Monday, September 12, 2022

It's been a busy year for me behind the scenes, doing R&D on a ton of projects, but now I've finally got something coming to live audiences soon.

Plays in Place will return to live performances next month with my play Moonlight Abolitionists at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, MA, October 6-9. This year, we’ll have more performances—two per night, one at 6:30pm and one at 8:30pm. This concert reading is a swirling conversation between six abolitionists buried at the Cemetery, designed to be performed outdoors under the full moon. It’s a powerful experience, not to be missed.

We have a great team this year: Megan Sandberg-Zakian is directing a cast that includes Michelle Ambila, Steven Barkhimer, Amanda Collins, Kaedon Gray, Ed Hoopman, and Brooks Reeves.

Moonlight Abolitionists was listed by Bill Marx of ArtsFuse as a Favorite Stage Production of 2021. (He also wrote a feature article on the production, and WBUR aired a great story about our work.)

Tickets just went on sale last week and seating is limited so they will go fast. (Seriously. Last year they sold out in just a day.) You can get tickets here.




Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Writing by the Numbers 2021

In September, Moonlight Abolitionists marked the return of in-person performances. It was an absolute joy to get to work with this team, in this amazing place.


I write these annual posts to provide some public account of myself and my work, but more importantly to share some of the reality behind what's involved with a life in the theatre and the arts. Many new theatre artists arrive into the field without any idea of what people make--my story isn't necessarily a success story--I'm not famous or making a living at my art, but I am creating work that reaches thousands of people every year, our productions create work and pay for other artists, and I'm earning some positive income. With my ventures into site-specific work, I've found a creative avenue that is completely engaging and I get to work with fantastic collaborators on challenging, high quality projects. That part feels like success to me.

This past year saw the continuation of the global COVID pandemic, as well as political turmoil in the US. In the theatre world, the arrival of the COVID vaccines brought a quick subsidence of the virus and hope for a return to normalcy. My company, Plays in Place, finally saw a return to in-person performances in September and October. Now, with the Delta and Omicron variants, the situation looks rough for at least the coming weeks or months, though I have hopes for the spring.

The pandemic resulted in the postponements of productions of my plays Mox Nox and Beloved Island: Windows on Campobello, and slowed down the overall the theatre market. I was fortunate to be involved with several projects that are still in R&D/revision mode, with productions not scheduled until 2023 and 2024, plus some new audio projects.

In addition to the pandemic, the biggest impact on my writing life was my family's move--we sold our house in Medford, Massachusetts in June, and moved to an old house and barn in Florence, MA, that we bought two years ago and have been working on ever since. This move took up a LOT of my time and energy (and provided a payback for many hours I've spend on home renovation, a larger financial return than any writing project, by far). We've gotten through it and are settling into a new town with a more relaxed pace of life and a lot more nature around. I still have significant building/carpentry projects ahead, as we renovate this barn to include not just our offices, but also a large woodshop and a loft suitable for rehearsals and meetings. We hope to hold artist retreats and new play development workshops here in the future.

Below you'll find my attempt to sum up the year's writing-related stats. I want to express my gratitude to all my creative partners this year--all the artists who worked with me on projects, the staff and leadership at Rev Spaces, Mount Auburn Cemetery, Lyric Stage, and the National Park Service, and the friends who let me crash at their houses while I put together shows in Boston. And a special shout-out to Jazzmin Bonner, my co-producer at Plays in Place, who is helping me navigate a complex series of productions while I'm also writing and revising scripts with some unique challenges.

New steel beam arriving for the loft of the barn.

So, here are my numbers.

My writing/life stats for 2021:  

Productions were up from 2020, but only about half of what I'd see in a normal year. I did get to see a production of some of my short plays on an island in Lake Champlain this summer, and I was glad to add France to the list of countries where my work has been read or produced.


Performances/Audience.
Number of Productions/Readings:  26 (23 productions, 3 readings). Some were streaming, but most were in person this year.

These were of 18 different plays, including 2 full-length scripts. In 11 US states and 5 countries (US, Japan, Korea, Australia, France)

Number of Performances:  60.  This includes published plays.

Previous Years' productions and performances:

2020:  14 productions and readings, 21 performances
2019:  46 productions and readings, 310 performances
2018:  42 productions and readings.  259 performances.
2017:  48 total.  227 performances.
2016:  40 total. 106 performances.
2015:  49 total. 151 performances.
2014:  44 total. 123 performances.

Moonlight Abolitionists at Mount Auburn Cemetery was a highlight of 2021

Estimated Audience for 2021:  3,300 total

Audience reach is one of my important concerns. This year was double 2020, but still only about 25% of what I'd hope to see in a normal year. I expect that 2022 will also be rough.

