Tony Kushner can’t make a living writing for the stage. America’s most prominent playwright confessed in an interview published in Time Out New York earlier this year that Angels in America doesn’t pay the rent: “I make my living now as a screenwriter. Which I’m surprised and horrified to find myself saying, but I don’t think I can support myself as a playwright at this point. I don’t think anybody does. I’m developing a series for HBO .”
Kushner is right. American playwrights — not even one of his stature — do not earn the bulk of their living writing plays. Many teach, while a growing number of younger ones write for series television. The trend seems to be: new playwright attains notoriety and success writing plays, realizes he/she can’t make a living at it, jumps to movies and/or television to make real money. The well-meaning intent being that a big-bucks TV salary will financially support the writer, allowing him/her to keep writing plays. What often happens? They write fewer plays. Some never return to the stage.
Some do. Itamar Moses, for instance, writes for HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”, which isn’t stopping him from turning out stage plays (his latest effort, Completeness, just closed Off Broadway). Jon Robin Baitz had a devastating experience in Los Angeles creating and writing the new ABC series, “Brothers and Sisters”. He left the TV show (or was fired, depending on who you ask). After a year of wound-healing and soul-searching, Baitz rediscovered that his true writing home — where he was happiest and where the work was most meaningful — was the theatre. He pulled from a drawer some old notes he had scribbled years before: an idea for a play. And wrote his best new play in years, Other Desert Cities (earning rave reviews at Lincoln Center, now transferring to Broadway).
Playwrights “going to Hollywood” is nothing new. It’s been an ongoing exodus since the 1940’s. Even so, Kushner’s statement is jarring and disturbing.
“I don’t particularly want to do it,” says Kushner. ” I think that it’s a mistake to do it. So, yes, I’m very worried about it, because I think that a lot of talented playwrights wound up producing much less than they should have, and progressing less surely than ought to have, because they’ve spent a certain amount of their creative life doodling around in Hollywood. I think it’s had a baleful impact. Some writers’ work has just been destroyed by it. ”
“Having said all that, I’m deeply trying to make money in Hollywood, like every other idiot in the world.”
Playwright Keith Huff, who wrote the recent Broadway hit A Steady Rain, now writes for the AMC show “Mad Men.” Seven of the nine people writing for HBO’s “Big Love” are playwrights. David Mamet created “The Unit” for CBS, and widely produced playwright Theresa Rebeck has written for TV since the 1990s while remaining prolific as a playwright. Marsha Norman, Adam Rapp, Craig Wright, Eric Overmyer, Aaron Sorkin, Robert Schenkkan, Suzan Lori Parks, Marlene Myer, John Belluso, David Rambo, Alan Ball, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Jeffrey Sweet, Richard Greenberg … the list goes on and on.
“Theater is now viewed as a way of getting a staff writing job on TV,” says Warren Leight, the show runner and developer of “Lights Out” who won a 1999 Tony Award for the jazz-inspired play Side Man. “For a lot of guys now, it’s a means to an end. And the end is, ‘How do I make a living as a writer?'”
No one can begrudge playwrights for going where the money is. They need to make a living like everyone else. And the money is good in TV. Playwrights can earn more in two weeks of work on a TV show than they will with a commission for a play which may take them years to write.
The question is: what important new plays are not being written for the American Theatre because a playwright is writing for television?
The deeper question is: what does it say about our culture?