For the past decade, I’ve loved being a playwright in New York City. I’ve loved going downtown to watch innovative artists carve out spaces for themselves at places like Dixon Place, New Ohio Theatre, and the (now-defunct) Ontological-Hysteric Theater. I’ve loved putting on a nice dress and going uptown to see a Broadway show I probably received comp tickets to (and I love that having friends with Broadway comps is even an option here). I’ve also loved the fact that meeting literal theatrical icons at a party is possible in this great city. Even just living in the same town where their world premieres are mounted is downright amazing.
Having emerged from a red state with half-white-trash roots, I have every reason to believe—as we are all taught in some form before we get here—that the Big Apple is the place to make a life in theatre. That’s why every year hundreds of aspiring actors, directors, playwrights, stage managers, producers, designers, and more move here with dreams of “making it.”
Unfortunately, living in New York City has become increasingly expensive—indeed, downright out of reach for transplants with a low to moderate income. (If you’re from here, admittedly, it can be a different story.)
Sure, there is still the fantasy of the fresh-faced artist, fresh off the bus, with no Ivy League degree or résumé, just a suitcase and a dream. We love that narrative. As someone who did happen to arrive on a bus with nothing except for the $4,500 I got donating my eggs, I love it in myself. But I think we all love it so much that the topic of inherited money and familial support is a subject that remains largely taboo and unspoken.
A personal anecdote: Every time I’ve brought up issues of inherited class in the theatre world, whether through a comedic play, a panel discussion, or (presumably) this article, defense mechanisms quickly spring into action and start to dilute the conversation—I hear phrases like, “We’re in theatre, EVERYONE IS POOR,” or “My parents weren’t rich, they were merely professors/doctors/physicians/lawyers,” or, “I went to public school before I got a scholarship to prep school! Maybe it’s just your generation!” It’s infuriating because, for one thing, coming from money isn’t necessarily a bad thing that one should get super-defensive about. But you can always tell when someone grew up with money, because they romanticize poverty in their adult life—they also have really expensive-looking weddings.
And then there is the sheer logic of numbers. According to a report from Apartment List, the median rent per month for a one-bedroom apartment in New York City is $3,200. It wasn’t always this tight. Just ask playwright José Rivera.
“In the early ’80s, I lived in Park Slope in a seven-room apartment, and my share of the rent was about $340,” he recalls. “So I could work a survival job or a part-time job, still pay my rent, and still do my art. I think that’s just gone. Artists are squeezed out of Manhattan—young people, I think—and that’s the biggest difference.”
Even if love and ambition are there, Rivera says, “The prospects for survival are almost impossible unless you come from money. Unless you have a trust fund—an inheritance. You have something to back you up. Without that, I don’t know how people do it.”
So if you were like me, and don’t have access to dollars that you don’t earn yourself or the cushion of parents who could foot your rent and phone bill while you take that unpaid internship/role/directing assistantship, how do you even start? How can your script be approved by an artistic director if you can’t even get approved for a credit card that will let you buy a MetroCard to get to their office? If you are a literal starving artist, how do you not run out of steam as you juggle multiple day jobs while making art, which you’re not making money from? There are only so many hours in a day.
After nine years of constantly trying to figure that out in New York City and self-producing, before I finally got a high-profile production with Page 73, Radio Drama Network, and Ensemble Studio Theatre in my 10th year, I have learned some things I want to share. I’ve also talked to several artists I admire, from an Oscar-nominated playwright/screenwriter to an actor just starting out. We all come from backgrounds ranging from blue-collar to below the poverty line, and these insights and strategies we thought would benefit theatre people who, like us, came from—as my editors put it—“more humble means.”
Because we’re here, making it work. Which means you can too. And we think your voice is important, especially now. Let’s dive in.
It’s a small gift to know that a life in theatre is even a possibility.