Previous years' audiences:

2020:  1,607
2019: 12,077
2018:  11,424
2017:  13,092
2016:  6,000
2015:  11,578
2014:  13,411

(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. )



Monstrat Viam was one of my audio plays this year, and a chance to work with longtime collaborator Courtney O'Connor.


My books have all been out for a while now, so sales were low. I don't have the amount that Mount Auburn Cemetery sold of our anthology, so the actual number is probably a bit higher. But still depressingly low. (I'm tempted not to include them, but stats aren't very useful if you only include the happy stuff.)

Books sold15

Previous Years'  book sales:

2020:  76
2019:  35
2018:  77
2017:  40+
2016:  60+
2015:  350+
2014:  78


Marketing:

My script submissions remained quite modest this year. I spend more of my marketing time trying to land new gigs for Plays in Place than I do sending out scripts to theatres. Most theatres are struggling right now, so there are many fewer opps for in-person production. Audio adaptations were a digital highlight for me this year.

Submissions:
Total:   61 (slightly up from last year.)

queries for plays:  5
play scripts submitted:  56 (Same as last year)



This is a new audio version of one of my newest plays, North Pole Noir, from Gather by the Ghostlight, and is great fun.

Writing output:

This year was almost all about revising and research, which was fine, because the move made new writing a challenge. The coming year will see more revision but also at least one new full-length play that needs to be written (as a commission) and possibly some others. 
  • Wrote a lot in my journal.
  • Wrote more drafts of Scipio's Balcony, a commissioned full-length site-specific play, which is scheduled for 2023 production at Boston's Old South Meeting House
  • Finished a new audio play for Lyric Stage, which was released in May.
  • Continued research on a new site-specific play for the National Park Service
  • Researched and co-wrote a pilot and the series bible for a new historical audio series that my writing partners and I hope will find a home in 2022.

Inputs:
Plays watched:  29 (saw 30 in 2020)
Movies/TV series watched:  47 (44 in 2020)
Plays read: 14  (14 in 2020)
Books read:  18 (24 in 2020)


Imagining the Age of Phillis is a series of 8 short films directed by John ADEkoje that I produced for Plays in Place and Rev Spaces early this year.


Patrick's writing $$ for 2021

Gross Income:  $11,394
published plays performance royalties:  $597
play production royalties:  $1,260   
film projects:  $0  
play commissions:  $4,450   
teaching/coaching/consulting: $2,419   
my books:  $33
Prizes/fellowships: $0     
Plays in Place (as producer): $2,460

misc. (essays, panels, editing, other): $175


Expenses:  about $5,866  (includes mileage expenses)  

Net Income:  $5,582  (before taxes)

Past years:

2020:  Gross income:  $14,162  Expenses: $5,822  Net:  $8,340
2019:  Gross income:  $19,511  Expenses:  $7,500  Net:  $11,761
2018:  Gross Income: $23,192  Expenses: $14,227  net:  $8,965
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


As expected, 2021 was rough financially, as it was for so many theatre artists. Plays in Place managed to survive and produce two theatre projects and one video project--which paid me some producer fees, but most of those were absorbed back into the business. The coming year should be much better--I already know of at least $12,000 in coming commissions and consulting. With a little luck, my writing income could almost be back to where I was in 2019. (Which I realize is still not a sustainable income, in any real sense.)


I Am This Place by Miranda ADEkoje was a Plays in Place project that premiered at Old South Meeting House in October. This was our first commission of a writer other than me, with more already underway.


My writing time for the year was decent, given that we moved this summer. My goal is typically 400 hours of writing time, so I was glad to surpass that (though my record is 580 hours ).  Next year has several large writing projects that are going to demand a lot of time and discipline, but I'm excited to tackle all of them.

My Plays in Place hours have grown substantially, to more than 450 hours. Overall, it's important me to keep a balance between my writing and producing time, and also to make sure I make time for carpentry/renovation projects. For the, the mind-hands equilibrium is important for my health and sanity.


Here are my time stats for 2021:

Total working time: 1,698 hours    total transit time: 157 hours

Time spent on writing :  1,358 hours   

  • actual writing and research:  480 hours 
  • reading for work (not project research):  11 hours  
  • play attendance:  48 hours 
  • rehearsals/writing meetings:  129 hours  (includes teaching/consulting)
  • marketing and admin:  156 hours  
  • Seven Devils Board Work: 27 hours 
  • Dramatists Guild: 37 hours    (I resigned as Regional Rep in late spring)
  • Media Work (learning video stuff):  9.25
  • Transit time for writing projects: 56 hours


Time spent on Home Renovations/Real Estate/Moving: 339 hours

  • Renovations and repairs and sale of Medford house:  225 hours
  • Fixing up Northampton property: 114 hours
  • Transit time for these:  101 hours

I now have a spacious office in the barn. We're working on creating a space in the loft of the barn for rehearsals and meetings.



