Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Writing by the Numbers 2018

Distant Neighbors in Seoul.

It's time for the annual summary of my writing stats. I love this time of assessment and goal setting. It's perfect for a numbers geek like me, and it's important to take a step back and look at where I've been and where I'm going. And to take a deep breath.

This past year was pretty intense, but in the best way. It started with writing time at the National Winter Playwrights Retreat in Creede, Colorado, and then I flew to Charleston, SC, where my play Chore Monkeys was premiered by the College of Charleston. I started a new theatre company, Plays in Place, which focuses on creating site-specific plays in partnership with museums and historic sites. Our first project was Cato and Dolly, a 23-minute play about unheard voices from the John Hancock household, and took place on an exhibit called Through the Keyhole at the Old State House museum, that featured the original door from the Hancock Mansion. This show ran all summer, for 112 performances, for almost 3,000 people. While I was writing Cato and Dolly, In Good Company re-mounted my historical play with music, None but the Best. And then I was deep into writing site-specific plays for Mount Auburn Cemetery, where I'm artist-in-residence. Plays in Place will produce two series of five short plays there in 2019. I took a break from cemetery plays to fly to Seoul, South Korea, where Theatre Troupe Cheongnyeondan produced my play, Distant Neighbors. The year wrapped up with readings at Mount Auburn, producing a reading of Banned Together for the Dramatists Guild, and a trip to the Austin Film Festival. I did more traveling for my work than ever before, mostly because I had funding from the Brother Thomas Fellowship that I won last year.

Sometimes I feel like I'm still trying to catch my breath (the list above doesn't even include everything), but I'm incredibly grateful to have been able to work with so many talented people and to get to create some really fun and challenging new work.

Me and the cast and director of Distant Neighbors in Seoul

Here are my writing/life stats for 2018:  (I'm publishing these a little early, because I'm heading back to the National Winter Playwrights Retreat. I will update these stats in mid-January, when the final numbers are in and I have some time at my desk.)

Number of Productions/Readings:  42  (38 productions, 4 readings) 
(These were of 31 different plays, including 5 full-length scripts. )

Number of Performances:  259.  (This includes published plays. I shattered my old record of 227 from last year, thanks to Cato and Dolly running for 112 performances.)

Estimated Audience for 2017:  11,424 total. (down from 13,092 last year, but still a strong number for me.)

For published plays I estimate low--40 people/performance. I don't track plays used by students in competition, so the actual number is higher.

Books sold:  77   Most of these were for my new novel, The Secret of Spirit Lake, just released in November, but Steering to Freedom also sold quite a few copies. Though I had  a good early surge for Secret, sales have dropped off. I wish I could get as many people to buy the books as come see my plays.

Sean McAlister and Javaron Conyers in Chore Monkeys at College of Charleston


Total:   180   (down from 181 last year)
queries for plays:  18
play scripts submitted:  162   (Last year I sent 146)

I'd hoped to send 170 scripts out but didn't quite make it. I'm always grateful for the Binge List for helping me have a couple months where I'm super focused on submissions.  Also, since 2013, I've been working on at least 1 commissioned piece every season, which takes up time and also alleviates some of the pressure to get super high submission numbers. In 2019, I will be working on landing more gigs via my new company, Plays in Place.

Hours spent on writing :  1,905 hours   (last year was 1,338)
  • actual writing and research:  546 hours (my goal was 400. I had 371 last year. My old record was 456 hours.)
  • reading for work (not project research):  30 hours  
  • play attendance:  89 hours (this is a new category this year)
  • rehearsals and writing meetings:  553 hours  (includes teaching. last year was 468)
  • marketing and admin:  373  hours  (last year was 347)
  • New England New Play Alliance: 41 hours
  • Dramatists Guild: 110 hours    (This was my first full year as a Regional Rep.)
  • Plays in Place164 hours (This is my new theatre company.)
It was crazy not to track play attendance hours in the past. Going to a play is very much part of my work life--it's research and an important chance to check in with actors and directors and hang out with other writers.

This is the second year I've tracked the amount of time I spent getting to and from meetings and rehearsals, as well as other work stuff. Last year I spent 175 hours in transit. This year it was 282 hours. My Mount Auburn projects required a lot of time on site, and I was also in rehearsal a lot this year.