1: Let Love Blind You
When I was 15, I was a bad-ish yet shy kid with a biracial identity crisis who fell in love with the theatre. This love enabled me to be impetuous. For example, I blindly started self-producing plays when I was 20 years old without thinking about the financial consequences. Who needed to save, or really eat, when I could do theatre? In theory this was highly irresponsible, and even more so when I came to New York, where rehearsal space costs upward of $17 an hour. But if you’re like me, and an amazing teacher at a public school near a “stop and rob” gave you a copy of Contemporary Monologues for Women and you were hooked, for better or for worse, you believe that having an unrealistic dream is okay.
That in itself is a form of privilege; there are inner-city kids in Los Angeles who have never been to the beach, much less seen a play. It’s a small gift to know that a life in theatre is even a possibility.
Or maybe you grew up below the poverty line, like playwright and television writer Patricia Ione Lloyd, who was homeless as a teenager. Her mother didn’t finish junior high and her father didn’t finish elementary school, but they still “gave me books to read every chance they got,” Lloyd recalls, and nurtured her first creative impulses. “My father and I used to look at the birds in the backyard, and he would tell me what one bird was saying to the other one and I would respond,” she recalls. “It always ended with ‘I love you too.’ Looking back, those were my first plays.”
No matter how you found theatre, chances are that it saved you. That’s why I don’t think being a playwright is a ridiculous life choice. It’s the love that gave me a life in the first place.
So remember, no matter how difficult at times, your unbridled desire to strengthen this love is your source of power and resilience. That in itself is an advantage.
2: Learn by Any Means
Though most theatre people that I’ve met in NYC have at least a B.A. (which does not come cheap), and the MFA seems like a standard playwriting seal of approval, you don’t absolutely need to go to college to be a theatre person in New York. There are ways around it. For example, even though I don’t technically have a B.A., I was lucky enough to get a slot in a prestigious MFA program this past year. When I had to halt my studies there due to a scholarship suddenly not being renewed, I was sad—but it affected my career not at all. Instead I got looped into a letter that my (entirely white) classmates penned complaining about there being no more writers of color in the program. In this cultural climate, they need us just as much, if not more, than we need them. Remember that if you decide to apply to these programs.
Or be like the actor Maxwell Thornton, a self-described ethnic mutt (“Probably Spanish—don’t know because my grandfather and my own father were left on doorsteps as babies and then were adopted”), who, after canceling out his “dream schools” because of the inflated tuition, decided instead to work and “save a bunch of money” before moving to New York and taking classes at a place like Stella Adler, where professors who had taught at top universities offer their training at a more affordable price point. “I infiltrated the NYC/Yale teaching circuit,” Thornton says with a grin.
Conversely, college could be the thing that gets you out of a tough home situation. “I was so desperate to get out of my hometown because I felt like I was dying there,” explains Kari Bentley-Quinn, founder, playwright, and artistic director of Mission to (dit)Mars in Queens. “The promise of doing theatre in NYC was the only thing that got me through.” She eventually attended Pace University in Manhattan, but to get there she shouldered a full honors/AP course load and part-time jobs on top of attending a performing arts afterschool program.
Of course, the grind didn’t stop once she reached New York. “I was very much on my own financially at 19,” continues Bentley-Quinn, who attended Pace as a theatre major on a combination of scholarships and loans. “I waited tables and went to school full time.”
There are also institutional standards that come with institutional support. To maintain a high GPA for his tuition-based scholarship, Tanzanian-born playwright Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko held three part-time jobs on and off campus to cover expenses. Ironically, when he missed a fiction writing class due to one of those jobs, a professor threatened him with a B-minus, which in turn would threaten his funding. Though, in a possibly fortuitous turn, Mwaluko says, “Another writing professor suggested I try my hand at playwriting to compensate for the aggregate loss, so I did; that’s how I found theatre.”
“Growing up poor meant that I never really grew up with a sense that I deserved anything.”
3: Support Yourself Because You Deserve It
Here is an abridged list of some of the day jobs I’ve had in NYC, shortened for word count: overnight Starbucks barista, human window mannequin, Bath and Body Works lotion pimp, failed waitress, brand ambassador, auto-show girl, administrative assistant, babysitter, museum docent, dominatrix, personal assistant.
These experiences informed my writing, and as the years passed, I became a better artist in the time between my jobs. As a result, I got into playwriting groups and then development programs, which eventually led to an Off-Broadway premiere. Of course, if you grew up poor like me, the idea of getting complacent because you achieved a semblance of success seems irresponsible. So I still peddle my self-published books of short plays at every gig I do, and even self-produced a show one week after I closed out a fully produced West Coast premiere of another play—partly because of a lingering fear that I’ll never work again unless I do it myself. What’s more, the assumption of everything evaporating if I make one misstep is constant.
Cuban-American playwright and educator Peter Gil-Sheridan feels the same way. Though he currently has a good job as a theatre professor, he keeps a second job “just in case.”
“Growing up poor meant that I never really grew up with a sense that I deserved anything,” says Gil-Sheridan. This can be both good and bad, he explains: “It’s good because when I do get something, I’m utterly shocked every time. I’m thrilled. I feel like I won the lottery. The bad part of that is I don’t fight as hard as I should because I don’t feel entitled to my place in the theatre.”
Feeling entitled can play a huge role in being noticed, especially when it comes to networking. If you struggle with that, a typical scenario might look like this, as described by Mwaluko:
“Someone reads my play; we make an appointment to meet. I’ve run from job 1 to job 2 to the appointment, arriving on time but with concentric circles of sweat under my arms. I’m forced to order the cheapest item on the menu because I probably won’t have enough money to pay for anything else, and I’m anxious to pressure the theatre person for an immediate positive response because I can’t rewrite the play again from a different angle without a concrete commitment to a future staging.”
The daily struggle can take a mental toll. “The constant strain of never having enough money eats at what little energy reserve I have left,” admits Mwaluko. “It asks that I negotiate a million petty indignities, pretend to ignore microaggressions directed at class distinctions I have no control over. This takes place every moment of every day, sucking away at my faith in my writing, draining my unrealized dream—until it’s refueled when at the desk writing.”
On the other hand, too much confidence can be unwelcome. Says self-described black, queer theatre artist Jeremy O. Harris, “I’ve felt shamed by my peers for what they see as careerist aspirations.”
Harris was raised by a single mom who so believed in her son’s talent that when he grew up and moved out, she helped him with his rent even when it meant she couldn’t pay her own. “This has made me harden against critiques that have been thrown my way over the last few years over my current relationship to institutions. The reality of my life and my upbringing means that the work I do, if I want to do it for the American theatre, has to be at once both populist and unique in order for me to put food on the table and not harbor guilt for the sacrifices my entire family has made for me to have this career. Many of my wealthier friends don’t have to live with that duality haunting them, and that’s enviable.”
So maybe the takeaway is: Try to be entitled every once in a while. Learn to advocate for yourself without losing your sense of self. I know it’s something I personally need to be reminded of daily.
“Money and connections get you ahead. They just do. They don’t guarantee success, but they certainly make it a lot easier.”
4: Know Poor From “Poor”
This path is difficult for everyone who chooses it, and we all feel the highs and the lows presumably in the same way because we’re all human beings who feel feelings. That’s why people who have trust funds and rent help and nice parents and clothes are equally, if not even more, anxious and stressed as those who do not. However, even if the feeling may be similar, the circumstances aren’t.
“There are a lot of people who like to say they grew up poor when they patently did not,” says Gil-Sheridan.
Patricia Ione Lloyd clarifies: “Have you always had a place to live? Have you had people to support you when you needed money, food, clothing, or shelter? If everything just went wrong, would you have somewhere to turn to? That, I think, is wealth.”
Also, when you’re actually poor, not just “poor,” and especially when you’re starting out, there are things you simply cannot afford to do to leverage your career—like, say, take unpaid internships, readings, or writers’ retreats. “Theatre requires so much unpaid travel, and I have been very fortunate to find another way to make some money and support myself,” says Bentley-Quinn.