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

2020:  1,882 total work hours. 1,382 writing hours (580 writing/21 reading/55 play attendance/189 rehearsing/176 marketing/36 Seven Devils/106 Dramatists Guild/200 Plays in Place.  78.5 in transit.  519 hours on home renovations/real estate.

2019:  2,119 total work hours. 1,619 writing hours (394 writing/31 reading/83 play attendance/375 rehearsing/210 marketing/11 New Play Alliance/79 Dramatists Guild/437 Plays in Place.  294 hours in transit.  500 hours on home renovations/real estate.

2018:  1,905 total works hours. 1,905 writing hours (546 writing/30 reading/89 play attendance/553 rehearsing/373 marketing & admin/41 New Play Alliance/110 Dramatists Guild/164 Plays in Place).  282 hours in transit.

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.


Thanks for reading. 
I hope you all have a productive and prosperous 20212  Happy New Year!

Tracy and I are excited about our new house and barn.




Saturday, December 26, 2020

Writing by the Numbers 2020

2020 began with research on Campobello Island, New Brunswick

It's time for my annual summary of writing/work stats. This exercise is useful for me because it builds some accountability into a work life that doesn't have much overall structure or supervision.  

2020 has been a particularly difficult year for everyone, and people in the arts have been especially hard-hit, with performing arts venues closed across the country since March. In September, I detailed many of the 2020 losses in my career  in this post, and they haven't changed a lot since then. The basics are that I lost many productions and possible commissions and royalties of more than $30,000. This was going to be a big year for me and my writing and producing.

I have been luckier than many. My immediate family has stayed healthy, my wife was able to keep her job, and I've continued to write and research on several new commissions. Still, a look at this year's numbers is certainly bracing when compared to previous years.

We're fortunate that the arrival of the new vaccines promises a return to normal life and theater again, perhaps even in 2021. But we've still got some dark days ahead. It's unclear when live performance venues will be able to re-open in the coming year.

So, here are my numbers, for what they're worth.

My writing/life stats for 2020:  

Performances/Audience.
Number of Productions/Readings:  14 (12 productions, 2 readings) 

These were of 16 different plays, including 1 full-length script. Most of these were streaming performances.

Number of Performances:  21.  This includes published plays.

Previous Years productions and performances:

2019:  46 productions and readings, 310 performances
2018:  42 productions and readings.  259 performances.
2017:  48 total.  227 performances.
2016:  40 total. 106 performances.
2015:  49 total. 151 performances.
2014:  44 total. 123 performances.


Estimated Audience for 2020:  1,607 total

Previous Five Years audiences:

2019: 12,077
2018:  11,424
2017:  13,092
2016:  6,000
2015:  11,578
2014:  13,411

(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. Companies don't always give me the audience report, so I estimate the best I can.)

Reaching audiences is my most important goal and task, more than making money or getting famous--I want my work to engage with audiences. The number of people my work reached in 2020 was down 90% from the previous year. (2020 sucked.)

Working to publish these plays was a great way to remember the fun we had in 2019.


Books sold:  76+

Previous Years of book sales:

2019:  35
2018:  77
2017:  40+
2016:  60+
2015:  350+
2014:  78

This year's number is a little misleading because Mount Auburn Cemetery and I gave away a bunch of copies of the new Mount Auburn Plays book, so more than 100+ copies of my books entered active circulation this year.  I'd hoped that with people stuck at home due to the pandemic, they would buy more of my novels to read, but the uptick was disappointingly small.

Submissions:
Total:   56 (down from 64 last year)

queries for plays:  0
play scripts submitted:  56 (Last year I sent 62)

I'd hoped to send out 100 scripts but didn't even come close. As soon as things shut down in March, it didn't make much sense to make submissions, because most places were struggling to stay afloat. A bunch of streaming-only opps came up later in the year, but few of them were of interest to me. I was also really busy working on commissioned plays. More and more of my time is spent on Plays in Place projects these days.

I got to spend a week at the National Winter Playwrights retreat in Grand Lake, CO, right before the pandemic (with many cool writers, including Molly Horan and Bess Welden).


