Tag Archives: Tony Kushner

Do you really think a life in the theatre means making a living? Think again.

Tony Kushner

Tony Kushner

by Stephen Sachs

Eight words. A statement declared in eight simple words jumped out at me in a feature story on playwright Tony Kushner in today’s New York Times. The eight words were stated by playwright and Kushner friend Larry Kramer, author of The Normal Heart, which we produced at the Fountain Theatre in 2015.  Commenting on Kushner’s shift from playwriting to screenwriting, Kramer says, “I wish he’d go back to writing plays.”

So, why doesn’t he?

Kushner answered that question himself in 2011 when he shocked many in the arts community by revealing in an interview in Time Out New York that not even the author of Angeles in America can make a living as a playwright.

“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.”

Kushner is right. American playwrights — not even one of his stature — do not earn the bulk of their living writing plays. Many teach. An ever-growing number write for film or cable television.  The tsunami of playwrights today surging into television is so large that it now has become a writer’s career model:  A playwright earns notoriety and success writing plays — or even one successful play, he/she “takes meetings” with Industry producers then quickly 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.

“I don’t particularly want to do it,” Kushner said in 2011. “I think that it’s a mistake to do it. So, yes, I’m very worried about it. ” The last play by Kushner premiered in 2009.

The classic tale of playwrights writing for Hollywood is as old as celluloid itself. An avalanche is now underway. Playwrights are flocking to cable TV and streaming networks in record numbers. TV showrunners are aggressively recruiting writers from regional theaters like crazed baseball team owners scouting for hot rookie talent.  One major talent agency in Hollywood has opened a department specifically targeting playwrights for film and televsion. The roster of playwrights now writing for film and TV today is too long to list.  Is that such a bad thing?

Many playwrights I know, and have produced at the Fountain Theatre, also write for film and television. My pal Robert Schenkkan (Building the Wall) is writing a new project for Amazon. Tanya Saracho (El Nogalar) is now creator and showrunner of the Starz drama “Vida” and just signed a three-year deal with the network. Tarell Alvin McCraney (In the Red and Brown Water/Brothers Size) has signed to create, write, and executive produce a new hour-long television drama for the Oprah Winfrey Network. I’m confidant that all three will continue writing plays.

ss-sj-mcc

Stephen Sachs, Shirley Jo Finney, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Fountain Theatre (2014)

I had my own Hollywood crossover by writing the teleplay for Sweet Nothing in my Ear for CBS, based on my play that premiered at the Fountain.  The sale of that one TV script paid me more than I would make running an 80-seat theatre for years.  I am currently writing a screenplay based on my comedy/drama Bakersfield Mist. Does this make me a traitor to my art form? I don’t think so. It makes me a man with a family and a mortgage.

Let’s be honest. There’s a reason why it’s called non-profit theatre. One enters the non-profit arts sector like one enters the priesthood — to serve a higher power. Even so, it would be nice to make a good living doing what you feel is important. To be frank, non-profit theatre-making is an inherently shitty business model. The economics of the art form stack the odds against those who actually make the art happen. So, why do we do it? Here, we cue the piano and launch into “What I Did for Love

Of course, it’s not only playwrights who give their hearts to the theatre at the expense of their wallets. Actors, directors and designers often work for love, and little money. The average member of Actors Equity Association, the professional stage union for actors and stage managers, made an annual salary in 2016 of only $7,700 per year. Like corporate America, it’s the folks at the top in this country’s major regional theaters who are earning large salaries. A few of the larger LORT companies have added playwrights to their theatre’s staff, but they are rare. The model of a permanent repertory company, where artists are paid a yearly salary, is a dying concept, a fossilized relic from an earlier age.

