The Theatrosphere was ablaze last week thanks to a post on Arena Stage’s new HowlRound blog by playwright Mat Smart. Titled “The Real Reason Playwrights Fail,” the post was a letter to Artistic Directors in which Smart railed against the “defeatist” attitude of his peers (as in, endless talking about how the system is broken) and called playwrights (including himself) “fucking lazy.” He also claimed the aforementioned real reasons for failure are fueled by playwrights’ “general laziness, inability to commit, defeatist attitude, lack of talent, and unwillingness to truly listen and change.”
I got the sense from Smart’s brash, faux-provocative, curse-word-laden tone that his post was ill thought out and meant to shed heat in order to provoke some light. As someone who has been blogging for close to a decade now, I could tell him: those kinds of posts almost never work.
As you might imagine, many people (including yours truly) were not impressed. In my response, I wrote that while I appreciated some of what Smart had to say about learning to work relentlessly and listen to feedback, I strongly disliked that Smart goes to bat for a broken system. Smart wants to blithely dismiss the difficulties affecting the new play sector, which is quite odd given a recent high-profile study by Todd London and Theatre Development Fund, titled "Outrageous Fortune", which documents them.
"Outrageous Fortune" uses surveys and conversations with Artistic Directors and playwrights to document the disconnects and difficulties within the new play sector. The problems, unsurprisingly, are legion. Too legion, in fact, to document at length in this post, but here are a few takeaways:
--Playwrights earn only 15% of their living from their plays and earn roughly 50% of their living from non-theater-related day jobs.
-- The commissioning system is a complete failure. One playwright called it a pay off to leave a given theater alone. Commissions on average pay out $3,000 to $5,000. Plays on average take six months to two years to write. Because theaters tend to get rights of first refusal on shows they commission, they can then sit on the commissioned script for indefinite periods of time, letting the script languish and keeping it from generating further income (and visibility) for the playwright
-- American theater is obsessed with premieres and that obsession is destroying it. Premiere-itis has a number of pernicious effects. First, it leads theaters to lie to their audiences by claiming productions are premieres when they aren’t. Second, it means plays routinely die after their first production, particularly if they don’t occur in a large enough space or aren’t reviewed by the right press. Third, commissioning leads to a system in which playwrights feel they have to get their plays produced by the same large theaters they simultaneously believe are bad at doing new work.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. When the study came out, I led a cross-blog roundtable on it that you’re welcome read. My point is simply that the problems facing playwrights (and the plays they create) are real and well documented. The problems are worse for women and people of color. They can’t be easily dismissed by the reassurance that playwrights are whining too much.
Note: While "Outrageous Fortune" is a study of the national new play development and production system, not all of its lessons and statistics apply to the Twin Cities. For one thing, Minneapolis is about 40% cheaper to live in than New York. Mat Smart’s $30K a year salary would stretch a lot further here than it does there. Minneapolis also has many great resources for playwrights. There’s tons of grant money, and we’re blessed with the Playwrights Center and innovative groups like Workhaus Collective. There are, it should be said, plenty of cities with similar resources and their own particular problems. Washington, D.C., for example, has one of (if not the) best new play theater in America: Woolly Mammoth. But they have nothing like the Playwrights Center (they have a nascent answer to it, called Inkwell).
The real problem with Smart’s post is one of context and audience. By addressing the section knocking playwrights to Artistic Directors, and by refusing to criticize either the system or ADs, Smart commits an act of betrayal toward his community. Thanks to "Outrageous Fortune," convenings at Arena, the existence of playwright-run ventures like 13P, and open conversation on the Internet, American playwrights are better positioned to tackle the systemic problems affecting their lives. Blog posts like Smart’s allow the management class to continue dismissing playwrights’ labor.
Other bloggers took issue with other aspects of Smart’s post. On Youngblog, playwright Josh Conkel responded more to Smart’s thoughts on talent and hard work, writing that, “Of course he's right that playwrights need to work hard, but his attitude represents a larger sort of American thinking that's outdated and dangerous. It's the idea that we live in a meritocracy where the cream rises to the top. The truth is, privilege exists in theater because it exists everywhere in America.”
Conkel goes on to write, “I love when straight, white, dudes are brash enough to argue that disadvantages against women, racial minorities, poor folks, gays etc. are completely imagined despite oodles of evidence to the contrary. Minorities are poor because of LAZINESS.”
Here, Josh Conkel (a dear friend and collaborator) interprets, in a particular way, what Smart means by the systemic problems affecting theater. While I wouldn’t go quite this far—although I’m glad Conkel brought privilege to the table in this discussion—it seems to me that Smart wasn’t even thinking about these kinds of systemic inequities when he wrote his post. He displays a blinkered thinking born of the kind of privilege Conkel refers to, but I’m not so sure Smart intended to say that the systemic inequities faced by, say, female playwrights are imagined. Rather, it seems he didn’t even stop to think about female playwrights (or playwrights of color) when writing his post.
Of course, I could be wrong. Smart was at least thinking about his own identity politics when he wrote, “I am not qualified to speak for all `emerging’ playwrights because I am a straight, white male, and I don’t have a trust fund…. I am not qualified to speak for all `emerging’ playwrights because I like to write linear plays with dramatic action and a climax where the protagonist makes a decision that changes him or her irrevocably.” Such sentences surely prime the close reader to think of Smart's post in terms of identity politics, regardless of whether that was Smart’s intent.
Playwright Kari Bentley-Quinn is one such reader, who had similar thoughts to Conkel’s. In her blog she invites the reader to follow her down the “rabbit hole of subtext” and writes: “You cannot tell me you’re a straight white male who gets produced/paid and then poo-poo my concerns as a female playwright and THEN tell me it’s because I’m lazy and untalented. Don’t do that. That might not have been how he meant to come off, but that’s what happened.”
One aspect unmentioned during the dust up, which only became clear once the dust settled, is how small, how petty, and how sad the fight really is.
Think about it. Smart positions himself (and is seen as) a somewhat successful playwright, who speaks from a position of authority within the system. And what is his success? An occasional production. Some workshops. An income of between $19,000 to $30,000 a year from his artistic work (including teaching).
These are achievements he can point to and say, “My hard work has paid off.” Still, compared to the financial remuneration of other professions, it’s not much. For instance, I’m guessing that the playwrights invited to work at the Guthrie Theater earn a fraction of, say, what Artistic Director Joe Dowling makes, about $613,700 a year; a figure that, when reported a while back, created quite a dust-up of its own.
I don’t mean to belittle Smart. Making as much money as he makes in theater, and getting as produced and developed as he is produced and developed is in fact really, really hard. You can have all the advantages of straight white maledom, and add in the advantages of inherited wealth, and you’re still lucky if you make it that far.
Honestly, I can think of no clearer indictment of the system than that.