Writing output:

I definitely leaned into my writing this year, and as productions dried up, I had quite a few writing projects that needed to be completed. 
  • Wrote a lot in my journal.
  • Wrote Beloved Island: Windows on Campobello, a new site-specific one-act
  • Wrote the first draft of Scipio's Balcony, a commissioned full-length site-specific play
  • Wrote a short adaptation on commission for New Rep
  • Wrote Echoes, a new audio play commissioned from the Huntington Theatre Company
  • Wrote the first draft of a new audio play for Lyric Stage
  • Began research on a series of new plays for the National Park Service
  • Edited and helped publish The Mount Auburn Plays book.
  • Wrote an article on the Seven Devils New Play Conference for American Theatre

Inputs:
Plays watched:  30 (saw 39 in 2019)
Movies/TV series watched:  44 (30 in 2019)
Plays read: 14  (23 in 2019)
Books read:  24  (19 in 2019)

I saw a lot of plays before March and watched some streaming shows. I have to confess that I find it a challenge to go back to my office in the evenings to watch a play on my computer, after spending most of the day at my desk. I'm more likely to watch a show on Netflix or something on YouTube down in the living room with my wife.


Patrick's writing $$ for 2020

Gross Income:  $14,162
published plays performance royalties:  $351
play production royalties:  $175   
film projects:  $0  
play commissions:  $11,350   
teaching/coaching: $1,985   
my books:  $80.34
Prizes/fellowships: $0     
Plays in Place: $0

misc. (essays, panels, editing, other): $100


Expenses:  about $5,822  (includes mileage expenses)  

Net Income:  $8,340  (before taxes)

Past years:

2019:  Gross income:  $19,511  Expenses:  $7,500  Net:  $11,761
2018:  Gross Income: $23,192  Expenses: $14,227  net:  $8,965
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


Clearly 2020 was a rough one, with my lowest net income since 2015 (though I don't have to look back far to see when my writing made very little money). If I compute my net hourly wage, it was about $6/hr. Which is a reminder to take on projects that I enjoy, because otherwise that money could easily be replaced by a minimum-wage job doing just about anything else.

For 2021, my theoretical goal is to have net income from writing be at least $12,000. With the pandemic shutdown stretching into spring, that goal seems unattainable. There's a good chance my income will be lower in 2021 than in 2020, because it will take a while for new projects to get online, as the pandemic gradually fades. This year Plays in Place took a big hit (income down about 90%), and I was forced to invest my own money in it to keep it afloat. Next year will likely be another tough one, but prospects look potentially good for 2022.


The audio production of Echoes by the Huntington was one of my highlights of 2020.


Here are my time stats for 2020:

Total working time: 1,882 hours    total transit time: 218.5 hours

Time spent on writing :  1,382 hours   
  • actual writing and research:  580 hours (new record!)
  • reading for work (not project research):  21 hours  
  • play attendance:  55 hours 
  • rehearsals/writing meetings:  189 hours  (includes teaching/consulting.)
  • marketing and admin:  176 hours  
  • Seven Devils Board Work: 36 hours 
  • Dramatists Guild: 106 hours    
  • Plays in Place:  200 hours 
  • Transit time for writing projects: 78.5 hours

Time spent on Home Renovations/Real Estate: 519 hours

  • Renovations and repairs to current house:  230 hours
  • Fixing up place in Northampton: 289 hours
  • Transit time for these:  140 hours

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

2019:  2,119 total work hours. 1,619 writing hours (394 writing/31 reading/83 play attendance/375 rehearsing/210 marketing/11 New Play Alliance/79 Dramatists Guild/437 Plays in Place.  294 hours in transit.  500 hours on home renovations/real estate.

2018:  1,905 total works hours. 1,905 writing hours (546 writing/30 reading/89 play attendance/553 rehearsing/373 marketing & admin/41 New Play Alliance/110 Dramatists Guild/164 Plays in Place).  282 hours in transit.

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.


Setting a new personal record for writing/research time was a big boost. You can see that my rehearsal and production (Plays in Place) hours were dramatically lower this year, by hundreds of hours. The work on the houses provided some important mental balance and tends to be paid back in the long-run, when the properties are sold (my net hourly return on this kind of work is typically more than $25/hour).


I worked as hard as I could and tried to say as safe and sane as possible. It's painful to ponder some of these stats, but I feel like I did the best I could. I'm curious to see what the next year or two brings--when I look at my slate of committed and potential projects, it's actually a little overwhelming. I think some good, big things might lie in the future.

I hope you all have a productive and prosperous 2021!  Happy New Year!

Creating this space in our old barn in Northampton was a fun challenge this year.


