by Linda Escalera Price
“I make my living now as a screenwriter! Which I’m surprised and horrified to hear myself saying, butI don’t think I can support myself as a playwright at this point. I don’t think anybody does.” – Tony Kushner in Time Out
When you hear things like this, the idea of making a living as a playwright seems ludicrous and completely out of the question. But there are ways to actually make money writing plays. Perhaps not enough to fully support you but certainly a way to make money. Since my first play was produced in 2000, I have earned money as a playwright every single year. To be honest, several of those years I didn’t even break even. My highest paying year as a playwright was the high 4 figures – enough to cover my living expenses if I were in a 3rd world country. But still, it’s money I make from doing what I love.
The best advice I have is to write a play that becomes a smash hit in Chicago, lands on Broadway and wins a Tony. Or win a McArthur Fellowship which comes with a $625,000 stipend paid out over five years. But since you have to be nominated and the folks who can nominated are all anonymous, I have no idea how to get one of these. If you figure it out, please let me know! In the meantime, here are some more practical suggestions. Some are things I’ve done, some are things fellow playwrights have tried. And while I don’t guarantee you a solid enough income to live off of (or even any money at that) I hope this at least opens your eyes to some avenues that perhaps haven’t occurred to you.
Contests can be a great way to get exposure as well as a little extra cash. Many prizes run in the $100-200 range but there are also some great ones out there. Two of my favorites: Mountain Playhouse in Jennerstown, PA has a prize $1000 plus a staged reading and the possibility of production. And FutureFest in Dayton, OH which also has a $1000 prize for the winner and they bring the top six finalists to town for a weekend play festival of stage readings and productions of thefinalists. On a side note: I rarely, rarely, rarely enter a contest which requires an entrance fee – many fees are waived for members of The Dramatists Guild.
There are some great grants out there – they take work to find and apply, but I have friends who have done very well. I was turned down by the NC Arts Council, but for $10,000, I’ll be jumping through the application hoops again this year.
- Commissioned work
As odd as this sounds, they are out there. Not a route I have taken – Ihave trouble sticking to the truth! – but I have friends who have done well writing commissioned plays: one has a regular gig with the science museum, another has written plays that are performed at an historicallandmark. And the play Becky’s New Car by Steven Dietz was actually commissioned by man looking for an unusual birthday present for his wife Becky.
- Children’s Plays
There are theaters who produce nothing but shows for children. Not by children, for children. Some of these theaters look for and champion plays with historical or social relevance especially productions that lend themselves to school tours. Others look for ways to adapt classic literature focusing on children who otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to live theatre. Others do brilliant main stage shows. My personal fav, Theatre IV in Richmond, VA, does all three extremely well.
These are the places looking for plays that can be performed by, rather than for, children. They runs the gamut from K-12 . I wrote plays for an elementary school that wanted to keep students involved in theatre but was getting pushback from parents wanting the time spent on theatre to be used for “real” subjects. The solution was to hire me to write plays that supported the curriculum: colonists smuggling messages past the British, a town that didn’t do anything about trash and recycling, and the settling of America. (As for the sticking to the truth issue – the school loved the fact that Columbus was looking for a new trade route because he had to replace his silk shirt and there wouldn’t be a Wal-Mart around for close to 500 years.)
I’ve also written plays for a middle school theatre department because the Theater teacher couldn’t find anything age-appropriate that wasn’t laden down with teenage angst or didn’t “talk down to my very bright kids”. The result was a one-act that I later fleshed out into a very inappropriate-for-middle-schoolers full-length play.
- Community theatres
Many community theatres are looking for scripts with large casts. One of my play with 11 characters has yet to find a home for a professional production – that’s a lot of paychecks. But it’s a fun little farce that gives theaters a tremendous amount of freedom in the choice of props. (If the script calls for a sword, the prop should not be an actual sword, but something that can be used like a sword – for example a curtain rod.) This gives theatre the fun of dragging out favorite props from old shows. It’s been a perfect fit for a high schools and community theatres.
- Specialty theatres
Think dinner theatre. Murder mysteries. Boat cruises. And theaters dedicated to specific genres such as the LGBT community. There’s also an entire religious market. They’re looking for plays that suit a variety of purposes from school performances to youth groups, from chancel dramas to church-wide productions. There are even theaters that only produce works of a religious nature. So write away. After all, there are only so many times you can do …
What’s the catch? I’m speaking in sweeping generalities here, but most of these markets want plays that are entertaining in a lighthearted way – make me laugh, even a tear or two is okay, but don’t make me think too deep. These are not the places to submit your coping with Alzheimer’s/recovering from incest/my brother has PTSD play – unless it fits the specific market. Ditto for the things your mother told you to avoid in polite dinner conversation – sex, religion (unless you’re writing for the religious market) and politics. And for the most part, to reach these theatres you need to have your plays published and available in play catalogues. Some publishers won’t look at a script unless it’s been produced, some are more flexible. All have different submission polices and scary-looking contracts. Check with The Dramatist’s Guild – they know the legitimate ones from the scam artists.
For a long time, this was a route I was reluctant to go. I wanted to write plays that were going to end up on Broadway and be artistically as well as commercially successful. I didn’t want to “sell-out” to Samuel French. When my plays made it big they were going to call me, right? And I certainly didn’t want to give anyone else control of my rights. Finally I submitted a 10 minute play to a publisher to see what would happen. Every year I get a royalty check (albeit a tiny one) from Brooklyn Publishers. Nothing bad has happened. So I’ve started to submit scripts to the play catalogues. There are a bunch out there – some covering all genres, some specific to the children’s market or the religious market etc.
Maybe none of this appeals to you. That’s fine. Write what you love. Topics you want to cover. Using techniques you want to use. But tuck these ideas away in the back of your mind. When a day comes that you need a check for the purchasing power it has or the validation it brings, remember these markets. You can always write under an assumed name. In fact, if you someday see a play by CG Greene, think of me!