or The Woman Behind the Desk is Not Your Enemy

The other day, a tweet came across my screen linking to this post about theatre economy. The thrust of the post is that we need to help playwrights be able to make a living writing plays (an important piece of a larger theatre econ conversation that needs addressing, more below). But, within the post and again in the comments (as is often the case when theatre econ posts get written) the first answer to the funding question is to “quit paying the millions to the thousands of overpaid arts admins who don’t create the work.” I’m sorry, but as one of those supposedly overpaid arts admins, I have to take umbrage.

As one commenter stated, no one working in the theatre is making their fortune from theatre. We wouldn’t be in this business if that was what we were after. And, the very few high-profile examples to the contrary, we aren’t paying ourselves ten times over before paying our artists. Theatre is a communal art. I would very much appreciate it if we can all stop excluding necessary members of the community from the side of “righteousness” just because we don’t create the art. If it weren’t for the admins, there would be no institutional theatres big enough to even consider your ideas of staff playwrights. You know you don’t want to spend 90 hours a week figuring out how to pay the bills, you wouldn’t have the brainspace to write a single word. We each need the other. So suck it up, quit pointing fingers, and let’s work on a solution together.

Now, on to the more productive part of this post. The idea of a staff playwright is an interesting one, if flawed. One commenter raised a lot of good questions which were first dismissed out of hand and then “answered” in a pat way that didn’t actually take into account the larger issues behind the questions. The fact is that most playwrights I know write about a variety of subjects, in a variety of styles, that are appropriate (or not) for a variety of theatres. Not to mention the rate of output issue that one commenter brought up. I think it would be extremely limiting to both the playwright and the theatre to have a staff playwright that had to produce something tailored to that theatre every year and the theatre had to produce something by that playwright every year. Diversification of voices is a battle-cry throughout the theatre industry. This system would be completely counter-productive to that.

However, there are lots of other models that could be considered. What if a consortium of theatres hire between them a team of playwrights? Or perhaps a fund is set up by all the theatres that produce new work and that fund is used to pay a growing cadre of playwrights a “living wage” (a term that needs more room than this post to work out) and allows said cadre to apply for (and afford) group health insurance for themselves and their families? The options are actually limited only by our imaginations. The same goes for other vital theatre folks like directors, dramaturgs, and designers who also have a devil of a time “making a living” in the theatre.

There are ways to make this better and this is a conversation that needs to happen. Please just remember, those of us with business brains (whether or not we are artists as well) are of much more use on your side than seen as an enemy. Together we may even get to a place where we can quit saying “the model is broken and there is no way to fix it.”

  • June 9, 2011
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