Monday, October 26, 2020

New audio play, Echoes, now streaming from the Huntington Theatre Company

Echoes, my new audio play commissioned and produced by the Huntington Theatre Company is now available for streaming. It's just a short thing--6 minutes or so--and is set in the near future at the Old State House. It fits a lot in a small package--it's a little fun, a little spooky, and take a look at how Boston's past is connected to Boston's future, via the Boston Massacre and BLM. I'm super psyched about this projects--it felt like all the pieces came together just right--great actors, strong director, and stellar audio engineering. Take a listen--audiences have found it really packs a punch.

Our director was Rosalind Bevan, and the actors were Rachel Cognata and Omar Robinson.

Take a listen here

Monday, September 21, 2020

One Writer's Six-Month Pandemic Check-In

It's a been a little more than six months since the COVID-19 pandemic started shutting things down and wreaking havoc on our lives and killing rising numbers of people. My last blog post, in April, tried to look ahead at what a pandemic might look like for the Boston and national new play scene (the jury is still out, but some circumstances have changed more than expected). Today, I want to do a quick check-in on how my writing life has been impacted the pandemic so far.

This look back comes as the US has just reported more than 200,000 deaths from the virus. Which is far more than I would have hoped six months ago, but the politicization of the public health response ended up making things worse in ways I wouldn't have predicted.

My own family has not yet contracted the virus, though quite a number of my friends have not been so lucky. We lost a family friend to the coronavirus this spring, and just this week, Bryan Fonseca, a director friend in Indianapolis, died from the virus. In our house, we've been fortunate that my wife's job at MIT has been steady (and she can work from home), which is important since we depend on it to pay our bills and provide healthcare. My 20-year-old son with a disability lost his part-time job as a classroom helper, and my 25-year-old daughter finished her Master's degree in psychology online in May and now has moved back home as she looks for full-time work. Though she worked part-time while she was a graduate student in Florida, she's never been able to collect unemployment from Florida.

As for my writing life, there have been quite a series of losses, but also a few gains, too. This has been a devastating time for the entire theatre sector, as well as the museum field, with in-person performances still not viable, and uncertainty making planning and predicting the resumption of our business a nearly impossible task.

The losses:

  • My play Mox Nox, which I've been working on with the Brown Box Theatre Project since 2017 was scheduled for an 11-stop, 14-performance tour in May and June and I was going to go with them. That show has been rescheduled for May of 2021. They had already built the set in Maryland and costume design was in progress, and we were able to start rehearsals. 
  • Beloved Island: Windows on Campobello was a new site-specific play set in FDR's summer cottage on Campobello Island, in New Brunswick, Canada. Fortunately, the Roosevelt-Campobello Park supported me in completing the commission, so the script is now complete. But the two-week run on the shores of the Bay of Fundy (I was going to be in residence for the run!), had to be postponed. Right now we're hoping for August 2021.

  • Daniel Berger Jones and Dale Place in Blood on the Snow
  • Blood on the Snow. This popular Boston site-specific play was set to return to the Old State House for a month-long Equity run, reuniting much of the original cast, in the year marking the 250th anniversary of the Boston Massacre. Originally, I thought the October run would be safe, since things would surely be under control by then. But it became increasingly clear that cramming an audience of 56 into a small room with ten actors was not a safe plan. The show has been canceled for now, though I have hopes it will be back someday.
  • Moonlight Abolitionists. This is a one-act play written to be performed under the full moon at Mount Auburn Cemetery, created as part of my residency there. We had two possible performance windows this fall, and I thought it might be possible to make it happen under social-distancing guidelines, but then numbers started to creep up in Massachusetts, so we decided to pull the plug. Our next available moon/weather/darkness window (it takes a lot of calculations to plan this show) is end of April 2021, so we'll see what the world is like then.
  • At the start of March, I had just put together a contract for a new commission with a small historical theatre operation, plus they were going to tour another of my plays. The pandemic put a hold on both of those plans. 
  • I was also talking to an institution about a possible staff job, that could have made an interesting impact on my writing, the field, and been a boost to my family (regular paycheck), but now many museums have laid off half of theirs staffs (or more), so that possibility is likely gone.
  • I'd contracted to write the screenplay for an independent historical feature film. We'd actually signed the contract in 2019, but they'd had trouble raising the necessary funds. I received a call while walking on a frozen lake in Grand Lake, Colorado, while at the National Winter Playwrights Retreat in March, that the producer found the money to go ahead. I've written a number of film scripts over the years, but this seemed like one that might actually get made. The pandemic dried up the funding and logistics and the producer finally pulled the plug last week.
  • My company, Plays in Place, contracted with Revolutionary Spaces (who got me started in the museum world) to commission and produce a new short play about Crispus Attucks at the Old South Meeting House. The good news is that we were able to commission playwright Miranda ADEkoje to write a fabulous one-act play. The original plan was to have the script finished in mid-spring and have a run of nearly 180 performances for site visitors over the summer and fall. The script now has a great draft, but the production will have to wait for us to be able to gather audiences safely indoors. 
  • In a typical year, I normally pick up a few small productions here and there, plus get at least 20 school productions of my short plays. Those mostly can't happen now.

