Yesterday, about 80 theater people gathered, as theater people periodically do, to moan.
Typically, these bitch-sessions are segregated by division of labor: actors get with actors, administrators with administrators, and writers (playwrights, critics) with whomever will put up with them long enough to hear about the indifference of audiences, the moneyed philistinism of boards of directors, the entitlement complex of artists, the cowardice of arts bureaucrats, the idiocy of newspapers, etc. But Monday’s crowd in the basement theater of Seattle Center House was unusually diverse: playwrights, actors, directors, managing and artistic directors from small theaters (Annex, Theater Schmeater) and large ones (Intiman, Seattle Rep, ACT), journalists, and even one self-confessed board member. Nobody's comments did much to undo their stereotypes.
The occasion for the meeting: a book tour for the authors of Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play by Todd London and Ben Pesner, published by the Theater Development Fund. The book is the summation of a five-year research project about the penury of the contemporary American playwright and the penury of American theater.
A more complete report is coming in this week's paper, but a few scraps from the day:
* As the theater people filed into the Center House, groundskeepers with rakes and shovels were busy spreading a giant, stinking pile of fertilizer onto some nearby flowerbeds. “Well, I wonder where there’ll be more bullshit,” somebody said as she walked past. “Out here or down in the theater?”
* An NEA study revealed that the number of American adults who attended a (nonmusical) play in a 12-month period shrank from 13.5% (25 million) in 1992 to 9.4% (21 million) in 2008.
* Sixty-two percent of the 250 playwrights surveyed earn less than $40,000 a year and one-third earn less than $25,000. Of that money, slightly more than half comes from day jobs unrelated to writing, with other chunks coming from teaching or writing for TV and film. Only 15% of playwrights’ income comes from producing plays and only 3% come from royalties. (As Robert Anderson, author of Tea and Sympathy, said: “You can make a killing in the theater, but you can’t make a living.”)
* From an anonymous artistic director: “It would be easier for me to do a play like Quills, in which Jesus comes out of the grave with three erect penises and fucks Mary on the floor, than it would to do No Man's Land by Harold Pinter—a play that is abstract in the storytelling. I'd do it, but that would be more controversial than content.”
* American plays have shriveled in cast size, mostly for financial reasons. In 1967, Great White Hope came to Broadway with a cast of 63 actors. In 2008, August: Osage County did the same with just 13 actors and Charles Isherwood of the New York Times wrote “one reason I flipped for August was its superabundance of characters.”
* A quote from one of Outrageous Fortune’s authors: “A very passionate man named John Booth helped begin this study—unfortunately, he died after reading the first chapter.”
There were fireworks. There were sandwiches. There was depressingly little progress.
But it put stories like this one in today's NYT (about trying to harness celebrities like Will Smith and Jay Z to sell theater shows) and this one in today's WSJ (about how playwrights are flocking towards TV dramas like Mad Men) in context.
From the first:
Elton John hasn’t seen the Broadway play “Next Fall,” but he has invested a six-figure sum in the $2 million production. Jay-Z, Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, and their business partners have put $3 million into the Broadway musical “Fela!” And Lily Tomlin has just signed on as the lead promoter of a new one-man show off Broadway.
From the second:
After "Superior Donuts" opened at the Steppenwolf Theatre in summer 2008, a development executive for CBS Television Studios saw it and began pursuing playwright Tracy Letts to repackage it as a TV sitcom.
Which isn't such a terrible thing. Stories are stories and if Letts (who wrote August: Osage County) wants to tell his on teevee, that's his business. But for all the folks hanging onto the dream of American theater—if you aren't dancing already, then start. The ground is moving under your feet and if you stand still, you're dead.