem? What can we do as a community to change this state of affairs? How can the role of playwright (like other essential professions within theater) earn a living like other members of the community, from artistic directors and managers to technicians and designers?

    Brendan McCall
    Founder & Artistic Director
    Ensemble Free Theater Norway

  3. Before we start a wave of mass hysteria regarding the state of theatre in America, let’s consider a few things:

    1) What did Kushner *really* mean when he said he can’t support himself as a playwright? I don’t know what his royalty income is each year, but I have a sneaking suspicion that sum of money could very much serve as a livable wage to many people.

    2) A simple solution to the problem would be for theatres to simply produce more Kushner plays! But – is that fair? Because Kushner is regarded as the best American playwright, does that mean the works of other new or established playwrights should be produced less? Nobody is freaking out about all of the underemployed and unemployed actors out there. Playwrights are a lot like actors – there are way more of them than there are opportunties for full-time employment. Even some of the most talented and most brilliant will spend their entire careers under the radar.

    3) I don’t care for Paul Mullin’s assertion that “Somehow this nation can support hundreds upon hundreds of regional theatre artistic directors, managing directors, development directors and adjunct staff—a whole class of workers that can only be described as ‘artistic administrators’…”

    Excuse me? “Can *ONLY* be described as ‘artistic administrators’…”? What does that mean? First of all, if we agree that theatres should exist, we must also agree that theatres need some kind of administration. Does the presence of administration somehow affect Mr. Kushner’s royalties? I fail to see the connection between the employment of artistic administrators (regardless of whether they are overpaid, which seems to be what Mr. Mullin is implying) and the ability of playwrights to make a full-time living.

    I can assure Mr. Mullin that the vast majority of these artistic administrators are not laughing all the way to the bank. Nor are most theatres overstaffed – quite the opposite. I am continually stunned as I peruse listings for various arts administration jobs. The list of job responsibilities keep getting longer, while the pay gets lower.

    I could go on. But I think we need to avoid flying off the handle as a result of Mr. Kushner’s words.

  4. Dare I drag out the old Robert Anderson quote one more time? Ok, I will… As he so astutely pointed out many many years ago: “You can make a killing in the theatre but not a living.”

    But, seriously, Paul’s point is one we ought to chew on a bit. If we have ways of finding money for teams of tinkerers, we ought to have the wherewithal to find some cash for the originators.

    • I agree with this and the Anderson quote. Making a living in the arts is obviously very difficult and the only way to do so is to create works that generate a great deal of revenue (films) or create works that are subsidized in some way (the theatre). The latter will never be the case in the US, so none of us should be surprised.

      But with that said, I do think the US theatre and NYC specifically needs a different kind of cost structure that allows more new plays to come to Broadway where they can get their NY pedigree…and hopefully get more mileage in the regionals. Broadway simply doesn’t produce many new plays any more and I believe this lies squarely at the feet of the technical theatrical unions . the actors aren’t making any money. the producers? Please. But did you ever take a gander at what the backstage crew makes? And what it costs just to load in???

  5. In my opinion, Paul shifted the discussion back to tracks we are more comfortable with: “they” ought to “support” artists more. Isn’t it about time we give up hoping that some progeny of the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations will ride onto the field showering money on everyone? We’ve been dreaming that dream for decades now. Time to grow up and leave the NEA’s basement and figure out how to do this in a sustainable way. This might involve doing some research, both in theatre history and in the business section of the local bookseller. How did Shakespeare do it? Yes, the King’s Men had a royal patron, but the contribution was pretty minimal. But Shakespeare was a shareholder in the King’s Men, a householder of the Globe, an actor, and a playwright who cranked out several plays a year. What he wasn’t was a playwright-specialist who wrote a play every couple years. All of which is to say, as artists we pride ourselves on innovation and imagination, so why don’t we apply some of that to the way we do business? If Paul doesn’t like money going to administrators, then artists need to take on the job themselves, just like Shakespeare and Burbage did.

    • Strictly speaking Scot, I was just asking questions and pointing out truisms. I actually like your suggested models of more stakeholdership. I don’t really care to get a hand out.

      So be kind and correct and characterize my arguments for what they are, not what people have assumed they are.

  6. Karen: the Outrageous Fortune conversation does move forward. Tune into the Dramatist Guild gathering at George Mason University when Todd London updates the field on what’s happened in the interim. It’ll be livestreamed via #New Play TV.

    Paul: Sorry to disagree with you assertion that it’s all still at square one. Poke around the #newplay discussion a bit. It’s in motion.

  7. Early in my career I asked Susan Lori Parks at an event at the Public Theater where she was being interviewed by Tony Kushner when I’d be able to quit my day job and she said YOU NEVER GET TO QUIT DAY JOBS IN THE ARTS. It was a foundational moment for me which I often quote to others. She explained that while she was a published and produced playwright she still made her living writing in other mediums, teaching and working on projects that were not necessarily passion projects but she liked the concept enough to work on them. Today’s artists have to work in a variety of mediums. We can’t afford to be narrowly specialized. I’m not saying this optimal, just wondering why we are treating this subject like it’s news. Find me a theater artist who makes their living doing only what they like and I’ll show you a dozen others who think that cat’s lucky—–perspective from a playwright/producer/performer

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