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





Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Writing by the Numbers 2019: Time

I loved getting to lead audiences through The Nature Plays
This is the final installment of my 2019 stats posts. Today, it's all about that most precious resource: time.

I was watching a documentary about Bill Gates last night, and his assistant talked about how punctual he is. "Time is the one thing he can't buy more of," she said. We all have only 24 hours in a day, and for all of us, life is finite. I'm 52 years old now and hitting the 50s definitely has made me even more aware that our time on this earth is limited. The death of my father this summer made me think a lot about how much time I have left.

Partly because I've been self-employed for so long, and also because I spent many years as a stay-at-home dad, when my time for creating was highly limited, I've tracked my working time carefully for years. Partly it's just because I'm a numbers nerd.

Some of my friends feel that tracking time would make a burden, or would be distracting, but I find the opposite. When I change to specific task, I enter a starting time and ending time into my spreadsheet (which is always open) which allows me to focus entirely on that task for that amount of time. When I reach the end the time I estimated, I can choose to keep going or not. But I'm always driven to at least reach the time that I expected to write. So if I start writing at 8 am and say that I will stop at 10, I work hard to fulfill the commitment I've made. No one wants to admit defeat and quit early. I certainly don't. When it comes to writing, once I get started, often I will have some momentum and just keep going. Which also feels great.

I lump research and writing and journaling into writing--for me, they are all part of the process. They're ass-in-the chair creating and thinking time, and that's what counts.

As you'll see, I also track meetings and rehearsal time, which are essential to being a writer, especially a playwright.  I also track admin time--emails are work, submitting plays is work, even cleaning my desk is work time. I also track volunteer endeavors--so I'm a Regional Rep for the Dramatists Guild, I need to know how much time that consumes. I look at volunteer time in theatre as sort of a professional time tithe--important to support the theatrical artistic community that is so important to me and my community.

My work time is also taken up with home renovations and real estate. Much of my financial contribution to our household has come through the carpentry and repair work that I've done our houses over the years. Now that we have rental property, time I spend on that is definitely work. (Someday we hope to develop new plays out there!)

I do have my limits as to what I can track. Tracking work time is super easy and helpful. I have a harder time remembering to track exercise, and I stopped tracking my gardening time--it's solely for fun and I often use it as a way to lose track of the clock.

Compared to 2018, this year I worked more hours and spent more in transit, but 500 of those hours were on house renovations and real estate. Plays in Place consumed a LOT of my time this year (producing plays is hard work), and that will continue as the company continues to grow. This year saw my highest total of working hours overall, but I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not. (Finding the right balance is important.)

For those of you who are interested in the FI/FIRE movement or readers of Your Money or Your Life, my real hourly wage for my writing life is $6.15/hour. (Based on my net income divided by work and transit time.) This can be a scary calculation to make, but I think it's important to be realistic about the choice I'm making to be a writer.

For the coming year, I expect the mix of writing/house repair to stay about the same, which is fine with me-- feel more content in life when I have significant time working with my hands. My goal is 400 writing/thinking/researching hours this year, but we'll see how the year plays out. 


Here are my time stats for 2019:

Total working time: 2,119 hours    total transit time: 378 hours

Time spent on writing :  1,619 hours   
  • actual writing and research:  394 hours 
  • reading for work (not project research):  31 hours  
  • play attendance:  83 hours 
  • rehearsals and writing meetings:  375 hours  (includes teaching.)
  • marketing and admin:  210 hours  
  • New England New Play Alliance11 hours (I passed leadership for this to Greg Lam and Lisa Rafferty this year.)
  • Dramatists Guild79 hours    
  • Plays in Place:  437 hours (This is my new theatre company.)
  • Transit time for writing projects: 294 hours

Time spent on Home Renovations/Real Estate: 500 hours

  • Renovations and repairs to current house:  102 hours
  • Acquiring and fixing new place in Northampton: 398 hours
  • Transit time for these:  84 hours

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

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.



I hope you all have a productive and prosperous 2020!  Happy New Year!

I'll spent lots more time in my paint clothes in 2020

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Writing by the Numbers 2019: Money



Jacob Athyal showing fungal gold in Sworn to Secrecy at Mount Auburn Cemetery
So in Part 1, I talked about Productions and Audience. Now it's time for the finances.

For a profession where we're supposed to be interested in honest conversation and diving deep into human questions that can make audiences squirm, playwrights are remarkably uncomfortable talking about money. We're pretty chickenshit about it, actually. 

A century ago, playwrights chose to be represented by a trade association rather than a union. Which means that we own our own copyrights (unlike screenwriters, who are represented by a union), and we are generally self-employed. But that independence comes at a cost--we don't have guaranteed minimum weekly wages like Equity actors or screenwriters represented by the WGA. Instead we need to negotiate our contracts and wages. Indeed, the Dramatists Guild, as I understand it, is prohibited from publishing a recommended amount for commissions or royalties, but instead can only advise on industry norms. (The Guild is awesome. If you're a playwright, you should join.)

Which makes it all the more imperative for playwrights to share information, on their own, even informally, about how much they're making for royalties, commissions, etc. Without knowledge of the market, we're left in the dark when we negotiate contracts with producers and theaters. When it comes to negotiations, money is power.

By cloaking the economic realities of our field, we do a tremendous disservice to writers who are new to playwriting. They have no idea what to expect. I encourage anyone who has a passion for writing plays to give it a try, but if they want to make this a gig that takes up most or all of their time, they should know the financial realities of how much they might make, and not just when they have a big hit, as well as what it costs to be a playwright (travel, memberships, tickets, etc.)

So, here is my little bit of financial data. I would worry that it could feel like bragging, but surely hauling in a whopping $11,000 annual net income isn't a sign of grand success for a grown adult who's been at this for 30 years. At the same time, I'm incredibly grateful for the money I've earned and that I can contribute at least something meaningful to my family. (And we do have this barn project that's going to take at least $50K in fixup costs to complete...)

And yes, we write because we love to create plays. No one gets into theatre for the money. But theatre is a business, and just like actors and designers and directors and administrators, playwrights need to buy groceries and diapers and pay rent. Let's do this with as much openness and information as possible.


Lisa Tucker and Ed Hoopman in Cerulean Blue at Mount Auburn Cemetery
Patrick's writing $$ for 2019

Gross Income:  $19,511    
published plays, performance royalties and advance:  $980
play production royalties:  $3,364   (for unpublished work--more than $2,500 was from Cato & Dolly)
film projects:  $0  
play commissions:  $10,750   (Mount Auburn artist-in-residence stipend)
teaching/coaching: $1,362   
my novels:  $215
Prizes/fellowships: $0     
Plays in Place: $2,000

misc. (essays, panels, editing, other): $840

Expenses:  about $7,500  (includes mileage expenses)  
This includes $740 in theatre tickets, $250 in research materials, and $1,300 in travel.

Net Income:  $11,761  (before taxes)

Past years:
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


For 2020, my goal is to get my net income to be at least $12,000. I don't have quite enough productions and commissions lined up for that to happen yet, but I sure am working on it. I'll definitely need to continue to reduce my expenses in order to reach my goals.


Plays in Place projects will count for a big part of my income in 2020. The Plays in Place 2020 budget was close to $100,000 (more if you count my artist-in-residence stipend), and I think we can possibly stay steady for 2020 (almost all of that money goes to artist salaries). 


Coming Next: Writing by the Numbers 2019: Time


I want to develop new plays at this barn in Northampton, MA, but I need to earn some fixup money first.




Friday, December 27, 2019

Writing by the Numbers 2019: Audience and Output (and Inputs)

Chore Monkeys was published by Stage Rights in 2019
It's time for my annual summary of writing/work stats. This exercise is useful for me, personally, because it builds some accountability into a work life that doesn't have much overall structure or supervision. I also hope it's helpful for other writers by providing a glimpse into how one writer's life operates. We often either don't track what's going on, or else we keep stats as closely held secrets, because we either don't want to look like failures or else appear to be bragging. However, if we share the data widely, we all have a better sense of what's possible, or else feel less bad about how we ourselves are doing. And more data allows us to make informed choices and become better negotiators.

This year, I'm splitting my normal post into three parts, because one comprehensive data dump is too damn long. Today, I'll focus on Audience/Output/Inputs, and then over the next week, I'll write about money and time.

Theresa Nguyen The Nature Plays (Sworn to Secrecy) at Mount Auburn Cemetery
My writing/life stats for 2019 (part 1):  

Performances/Audience.
Number of Productions/Readings46 (43 productions, 3 readings) 

These were of 28 different plays, including 5 full-length scripts, and I'm counting The Nature Plays and The America Plays as full-length works, even though each is made of 5 separate short plays. This means I had 3 productions of full-length plays, all in Massachusetts. The one-acts and shorts were performed all over the place, including in Canada, Mexico, and 21 US states.

Number of Performances:  310.  This includes published plays. I shattered my old record of 259 from last year, thanks to Cato and Dolly running for 162 performances.

Previous Five Years productions and 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 2019:  12,077 total

Previous Five Years audiences:
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.

I'm glad to see growth from last year, though it's not my best ever. My goal was 10,000, and I'm happy to have surpassed my goal.

It's worth noting that these audience numbers come from a LOT of small productions, plus some nice festivals, and three productions that I produced myself. Almost all these numbers are for short plays and one-acts. So when people ask, "why bother writing short plays?" I answer: because they reach audiences.

Reaching audiences is my most important goal and task, more than making money or getting famous--I want my work to engage with audiences. One of the best things about Plays in Place productions, especially Cato & Dolly, is that we don't just reach the usual theatre-going crowd--Cato & Dolly played to more than 4,000 people this year who randomly wandered into the Old State House off of the Freedom Trail. And they were highly engaged by the show.

Some perspective: being cautious of comparisons

It's all too human, especially for a numbers person, to want to compare how I'm doing to other writers out there. Since so few people share those numbers, it's a little hard to know. There's no doubt that high profile playwrights see much larger audiences (and make a lot more money). Lauren Gunderson gets many, many, many times more audience than I do, because she's getting regional productions all over the place. Don Zolidis is king of the educational theatre market right now, and he can see 1,000 productions at schools in a SINGLE YEAR. It's hard to even imagine how many people see Lin Manuel Miranda's work in any single week.

On the other hand, a fringe company in Boston might produce 3-4 shows and not see more than a couple thousand audience members for the whole season. And I've had years where I was lucky if a few hundred people saw my work in an entire year.

So, where do I stand, objectively, in the greater theatrical ecosystem? Hard to say. What matters is whether I'm reaching my own goals, and if I'm not, what can I do to improve next year.

Sarah Newhouse, Ken Baltin, Amanda Collins, and Robert Najarian in The America Plays (All the Broken Pieces)
at Mount Auburn Cemetery

Books sold:  35   Last year I sold 77, but I'd just released  The Secret of Spirit Lake.

Previous Five Years of book sales:
2018:  77
2017:  40+
2016:  60+
2015:  350+
2014:  78

Obviously the difference between the number of people who see my plays in a given year (more than 10,000) and the number who buy my books is pretty extreme. Part of this is because I don't spend much time marketing the books (some of which have been out for a while). Part of why I don't spend much time marketing the books is that I haven't figured out a way to do it successfully--when I do make the effort, it takes and time and money, but results in very few sales.

My sense is that part of this is because my books are not very genre-specific. And part of it is because of the huge glut of books in the marketplace right now, between traditional publishing houses, small presses, and self-published books. When Tornado Siren was first published, it got some traction, even though it was with a small press. And when I put out the ebook for it, it consistently picked up maybe a dozen ebook sales every month. The long-tail effect. But since then, because of the volume of competition, the long tail effect might still exist, but it has very little practical impact.


I'm still looking to find more readers for The Secret of Spirit Lake.

Submissions:

Total:   64 (down from 180 last year)
queries for plays:  2
play scripts submitted:  62 (Last year I sent 162)

I'd hoped to send out 170 scripts but didn't even come close. I'm always grateful that the Binge List for helps me have two months where I'm super focused on submissions, though I was deep in production during the fall Binge, so I submitted very few scripts.  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. 


Stephen Sampson and Marge Dunn in Cato & Dolly at Boston's Old State House
Writing output:

  • Researched and wrote three new one-act site-specific plays for Mount Auburn Cemetery (all of which Plays in Place produced this year). Though they were short plays, they were research-heavy, so it took a long time to complete them.
  • Wrote two new Christmas short plays. Looking forward to sending them out in 2020
  • Wrote a handful of new one-minute plays, one of which will premiere in the Boston One-Minute Play Festival next week.
  • Did some rewriting of my full-length play Flight, for a reading we had in NYC this summer.
  • Wrote a lot in my journal.
Inputs:
Plays watched:  39 (saw 54 in 2018)
Movies/TV series watched:  30 (57 in 2018)
Plays read: 23   (17 in 2018)
Books read:  19 (18 in 2018)

My numbers for play attendance were down a lot this year, but that's mostly because I was in production pretty solidly from April through mid October. My goal remains to read a lot more plays than I do, but a big chunk of my reading time is spent on dense history books for various projects. Someday I will reach my goal of reading at least one play a week. Being on selection panels for workshops and competitions does help me read more.


Blood on the Snow will return to the Old State House in October 2020

What I Expect in 2020:

I expect a BIG dip for audience in 2020, because I've been sending fewer submissions. I have some big productions lined up for 2020, Mox Nox and Blood on the Snow, plus Moonlight Abolitionists at Mount Auburn Cemetery,  but those are likely to account for maybe 3,000 attendees. I'd need some good luck to reach my goal of 10,000.

In terms of submissions, I will focus primarily on landing more gigs for Plays in Place. However, I now have a couple unproduced short plays and a bunch of shorts that I premiered at Mount Auburn Cemetery, some of which could be produced somewhere else. Which means I will have an easier time finding suitable opps, if I have the time to send them. I'd like to reach 100 submissions for next year. But again, I currently am in conversation with more than a dozen museums about possibly hiring me and Plays in Place to create work for their sites. Not all of those will pan out, and the ones that do often take a few years to come to completion, but the impact is large for me and my ability to reach audiences.

Not sure what's on tap for 2020, in terms of writing projects. I need to rewrite one of the Mount Auburn plays, Moonlight Abolitionists, plus some of my other full-lengths need work and there might be at least one new Plays in Place project. I'm a lot less interested in writing on spec than I used to be, but I have a play or two kicking around that might find their way out.


Coming next:  Writing by the Numbers 2019: Money

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Shifting the Goal Posts for my Writing (redefining success, or giving up?)

Daniel Berger Jones and Dale Place in Blood on the Snow
My first one-act play, The Elevator, was produced in 1987, when I was still in college. I wrote my first novel, Tornado Siren, while my daughter was a pre-schooler. She's in graduate school now. So I guess we can say that I've been at this for while. I've written about 20 full-length plays, another 60+ short plays and one-acts, plus screenplays, radio plays, and four novels.

And they have reached audiences. The plays have been performed for well over 120,000 people (more than 10,000 this year alone), in more than 14 countries, while the books have had a much smaller impact--slightly more than 1,500 readers.

I earn a very modest amount of money from my writing (mostly from plays). Prior to 2016, I'd never made more than $10,000 in a year. The past three years saw a jump to over $20K annually, but this year I'll just break $17K (that's all gross, not net). 

So in many ways, my writing career feels like a mix of success and failure. I've written some high quality work and engaged thousands of audience members with the characters and stories I've created. But I'm a 52-year-old man who's been writing for 30 years and am still struggling to have my writing contribute $1,000 a month to my family. I'm a long way from "making a living" as a writer, if making a living means financially helping feed and house my family.

In terms of major theatrical benchmarks, my career is seriously lacking. I've never had a play on Broadway or Off Broadway. (My work isn't well-suited to big Broadway spaces, so that's probably a stupid marker anyway). I've never had a play produced by a large regional theatre (LORT), despite having that on my target list for many years. I've had the good fortune to have my work developed by Boston's Huntington Theatre Company, which is certainly an impressive LORT company, but I haven't made it into their season yet. That's the closest I've gotten. 

Even at the mid-size Equity level in Boston and beyond, my work remains unproduced. Nearly all of my productions have come from small, scrappy theatres, across the U.S., and especially in Boston. But not at companies large enough to introduce me and my work to the higher levels of the theatrical ecosystem. There are other playwrights in Boston whose work has reached that level (and they're all friends of mine)--Kirsten Greenidge, Melinda Lopez, David Valdes, Lila Rose Kaplan, Ronan Noone--mine has not.

A few obvious questions arise:
  • After trying to reach this level of success for 30 years, is it time to give up? 
  • Have I failed to achieve a meaningful career as a playwright? (Certainly this is true of my career as a novelist.) 
  • Am I not a good enough writer? 
  • Is my work just not interesting to larger venues?
  • Is the market not interested in my voice right now? Will it ever be?
Or...

Do I need to redefine what constitutes success for me and my writing?
(and if I do, is that just giving up and calling it by another name?)

Cerulean Blue at Mount Auburn Cemetery in 2019
Here's the thing: I think I've already been doing it.

In 2013, I was hired to write and help produce a site-specific play called Blood on the Snow for the Old State House Museum. After a few years of raising money, it was produced in 2016 to critical acclaim and a month of sold-out houses. We brought it back in 2017 for a sold-out 12-week run. It reached thousands of people, in a deep way. The museum still gets calls every week asking when the show will return.

This was my first full-length full Equity production, ever. And it was kind of self-produced. I was intensely embarrassed by never having had one before this. That lack of a full Equity production, after so many years, made me feel like a fraud.

I started writing site-specific plays in Denver in the '90s, and now that it was happening again, I rediscovered how much I LOVE writing this kind of work. Enough to start my own theatre company, Plays in Place, to make it easier for historic sites and museums to commission me to create the work.

This past year, I produced two more Equity productions at Mount Auburn Cemetery, The Nature Plays and The America Plays, as part of my two-year stint as artist-in-residence. Audiences were completely engaged and enthralled. I loved the entire experience of it. 

This was the first time I'd ever served as producer for a full-length Equity production. I did it twice this year. I'll keep on doing it.

Stephen Sampson and Marge Dunn in Cato & Dolly
Another commissioned Plays in Place production, Cato & Dolly, returned  this summer for a second run at Boston's Old State House, for an 8-week run (7 days a week, 3 shows a day) that reached more than 4,000 audience members over 160 performances.

What surprises me is how completely satisfying the experience has been. The writing challenge of each site and project is completely different. I'm working with top-notch actors, who have been enthusiastic partners in the process. I've formed a strong artistic relationship with director Courtney O'Connor, who has directed Blood on the Snow, Cato & Dolly, and the Mount Auburn Plays. I'm learning intense amounts about history, nature, and theatre. I'm getting paid. I'm creating theatrical experiences where we bring in all kinds of new audiences, not just traditional theatre-goers, and we're really getting to know them. I've developed writing and producing skills for this kind of work that feel meaningful. I'm providing paid employment for dozens of Boston-area theatre artists.

I want to do as much of this work as I possibly can. Blood on the Snow will return in 2020, and I have a new project coming for Mount Auburn Cemetery. I'm currently in talks with a dozen different museums and historic sites. 

It feels awfully good.

Mathew Ryan and Ken Baltin in Man of Vision at Mount Auburn Cemetery
Which, if you're a writer, you know also feels suspicious. Because so much of our existence is trying to reach these goalposts and never quite getting there, or else trying for the next marker. We are taught, through our culture, that feeling satisfaction is deadly--we need to be working ourselves to death, and we need to keep shooting for something higher up the theatrical food chain.

I'm not sure I care about that stuff anymore. Sure, I'd like my other plays to be produced at larger venues. And it'd be nice for my work to impact the national theatrical zeitgeist. I've spent a LOT of years chasing those things, and helping other people chase those goals, too--through my work publishing Market InSight for Playwrights and then creating and managing The Playwright Submission Binge (an online community of more than 1,000 playwrights that focuses on marketing and submitting scripts).

But instead of submitting scripts to more and more theatres week after week, I craft proposals to museums, trying to convince them to commission me for a new project. My theatre company is an odd entity that only works in partnership with other institutions--museums and historic sites, not other theatres. Instead of going to theatre confabs, I'm more likely to attend a museum conference.

This drifting away from goals I've set for so many years feels unsettling. I'm not even sure they ever made sense for me to have as goals, but they seemed like the highest, most important targets out there. And it felt like what playwrights were supposed to want.

I will keep sending scripts to calls for submissions, because stopping feels like I'd be abandoning those plays, and I do still believe in them. But I won't submit as often. I'm not sure I believe in the hamster wheel of submission/play development/sparse productions that I've been on for so long. Getting off makes me feel a little dizzy.

Perhaps reaching middle age has allowed me to take a step back and realize that satisfaction isn't as deadly as I feared. Creating strong plays that fully engage audiences, in collaboration with other talented artists might be what I've been after this whole time. Now that I'm here, I'd better pay attention and make the most out of the opportunity I've been given. And savor it.

That might not be giving up after all.

Amanda Collins and Robert Najarian in The America Plays