If you are a young playwright just starting out, you will meet playwrights who have had productions, some degree of recognition, and maybe an agent. Chances are you have asked a more experienced playwright for advice about the craft, making connections, and how to balance it all. I am now myself one of those experienced writers to whom younger writers turn for advice. What I tell them is a bit different from what other folks dole out, and far less glamorous. I tell young writers to get a day job. A full-time one. Probably in an office. Preferably with health insurance.
The sad truth of the matter is this: It is highly unlikely you will make your living from playwriting, especially when you are starting out. Careers take years, sometimes decades, to build, and even then there is no guarantee you will make a living as a playwright. You will be asked to devote your time to networking and unpaid internships. You will have productions where you are paid a meager stipend that barely covers the cost of your transit. Maybe you will self-produce, or have to go to a development conference that can last up to a month, two options that are likely to cost you money.
In short it is unlikely that any of this activity will be enough to pay the bills. So some writers choose to get their MFA and teach. Some do freelance work or work in the service industry. These are all fine paths.
But is it possible to have a traditional full-time job and be a working playwright? The answer is yes. I have had a full-time desk job while making theatre for the past 15 years, and while it presents challenges (like getting enough sleep!), I have somehow made it all work.
I talked to some of my favorite playwrights who live (or have lived) the day job/theatre life. Through their generous and honest responses, as well as my own experiences, I will provide some pros and cons of the 9-to-5, as well as laying out some practical tips on how to juggle it all.
The Not-Starving Artist
Overwhelmingly, the playwrights with day jobs I spoke to had one major thing in common: class. Every single one was raised either working- or middle-class, and had very little, if any, financial support from their families. Speaking for myself, I was raised working-class—neither of my parents went to college—and I started earning money for myself in high school and all the way through college. I did not receive any financial support, and carried my entire student loan burden. Not having a steady income has never been an option for me.
A playwright and director who has been an administrative assistant at the same company for more than 15 years, David Hilder, agrees that a stable job is a necessity.
“I can’t imagine not having a job to pay the bills, because I was raised how I was,” he says, “Also, my parents strongly reinforced the message of needing [health] insurance.”
Nick Robideau works as an audiobook casting director and was recently produced Off-Broadway at the Flea Theater. He has a similar perspective, saying, “My parents both come from decidedly working-class background, and we lived in what I would describe as a working-class community,” he says. “As an adult, my parents just don’t have the financial means to help with my rent or other major bills, so full-time work was never really a choice or a decision—it’s an absolute necessity.”
In the case of Callie Kimball, a widely produced playwright who worked at NBC Universal and now runs her own consulting company, limited finances greatly dictated the course of her life. “I was raised by a single mother, and we were on welfare when I was very young,” she recalls. “I was the first in my family to earn a college degree, and also a graduate degree, so nothing about my upbringing prepared me for a creative life. I’ve come to understand I’ll always need a day job.”
Given these class and financial constraints, there remains what Hilder refers to as a “weird silence” about non artistic work among artists. He says he finds it “strange how few artists feel they can share the fact that they work for money as well as in service of art. Artists working outside the arts is so prevalent, you’d think it wouldn’t be such a secret; that secretiveness makes me uncomfortable.”
Pia Wilson, who was a part of the inaugural Emerging Writers Group at the Public Theater and currently works as a marketing manager, suggests that the stereotype of the “starving artist” might explain some of the silence. “People think of artistic people as head-in-the-clouds types who couldn’t hold down a real job if they wanted to,” she says. “So if you can hold down a real job—and even dare to be good at it—then you can’t possibly be that much of an artist. You also can’t be that passionate about your work if you’re doing something else, they think. Nonsense!”
We have romanticized the idea of the starving artist, but let’s face it: Poverty can create toxic stress, and no one is doing their best work if they’re awake all night worrying about how they are going to survive. When I was in my early 20s and broke as a joke, often deciding between buying a subway card and eating dinner, do you know how many plays I wrote? None. I didn’t have the time or the energy, and most of my mental bandwidth was devoted to figuring out how I was going to keep a roof over my head. If you are a person who needs stability to create, a day job might be the best option, especially if you lack a financial safety net from your family.
Once you start working a day job, you can use the structured schedule to your advantage if you are willing to make it work. Leah Nanako Winkler worked a day job as an assistant (among other jobs) for many years before finding success in writing for theatre and TV. She wrote and produced many of her own plays before her first Off-Broadway production at Ensemble Studio Theater in 2016. How did she find the time? She was up with the birds.
