Outrageous Fortune: The Life And Times Of The New American Play by Todd London, with Ben Pesner, and Zannie Giraud Voss, examines the “collaboration in crisis” between the contemporary American playwright and the varied people who fund and produce new work. Published this month by Theatre Development Fund, the study draws on six years of research, including interviews and surveys with hundreds of playwrights, artistic directors and theater professionals. I was one of the playwrights questioned for this book and want to share how this work translated to me. This is not a book review, but rather a personal response to the study.
I found myself disappointed that I wasn’t disappointed in the books data and conclusion, and writing that is disappointing. The book is a postmortem on what the American playwright was and the realization that in free market capitalism the bottom line is the emphasis for the contemporary stage, something most playwrights learn quickly. This is seen not only in a statistic on page 24 that the average number of new plays per year from 1980-2000 was only 14, but also that grants and foundations (the major funders of my own work) are looking for “results”, such as how many people came to see the show and what was the impact. The question of playwriting commissions is brought into light, as one playwright speculates that a commission is designed to placate the writer, and not to produce the play in question. This is an idea that has been on my mind for some time and has only been reinforced by the study. Producing a new play can be risky business for theatres, but no theatre wants to be negligent of playwrights.
In the study the authors are discreet when attributing quotes (anyone who has meet London would expect nothing less), using “PLAYWRIGHT” or “ARTISTIC DIRECTOR” and “DRAMATURG” instead of real names so not to ruffle features or make the findings personal. I found this amusing, at times, as I was able to identify the author of several quotes by word selection alone. A quote at the top of page 216 comparing bread and butter to the theatre must be from the artistic director of INTAR. A comment on the death of Houston’s Infernal Bridegroom (one of this nations most aggressive theaters before closing it’s doors after, allegedly, not paying the bills) is a friend and famous site-specific specialist from New Orleans. I found this comforting that some of my disheartened thoughts and feelings on the state of the American stage were being echoed by people I like and respect.
The most telling matter in the study includes the rise of the MFA program as a minor league for the writer to shape their voice and style and gain connections. Once a literary manager told me he wouldn’t even look at a play if the letters “MFA” weren’t on the writers credits. Although becoming increasingly important for a younger playwright to get noticed, MFA programs are expensive and writers often go into a lifetime of debt for graduate opportunities. I hold an MA from the University of New Mexico and an MFA from Columbia University and expect to have my loans, which are half that of others I know, paid by the time I am sixty. For the record, I am 34. On page 49, the authors wisely use the notorious Robert Anderson quote “You can make a killing in the theatre, but you can’t make a living”. To emphasize this point, I’ve made more money as a short story writer and blogger (where I’m nothing more than a jerk with an opinion at federal prisoner 30664) than as a playwright. After all, you are reading this on Culturebot, bless your heart. However, in this frank study, the authors end with a chapter entitled “Positive Practices and Novel Ideas”. They address how we can re-think our approach to play development, and, most importantly, audience. How do we connect with an ever-aging theatre audience? What the authors do with this book is start a conversation on where we have been and where we need to go. And that is a conversation long over due.