Today, the odds of making a living as a playwright are as remote and precarious as making a living as a poet. Our finest example of excelling at both is, of course, the greatest playwright/poet of them all. Shakespeare wrote multiple plays a year, dozens of sonnets, was a partner in the company, and a co-owner of the theatre building. He was also a ruthless businessman and wealthy grain merchant and property owner.  Unlike the character he created in King Lear, Shakespeare was no fool.

I have dedicated my career to the intimate Fountain Theatre and the non-profit arts community in Los Angeles. I knew twenty-eight years ago when I co-founded this theatre that I would never make a lot of money. I’m okay with that. Most days. I’d be lying if I claimed I haven’t envied men and women my age or younger in the entertainment industry making a huge amount of money more than me.

This is the life I have chosen. Two things keep me going. The impact our work has on others, and the example I am setting for my two sons. Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with making money. I just want my two boys to know that their father dedicated his life working at something that he loved and knew was important, that he was committed to making the world a better place in the one way he knew how, by exploring and illuminating the human condition, not striving to make himself wealthy. Can one do both? Of course. I just haven’t yet figured out how to do that.

An artist’s life offers riches not found in a bank ledger. In that, I am the wealthiest man in the world.

Stephen Sachs is the Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre.

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Living in a World of Magic and Vastness and Wonder

Chauvet Cave

Chauvet Cave

by Eric Coble

Emerging from the One Theatre World conference on plays for young audiences, this past May,  life was pretty wondrous. And ringing in my head was a concept totally unrelated to any of what I’d just seen or experienced, except that it was perhaps at the very heart of the experience, and perhaps the heart of what theater, better than any other art form, can achieve. The concept comes from Jean Clottes, former head of scientific research at Chauvet Cave in southern France that contains cave paintings dating back 35,000 years:

People of the Paleolithic probably had two concepts which change [one’s] vision of the world. The concept of fluidity and the concept of permeability. Fluidity means that the categories that we have—man, woman, horse, tree, etc.—can shift. A tree may speak. A man can get transformed into an animal, and the other way around, given certain circumstances. The concept of permeability is that there are no barriers, so to speak, between the world where we are and the world of the spirits. A wall can talk to us, or a wall can accept us or refuse us. A shaman for example can send his or her spirit to the world of the supernatural or can receive the visit, inside him or her, of supernatural spirits. If you put those two concepts together you realize how different life must have been for those people from the way we live now.

Exactly. Except not for all of us. Children are still remarkably, gloriously, frighteningly close to our Paleolithic ancestors. They have absolute faith and comfort in fluidity and permeability, in parents who can become animals and rocks that can speak to enlighten or deceive. The freedom of that worldview, the magic that this enables, makes writing for children’s theater both a joy and exquisite effort—one has to let go of rational plotting, of the need for explanation, while still honoring the rules of the universe being created. Which strikes me as being a valid way to live one’s life outside theater.

But here’s the thing. This universe is not just for kids. Over the three days of the festival, I witnessed adults, men and women from their twenties to their sixties, who totally bought that a Styrofoam ball and a gloved hand were a small man in a diving suit, one that they cared for, rooted for, and grieved with. They believed an obviously human hand moving through the air with a squeaking sound was a mouse that had seen enough injustice in the world and was finally taking action; that a plastic bag came to life and pursued its own agenda within our human realm. Inanimate became animate, fluidity was real. The edges of our known world became permeable. And, yes, we knew. We knew it was a puppeteer—there was no effort to hide the mechanics—we’re sophisticated and jaded and theater people for god’s sake. And yet we believed. We believed with our child/Paleolithic minds. Is there anywhere else besides theater where this can happen with such grace? Where the machinery can be in such plain sight and yet simultaneously break us free of our fundamental knowledge of the world? Paintings, music, dance, novels can punch us in the gut, remind us we’re human, open us to others’ experiences, but can they fundamentally revert our very perceptions to an earlier state? We’re in the same room at the same time with the creators, they are clearly as human as we are, and for minutes or hours at a time we are in the presence of something nonhuman, nonrational, yet viscerally real and true.

