Check out this thoughtful post by Adam Szymkowicz on class and theatre (and follow the links).
I have many of the same concerns about trying to make a living from theatre, and also about who, ultimately is my audience. Do I relate to the wealthy, white, upper-middle class patrons who pay big bucks to see the more commercial productions in LORT and Off Broadway theatres? Will they be interested in what I write?
Hard to say. This is something of a concern, if I want to make more than a tiny bit of money from theatre. Much of my work is more suited to smaller venues. But smaller venues mean smaller audiences, which means smaller paychecks. Not that I expect to make a full-time living from writing plays, but more than a pittance would be nice.
I worry about theatre sometimes. Even at the bigger levels (above where I currently operate), there doesn't seem to be enough concern about making sure that playwrights can earn a living wage by writing plays. There has been an incredible building boom around America, in the construction of new spaces over the past ten years or so. Sadly, it's easier for a big theatre like the Huntington to raise a few million dollars for a new theatre space, than it is for them to, say, fund an endowed position for a resident playwright or two.
The Huntington's made a big deal about its Calderwood Fellowships, which are great. They offer four writers $4,000 and development time, over two years. $2,000 a year? That's not going to get a writer very far. Now, if they offered $40,000 over two years, that would be something.
If theatre doesn't find a way to pay playwrights better and to financially support developing writers, they're going to have a lot of very nice theatre spaces, and fewer and fewer great new plays written for them. How many full-time administrators work at a big LORT like the Huntington? What theatre needs is a more organized farm system, really, to allow people to write plays and earn enough to support themselves and their families. That's right, families. What happens to playwrights when they start having kids? Good luck. Go write for TV, if you live in NYC or LA.
The economic issues of theatre extend to the most basic level. Ticket prices continue to rise out of reach of many. Hell, I can't afford to pay $35 or $45 to go see a play. I have to shoot for free tickets. (Thank you StageSource!) Compare this to film--I can get all the movies I can watch for a month from Netflix for $20. I can read all the books I can carry, for free, thanks to the public library. Any writer needs lots of exposure to new and exciting work in their form. For playwrights to improve as writers, they need to see lots of plays and get lots of productions of their work, simple as that.
Wouldn't that be a cool program--if all the major U.S. theatres started a "playwrights passport" program, where legitimate playwrights (say, Dramatists Guild members who have been produced) could attend any show for free? It's not offering huge fellowships, but it would make sure that they keep writers coming in the doors. Just a fantasy, I suppose.