In the past few years, I spent many hundreds of hours on home renovations or on farming. This was the first year where I spent all of my work time writing. And my kids are now mostly grown (I was a stay-at-home dad for my kids since they were babies), so I have a lot more time to work. In terms of actual hours, this was probably the first year I can say that I was a "full-time" writer.

Here's how my time was spent in past years:

2017:  2,018 total work hours.  1,338 writing hours (371 writing/23 reading/468 rehearsing/347 marketing/129 New Play Alliance and Dramatists Guild)+680 hours on house renovations

2016:  2,096 total work hours. 1,223 writing hours (416 writing/28 reading/438 rehearsing/274 marketing-admin/67 New Play Alliance)+873 on house renovations.

2015: 1,596 total work hours.  1,035 writing hours (262 writing/52 reading/295 rehearsing/303 marketing-admin/123 New Play Alliance) + 561 on moving and house renovations

2014:  1,556 total work hours. 1,426 writing hours (452 writing/109 reading/342 rehearsing/396 marketing/127 New Play Alliance) + 130 hours farming.

 2013:  1,898 total work hours.  996 writing hours (394 writing/308 rehearsing/294 marketing)  + 902 hours farming

2012:  1,630 total work hours.  896 writing hours.  (386 writing/278 rehearsing and meeting/231 marketing)   + 734 hours farming

2011: 818 writing hours.  (I didn't break out rehearsals from desk writing time in 2011). My kids were a lot younger back then.

Matt Ryan and the sphinx at Mount Auburn Cemetery at a reading of Man of Vision

Writing output:
Cato and Dolly: one-act play for the Old State House (Plays in Place's first project)
8 one-act plays for my Mount Auburn residency (3 more to come this year). 
Revisions on my novel, The Secret of Spirit Lake, before publishing it.
Rewrites of a bunch of plays.

My plays this year were all research-intensive. And even though they were mostly one-acts, researching a 20-minute historical play takes about the same amount of time as the research for a full-length play.

Plays watched:  54   (saw 59 in 2017)
Movies/TV series watched:  57   (45 in 2017)
Plays read: 17   (29 in 2017)
Books read:  18 (15 in 2017)

I got to see a lot of plays this year, despite traveling a lot and being in rehearsal a lot. I want to read a lot more plays in 2019. I'd love to read 1/week, but I've never come close to that goal. Most of my reading time was spent on research for plays that I was writing.

Stephen Sampson and Marge Dunn in Cato & Dolly at the Old State House

Gross Income:  $23,192    
published plays:  $550
play production royalties:  $4,329   (for unpublished work)
film projects:  $0  
play commissions:  $15,500   (Cato & Dolly, plus Mount Auburn)
teaching/coaching: $2,615   (I did some consulting/coaching.)
my novels:  $143
Prizes/fellowships: $0     
misc. (essays, panels, editing, other): $55

Expenses:  about $14,227  
My expenses were super high this year, because I received a $15,000 Brother Thomas Fellowship at the end of 2017. I've been spending that fellowship money on travel to my shows, and also to start Plays in Place.

Net Income:  $8,965   

My net income is a lot lower, but again that's because my expenses are much higher. Next year, my expenses will need to be lower. This is the third year in a row where my income has topped $20K, which still feels amazing to me

past years:
2017:  Gross Income: $31,343   Expenses:  $9,715  net:  $21,628
2016:  Gross Income:  $25,857  Expenses: $11,472  net:  $14,385
2015:  Gross income: $8,662  Expenses: $4,979  net:  $3,682
2014:  Gross income:  $7,974  Expenses $5,580  net:  $2,494
2013:  Gross income:   $7,767  Expenses:  5,758  net:  $2,029
2012:  Gross Income:  $3,844  Expenses:  $2,808  net:  $1,063
2011:  Gross Income:   $2,638   Expenses:  $4,665  net:  $-2,027

There are lots of ways to look at the finances. I've definitely bumped my income up in the last few years, which feels good. With a little luck, I've got a shot at hitting $20K in gross income in 2019. In one way, perhaps these numbers could be encouraging to other playwrights--I'm not famous and my work isn't getting produced by the largest theatres, but I've still found a way to make a little money.

On the other hand, to the outside world (one might say--the rational world), this is still minuscule, and my net income results in an hourly wage of $4.74/hr. The only reason I'm able to throw myself so hard into this work for so little money is that my wife has a full time job that pays a LOT more and comes with health and other benefits.

Starting Plays in Place has been a big adventure (this is the third theatre company I've started over the years). This is the first time I've had to deal with Equity, and that's complicated but not impossible. In our first year, our budget was around $40,000, and next year I expect we'll hit $100,000. Though it's not really generating money for me right now, it does enable me to make really cool projects happen and makes it a lot easier for museums and historic sites to commission me to write work (which does get me paid). And it's work that I love to create. 

Those are my writing numbers. I expect 2019 to have many fewer performances and less audience, though that depends on whether Cato and Dolly returns for another summer. The Mount Auburn productions will be awesome, but they're pretty intimate performances for fairly short runs--so high impact, but low numbers. I've already got half a dozen short play productions lined up for early 2019, but I need a couple other good-sized gigs to bring in more audience and income. (The schedule for 2020 already looks intense, if everything falls into place.)

I hope you find this post helpful. Writers tend to be very secretive about their finances and other numbers, which I understand. We don't want to brag, or we don't want to look like we're giant failures. And we don't actually have a good idea of how other folks are doing, so we don't even know whether our own numbers are relatively positive or negative. This post offers the numbers of one playwright (who also writes novels and screenplays), and as you can see, I've had slow years and good years. I think it's important to keep sharing, so we can operate from an informed position to set realistic goals and negotiate stronger deals for our work.

Please let me know if you keep track of numbers like this.  If you post about it anywhere, let me know, and I'll post a link below.

These are some friends who have summed up their years:

Friday, November 16, 2018

Launch day for The Secret of Spirit Lake

Today I’m launching my newest book, The Secret of Spirit Lake. This one is for middle-grade readers (grades 4-6, ages 8-14) but it also makes a great family read.  The Secret of Spirit Lake is available as a paperback that you can order from your local bookstore, from Barnes & Noble,  or from Amazon.  You can also read it as an ebook for Kindle or many other ebook options, including Nook and Kobo.
Here’s the summary:
Eleven-year-old Tyra is stuck spending the summer with her irascible Grandpa Rudy in a lakeside town where she’s the only black person. Clearly this is going to be the worst summer ever. And a weird one, too. Every night, Grandpa Rudy disappears into the woods, hauling tools and maps. He’s searching for something, and Tyra desperately wants to know what it is. The Secret of Spirit Lake is a fun summer adventure that explores buried treasure, adoption, and the power of family.
I wrote this book a long time ago, back when my own daughter was about the same age as Tyra, but this was one of those projects with a long, twisted development path. Now it’s finally out, with a cover by Jin Suk, who is an amazing artist and designer. I’m so excited to finally have a chance to share this story with readers. It deals with themes and subjects that are important to me and my family, but it’s also a really fun story.

I hope you’ll check it out and let me know what you think. I still have to figure out if I’ll have any book signings or a party, but for now this is it. Please help spread the word!

Sunday, April 1, 2018

More Tracking: Lifetime submission stats, as of March 31, 2018

In light of my previous post, I thought I should also show the chart of aggregated submissions, over the years. So this is all of my plays--full-length, one-acts, ten-minute plays, one-minute plays, radio plays.

Acceptances are not just productions, but also readings, prizes, fellowships, and finalist slots in major competitions.  This is complete scripts, not queries.

As you can see there are years where I submit a lot, and others (like 2000, where we had a baby and moved) where the numbers sag. The creation of the Binge in 2003 has kept me a bit steadier. 2012 was a dip year because I was farming. Not quite sure why 2013 was such a bad year for acceptances--I should go into the records and try to suss it out.

The overall acceptance rate is normally over 10%, which feels solid to me, but again, remember that short play acceptances really boost the numbers here (see previous post).

The non-response rate has stayed pretty high, in the mid 30% range, which is a constant source of frustration not just for me, but for many playwrights. I've come to just accept it.

For me, I find that this level of tracking helps me stay motivated--I try my hardest to submit more scripts each year than the last (often failing, but I like the challenge of it). And I keep a close eye on acceptance rates--if I see another dip, I need to make sure I'm not doing something wrong.

I hope other people will post their stats, too.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Useful things to track: Submission Rates for Individual Plays

On Facebook, among playwrights there can be a fair amount of discussion about play submissions and rejections. I've seen a couple people ask about acceptance rates, which I think is an excellent question. I've only recently updated my database to allow me to have better stats on individual scripts. I've been tracking annual submission stats for many years, but I'm glad that I finally took the time for the new reports.