So what about plays for adults? Can their stories be just as filled with fluidity and permeability? I would argue that there is as much truth to those states as to any other, perhaps more so. Adults watch, transfixed, transported as leather and wood and wire shift form into a huge animal we weep for in Warhorse. And isn’t that sense of magic—knowing that we are witnessing transformation, craving it, the sense that something larger, more true is happening in the obvious falsehood—isn’t that so much more potent than having real horses on stage? It’s not just impressive, it’s fracking magic. The wildlife of the savannah in Lion King, the singing basement appliances of Caroline, or Change, the terrified blind gods in Equus, this is not just stagecraft—it’s matter transforming into other matter, or at least allowing us to believe again that that is possible. And our world gets bigger, more wondrous.

'Heart Song' at the Fountain Theatre

‘Heart Song’ at the Fountain Theatre

Even when physical objects are not transmogrifying, we can achieve stunning moments of permeability as something sweeping and unexplainable bleeds through into our world (or at least the world of the play). It’s not subtle, but when Tony Kushner has an angel descend through a ceiling to announce heaven’s plans…well, our Paleolithic ancestors (and children) would have grasped that more easily than understanding why Blanche Dubois loves paper lanterns. Lisa D’Amour’s Anna Bella Eema, Mickle Maher’s There Is A Happiness That Morning Is, my own early stabs at permeability in My Barking Dog—all of these stories take place here, now, but in a world where our narrow realities are enlarged and our understanding of life gets bigger. Brilliant plays like Good People and Clybourne Park speak ugly truths in graceful ways, but they are, by choice, creating a world that is the exact same size as life. We need those stories, but I posit that we need, perhaps even more, worlds that are unimaginably larger than the one we return to when we step out of the theater onto the sidewalk.

Sacred Space: the stage before the performance begins.

Sacred Space: the stage before the performance begins.

None of this is new, to be sure; theater likely was birthed from acting out the transformations (and perhaps thus gaining some control over them) believed to be happening in the world around our ancestors. Perhaps ancient theatrical techniques and modern technology may yet show us a way to resuscitate our art in the face of all encompassing digital entertainment by offering audiences something we can’t get anywhere else, something that forces us to do the work, to create (or allow) the magic, even as adults, in the face of what we think we know about our world. It’s one thing to willingly believe that Willy Loman is a real person in a real kitchen, but so many other art forms can trick us into that. Novelists can utterly suck us into their worlds, fantastic or not, but they don’t have to contend with our rational brains telling us we’re sitting in a room with strangers consciously watching other strangers tell a story and simultaneously that a live actor is becoming an automobile or a man has been impregnated by a coyote. By directly engaging this battle between our certainty of the real and our hunger for the might-be-real at such an unconscious yet obvious level, theater supersedes other art forms and is able let the bigger world of transformation bleed through.

One more thought from Mssr. Clottes:

Humans have been described in many ways, right? And for a while it was Homo Sapiens and it’s still called Home Sapiens, “the man who knows.” I don’t think it’s a good definition at all. We don’t know. We don’t know much. I would think Homo Spiritulalis.

The theater has given us the unique tools to take us back to our most primitive basic reality, whether one wants to call that a child’s mind or the mind, now forgotten, that launched our species on our current course. We know what existing in the world created by logic and physics feels like. What about living in a world of magic and vastness and wonder again?

What a gift. What a challenge. What art.

Eric Coble is a playwright  born in Edinburgh, Scotland and raised on the Navajo and Ute reservations in New Mexico and Colorado. His plays include The Velocity of Autumn, Bright Ideas,The Dead Guy, Natural Selection, For Better, and The Giver and have been produced Off-Broadway, throughout the U.S., and on several continents. This post appeared on HowlRound.

Tony Kushner: “I Don’t Think I Can Support Myself as a Playwright.”

Tony Kushner

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.”

Theresa Rebeck

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?