So a pretty serious collection, and one that I'm sure is small compared to many of my colleagues. And again, I'm lucky that my income has mostly been supplemental for our family. Many of my Equity actor friends need to work a certain number of weeks to qualify for health care coverage, but those weeks have all evaporated. Other theatre artists relied on gig work to supplement their meagre theatre earnings, but many of those gig jobs are also gone. The Boston Globe published an article today about the severe impact on adjunct professors due to the pandemic--many playwrights I know make a large portion of their income teaching as adjuncts.

For me, the impact from lost productions/royalties is more than $10,000 and  additional lost commissions/film work of more $20,000, for a total more than $30K in total losses.  You can see my stats from past years in this series of posts, but grossing $25K is a superb year for me. This would have been one of my best years ever, in terms of audience and income.  The projects scheduled for this year would likely have reached at least 8,000 people.

Plays in Place was scheduled to produce three main projects, and I was working to sign a few others. Our budget was expected to be around $130,000 in 2020, with almost all of that going to individual theatre artists (because we do site-specific work in partnership with institutions, we don't pay for rent and have very little tech costs).  When you spread out $100,000 over various artists, you can see the ripple effect, even from just my small company.

Right now it looks like Plays in Place will bring less than $10,000. We have pretty low overhead (no salaried employees, home office, etc.), but we'll still lose money this year (which comes out of my own pocket). We can't keep repeating that for long and stay in business. 

We are, of course, in a far different condition from most theatre companies who are burdened with rent and high overhead costs, and very few ways to generate income. Borrowing money is the start of a path to a slow death for theatre companies, so they have to be creative and cautious as they try to keep their doors open.


Despite the losses, there have also been some unexpected positive surprises that have helped provide much needed encouragement, support, and funds.


The positives:
  • Revolutionary Spaces has commissioned me to write a big new site-specific play designed to be performed at Boston's Old South Meeting House. I'm deep into the research right now and hope to start writing next month, with the goal of having a first draft by the end of the year. It's a very challenging and exciting project, and I so appreciate their support and confidence in me and my writing.
  • The Huntington Theatre Company commissioned me to write a short audio play for their Dream Boston series. I got to work with a fantastic director, Roz Bevan, and two terrific actors, Omar Robinson (who was in my play Fire on Earth, years ago) and Rachel Cognata. My episode will stream starting on October 21.
  • Mount Auburn Cemetery worked with me to published a new book that collects all the plays I wrote for my residency: The Mount Auburn Plays. It's a gorgeous little paperback with photos from last year's productions and reflections by the actors and director (and me). Took a lot of work, but I'm excited to have a tangible reminder of this project. We have a virtual book launch planned for 6pm on September 30
  • I'm finalizing a contract for Phase 1 research work on a series of three new site-specific plays for the National Park Service in Boston. This is a deal we've been talking about for more than a year, and I'm extremely grateful that the pandemic has not derailed this project.
  • I did a small adaptation commission for New Rep in Boston and hope to have small project coming up with The Lyric Stage Company. A bunch of my short plays got virtual performances or filming:  Santa's Dolphins with Wheelock Family Theatre for the Boston Theater Marathon; Beatrix Potter Must Die! was filmed by Cherie Julander for the Hive Collaborative competition, Ms. Claus got a fun zoom performance from Theatre Three on Long Island, and Santa's Dolphins got an audio version from One Night Stand in Colorado.
Which is a lot of pluses. Some of these projects only exist because the pandemic derailed other plans at those institutions. I'll pick up almost $10K in unexpected new work from these (though not all of it will be paid this year, because of how commissions are structured), which helps to offset the losses. I'm extremely grateful to the companies who have been supporting me over these past six months. 2020 was always going to be a busy one for me, but now rather than being in rehearsal and on tour, I'm actively researching and writing new material (and renovating a house and barn). As seems always the case in my life, I'm juggling a lot of projects and trying my best to find the time to get it all done.  (That might be just a personality trait, rather than a reflection on the world.)

Mostly, I'm grateful that my family has been able to stay healthy and safe. I realize that part of what has allowed that to happen is the fact that we've been able to stay at home and follow safety precautions. This pandemic has highlighted the huge economic and social divides that exists in our country--people who have jobs that they must work in person are being highly impacted, while people who can work from home can stay safe. Because of inequities in our education, health, housing, and social networks, this puts the burden much more severely on communities of color.  