“When I was settled into a day job, I had a solid routine,” Winkler said. “I woke up at 6:30 every weekday and just wrote until 9:30 a.m. And at night I would go to rehearsal, because I was mostly self-producing downtown and made my own rehearsal schedule.”
Christina Gorman, a winner of the American Blues Theater’s Blue Ink playwriting award and an administrative assistant at a nonprofit, also finds structure useful. “I write in the morning every day before work. But not at home,” she says. “I’d just sleep in if I tried that. Instead I get up, get out, and settle in somewhere near my job location. Writing becomes part of my workday, as opposed to something optional I try to squeeze into my lunch break or evening.”
As an administrator in higher education, Nicole Pandolfo, who was recently produced at Premiere Stages in New Jersey, says she uses her commute to get it done. “I write in 20-minute bursts on the train. In Big Magic Elizabeth Gilbert says something like, ‘The next great American novel is being written a page at a time on someone’s lunch break.’ I fully believe this. Do what you can, when you can. It adds up.”
The Good Stuff
There are a lot of benefits to working a full-time job. Not only do you get paid time off, health insurance, and a living wage, but you also get to meet different kinds of people from different backgrounds. Wilson says she finds the environment of her job conducive to her creative work, saying, “I get to exercise my creativity every day. I love leading a team. I am a people person, and I truly enjoy the smart, funny people I’ve met throughout my work life. I’ve come to understand more about human nature and different cultures.”
Tim Errickson, an executive assistant at a specialty food company and the artistic director of Boomerang Theater Company, agrees that working with people outside of theatre is an asset. “When I was an EA at a large financial institution, the people I discussed the events of the day with were much different than the people I chatted with in rehearsal,” he says.
There are other perks besides the people you work with. Many offices are generous with their employees, letting them run copies of scripts or allowing them to use conference rooms after hours. Jason Tseng, who has been produced by Flux Theater Ensemble and now works in web development, explains, “Most places I’ve worked allow you to hold meetings after close of business or on the weekend. This can be a godsend for low-cost or no-cost spaces to run table reads, rehearsals, and even auditions!”
Having a day job can also give you valuable tools you can apply to your theatre career. My administrative background has helped me in nearly everything I do in my playwriting career and running my own theatre company. I can organize events, create elaborate submission tracking spreadsheets, make websites, send mass emails, and update my website. Additionally, a theatre background can be a great selling point in job interviews, as it’s becoming well known that people with theatre degrees and experience are great multitaskers, have excellent interpersonal skills, and are able to take the lead on a wide variety of projects. Creative thinking is an asset, not a liability.
Another huge benefit: If you make a decent living, you may have disposable income, and that can be used to fund aspects of your playwriting career. When I was working as an admin in finance, I was able to use some of that money to partially produce one of my own plays. During my last workshop, I was able to afford a few hours of rehearsal space and buy pizza for my actors. We may not be able to provide a living wage, but we can make sure the people giving us their precious time are well fed.
It is my wish that anyone seeking a theatre degree would be required to take a basic finance class. Too many students graduate without the slightest clue of basics like the difference between a mutual fund and a stock, or a general understanding of how to manage expenses and work within a budget. Young people often don’t think about retirement because it is so far away, but even a small amount out of your paycheck pre-tax makes a huge difference. “I would advise people to put money into their 401k or 403b while they are working, so that if they need something to fall back on, there’s something there,” Errickson says, “especially if there’s a corporate matching. That’s easy money, and the moment you are able to leave that desk job, you are taking that money with you.”
The Tough Stuff
One of the big questions I get from people who learn that I am a playwright with a full-time job: How do you find the energy? I have to admit it was much easier 10 years ago than it is now. I do not have the stamina I did in my 20s, and I find myself craving more space to write, spend time with friends and family, and simply recharge. There is a lot to be said for getting a financial leg up when you are young, healthy, and eager.
Daniel McCoy, who works in the major gifts department at a nonprofit and is a member of the New York Neo-Futurists, agrees that the precious energy reserves can easily run dry, explaining, “I used to be much better at powering through, working 40 hours a week, then switching to Batman mode in the off-hours and doing lots of theatre stuff on nights and weekends, getting up at 6 a.m. to write, etc. Now it’s getting harder to muster that energy.”
Concedes Nicole Pandolfo, “I am often juggling so much between working full time and writing/doing theatre that I don’t always get a lot of sleep either. There has not been a lot of rest in general, which was easier to get by without in my 20s. But now if I do not prioritize rest, I will not have full access to my creative well.”