Here's what I have for a bunch of my full-length plays. Most of these are fairly recent, though Reading the Mind of God is a much older play. I still send these out, though with varying frequency.

A few caveats before I talk a bit more about the results.  In this database, not all acceptances are productions. In this case, I'm counting publication, a workshop, a reading, or even a finalist slot in a major competition.

So a few things jump out:

  • The acceptance rate is within a pretty narrow range, 6-8% for 9 out of 11 plays.
  • The two outliers are plays that are naturally going to be harder to place, but I've also not sent out either script nearly as much as most of the others. Will their acceptance rights move towards the average, if I get them more submissions?  (Lost in Lexicon is a children's musical, without many options, it seems.)
  • For me, it would appear that I tend to reach some sort of upper limit of just over 100. Did I run out of opps for these plays?  Did I get distracted by the other plays?
  • The totals aren't as high as I thought they might be. I'm left feeling that I need to work a little harder for each of these full-length plays.
  • I have a "hold" option, for when a company has said they are considering a play, at length. I just went through the database and cleared out any holds that are clearly not going to pay off. That was a little walk through a map of past heartbreaks.
Now that I have this report, I think I'll be checking it a fair bit, because I know I need to get my full-length plays out there more. I'd love to see each of these get to 100 and beyond--because they don't get picked and produced if they're not going out . I'm not doing my job if I'm not looking for opps, or people aren't requesting to read my work.

At the same time, I'm involved with a whole bunch of commissioned projects right now, and those, and a few past ones, don't even show up on this list because they were pretty specific for those institutions. Working on those projects takes up a lot of my submission time right now, and that's not a bad thing. My hope is that all the projects together keep gaining some heat, and will lead to more serious reads of these other plays.

But we'll see.

Just for kicks, I started setting up the stats for my short plays and one-acts. It'll take a while to do them all, because there are a lot them.  But for now, here are these:

You can see that, as you'd expect, the acceptance rate for short plays is MUCH higher than for full-length plays. And the top performers can be pretty strong indeed. Though for this small sample, there's also a wider variance.

As with the full-lengths, this report should help me identify scripts that have fallen off my radar and need to go out more. Or else scripts that aren't as strong as I'd hoped. 

(Two of the stronger performers, Quack and Insomnia, are now published, but these are pre-publication stats. My experience has shown that pre-publication performance is not a good predictor of how well the play will do after it's published.)

Sunday, March 25, 2018

What Playwrights Need from National New Play Development Workshops

For playwrights struggling to develop their work and careers such that they are at least getting a small voice in the national theatrical conversation, there are a few ways to start to break through. For some, attending a prestigious MFA program might be the ticket. But not everyone has the financial resources, or family space, or time, to carve out 2-3 years for an MFA. Other might try working with local theaters who are LORT members, or companies who are part of NNPN.  But those are hard to approach without an agent (more and more so all the time). Or a writer could move to New York City and try to get into the scene there. But not everyone can make that work with their lives.

For many others, national playwriting conferences and workshops provide a potential opening for their plays to be noticed, and to work with artistic collaborators from outside their own communities. The list would include the O’Neill, Sundance, Great Plains, Last Frontier, Inge, Bay Area Playwrights, Seven Devils, PlayPenn, the Lark, Cape Cod, National Winter Playwrights Retreat, Ashland, New Harmony, and more. At a time when our art/business is engaged in a conversation about increasing diversity/inclusion, these opportunities have a low cost of entry (compared to MFA programs or moving to a new city), are for a limited time (so don’t require you to quit your job or uproot your family), and many offer blind submissions, so that (in theory) the identity of a writer is not a barrier to selection.

I (and many others) would argue that for our artform to remain vital, we need to encourage writers of color, women, and those who identify as LGBTQ. And also not limit our writer pool to people of financial means. We need to include writers who have children, or who might be caregivers for family members. We need these diverse voices, and our informal network of playwright’s workshops can help bring them in.


I’ve been to some amazing conferences, and they’ve changed my life. (Thanks, Seven Devils!) I’ve been a finalist and semifinalist in a bunch of others (which is exciting and heartbreaking). And I think there are ways that we might encourage these organizations to be even more effective.