And, we're seeing the economic impact strongly in industries that require in-person contact--the stock market remains strong because of the economic weight of high-tech companies (Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Google), but the gathering economy, theaters, concerts, museums, etc. have taken a devastating hit. Unemployment remains at record levels. 

As I wrote back in April, I still worry whether our field will lose a lot of talent, as people are forced away from the arts due to economic issues (which are highlighting financial problems that were already in the system). The death of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter has caused some serious conversation and pressure on the the artistic world to examine itself more closely and make long-needed changes. I'm seeing a lot of positive push happening here in Boston, but to say that it's a complex issue is an extreme understatement. 

After six months, I desperately miss being in rehearsals with my fellow artists. I long for experiencing plays, my own and others, with audiences again. I felt like I'd really built some skill and experience in creating intimate site-specific work, and the frustration of having that arc so abruptly interrupted is strong. There are other new models being explored to use in reaching audiences, which is great, but I am eager for the days when we're all back in the same space, collectively breathing the creation that we make together--actors, text, production, audience--into a theatrical experience.







Saturday, April 11, 2020

Peering into the future of the New Play Sector (esp. New England)

Lisa Tucker and Ed Hoopman in The Nature Plays at Mount Auburn Cemetery (photo by Corinne Elicone.)

(I'm usually a very positive person, but I'll warn you that what follows is not my usual glass-half-full view of the world. But there still might be a little water left in the glass when this is all over.)

It's human nature to try to understand the future, and for playwrights the desire to understand the narrative structure of the future is a key to our work. As a playwright, I spend a LOT of time trying to understand how conversations and stories unfold, and as a producer/playwright I study how audiences react to every twist and turn in a play, every quip and sigh by an actor, even how long it takes until the seats at the venue start to feel uncomfortable.

So it's no surprise that as a numbers geek and playwright, I spend a lot of time thinking about stats associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and how this whole story is likely to play out. To make the whole prediction game more complicated, the pandemic also likely to be accompanied by a deep economic recession, after the economy has ground to a halt due to necessary social distancing.

The state of semi-quarantine isn't such a huge shift in daily routine for a writer already used to working from my home office, having phone meetings, and coping with extreme uncertainty about whether the work I write might ever be produced. However, thanks to starting my company, Plays in Place, I've been able to reduce some of that uncertainty, as I land contracts and commissions for new scripts and productions at museums and historic sites. (My non-Plays in Place work is still just as uncertain as ever.)

Like everyone else, however, I've had a number of cancellations and postponements of productions of my work, and I'm scrambling to adjust the four very different Plays in Place projects scheduled for 2020--some are happening, just with different timing. Others remain up in the air.

Sooner or later, this pandemic will come to an end. Either we'll find a vaccine, or else most people will become infected and either survive and gain immunity, or else die. Without a smart response by the leaders in government, we can expect to endure significant suffering. I'm not convinced that the people in charge are as smart as we need them to be, but we'll see. They haven't exactly showered themselves in glory so far.

What happens to theatre when all this ends?  And, what happens to playwrights?

I don't have a crystal ball, and I can't speak for all sectors of the artform. I don't know much about Broadway, but this article from Mark Harris offers some smart thoughts about it.

Don Aucoin of the Boston Globe wrote an insightful piece about the Boston Theatre scene and possible pandemic fallout just a few days, ago, and it's worth a read.

There are a multitude of factors that will impact the new play sector, in New England and beyond, but the biggest is how long the shut down will last. I pore over the stats every day, trying to get a grip on that. At the moment, we're starting to see leveling off of new cases in NYC, and a shift of the curve in Massachusetts. Nationwide, that's making it seem like we've flattened the curve somewhat successfully, but I have a suspicion that the states that were slow to put social distancing and quarantines into place will see a delayed upsurge in cases, and we'll see a bloom of infections in the South and Midwest, within the next two weeks. If that happens, it will slow the relaxation of social distancing elsewhere, because authorities will get nervous.

For safe relaxation of the shut down, we need three things:  the availability of widespread and fast testing (and accurate, centralized reporting), active and strong quarantine of new cases, and fast and accurate contact tracing.  Without those three things, we might relax social distancing rules, but we'll likely see a resurgence of the virus in a second wave. Some people will have gained immunity already, but a large portion of the community will still be susceptible, and this time the virus will literally be everywhere (as opposed to when this started, and it was only in a few hot spots).

Once the shut down is eventually lifted, we'll have to revive the economy. We're in an unusual situation, because this shut down of the economy was an intentional response, so in theory, we can restart it again (if it doesn't take too long for that to happen), fairly quickly. No one really knows if that's true, but we'll find out.

