Discussion: 'Tony Kushner can't support himself as a playwright'

Tim Bauer, Direct Address blog, 5/26/11

It started with Scott Walters at Theatre Ideas [blog], when he noticed a paragraph in a mostly straightforward Time Out New York interview with Tony Kushner [who said]:

"I make my living now as a screenwriter! Which I'm surprised and horrified to find myself saying, but I don't think I can support myself as a playwright at this point. I don't think anybody does."

My question to you: if Tony Kushner, who I would argue is the best playwright in America today, can't support himself as a playwright, can anybody? And if not, should Kushner's statement be seen as an earthquake that might lead to the examination of the overall theatre business model?  Across the country in Seattle, Paul Mullin picked it up and posted his own thoughts:

Somehow this nation can support hundreds upon hundreds of regional theatre artistic directors, managing directors, development directors and adjunct staff -- a whole class of workers that can only be described as "artistic administrators"; but even our very best writer for the stage must go to film and television for his bread and butter.  We all nod sagely and agree the system's broken.  But if you want to fix it-do more than watch sadly as it dies the death of ragdoll-then I continue to suggest you follow the money and ask impolite questions.

And then, in Paul's comments section, the discussion gets really fascinating. Go read!

[Comment from Scott Walters: "If you want to see a model, read your theatre history: Shakespeare wrote multiple plays a year, was a partner in the company, and a co-owner of the theatre building. The freelance model simply doesn't work."]


4 Shakespeare productions from Globe Theatre to play in cinemas this year

Playbill.com, 6/2/11

The Globe Theatre, NCM Fathom and Arts Alliance Media will present "Shakespeare's Globe London Cinema Series," an exclusive four-part in-theatre series of classic Shakespeare titles shown in more than 260 movie theatres nationwide this summer and fall.  Captured in 2010 from the Globe Theatre in London, the series will kick off in June with The Merry Wives of Windsor followed by Henry IV: Parts 1 and 2 in August and closing in September with Henry VIII.  Each performance will begin at 7 PM local time and will include a special 20-minute historical perspective on the Globe, the reconstruction process, the work of the Globe today, and a behind-the-scenes look at each production with interviews from the actors and creative team involved.  Tickets for "Shakespeare's Globe London Cinema Series" are available at participating theatre box offices and online here.


Commentary: Theater, movies - what's the difference?

Chris Brandt, June 2011 issue of ONE - the Journal of Literature, Art and Ideas

Movies are a business, by and large, that shows a profit. (Or hides it, if the numbers crunchers have their way.) Theater is a business, by and large, that loses money. There's big-time show biz, of course, but theater as a whole has always needed angels or noble patrons or government grants or quasi-religious status just to survive.... Theater is a means. It came from ritual, and it retains the nature and purpose of ritual. The movie is an end, a product. This is not to say that a movie can't be a work of substance, provocative, stimulating, intensely meaningful. Everyone has seen movies that are. And anyone can imagine that movies could function that way as a rule rather than an exception. But movies are a product, like a car or a TV or a stove or a book, and there's no getting away from that.  This is not to say that all theater is pure and deeply concerned with advancing human consciousness and understanding. Anyone has seen plenty of theater whose main object is the buck and which goes about that business in every bit as cynically stupid a way as the crassest of Hollywood productions. But any theater piece...unites audience and performers in a shared undertaking at a particular moment. The essence of theater is the fluid space between actors and audience. The film actor's business is with the camera. Any immediate connection or communication the movie makes with its audience is one way. Two-way communication is indirect, through the box office receipts, mostly.


Commentary: How theater ticket sales compare to movie and music sales

Duane Kelly, ExtraCriticum.com, 6/2/11

Quick, which category has seen the sharpest drop in sales over the last ten years?

Plays at [U.S.] nonprofit theaters
Broadway theater attendance
Music albums/CDs
Rap albums/CDs

If you guessed rap music, you win the grand prize, a pair of center orchestra seats at my play's Broadway debut.  Ten years ago, 785 million music albums/CDs were sold in the U.S. and 106 million of them (13.4%) were classified as "rap."  By 2010, total album/CD sales had dropped by half.  Ouch.  As for the rap segment, it had a bad-ass tiff off its rhyming cliff:  27 million were sold last year (6% of the market).  That's a 75% decade-long plummet.  Meanwhile on theatre stages, where there seems to be a nonstop chorus of despair, here's the "butts in seats" data.  Over the past decade, [American] nonprofit theatres reported a 7% attendance decline.  And Broadway?  Over the same ten-year period, [it] has suffered a calamitous drop of one percent.  That's right, one whole percent.  And in 2010, Broadway attendance actually increased 2% over the prior year.  Now let's pan to the movies, that much bigger narrative art form for the masses.  Attendance in 2001 in the U.S. and Canada was 1.43 billon.  And last year: 1.34 billion, a 7% 10-year decline.  Hold on, wait just a minute.  7% decline?  Isn't that the same as for nonprofit theaters in the same period?  Yes, it most certainly is.  And anyone in the film industry counting on 3-D technology to goose ticket sales and revenue...in the first half of 2011, compared with last year, attendance is down 10%.  And 3-D films account for a disproportionate share of that decline.  My take on this data:  live theatre is not in the ICU and movie folks might want to dial down their smugness.  Oh, and for the playwrights in the audience, things could be worse.  We could be rap artists.

Please consider the environment before printing out this email.  Thanks.
YOU'VE COTT MAIL is a free service for professionals in the arts.  Emails are sent most weekdays. 
If you are not already on the distribution list and would like to sign up, please click here:

Join Our Mailing List      Follow me on Twitter     
Click here to view an archive of recent past editions of "You've Cott Mail."