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: