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):  

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.


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.
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?

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

Monthly Check In: December 2019

Marge Dunn and Stephen Sampson in Cato & Dolly at the NEMA conference

November was a lot more relaxed than the previous six months, which was lovely. I got to see some plays again and even do some writing that was just for fun (including two new ten-minute Christmas comedies).

The big work event was bringing Plays in Place's Cato & Dolly to the annual conference of the New England Museum Association (NEMA) in Burlington, VT. On our first afternoon there, I gave a talk with Courtney O'Connor (who has directed the play) and Jon Ferreira (who runs the theatre program at the Old State House Museum that commissioned the work). The actors, Marge Dunn and Stephen Sampson, and Courtney and I all stayed at an Airbnb right on the edge of Lake Champlain, which was a nice escape from the city.
Our view of Lake Champlain

The next day Marge and Stephen performed the show in front of an 8ft tall banner featuring an image of the door from the Hancock Mansion, in a large exhibit hall, in front of 50-60 museum professionals all sipping their morning coffees. As expected, they gave a strong performance that captured folks' attention and led to some promising conversations. Courtney and the actors had to return to Boston for work, but I stayed another day to get the entire conference experience. I kept pitching Plays in Place and also soaked in as much as I could about the museum world.

I love going to conferences as a non-expert--there's just so much to absorb, not just about content but also culture of the profession. (This was my third time at a NEMA conference.)  I think I could go to a random conference at least once a year, just to see what makes the people excited.

The good news is that the conference feels like it paid off and led to some potential projects. I'm driving up to New Brunswick, Canada, later this week to see if I can get one of these to really happen. One of the best things about the shift my career has taken is that I suddenly have a lot of excuses to visit cool museums and historic sites.

New furnace in the barn.
Because my schedule has been so crazy busy, my time to attend plays has been sharply curtailed--I was in daily rehearsal and production mode for more than 8 weeks between April and October. Plus I was busy fixing up the house and barn in Northampton. In a normal year, I see 50-60 plays, but this year, I'll barely make it to 40. Right before Thanksgiving I had a week where I got to see three plays--Quixote Nuevo at the Huntington, The Seagull at Arlekin Players (amazing!), and Murder on the Orient Express at the Lyric, plus a magic show by my friend Evan Northrup (he's the best). Plus we had auditions and callbacks for my upcoming play, Mox Nox, with Brown Box Theatre Project.

It might be true that I feel most myself when I'm really busy.  (But I actually like a mix.)

We did make some minor progress on the barn in Northampton--we had a furnace installed in the basement of the barn, so we can have water there year-round. Now we're waiting for the inspections and gas hookup, but the initial stage is done. And I spent three days fixing up one of the studios, doing cleaning and painting and repairs, so that now both are available for rent.
Stripping and painting these doors took some work, but they look great now.

What's up right now:
I'm doing research for the trip to Canada to see if I can firm up the next gig for Plays in Place, with a whole new pile of books from the library. Starting to add up stats from the year and doing end-of-year accounting for my writing business as well as Plays in Place. Trying to rent out the studios. And reading a bunch of plays--I'm a reader for the Seven Devils Playwriting Conference, as well as a board member.

And very much looking forward to my daughter, Kira, coming home from grad school for a few weeks. The holidays will be a little darker without being able to talk to my dad, but having Kira home will make them bearable. Writing-wise, I'm crafting Plays in Place proposals for various sites, and also hoping to do minor revisions on a whole list of my plays, though I December is generally my least productive month. My 2019 goal for writing/research time was 450 hours, but I won't make it. There is a slight chance I could get to 400 hours, but it'll be a stretch.

What I'm reading:  Work Optional by Tanja Hester. I also just finished reading Don Zolidis' novel, The Seven Torments of Amy and Craig, which was a fun read.

Look for the annual year-end Writing by the Number post at the end of this month.  What kind of writing tasks are you willing to take on for the end of the year?

Friday, November 1, 2019

Monthly Check In - November 2019 - returning, added focus

It's been a long time since I've regularly posted to this blog. And I'm willing to accept that the era of blogs has been replaced by the current wave of podcasts. But I have an itch to start posting again. I'd held back, because I felt that I could only post articles that dealt with the state of the American playwright or writers, overall, and the weight of trying to write such things was too much when surrounded by a busy life.

Now I'm back. Maybe sometimes I'll find something that feels useful overall, but I also wanted to start posting monthly updates on what the writing life is really like, not just promo pieces for whatever I'm working on next (though there will be some of that, too). I will certainly continue to do my annual writing by the numbers post. They become more useful as they add up over time.

One other thing--I'm going to write about another part of my writing life that might not feel like my writing life at all--fixing up houses. The motto of my alma mater is "mens et manus" or "mind and hand" and for me, finding a balance of physical work with my mental work has been very important over the years, whether it's fixing up houses or farming.

This past summer, my wife and I bought a piece of property in Western Massachusetts, in the Florence section of Northampton. It has a Victorian house from the 1870s that we're renting out and sits on a lovely piece of land bordered by the Mill River. Best of all is an old horse/carriage barn right next to the house. It already has two heated studios in it, and a basement with running water and a working toilet (we're adding a furnace later this month so we can have four-season water). The barn ties into some big writing-related dreams for me--I'm hoping to fix up the upper floor of the barn to serve as a rehearsal studio suitable for workshopping new plays. Ultimately, I'd like to be able to bring out actors, writers, and directors from Boston and New York, to mingle with local talent, in order to play around with new scripts.

There's a lot of work that would need to be done before that can happen (and I need to earn some money to pay for it all). I thought it'd be fun to detail some of those projects here along the way.

The basic idea of these monthly check ins is to explore the state of where I'm at in my writing life at this very moment:

Right now, I'm getting a breather after months of being busy producing two series of site-specific plays at Mount Auburn Cemetery (five plays in each series), plus a reading of an eleventh play. I've also had various Dramatists Guild events, plus some travels, a workshop in NYC, plus some challenges in my personal life (my dad died at the end of June), and we bought a house and barn. This morning I had enough time on my schedule to actually spend several hours planning for the rest of 2019 and looking over 2020, and also thinking about my overall goals, plans, and desires for my writing. With the rise of Plays in Place in my life, I've been thinking a lot about what success looks like for me as a writer, and also where I fit into the literary ecosystem, as a playwright, novelist, and screenwriter. Those thoughts will merit a blog post of their own soon, but for today they definitely kept me busy.

For the rest of 2019, I have time to think and read and catch up, and to plan. Which feels like a luxury, but also a necessity. Over these next two months, I hope to make edits and finalize a couple plays that head readings, workshops, and productions this year, but I never got the time to go back and put the last touches on the scripts.

More to come. At the very least, I will be sure to check in at the start of December, and we'll see where I'm at.