It is a truth universally acknowledged that no one goes into theatre to get rich. Unless you’re a big Broadway star or a commercial producer, a life in the theatre is usually a scramble—for real estate, for resources, for personnel and (the least fun part) for money.
In November, Playwrights Horizons in New York City decided to make that last item a little less of a headache for playwrights. Beginning this season, all of the writers produced at the theatre will get their health insurance premiums partially covered, and will be compensated for their preproduction efforts.
“I think the future of a play’s value is so tied up in the partnership we make together—between us, as the producer, and them, as the writer,” says Playwrights Horizons artistic director Tim Sanford. “And that’s one of the reasons why I said, ‘Let’s pay them for their time,’ because the better the production is, the more it stands to really go out into the world.”
During the theatre’s 2014–15 season, seven writers will each receive $200 a month (over the course of one year) for their healthcare premiums; the number was calculated using the average premium cost for playwrights and then halving that. They will also earn a preproduction fee comparable to what actors make during rehearsals—namely, $2,400 for each writer, recognizing not only six days spent in rehearsal, but also casting sessions, director and design meetings, and readings.
The total cost is $33,600, which comes out of Playwrights Horizon’s $10.5-million budget, demonstrating that specially earmarked funding is not always needed in order to better compensate artists. Even Sanford admits that, relatively, the amount is a drop in the bucket. “We’ll just use fewer paper clips,” he quips.
Still, with this new initiative, Playwrights Horizons becomes one of the few U.S. theatres that either cover health insurance for their writers or pay for the preproduction process (except in the case of playwright residencies, which treat playwrights as salaried employees with benefits). For Ralph Sevush, co-executive director and general counsel at the Dramatists Guild, initiatives like this one have been a long time in coming; he believes it’s something all theatres should be obligated to do.
“Part of the reason [theatres are] able to write grants to get money to do workshops or reading series or second stages is because they take part in the ‘development’ of new writers. They always publicize the names of all the shows they premiered last season—that’s part of their fundraising, it’s how they get board members, it’s how they get grants, it’s how they get tax exemptions,” he points out. “So they have a moral responsibility, if not a legal one, to do as much as they can for the artists that they work with.”
Everyone Gets Paids! (Except You)
Playwrights Horizons’ efforts are part of a larger field-wide conversation about the difficult, uneven life of the playwright, and about how theatres can support writers beyond offering commissioning fees and royalties. Theatre Development Fund’s Outrageous Fortune, a 2009 book and study authored by then New Dramatists artistic director Todd London (with Ben Pesner and Zannie Giraud Voss), disclosed that playwrights on average earned $25,000 to $39,000 annually, and 62 percent earned under $40,000. Only half of an average writer’s income came from playwright-related activities (with a meager 15 percent of that half coming directly from their plays).
Or, in playwrights’ speak: “If you want to make $40,000 a year, that’s like two commissions in between two-to-four major regional productions. And that’s a lot!” says playwright (and MacArthur Foundation “genius” grantee) Samuel D. Hunter. Indeed, considering that the average playwright receives only one to two productions a year.
And, since playwrights, unlike other freelance theatre artists such as directors, designers and actors, own the rights to their plays, they cannot unionize and collectively bargain. That means they are not covered by union health insurance (though actors are covered if they work for at least 12 weeks a year), and theatres are not mandated to pay them a fee for their time in development and pre-production (though directors are entitled to this benefit).
The traditional thinking is that a commissioning fee should be enough to cover development activity on a play. But considering that plays take years to write and can be stuck in development limbo with no guarantee of production, writers are frequently forced to stretch that initial commission fee over years. While commissions can be as generous as $25,000, a majority of commissions average $3,000–$4,999.
The inequity of the situation has prompted Yale Repertory Theatre’s Binger Center for New Theatre in Connecticut to begin paying playwrights during the development process, on top of the commission fee. The Binger Center is the new-play development hub for Yale Rep, which currently commissions five to eight playwrights a year, and is funded by a $15-million endowment from the Robina Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Says associate artistic director and director of new plays Jennifer Kiger: “It just didn’t seem equitable to be paying everybody else for their time in the room, but to consider the playwright’s work as included in the commission fee. The commission fee should be a fee for writing a play. This other work is work that happens in real time, and we should compensate them for that time.”
During development, Yale-commissioned playwrights are paid at a comparable rate to actors and directors, based on LORT A and B+ contracts. (Kiger declines to state the exact number, but as a point of comparison, Equity actors are paid $147 to $157 a day for readings on a B+ contract.) In addition, Yale Rep also pays playwrights for travel and housing and provides a per diem for expenses.