I have learned the hard way that self-care is essential when you are feeling overtired and burned out. If you do not listen to your body and learn your own limits, it can easily lead to mental health issues, substance abuse, and serious illness. If your insurance covers it or you can fund an FSA (Flexible Spending Account, also a pre-tax contribution for medical expenses), a good therapist is a fantastic investment. Make sure you go get your regular checkups, and try (I know it’s hard!) to exercise and eat as healthily as you can. And above all: Protect your sleep. I recently started meditating using the Headspace app, and it has made a huge difference. Taking 10 minutes out of my day to focus, breathe, and calm down has reduced my anxiety and stress enormously, and has improved the quality of my sleep. I find that reading a book before hitting the hay instead of watching television or surfing the internet is also a good way to wind down.
Playwrights with day jobs face other challenges as well. Some of the most competitive and prestigious playwriting residencies and festivals require participants to be in residence for an entire month, if not more. Some of these residencies pay a stipend, but some do not. Some pay for housing and travel, while some expect you to foot your own plane ticket. “I was offered a spot on a writing retreat that was subsidized except for travel expenses,” Robideau says. “If I had a life as a true, Rent-style ‘starving artist,’ the cost of that cross-country plane ticket would have been a deal-breaker.”
Kimball bemoans the dilemma of playwrights who are forced to choose between taking an out-of-town gig and putting food on the table, even if you are able to telecommute. “Most festivals and workshops require one to three weeks of residency,” she notes. “So you fly out for a 10-day workshop, telecommute to your day job from 6 a.m. to noon, rehearse for four hours, meet with your director, and then revise your play at night. There’s no time or energy to socialize and build the relationships that would further your work. Maybe they pay you $500. No one talks about how unsustainable this is.”
Capitalism and the arts do not always coexist peacefully. I have a lot of empathy for the mostly nonprofit organizations grappling with budgetary limitations. But I would love to see more of an effort on their part to create opportunities in the evenings and on the weekends. If you want to support a particular writer, find a way to work around their schedule, or at least acknowledge that some people simply cannot walk away from stable jobs. There should be more retreats, residencies, and workshops that are a week or over a weekend, rather than three weeks or a month.
Many of the playwrights I spoke to have encountered judgment from gatekeepers and peers because they have a full-time job. I myself have been told more than once that if I want to be “taken seriously” I should consider doing something else. Our devotion and commitment to our craft is questioned because we cannot necessarily abandon our jobs for a project. Tseng has come across this attitude, explaining, “I wish [the industry] understood that we don’t take the work any less seriously because we can’t afford to drop everything for our art. By favoring artists who don’t need day jobs, you’re going to continue to ensure that the generative voices in the American theatre are overwhelmingly white, wealthy, and male.”
Pandolfo also struggles with the perception that she is somehow less committed because her schedule is not as flexible as someone with a part-time job or funding from elsewhere. “Trust me, I want to be at every rehearsal, tech, dress, etc., but I also have a job that I cannot be fired from and so I’m truly doing my best to manage everything,” she explains. “I haven’t gotten more than five hours of sleep a night in weeks to make this happen—trust me, I’m devoted.”
A lot of us work 90 hours a week or more balancing our money job with our playwriting job. What is more evidence of commitment than working so many hours and being tired all the time? If you can do that, it is because you truly believe in and love what you are doing. You are willing to do what it takes. As McCoy puts it, “We do this because we love it more than most people love most things.”
Theatre’s class and income issues will not be resolved overnight. There are a lot of good faith efforts to mitigate them now happening in the industry, and they should be applauded: support for working parents, cheap/free tickets for artists, low-residency MFA options, and parity initiatives. But they aren’t enough—not by a long shot. The arts are increasingly becoming a playground for the wealthy, which limits the kinds of stories that are being told. And the economic realities for young artists are undeniably grim, especially in the current political climate. It is vital to continue having these difficult conversations, and transparency is necessary if we hope to level the playing field.
So, my fellow 9-to-5ers: Hang in there. You’re doing great. No one’s path is the same as anyone else’s. Try not to compare and despair. There is no “right” way to have a career, and there is no shame in securing a bit of financial security so you can make your art without fear. It doesn’t make you a bad playwright if you have a stable day job. I’d argue that it makes you a smart one.
Kari Bentley-Quinn is a playwright based in New York City, where she is a co-founder of Mission to (dit)Mars, a theatre company based in Queens. Her plays have been produced in New York and Chicago, and her play Wendy and the Neckbeards was an Honorable Mention on the 2019 Kilroys List.