Theatre Econ 101

06.09.11 | 27 Comments

CATEGORIES arts administrators, collaboration, conversation starter, development, facts + figures, funding and support, ideas, playwrights, rabble rousing, theatrical ecosystem

or The Woman Behind the Desk is Not Your Enemy

The other day, a tweet came across my screen linking to this post about theatre economy. The thrust of the post is that we need to help playwrights be able to make a living writing plays (an important piece of a larger theatre econ conversation that needs addressing, more below). But, within the post and again in the comments (as is often the case when theatre econ posts get written) the first answer to the funding question is to “quit paying the millions to the thousands of overpaid arts admins who don’t create the work.” I’m sorry, but as one of those supposedly overpaid arts admins, I have to take umbrage.

As one commenter stated, no one working in the theatre is making their fortune from theatre. We wouldn’t be in this business if that was what we were after. And, the very few high-profile examples to the contrary, we aren’t paying ourselves ten times over before paying our artists. Theatre is a communal art. I would very much appreciate it if we can all stop excluding necessary members of the community from the side of “righteousness” just because we don’t create the art. If it weren’t for the admins, there would be no institutional theatres big enough to even consider your ideas of staff playwrights. You know you don’t want to spend 90 hours a week figuring out how to pay the bills, you wouldn’t have the brainspace to write a single word. We each need the other. So suck it up, quit pointing fingers, and let’s work on a solution together.

Now, on to the more productive part of this post. The idea of a staff playwright is an interesting one, if flawed. One commenter raised a lot of good questions which were first dismissed out of hand and then “answered” in a pat way that didn’t actually take into account the larger issues behind the questions. The fact is that most playwrights I know write about a variety of subjects, in a variety of styles, that are appropriate (or not) for a variety of theatres. Not to mention the rate of output issue that one commenter brought up. I think it would be extremely limiting to both the playwright and the theatre to have a staff playwright that had to produce something tailored to that theatre every year and the theatre had to produce something by that playwright every year. Diversification of voices is a battle-cry throughout the theatre industry. This system would be completely counter-productive to that.

However, there are lots of other models that could be considered. What if a consortium of theatres hire between them a team of playwrights? Or perhaps a fund is set up by all the theatres that produce new work and that fund is used to pay a growing cadre of playwrights a “living wage” (a term that needs more room than this post to work out) and allows said cadre to apply for (and afford) group health insurance for themselves and their families? The options are actually limited only by our imaginations. The same goes for other vital theatre folks like directors, dramaturgs, and designers who also have a devil of a time “making a living” in the theatre.

There are ways to make this better and this is a conversation that needs to happen. Please just remember, those of us with business brains (whether or not we are artists as well) are of much more use on your side than seen as an enemy. Together we may even get to a place where we can quit saying “the model is broken and there is no way to fix it.”

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Amy Wratchford

I'm the Managing Director of the American Shakespeare Center; a passionate theatre artist, manager, and marketer, wife, and mother to Kurt & Maggie.

The views expressed on 2amTheatre.com are Ms. Wratchford's and do not reflect the views of American Shakespeare Center.

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  • Thank you for this, Amy. As my own comment on that blog shows, I’m getting a little frustrated with this administrators-are-stealing-the-food-out-of-artists’-mouths line of thinking. I keep threatening to write an “in defense of administrators” post, but this serves quite well!

    • David Zoltan

      You should still do your post, but your style, Aaron. All data-and-number-riffic. 🙂

  • Anonymous

    Hear, hear, Mrs. Wratchford!  Great post with a number of excellent points about how the collaboration doesn’t end at the rehearsal room door. 

    I’ve been percolating on the ‘staff playwright’ notion and have stumbled on the very diversity and productivity questions you pose; the consortium idea is very interesting.

  • R. Bromels

    Thanks for sticking up for those of us whose passion for theatre drives us to spend hours wrangling spreadsheets, tearing tickets, placating vendors, writing ad copy, marshalling volunteers, reassuring/reinvigorating Board members, and generally doing all of the (often soul-draining) things that are necessary for a theatre to operate but that would drive most artists out of their minds.  Few arts administrators are appropriately compensated for their time, talent and stress level. 

    Theatre is a collaborative, ensemble art form and arts administrators are vital members of that ensemble.  As you note, almost everyone in the average small/mid-size theatre is over-worked and under-paid and there’s nothing to be gained by different staff/artist factions trying to “out-martyr” each other.

    Your concept of a consortium of theatre artists who need full-time employment but that few (if any) theatres can afford to hire full-time is fascinating.

  • R. Bromels

    Thanks for sticking up for those of us whose passion for theatre drives us to spend hours wrangling spreadsheets, tearing tickets, placating vendors, writing ad copy, marshalling volunteers, reassuring/reinvigorating Board members, and generally doing all of the (often soul-draining) things that are necessary for a theatre to operate but that would drive most artists out of their minds.  Few arts administrators are appropriately compensated for their time, talent and stress level. 

    Theatre is a collaborative, ensemble art form and arts administrators are vital members of that ensemble.  As you note, almost everyone in the average small/mid-size theatre is over-worked and under-paid and there’s nothing to be gained by different staff/artist factions trying to “out-martyr” each other.

    Your concept of a consortium of theatre artists who need full-time employment but that few (if any) theatres can afford to hire full-time is fascinating.

  • Steve

    Any playwright who thinks most admin staff are unnecessary or overpaid needs to spend some time in an actual theatre. I’ve been volunteering my time as literary assistant and occasional dramaturg at Theater J in DC for the last few years and in my experience they frequently don’t have enough administrative staff to do all the work. And there is nobody there that I (or probably most people) would consider overpaid.

