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There is No Money in the American Theater

Playwrights’ Corner
Black and white headshot of Matthew Paul Olmos

At some point, every aspiring theater artist gets told there is no money in theater. Be it playwright, actor, director, designer, etc., it is inevitably told to us that making an actual living solely off our art is not going to happen. However, many of us simply shrug this off; we think of numerous exceptions to that rule and opt instead to bear down even more intently on our craft; finding solace in the idea that things will work themselves out.

Good and honest work will pay off. Talent will lead to a life.

Soon enough we find ourselves surrounded by so many theater artists finding ways to stay afloat. Some discover the inspiration of teaching; others secure a skill or a day job. Some form their own theaters or move into administration, others live comfortably piecemeal. And of course there are those lucky bastards who come from money or who marry wealthy. But all of these endeavors have one thing in common: they support us financially while we dedicate ourselves to an art form that cannot pay us.

Years ago, I was fortunate enough to speak with acclaimed artist, Eric Fischl, just as I was considering leaving my day job at The Lark, where I’d ran the marketing for over six years. Speaking to this, Eric told me that through the years he’d seen many artists, far more talented than he, give up or change career paths because they couldn’t deal with the irregular income and unpredictable lifestyle of an artist. He also told me that the moment a support job got in the way of my art, I needed to leave that job. His wisdom meant a lot to me, and when my position at The Lark began conflicting with my playwriting career, I made the leap to writing full time, with various part-time gigs to get me by.

Things will work themselves out, I needed to believe.  

Since then, I’ve watched many colleagues make the mature decision to step away from being an artist, or pursuing an artist’s life. Some begin new careers outside of the arts, or just alongside it; the actor turned arts-therapist, the director who now has a loving family and a ‘normal’ career to support them. So many of us begin aimed in the same direction, but through the years the difference of paths are both endless and beautiful. However, while I sometimes feel proud of having made this far as a playwright and wonder how much they must miss it or question their decision, I often instead question myself, as I watch my former colleagues buy houses and live lives that I can only describe as adult.

And so, at a certain age (usually mid-30’s) many of us begin to question if this lifestyle will be enough. How many more years are we willing to give over to the theater, on that diminishing hope that our work will someday pull in substantial money? And though we’d always been aware of how uncommon that actually is, it finally begins to sink in.

So it is not so surprising how many theater artists have turned to other mediums, namely television and film. As of late, there is almost a modern-day “moving out west,” as so many head to Los Angeles for those deep pockets of The Industry. Money aside though, the past several years have been downright inspiring as theater artists have been crucial to this wave of undeniably exciting television and film. And I relish in the idea that executives from these fancier mediums are realizing just how much craft artists from the theater bring; playwrights are becoming showrunners, they’re giving speeches at the Academy Awards. We are in an exhilarating time of seeing theater artists rewarded for the years they spent just trying to get by.

While most of these artists have kept one foot planted in the theater, I find myself wondering about the next generation. Will aspiring playwrights dream about a show at The Public Theater in New York, or will they consider that a stepping stone to running a show on Netflix? And if they do, is that bad? Think of comedian Louis CK, who has blasted the doors wide open for comedians; he doesn’t just write and perform a new hour special for HBO or Showtime, he produces and distributes it on his own, as his fans pay him for it through his own website. He also writes, directs, stars, and edits his own television art films via FX, where he has almost complete autonomy. The possibilities of where all this may lead is thrilling and I can hardly sit still for when a playwright or devised company blasts the doors wide open for theater artists, but still, what happens to the theater?

As I’ve been back and forth between Los Angeles and New York for the past year, I’ve had a tough go of it. Shortly after trying my hand out west, my agent and I parted ways. But thanks to other playwrights and colleagues, I’ve been put in the room with industry and been given wonderful opportunities. I’ve been paid to write for television/film and I’m developing projects; but if I’m honest with myself, while I am invested, they remain paycheck jobs. What truly means the Earth to me is writing for the theater, and I struggle with myself to write anything else. That said, perhaps if I were hired to write for “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” or some new Duplass brothers project, I might be singing a different tune. But when I imagine an ideal life, if money were no object, it involves me in a rehearsal room exploring some new piece with actors, composers, designers, and directors for the theater; and I worry that upcoming playwrights won’t dream the same.

At a time when funding for the arts is in absolute peril, how will we inspire the next generation of theater artists to still see the theater as an art form worth dedicating their lives to? How can theaters keep the focus of not only their audiences, but now their artists too? Perhaps playwrights could bounce seamlessly between stage and screen. But as so many are finding themselves fulfilled both artistically and monetarily by other mediums, will the theater become what it often does for successful TV and film actors, something they return to here and there when their shooting schedule allows it?

Recently, both New Dramatists and The Lark have begun dedicating some resources to playwrights in Los Angeles. One Sunday of every month, playwrights from New Dramatists meet at an upstairs room of The Samuel French Bookstore just to talk, to share, to commiserate about whatever is going on in our writerly lives. Meanwhile, The Lark has begun hosting evenings where Lark artists can gather and spend time just like we used to at Lark’s events in New York. At each of these new gatherings, one playwright or another will exclaim how wonderful it is to be in a room of playwrights again. So there is a want for the theater not to become secondary, but these artists also have families to support and financial futures to think of. As such, New Dramatists and The Lark are addressing that their artists’ priorities are being pulled in a different direction, and they are doing their part to still support their community, even from across the country.

Back when I was still on staff at The Lark, the Artistic Director John Clinton Eisner and I used to speak to MFA Playwriting programs. And while most students wanted to know about agents or literary managers, what John instead focused our conversations on was why they truly wanted to be writers to begin with. Given the climate of the world we live in, what did they believe their work would add to the conversation? Most students had never given this much thought. Writing plays was something they wanted to do and they just wanted to know how to “make it.” Most probably figuring anything else would work itself out. If they only knew how many of them would stick with it for several years, but ultimately wind up someplace entirely different. If they only knew the likelihood of them affording a house and a family was simply not possible on what a playwright actually gets paid for productions, commissions, etc.  

That there is no money in the American theater should perhaps be something that is not just mentioned, but actually taught and studied and planned for. As opposed to being like some family secret that the elders know well, but the young ones can’t yet comprehend. Perhaps theaters could build relationships with writers that don’t reinforce that wealth and glory are just beyond the gates. Perhaps transparency could open up the relationships between artists and organizations; between artists as well. Perhaps a less experienced playwright seeing just how much an accomplished playwright actually made in year could be of help.       

While there are amazing programs out there that select a few theater artists here and there to give them a taste of what it would be like to be paid for their art, I wonder what can be done at the root of all this and what systems could be put in place for it to not completely fall on the shoulders of theater artists to both work tirelessly on their art, and build up an entirely different financial support system at the same time.

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