If you ask a working playwright about the economics of the theater you’re likely to hear a quote attributed to the late American dramatist Robert Anderson: “You can make a killing in the theater, but you can’t make a living.” It’s that adage, about the difficulty of getting by as a playwright, that has driven a number of lauded theater writers to seek creative satisfaction—and a living wage—elsewhere. Many are turning to fiction, driven by a desire to see their work reach an audience... and make a little money in the process.
That playwrights would start writing novels for financial reasons may seem odd given the state of the publishing industry. In a 2015 survey on author income, the Authors Guild revealed that over half of respondents said they made less than $12,000 a year from their writing.
Although the financials from a similar study in the theater world appear to put playwriting in a more lucrative light—a 2009 study by the Theater Development Fund found that, on average, an American playwright earned between $25,000 and $39,000 annually—the numbers hide a darker reality. Noting that it is “virtually impossible to make a living or sustain a career as a professional playwright in America,” the nonprofit pointed to the industry’s broken royalty system and a climate in which too many promising new plays go unproduced.
For Kia Corthron, who’s had more than 15 full-length plays produced and also wrote for The Wire, a health scare forced her to reconsider her profession. Corthron—whose debut novel, The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter, was published by Seven Stories in January—unexpectedly had to have surgery in 2013. Although she had written a number of successful plays up to that point—she’s also won a few lucrative writing awards (including the Windham Campbell Prize, which comes with a $150,000 purse)—the unpredictable nature of the industry left her without health insurance and no way to pay for the operation. She said her finances were in such dire shape at the time that she qualified for Medicaid.
Corthron’s experience exemplifies just how tough it can be to get by in the business, even for successful playwrights. Although she’s written a number of plays that have had runs at major theaters, Corthron nonetheless faced a grind many playwrights do—long stretches without receiving any commissions (payments from a specific theater to write a play) or seeing any of her works produced. It was during one of these stretches, in 2010, that Corthron started working on her novel, a sweeping epic that follows two sets of brothers, a white pair from Alabama and a black pair from Maryland.
For her, releasing a book was a welcome change. Although it was grueling getting the book accepted—clocking in at 800 pages, the novel’s length turned off a number of editors—Corthron said she loved the process. “Because I’ve been doing theater for a while and had so many ups and downs, I became accustomed to this hard feeling of, ‘Oh, is this going to get produced or not?’ ” Once the book was acquired, she said she knew it was going to reach an audience, and that was a relief.
Andrew Case, who got his M.F.A. in playwriting from UC–San Diego in 2000, and whose debut novel, The Big Fear, was published this month by Thomas & Mercer, knows how frustrating the theater can be. His most financially successful play, Pacific, had a run at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre in 2005. It didn’t make him rich, though. As Case explained, a playwright usually receives between 7% and 9% of overall ticket sales. This, combined with the short run that new shows usually receive and the scant seating capacity of most small theaters, means that, Case said, “a six-week run at a small space would often bring in $6,000 or $7,000 total.” He added, “And that’s a good year.”
That it’s rare to get a new play produced makes the meager amount a production brings in that much more difficult to bear. Because plays are expensive undertakings, all theaters (even nonprofit ones) face immense pressure to fill seats. This forces theaters of all sizes to rely heavily on work by name playwrights and revivals of well-known plays. “Theaters are squeezed,” Case said, admitting that he sympathizes with the plight of producers and small companies. It’s very risky for a small theater to mount a new play, he said. “Unless [a theater] is showing Hamilton, it’s not so easy.”
Jeff Hirsch, who also has an M.F.A. in playwriting from UC–San Diego, published his first YA novel, The Eleventh Plague (Scholastic), in 2011. Although he knew it would be tough to make it as a playwright, the reality was harder than he initially realized. “Coming out of grad school, I didn’t know anyone making a living solely as a playwright,” he said. He turned to young adult fiction, though, once he realized that the independent theater world had no interest in the kinds of plays he wanted to do—“big productions” featuring “lots of characters and settings.” The demand and interest in new plays by American playwrights, Hirsch thinks, “was much bigger in the 1960s and 1970s. From the 1980s on, the economic realities of theater got worse and worse.”
Of course, the real money is on Broadway, but making it to the Great White Way can be as much about luck as anything else. According to Case, playwrights don’t build up to a Broadway show by having multiple plays produced at smaller theaters. “It’s more like a lottery than it is a stepping stone,” he said. “There’s not a long, slow build toward a show going up on Broadway. It’s a moment that you never know when, or if, it’s going to happen.”
Hirsch also loved the swift nature of publishing. Having experienced the horrors of having his plays workshopped and then never produced, Hirsch appreciated the certainty in books. “After every book of mine has been published, I’ve had my next deal in place,” he said.
For Case, whose novel is a thriller about a civilian investigator (based in part on his former day job for the NYPD’s Civilian Complaint Review Board), the joy of publishing is, in part, about the promise of reaching a wider audience. “With a play, there’s a point where you feel like, if it succeeds it will reach 5,000 to 6,000 people,” he said. “With the book, once it’s done, the cost of creating a copy to sell to someone is marginal. I like the idea that more people can read it because it’s more accessible.”
Not knowing whether a play might make it to a Broadway stage—or any stage—is one thing that turned Victor Lodato off his career as a playwright. Lodato, who won the PEN USA award for his debut novel, 2009’s Mathilda Savitch (FSG), became disheartened with how many of his plays were workshopped (given informal dress rehearsals by a theater), but never produced.
Lodato’s play The Bread of Winter was held up as an example of the unfortunate trend, in a 2004 story in the New York Times titled “Workshopped to Death”; the article noted that the play won its author a residency in the south of France, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and staged readings at a San Francisco theater festival. To date, the play has yet to be publicly performed.
For Lodato, whose second novel, Edgar and Lucy, is being published by St. Martin’s Press next year, the road to book publication was a far better experience. Although he spent almost a decade writing Mathilda Savitch, he appreciated the schedule on the book side of things. “In playwriting, things move at a geologic pace. Things move more quickly [in book publishing]. It was a smoother movement from creation to bringing [the book] out into the world.”
Though Lodato admitted that he had a “much better experience financially” as an author than as a playwright, ultimately, turning his creative attention to books was never about money. If he really wanted to make money, he said, he would have followed his playwright friends to Los Angeles, because they are “beloved in Hollywood right now, especially in television.” Instead, he’s found that the stories he wants to write will dictate their format. “Writing Mathilda turned on so many things in my brain,” he said. Now he is working on a play, as well as two fiction projects. Although he may be making a living from fiction for the foreseeable future, he certainly hasn’t abandoned the theater. If anything, he’s grateful for what writing plays has taught him about writing novels. “I still see a great novel as a great performance.”