Others are not so fortunate. “There is a generation of artists we may never hear from, simply because they were born into a less fortunate situation,” Bentley-Quinn continues. “There may be an astonishingly talented person who cannot afford to take six weeks off to go to a development conference because she has children to feed, or has a job that won’t give her the time off.” In short, she concludes, “Money and connections get you ahead. They just do. They don’t guarantee success, but they certainly make it a lot easier.”
5: Use Your Resources and Your Resourcefulness
“Economically disadvantaged theatre artists come from places so poor and rural, or urban and decayed, that artists from suburban (and let’s face it, mostly white), economically advantaged backgrounds couldn’t possibly understand it,” explains playwright Teddy Nicholas. “Which makes these artists’ voices unique and strong, because they write from a place of knowing that is the actual blood, sweat, and tears of our society.”
If you have this voice, find a way to nurture it that doesn’t infringe on making the income that keeps you alive.
Playwright/screenwriter Nikole Bekwith suggests joining a writing group to do just that.
“The meetings are outside of the typical work-hours window and are flexible,” she says. “I was in Youngblood at Ensemble Studio Theatre and the Public Theater’s Emerging Writers Group. I saw all the EST and Public shows for free during that time, which was also helpful and nourishing.”
And if you can’t afford to see theatre, Bekwith points out, “Reading is free; read everything. And some theatre is free too. Go to the free stuff, the readings—even if it’s awful, you will be learning why you think it’s awful, and lots of it is brilliant. If you can rustle up $100, see four plays for 25 bucks a pop instead of one play from the rear balcony. Your resourcefulness is actually its own upper hand.”
Speaking of Youngblood, I relentlessly invited one of the artistic directors, R.J. Tolan, to my self-produced shows for years to stay on their radar after initially being rejected. After he saw a reading of mine that went particularly well, followed by a recommendation from playwright Joshua Conkel, I finally got in.
Which is all to say, resourcefulness doesn’t mean you have to do it alone. Find people you can relate to. Huddle together. Help each other. It will pay off not only in friendship but in ways you’ve never imagined.
“I think now is the time to write unceasingly, especially if you can use your raw experiences as ammunition. Because if you don’t, someone else will.”
6: Know Your Voice Matters
If you climbed out of a lower-income community or household, your voice is needed. Your story is important, especially now, in Trump’s America. During these tumultuous times, I believe you can fill a void in our cultural landscape.
“The most successful artists are giving upper-middle-class audiences the narratives they want to engage,” says Gil-Sheridan. “So there are writers who really understand what is wanted because they come from that space. There are other writers whose narrative of oppression or subjugation reinforces an upper-middle-class liberal worldview. Those writers usually have to keep it pretty conservative in the storytelling if they want to get produced.”
But we both believe that times are changing. That may be easy for me to say. But if my play Kentucky, about a self-made NYC hapa woman returning to her estranged, broke family in the South (which has a 16-person cast, by the way) can get produced twice in a year on both coasts, your “off-kilter” play about real issues can too.
I think now is the time to write unceasingly, especially if you can use your raw experiences as ammunition. Because if you don’t, someone else will.
“I don’t want to see a play about women written by an old straight guy, and I don’t want to see a play about working-class woes written by someone who has never been there,” says Bekwith. And she has a message for the not-so-poor theatremakers who may be “questioning whether their voice is relevant. They should repurpose their privilege to empower those voices that are teaching them about what the fuck is going on here and how it feels.”
In the meantime, if you still want to do this, cut out this advice from Rivera and place it on your fridge. “Do what you love,” he says. “Work harder than anyone you know. Give it a lot of time. Keep all your relationships really strong and positive because you’re gonna need them. Be honest. Know what your strengths are and go with them. Don’t try to be someone else.”
Leah Nanako Winkler is a playwright from Kamakura, Japan, and Lexington, Ky. www.leahwinkler.org.
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