The most recent issue of American Theatre Magazine featured an excellent article about New Dramatists’ artistic director and “official gadfly of the institutional theatre,” Todd London, whose book Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play I wrote about on my Theatre Ideas blog when it first came out in 2009. The American Theatre article by Stephen Nunns prompted me to order a copy of a collection of London’s essays, The Importance of Staying Earnest: Writings from Inside the American Theatre, 1988-2013. In the Introduction, London summarizes the economic facts of being a playwright in America. “The typical ‘successful’ playwright earns between $25,000 and just under $40,000, when averaged over a five-year period,” he writes.
Slightly more than half of that income comes from sources unrelated to playwriting, the day job. Of the approximately forty-nine percent of a playwright’s total income that comes from playwriting-related activities – including teaching, and TV and film writing – only fifteen percent of our study’s playwrights’ total income comes from production-related activities, i.e. licensing, publishing, grants, awards, commissions, royalties. In other words, an average working professional playwright whose resume you’d look at and say, “that’s a successful early-career or emerging – or mid-career or even established playwright,” is making between about $3800 and $5800 a year as a playwright. Only about three percent of a playwright’s meager income comes from royalties, the foundation of the playwright’s compensation. That three percent means $750 to less than $1200 a year, on average. And lest you think that this is about young bohemians, our average study playwright is thirty-five to forty-four years old, and the sampling includes winners of Obies, Tonys, and Pulitzers.
Lest we have missed the implicit point made by these facts, London concludes “despite the implicit promises of MFA recruitment brochures, there is no career track for playwrights, no lifelong path, hardly any career there…In 2011 Tony Kushner told Time Out/New York that he can’t make a living as a playwright. If he can’t, then probably no one can.” I remember how, collectively, we shook our head when London’s book was published. We were stunned. How could this be?
This summer, I have been preparing to teach a new course on Elizabethan theatre, and I was taking notes from The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare: An Introduction with Documents by Russ McDonald. In the section on “The Companies,” McDonald draws the reader’s attention to Philip Henslowe, who built the Rose Theatre in 1587 and whose detailed financial records provide a portrait of the business dealings for theatres of the period. “From Henslowe’s diary,” McDonald writes, “we learn, for example, that in the 1590s the usual fee paid to a playwright for a new play was five to eight pounds…”
Having just read the Introduction to London’s book, I became curious as to how much such a payment represented in the Elizabethan economy. So I did a search that took me to the Mass Historia website, where I discovered that, for between four and ten pounds, one could acquire “a good pair of boots” in the 1590s. In other words, a new play earned the playwright enough money to buy a new pair of boots.
Wanting to project this into modern times, and knowing that boots were quite valuable to an Elizabethan courtier, I did another search, looking for examples of high end of leather boots for sale today. I was fortunate enough to find an Esquire article (where else?) on “The Best New Dress Shoes at Any Price,” which included an “Extra-Dressy Boot” by Louis Vuitton that cost $1200. That seemed pretty pricey to me, so I used it as a benchmark: if “good pair of boots” cost ten pounds in the 1590s and a similar pair cost $1200 now, that means a play purchased for eight pounds in the 1590s was worth about $960 today, or right smack in the middle of the amount of royalties a contemporary playwright collects, according to London. In other words, little had changed in over 400 years.
As I skimmed through McDonald’s book, I came across a curious fact: in May 1597, after only seven years in London, and after having only thirteen of his plays performed to that point, “William Shakespeare purchased New Place, the second-largest house in Stratford; the spread also included two barns, two gardens, and two orchards.” How could this be? How could payment amounting to what today would be around $12,000 in royalties buy a timber-and-brick house with ten fireplaces, five handsome gables, and a sizable estate?
The answer, for those of you who know your theatre history, is that New Place wasn’t purchased with royalties paid to a freelance writer. Rather, three years earlier, in 1594, Shakespeare had invested money to become one of eight shareholders in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.
“Being a shareholder in a London company,” McDonald wrote, “was profitable, but it also entailed considerable responsibility: a sharer had to commit his talents and services exclusively to the company…” Shakespeare certainly did his share: in 1595, the year after investing, he wrote no less than four plays: Richard II, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Merchant of Venice, all written specifically for the actors of the Lord Chamberlain’s men, all highly successful.
In 1598, a year after Shakespeare bought New Place, disaster struck: the Lord Chamberlain’s Men lost their lease. Undaunted, the Burbages decided to dismantle The Theatre, move it across the Thames, and rebuild it as The Globe. The enormous cost of this undertaking couldn’t be borne by the Burbages alone, and as a result they sold ten percent shares in the new theatre building to five other company members, including Shakespeare. Writes McDonald, “thenceforth, instead of having to turn over to the landlord half of the gallery receipts from each performance, the company in its new location was its own landlord; with anywhere from 500 to 3,000 spectators paying at least a penny (many of them more than that), the receipts were considerable.”
And by the way, in case you’re thinking this is just applicable to playwrights, McDonald notes that “the average wage for a minor actor was ten shillings (or one-half of a pound) per week. If he was employed every week of the year (unlikely), that is twenty-six pounds, or about three pairs of boots give or take. Again, being a shareholder (i.e., not a minor actor) made all the difference.
In my last article, “A New Education for a New Theatre,” I wrote “We need to thoroughly acquaint young theatre people with the long history of artists like Shakespeare, Moliere, David Garrick, Clyde Fitch and most others from the past who performed several roles in the theatre simultaneously, and who controlled the means of production.” As a freelance playwright, Shakespeare would have been in the same economic position as any of the contemporary playwrights described by Todd London, scraping by by his bootstraps, as it were.
But as a shareholder and a householder, Shakespeare had control over the means of production, was involved in and affected by all decisions made by the company, and through his day-to-day knowledge of the talents possessed by the company, he was able to create plays that had a good chance of success. The result was a comfortable lifestyle for him and his family, and a rich professional life that allowed him to experiment.
But in today’s theatre, we seem to believe that having permanent companies that include a playwright is impractical, undesirable, stultifying. From the moment a young person gets involved in the theatre, they are taught that they are free agents in competition with every other artist. Every man for himself.
As a result, playwrights write for a generic public and group of artists; few theatres have long-term commitments to produce the plays of a particular writer, much less producing multiple plays in a single season (imagine a contemporary regional theatre doing four new plays in a single season by a single living playwright).
If Malcolm Gladwell is right about the necessity of 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert, then by becoming a shareholder and householder, Shakespeare not only solidified his financial position, but he also gave himself a platform that allowed him to develop his talents to the pinnacle of the dramatic art. I would argue that the economics of a permanent company is not impossible in our own society, as the members of the Network of Ensemble Theatres prove. And the benefits are extraordinary.
It is time that young artists not only learn about this in their theatre history classes, but experience it as part of their professional education. Several people who commented on my last article pointed to programs where some version of this experience is actually provided: University of California at San Diego, Mary Baldwin College, Arizona State University, San Francisco State University. If you know of others, please pass them along. Perhaps I can create a list that might guide aspiring artists to programs that will give them the best chance of living a creative and stable life.