Slings and Arrows
How Fucked Is American Theater?
Earlier this week, 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 whoever will put up with them to revisit the old themes of the indifference of audiences, the moneyed philistinism of boards of directors, the entitlement complex of artists, the cowardice of arts bureaucrats, the cluelessness of critics, etc. But Monday's crowd was unusually diverse: playwrights, actors, directors, bureaucrats from theaters small (Annex, Theater Schmeater) and large (Intiman, the Rep, ACT), journalists, and even one self-confessed board member. Nobody's comments did much to counter their stereotypes.
As the theater people filed into the Seattle Center House, groundskeepers with rakes and shovels were busy spreading a giant, stinking pile of fertilizer onto some flower beds. "Well, I wonder where there'll be more bullshit," somebody said as she walked past. "Out here or down in the theater?"
The occasion for the meeting: the Seattle stop of 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 Theatre Development Fund. The book is the summation of a five-year research project about the penury of the contemporary American playwright, the penury of contemporary American theater, and the seething communication gap between the two: writers wondering why theaters keep producing old plays instead of new plays, and theaters wondering why writers don't understand that it's easier to sell tickets to Glengarry Glen Ross—and maybe, just maybe, more artistically rewarding to produce—than something untested and unknown.
The day began with a litany of unhappy statistics and quotes presented by the authors and Victoria Bailey, executive director of TDF:
• An NEA study revealed that the number of American adults who attended a (nonmusical) play in a 12-month period shrank from 13.5 percent (25 million) in 1992 to 9.4 percent (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 still other chunks coming from teaching or writing for television and film instead of theater. Only 15 percent of playwrights' incomes are affiliated with the production of plays, 3 percent 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."
• American plays have shriveled in cast size for financial reasons. In 1967, The Great White Hope transferred from a regional theater to Broadway with a cast of 63 actors. In 2008, August: Osage County did the same with just 13 actors and New York Times critic Charles Isherwood wrote, "One reason I flipped for August was its superabundance of characters." American plays have also shrunk in scope—for reasons nobody quite understands. A quote from the study, by an unnamed artistic director: "I keep reading all these plays about the big issues by bad writers and all these plays by good writers about nothing."
• Another quote from an anonymous artistic director: "Everyone wants to see the same 10 playwrights." The evidence, not cited because everybody already knew it: A Theatre Communications Group survey about the 10 most-produced plays this decade: Proof, Doubt, Art, The Drawer Boy, Rabbit Hole, Wit, I Am My Own Wife, Crowns, Intimate Apparel, and a tie between The Glass Menagerie and The Laramie Project.
• The form of the American play seems even more limited than its subject matter. "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," the study cited one director saying. "I'd do it, but that would be more controversial than content."
• And 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."
But Monday's assembled multitude already knew all that, and once the TDF dignitaries had finished their parade of misery, the fireworks began. One prominent Seattle artistic director (attributions by name weren't allowed) told the room that his theater didn't produce more new works because there "aren't enough good plays" (burn on Seattle playwrights!), but then threw the room a sop, saying theaters needed to invest more "in our own backyard."
A local playwright shot back, asking the AD to put up or shut up: "The only time I hear from artistic directors in town is to tell me how much they adore my plays—you're either being dishonest with me in telling me you like my plays or you're being dishonest right now in saying there aren't enough good plays." Fidgeting happened.
The whole exercise was a backlash against the usual practices: polite lying and saving face instead of engaging in the unabashed, prickish truth. Nobody's innocent and nobody in art/show business owes anybody anything. Some of you playwrights don't get produced because you're not very good. The world doesn't owe you a production. Some of you theaters are breaking because your artistic leadership is conservative and cowardly and your programming is limp. The world doesn't owe you its attention.
And nobody working in theater (justly compensated or not, ignored or lauded) is a victim. But if there's one lesson the casual observer could learn from Monday's event: Everybody likes to behave like one.