In the theatre sector, however, we have a couple additional challenges. The economic damage to individuals already living on the edge financially is likely to be severe. At the small theatre level, where much of my work reaches the stage, many of the performers and other collaborators barely survive via a combination of gig economy jobs. Those jobs have all dried up. To recover financially, they might now need to ramp up their focus on making money and have less time for acting/designing/directing. Will we see a significant loss of the talent pool to other professions?

At the mid-size theatre level, I expect we'll see some companies fold entirely. Especially companies who held any debt--the loss of revenue for 3-9 months will be too much to bear. Companies at this level who do survive, are likely to see pressure to shift their programming to material they feel is more financially reliable--so well-established titles or else newer work by well-known writers. I'd expect to see lots of Lauren Gunderson plays on stage (and other similarly high profile writers), because her work has such a strong track record. I fear that much of the racial and gender diversity that we've seen growing on stage (maybe not as fast as we would have liked) will now slow significantly, as seasons become more conservative.

Large theatres will face the same challenges. I'd expect to see layoffs at the large theatres, the impact of which will ripple downwards, because often the people working admin and staff jobs at LORT  companies are the same people who run smaller fringe companies. I expect to see programming of new work also tighten up a lot at big companies over the next few years. Smaller shows, more well-known titles.

All of which is pretty bad news for playwrights (like me) who don't already have a strong national presence. Paid gigs will be a lot harder to come by. Theatres are an oddly conservative bunch, when it comes to programming. If the stock market cratering continues, they're going to have a much harder time with fundraising because philanthropy will dry up, or else it might shift to poverty relief programs if the recession drifts into a depression.

For playwrights looking for paid, professional productions of their new work, opportunities are going to become far fewer, and the competition stiffer, as playwrights continue to write new work (and MFA playwrights keep graduating), and writers who were semi-famous are now forced to compete for crumbs with those of us who aren't even close. Theatre productions are going to return--and they all need actors, directors, designers, ushers--but a resurgence can easily leave out emerging playwrights.

I think we can expect to see a steady amount of new play development--places like the O'Neill, Seven Devils, Great Plains, New Harmony, Play Penn, have a good shot at continuing their work, if they can weather the financial storm. Larger companies will still have a desire to have their hand in the new plays world, so might shift that energy to either continuing or expanding play reading and development programs.

Where we might see a boost is at the small theatre/fringe level. We'll lose some small companies, because the skeleton crew that staffs them will need to either get other jobs or relocate to cheaper locations, but the urge to create is strong. I believe that once we become comfortable gathering in public groups again, people will have a strong urge for the connective power of theatre. And there will be a LOT to say. In many expensive cities, we'll see many small storefront businesses driven out of business. Theatre folks are an opportunistic bunch, and if we see a sudden opening up of space and lowering of rent in non-traditional spaces, we could see a resurgence of small, innovative, new-work focused companies. That's perhaps the most optimistic/hopeful part of this whole situation.

I think we'll also see a steady presence of short play festivals at small companies, and perhaps at larger venues, too. Barrington Stage, Phoenix Theatre in Indianapolis, and City Theatre have seen strong audiences over the years for their festivals. Cast size can be flexible, design costs are often low, and it's the chance to work with a bunch of playwrights at a lower risk.

My own work is highly linked with the fortunes of the museum world, but they're facing the same problems as everyone in the "gathering economy" (museums, public art performances, sporting events) of no revenue for months and challenges in fundraising. My niche is small but might be deemed as extraneous by some of the clients I'd hope to bring in as partners. We'll see. I'm fighting to keep it going.

For Equity actors, this all becomes a very challenging situation--smaller casts means fewer jobs and recent changes to Equity eligibility enables people to join with fewer points. Competition for union acting jobs will grow fiercer. One big question is whether this might push Equity actors in cities outside of NYC to demand the creation of Showcase contracts that would allow smaller companies in Boston, Minneapolis, Seattle, Atlanta, to hire Equity actors. It would allow them to keep their skills sharp, while waiting for larger venues to return to normal casting levels.

I so appreciate the creative, powerful, supportive energy of our theatre community that we've seen over the past weeks of this crisis. I'm confident that we'll see more of it, and theatre folks are great at finding ways to create and express themselves. But I think it's also important to go into the coming years with our eyes wide open to the challenges that are likely to face people writing new plays. And maybe we'll find some solutions that will fund and encourage more professional production of new plays. (One can hope.)

I'm curious to see what happens next. I'll keep writing plays, but I might need to hone my skills as a handyman just in case this whole theatre thing doesn't pan out.
Robert Najarian in The America Plays, photo by Corinne Elicone