Compensation for readings and workshops is common in playwright laboratories, such as the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis (which pays its playwrights on average $375–$850 per workshop) and New Dramatists in New York City ($10–$75 per day). At producing theatres, though, such policies are rare, Kiger admits. “[People think that] playwrights should be grateful to the theatres for producing their plays, so basically all of their time and their work should be free. And I don’t think that’s reasonable,” she says.
Another way theatres and foundations are addressing this dire situation for playwrights is via residencies. In 2013, with funding from the Mellon Foundation, 14 theatres were able to dispense grant residencies, which included a salary, health insurance and artistic support over three years.
For playwright and director Robert O’Hara, in residence at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., the Mellon grant goes beyond just giving him an office space to write. “It’s about sustaining a playwright in order for them to make a living by being a playwright, and not have to do 17 other things,” the Bootycandy writer says. “This is what the Mellon grant does for me. It allows me to be a part of an institution on a senior level, and it also allows me to not think about the finances of being a playwright for the next three years.”
Woolly received a total of $185,000 to support O’Hara. In addition, the theatre commissioned his newest play Zombie: The American (due to premiere on May 25). And even though Bootycandy was a New York Times critics’ pick during its Playwrights Horizons run earlier this season, O’Hara notes that he makes a majority of his income from directing. “My career does not depend on playwriting—if it did, this would not be a very good year,” he says matter-of-factly.
But what happens when a residency runs out? Sanford is vocal in his assertion that residencies are helpful only to a small percentage of writers and don’t sufficiently address the larger problem. “The residency is a great thing for certain writers, but it just creates a sort of world of the haves and have-nots. It doesn’t address one iota of the reality that most writers are making less than $20,000 a year.”
What institutions like Playwrights Horizons and Yale Rep are doing is attempting to spread the wealth, in a small but literal way, to all writers that come through their doors. “It was important to take measures that benefit all writers, not just someone who wins the lottery by getting a residency,” says Sanford. “I want all of our writers to feel like they’re writers in residence.”
Where Is My Long-Running Hit?
The traditional justification for the divide between the playwright’s compensation versus the rates that actors, directors and designers are paid is that playwrights own the rights to their work—they can make money in the future from royalties. According to Outrageous Fortune, royalties account for only three percent of an average playwright’s total income.
For London, that finding was the biggest revelation in his research for the book. “Why are we using a commercial model in a nonprofit theatre? These are small houses, so the royalty potential is really low,” he points out.
Playwrights Horizons usually offers a $12,000 advance against royalties, which are 6 percent of the box-office gross. Writers there typically make between $15,000 and $20,000 total. A similar rate applies at Yale Rep—$12,000 against six percent—so a playwright’s livelihood is not dependent on a show selling out.
Yet what happened to the days when a writer could come up with a hit like Death of a Salesman and live off the royalties from that one play for a number of years? Outrageous Fortune attributes this lack of revenue to the death of the commercial theatre as the main producing hub for new plays. Gone are the days that a play can have a multiyear run on Broadway, or at a commercial Off-Broadway house, recoup its losses, and allow its playwright to put money down on a co-op.
When a new play hits Broadway and the commercial league these days, it’s usually fated for a short run, even if it’s a hit. Case in point: Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, which nabbed a best-play Tony in 2013, recouped its $2.75-million investment, and yet only ran for 189 performances.
And if the run is at a nonprofit house, the new play is forced to close to make way for the next show in the season. Sanford uses Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play, which ran in late 2013, as an example of thwarted potential. Following a rave in the Times, the show consistently played to sold-out houses, but it still closed after two months. “If I could’ve run Mr. Burns for 20 weeks, we would have made a million dollars on it. Anne would have made, I think, $60,000.”
So what is a playwright to do to make a buck? Once in a blue moon, or in a career, the playwright may hit the jackpot—his or her play will get produced numerous times nationwide and land on American Theatre’s Top 10 Most-Produced Plays list. Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike has made AT’s list for the past two years (this season with a whopping 27 productions). Durang told the Times that in 2013 he earned “the most money I have ever made.” (He confidently calculated that his income in 2014 would be adequate for him to remodel a room in his house.)
