Mammon 1, Muses 0?


Brother, can you spare $50 for a ticket to the Steppenwolf?

With the recession on most everyone’s mind these days (except maybe Rod Blagojevich, who might have more pressing concerns; or maybe not, since he won’t be getting that big Christmas windfall he was counting on…) I spent part of last night listening to some folks discuss an interesting question: Do/should economics play a part when sitting down to write for a paying audience?

Of course, these weren’t just any folks; they were playwrights, lyricists, and book writers attending one of the quarterly meetings the Dramatists Guild has sponsored in Chicago for the last year or so. And actually, thinking about the practicality of staging one’s innermost dramatic visions is not something to consider only during the worst downturn in most of ours living memories. We got it tough, playwrights; novelists don’t have to worry about how many characters they have, or scenes. Poets and essayists don’t have to think about the cost of renting a venue for several weeks or paying actors. Hell, even most screenwriters, once they sell the script to a reputable producer, are going to have their visions fulfilled (more or less, if the script doctors and the director and the other tweakers don’t kill it first).

But for playwrights, the reality is we have to think carefully about how many characters we put on stage, since so few theatres will touch new works with more than 6 roles. We have to limit sets, if they’re naturalistic, to two or three at most. Now, throw in the current recession, still unfolding with its job cuts and housing problems and possible deflation, and the situation gets much dicier.

The talk last night was grim: one major theatre in town, the Goodman, plans to use fewer actors this year. (And here’s a recent blog with comments on the state of Chicago theatre in general.) Someone else said non-profits across the country, including theatres, will start going bankrupt in alarming numbers. Might be just speculation, but it sounds spot on. Companies will give less; endowments already have less to give, after seeing their investments tank; and individual donors below a certain income level will be more concerned with paying the mortgage and getting the kids through college than whether or not my 8-character romantic comedy ever sees its world premiere (I tell ya, I’ll give it to you cheap).


Uh, not really my kind of musical...

(Aside: Here’s an NYT report on how Off-Broadway theatres fared during the 90-91 recession.)

The talent level at these meetings is very divided, with some DG members (mostly the musical people, it seems), operating at a more professional level than the aspiring types (moi included). One guy felt that for-profit musical producers will continue to put money into new works, if they think they can make it back. The non-profits, though, never make their costs at the door, and always count on the kindness of strangers, and others, to survive. Still, one composer/lyricist pointed out that producers would prefer to go with the next bankable Forever Plaid than take a risk on something bigger, splashier, or less attractive to a conservative audience.

At least they don't ask what their motivation is

At least they don't ask what their motivation is

One playwright said he had one possible solution: hologram theatre. He described the historical vignettes played out at the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield. One actor appears with several holographic images to tell the story of Lincoln and his times in what this writer says is a fairly compelling, dramatic way. But another writer who had seen the same presentation insisted that whatever the 20-minute piece was, it was not theatre. If that’s what the other guy wanted to write, go ahead, but it wasn’t for him. And in that setting, you’re talking about writing work-for-hire stuff; take it from me, the path to creativity does not that way lie.

Another writer, a younger guy, discussed his frustration with the lot he had chosen for himself: writing plays for 15 actors. In verse. He wondered if he was just screwing himself by sticking with it and thinking it would get produced. Our moderator, Doug Post, said that in most circumstances, yeah, that kind of play would be hard to get staged professionally. On the other hand, it just could be the next big thing. Post’s bottom line was write what you would like to see on stage. And maybe be ready to write something more commercial to pay the bills. (Left unsaid was the option of marrying well.) Also implied was have the perseverance to keep trying to make contacts and get your true love  produced. Develop a thick skin. Then drink yourself silly in a hovel when your life’s work is rejected over and over and – wait, that’s me…

For me, the final consideration is this: I write what I would like to see on stage, plays that speak to issues that concern me. Then, when they’re done, I think about anything I can do to make them more salable without damaging their integrity. I suppose I have one advantage over some people in that I tend to write kitchen-sink stuff for smaller casts (except the historical dramas). But since I’m not anywhere near getting my stuff staged at a professional level, this is all moot.

Separate to this discussion last night, but I think linked to it, was the contractual problems that can emerge over subsidiary rights. Several writers said they walked away from deals that did not seem fair to them financially. They wanted to be able to face themselves in the mirror in the morning. Deciding how much economic issues will shape your work before or while writing it might be a similar kind of character/ethical issue. Only each writer can know how far he or she will go to compromise their vision to have a better chance of getting something staged. And the same question can arise even after someone has gotten all gushy over your work and wants to stage it: “but maybe you can just change this. And this. And…”

For me, this is all easy. I’m a writing whore, as I prove every day when I sit down to work. I write what you want if you give me enough money. And sometimes when it isn’t enough. As far as theatre: You only take plays with three characters and the set is just a rug on a bare stage? Have I got a play for you!


~ by mburgan on December 10, 2008.

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