End of Plays

A new study paints a bleak picture for the future of American theater

Photo courtesy of Night Shade Shadow Theatre

No one embarks on a playwriting career expecting to make a boatload of money. Mamet aside, the number of living American playwrights who are able to draw mass audiences on sheer name recognition is undeniably slim, even smaller perhaps than brand-name screenwriters and book authors. Now the hardships faced by American playwrights are the focus of an ambitious new study by the nonprofit arts organization Theatre Development Fund, underscoring both the economic unfeasibility of surviving as a playwright and the continued sputtering of the administrative engines that drive American theater as a whole.

The study, dubbed Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play and published in book form last month, draws on six years of comprehensive research, including surveys of 250 playwrights and nearly 100 nonprofit theaters, most specializing in the production of new works. TDF also held a series of roundtable discussions with artistic directors, playwrights and theater experts in Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Chicago, San Francisco and New York — five cities known for their robust theater communities and support of the arts.

The study’s devastating results — to call them grim would be a serious understatement — show a theater industry plagued by ailments at every conceivable level, from dwindling audiences and shrinking cast sizes to a growing disconnect between American playwrights and the nonprofit theaters that produce their work.

Todd London, artistic director for New Dramatists and the study’s chief author, called the results of his research complex and contradictory. “On the one hand, we have a playwriting profession that is larger, better trained, and more vital than at any time in our history,” he noted. “On the other hand, we have a profound rift between our most accomplished playwrights and the theaters who would produce them, an increasingly corporate theater culture, dire economics for not-for-profits, and, perhaps most troubling of all, a system of compensation that makes it nearly impossible for playwrights to earn anything resembling a living.”

London cites the payment structure of many nonprofit theaters — a royalty system modeled after the commercial sector — as one of the major factors prohibiting playwrights from earning a living wage. Commissions to playwrights, London says, are far too meager to support the time needed to fully develop new works, leaving the majority of plays unproduced and a great number of playwrights washed up by mid-career. This latter finding will come as little surprise to New York theatergoers familiar with the dearth of new works, particularly straight plays, being produced by larger theaters, commercial and nonprofit alike. Those plays that do make it to the stage can expect to struggle to fill seats almost without exception. Consider Neil LaBute’s Reasons to Be Pretty, which opened at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre last year to much fanfare and a slew of solid reviews. The play, despite three Tony nods and LaBute’s nearly unmatched off-Broadway renown, failed to find an audience and closed a financial flop after only 106 performances.

Admittedly, if any of TDF’s findings signal the imminent demise of theater, it would hardly be the first time the art form’s death knell has been sounded. That the theater has survived the advent of radio, motion pictures, television and the Internet should offer some degree of comfort to anyone addicted to a heartfelt monologue and the warm glow of floodlights on an actor’s face. For its part, TDF continues to be proactive in improving a dire situation for theater artists. With support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the organization plans to moderate discussions with theater communities in eight cities early this year, looking for solutions that will stimulate new play production at a time when theater lovers need it most.

The full text of the Outrageous Fortune study is available at the Drama Book Shop, 250 West 40th Street.

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Originally published in Show Business Weekly, February 2010

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