A similar situation exists for playwright Matthew Lopez, whose The Whipping Man has been on the Top 10 list for the past three years in a row (with seven productions this season). This has enabled Lopez to finally earn a living from playwriting. “If I didn’t have The Whipping Man, I don’t know what I would do,” he says. Though he doesn’t disclose the amount he has made in royalties for that play, he notes, “I haven’t worried about paying the rent for a while.”
So royalties can pay the rent—but only “when it works in your favor,” notes Samuel D. Hunter, who, with eight productions nationwide, is one of the country’s most-produced playwrights this season. Hunter’s newest play Pocatello is currently running at Playwrights Horizons through Jan. 4. “But then it’s so often reversed—you put your heart and soul in, you develop the hell out of something, and you spend years of your life on a play. But then it doesn’t do well, and you see almost no money.”
The “dud play” issue is magnified if no one chooses to produce the play again. “Everybody’s doing premieres and nobody’s doing second and third productions, except of these couple of hit plays,” says London. “Even in a largeish theatre, playwrights make $18,000 or $23,000, and that’s all the money they will ever earn on that play—unless it’s discovered 20 years later by a small theatre in Michigan.”
So if more productions equals more money—and since, on average, playwrights receive only one or two productions a year—perhaps a way to game the system is to guarantee playwrights more productions of their plays. This is the agenda of the National New Play Network, with its rolling world premieres, in which a group of theatres commit to producing a single play.
Lauren Gunderson, whose I and You had a rolling world premiere in 2013–14 at four mid-size theatres, earned approximately $30,000 from that play, including the licensing fees plus royalties. She also received travel, housing and a per diem—courtesy of NNPN—to offset the costs of traveling to those theatres. I and You (published in AT’s July/Aug. ’14 issue) was tepidly received in its world premiere at California’s Marin Theatre Company, and it might not have seen a second and third life (or a $25,000 Harold and Mimi Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award) if not for the sight-unseen commitment from the NNPN theatres—and the additional, paid-for development time.
“Because I was being paid for three productions, with the expectation of developing the play in between these productions, I was essentially paid to continue working on the play, not just for the finished product,” Gunderson says by e-mail. “I try to make every premiere a rolling one if at all possible. It’s the best idea in American theatre right now.”
It’s the Thought That Counts (But Money Helps)
When exploring additional ways to compensate playwrights, it is important to note that not every theatre can pay on as large a scale as Yale Rep, or can afford to support a resident playwright. One theatre’s drop-in-the-bucket $30,000 investment is another theatre’s entire show budget. “I don’t want people to get lost in the numbers—I want them to consider the thought behind it,” says Yale’s Kiger. “Other organizations that don’t have an endowment the size of ours could still think strategically about how they allocate their resources to artists—and how that aligns with their mission.”
Many of the artists interviewed for this article suggested that, even if just the larger resident theatres banded together to better pay their writers, such an initiative would create a tide that floats all boats and supports more playwrights, not just the Durangs of the American theatre who are lucky enough to have that one hit play.
O’Hara, for one, says he can easily envision the benefits of more theatres following Playwrights Horizons’ example. “If I had a play at Steppenwolf, and if my next play didn’t happen until the following season at another theatre, then I would have two years of someone supporting me in my health care,” he reasons. “Money gets money.”
O’Hara’s point has proved true for Playwrights Horizons. “We’ve already gotten checks in the mail from donors who are proud of us for doing this,” says Sanford. “When you evince generosity, you evince it in others as well.” Sanford’s future plans include increasing commissioning fees (currently at $15,000) and creating teaching opportunities for writers at the Playwrights Horizons Theater School.
“At the end of the day, what it comes down to is valuing the writer’s time,” says Lopez, who, though he has not yet been produced by Playwrights Horizons, sees the value in paying writers beyond commissions and royalties. “Every hour spent in preproduction, every hour spent in casting, is an hour not spent writing. And when I can’t get to do that, it’s a sacrifice—one I’m willing to make—but I think there’s something in the spirit of Playwrights Horizons’ proposal, at least acknowledging that a writer’s time is precious.”
Lopez is currently in residence at Denver Center Theatre Company in Colorado, where the staff and board fundraised (without the help of a grant) to provide him with an artistic home for six months. The fellowship is expected to continue beyond Lopez’s stay. What these and similar initiatives show is that creating more support is doable—it only takes a shift in priorities, from buildings and programming to people.
“If you really care about artists, it’s not enough to let them scrape by while you’re paying your development staff and your assistant and your marketing people at a higher rate,” London contends. “It’s about the artistic soul of the theatre.”