These are suggestions—some are free to implement, some are not. I realize that every organization has its own reasons and methods, and no one asked me for my advice. But I’m a writer who has been through the process, who has been a stay-at-home parent, and who has tried to figure out how getting into one of these important opportunities could be possible given the restrictions of my life.

So here goes:

1.  Early notification.  Most programs operate in the summer. My summer books up months ahead, both with family stuff and with writing projects. Two weeks away is tricky if you have a steady job or have kids at home. Three weeks or four weeks takes a LOT of planning and asking for favors. Many places start notifying in mid-March for July, which can work. Notifications in April are much harder for writers. Every extra week of notice helps writers. Less lead-time favors people without families or people with more financial resources. Shifting submission deadlines earlier does not inconvenience writers—so if you need to shift the deadline 3 weeks earlier to give 3 more weeks of lead time, many writers would thank you, and you might change your pool of applicants/participants.

2. Minimally coordinate to avoid overlap.  In my ideal world, we would have a big convening (via HowlRound?) of all the organization leaders, and they would all look at their calendars and coordinate a little. Yes, the summer is only 12 weeks long, so some workshops will necessarily be simultaneous. But the ones that overlap by just a few days force really tough choices for writers who are multiply selected (I know, boo, hoo). This year, I was a finalist at BAPF but need to attend the Dramatists Guild NYC national conference, and they overlapped by 3 days (thus had to step out of the pool). The Guild conference might also overlap the O’Neill.  At the very least, the Guild and workshops could attempt to coordinate so that writers who are at these workshops—some of our best writers—can attend the conference.

3. Set the dates early. Some conferences have only a range of dates posted when the submission window is open. Writers tend to apply to as many of these opportunities as possible, but they’re making uninformed choices if they don’t know what the exact dates are. Some family situations and many jobs will require significant notice and planning in order to take multiple weeks off. If we want people without significant financial resources to participant, we need them to be able to plan.  There are conferences coming up this summer for which you still can't find the dates posted online right now.

4.Consider using a common app or common requirements. Many places ask for artist statements and  have specific formats for cast list, development history, bio, etc.  Which is fine. But they’re all slightly different. Shifting this same info from format to format takes a fair amount of time for writers. Spread out over thousands of writers, this seems like many thousands of wasted hours. This is an application cost, of time, that has a greater impact on people without means or who are caring for children/family members.

(these are going to start costing money)

5.  Feed writers. If you pay a stipend, but don’t make arrangements for food, guess where the stipends have to go. There are creative options—Seven Devils has arranged discounts with local restaurants, plus they set up a cooler of picnic food every day that the entire company can access. This helps save money for folks on tight budgets.

6. Pay for travel. Many of the larger opps pay for travel. Just about all of them provide housing. Airfare costs will keep out people who don’t have deep pockets, which, given how income/wealth is broken out across America, means a less diverse pool of applicants.

7.  Increase stipends, or start paying one.  A few places offer them now. Sometimes it’s hundreds of dollars, some are up to $1,000 or more. And as a playwright participant, I am always extremely grateful for every dollar. But if we want a diverse pool of participants, in every sense, then in an ideal world, I think we’d shoot for $500/week. That amount would help cover lost wages, help pay rent, or help offset childcare costs. When I was the stay-at-home dad for our two small kids, I applied to the O’Neill with a vague sense of dread—how would I be able to afford to pay for someone to watch the kids for a month? (Fortunately/Unfortunately, I never had to figure it out.)  Also, if you pay a stipend, please post how much it is on your web site. Writers with restrictive budgets need to make informed choices.

Please understand, I think all these organizations are doing amazing work, and they are providing an essential role in the theatrical ecosystem. And I also understand that every one of them is scrambling for dollars every year just to keep their programs open. So a logical response to many of these suggestions will be a collective eye roll and/or sigh of despair. And, like many writers, if chosen for any program, I am incredibly grateful for the chance to work on my play, and to interact with other artists in a creative, nurturing environment. But it’s important for writers to at least state our needs, if we have any hope of them being met.

Most importantly, enacting any of these steps will help widen an important entranceway for writers who have traditionally not had access to participation in the larger artistic conversation. We need those plays, we need those voices.

(My secret fantasy is for some big foundation to think about this, and decide, "well, let’s try an experiment, and try funding these tweaks across the board for two years." It would impact hundreds of writers. Would it help diversify and change the pipeline? It might. Which would in turn might have ripple effects across the theatrical landscape, for years to come.)