  • Paul Mullin

    As the author of the original post and the moderator of the
    subsequent comments, I have to take issue with the constant and deeply fallacious
    characterization of the conversation as basically “playwrights are asserting
    that they deserve a living wage and that artistic administrators are overpaid”. 

    The original post makes no such assertions.  It simply asks questions?  (The first few, I am eager to point out, ask
    whether Kushner’s statement is even true and if true, even significant.  I am happy to accept the answers “no” and “no”
    if they can be backed by proof.)

    But the most crucial question that I ask in this post, and
    the one that seems to be ignored by outraged administrators everywhere as they
    eager embrace the canard that I am fanning the flames of artistic class warfare
    is this, simply:

    Why does the number of American playwrights making their
    living in the theatre approach the statistical equivalent of zero when the art
    form otherwise employs thousands of administrators, actors, designers,
    directors, stage managers and other technical staff?

    If you believe this question does not add value to the
    conversation of how we make American Theatre better, then I would simply ask
    politely and earnestly to explain that argument plain to me.

    • Hey Paul,

      I actually don’t think that is the most crucial question.  The answer to that question is “because that is the way the system is built right now.”  The way theatre is typically produced and the way playwrights are typically compensated does not lend itself to the authors of the work making a full-time equivalent salary.  This is, obviously, a very bad thing.

      I think the most crucial question is what can we do to support the playwrights, the theatres, and the work.  That is the question I just start to explore here.  I would love to hear your further thoughts on any of my suggestions or ideas of your own that can begin to be tested in the field.  After all, our goal should not be to prove how broken the model is, but rather to make it better.

      • Paul Mullin


        Happy to join any conversation that makes theatre better.  But there does seem to be an implicit assumption within your reply above that improving  the model we have is the only way forward.

        There are plenty of us that have been working as theatre artists for decades that have never had significant interaction with the Regional Theatre model and yet we have done good work, had subsequent productions, won significant awards.  We continue to survive, and even thrive sometimes, albeit not financially, while the model itself continues to disintegrate.  (Remember I’m here in Seattle where we’ve lost two nationally recognized regional theatres in the space of half a decade and even more if you widen the scope of the investigation.)

        If it seems like I’m criticizing the model, that’s because I am, and it’s not just me.  The model hold us hostage.

        Someone somewhere recently wrote, “Art before artists and artists before institutions.”  The current model runs that equation exactly backwards, and the irony is, institutions continue to die and not be replaced.

        So, in short, if you’re asking me to join the conversation, I think you’ll find that I joined it formerly a year and a half ago when I started my blog “Just Wrought” (www.paulmullin.org), though to be accurate and fair, I have been writing and producing plays for over two decades.

        If you’re saying the conversation must be limited to saving the model, I think you’ll find that that ship has sailed. We can do better than the current system.  And we must.  For if we do not, it will not survive.

        Paul Mullin

        • Paul,

          I am all for a new model.  Is it, however, out of the question to make adjustments to the model we have now while we seek to creat a new one?  There are some institutions that are building new paths and making it work. 

          The model within which Shakespeare worked paid him well because he was a business man AND a playwright.  So, it is not the institutionalization of American Regional Theatre that caused this problem. 

          And, to be accurate and fair, I have been acting, directing, and producing for over two decades.  That doesn’t mean that my ideas are any better than a bright, forward-thinking, creative 22 year old.  Bring on the ideas and let’s start testing!

          • Paul Mullin

            Where would you like to produce a new edition of A Living Newspaper?  What issues would you like to cover?  Did you want me as a off-site consultant or an on-site writer/producer?

            Need more info?  You can start here: http://www.paulmullin.org/just-wrought/living-newspaper/ 

            We got NPR’s ON THE MEDIA to cover our first production.  I’m willing to be that if we did one in your neighborhood we could get similar national attention.

            And there’s plenty more novel ways to produce locally grown fresh new plays than that. ( http://www.paulmullin.org/just-wrought/2010/01/locally-grown-draft.html)

            Absolutely!  Let’s get cracking.

    • Paul, I offered a very simple reason in my comment on your post (a lot lot lot more people want to be artists than to be administrators, so they compete with each other more and work for less), but I did not differentiate between playwrights and the other artists you mention who can and sometimes do make a living, if not a rich one. So, I’ll elaborate. Playwrights have it even worse, when it comes to competition.

      In addition to competing with each other, playwrights are also competing with the all the playwrights who have lived so far. With every play that is published, the competition for living, working playwrights increases. And even small, barely-funded theater companies with no resources at all have access to the best of the best playwrights from the past.

      And a great many theaters operate in perpetual survival mode. What can they cut from the budget first? Probably playwrights, since there are massive volumes of great, known, popular work that can be produced with little to no royalty payments, and definitely no commission fees, and definitely no costs of hosting the playwright during rehearsals. Of course, you know this. You basically said the same thing with your allusion to Glengarry Glen Ross in your post. This answer is glaringly obvious, so I find your “honest questioning” pose a little disingenuous.

      • Paul Mullin

        Thanks Aaron, it saddens me that you find my questioning disingenuous.  I can assure you it’s not.  To an insider it might seem like I’m being deliberately provocative, but if you ask my questions to “civilians” i.e. people walking around any given city, theatre-goers or non-theatre-goers, I think you’ll find that they will agree that my questions are reasonable and not all that cagey.

        But so long as we’re characterizing arguments, I find the above answer to my core question, i.e.  “Because that’s the way the system is” to be tautological. 

        So I suppose we can all argue the “meta” qualities of the arguments till the cows come home, but if we take them to the “street”, I think you’ll find my question gets more traction than that answer.

        And as a sidenote: if you think leaning into the canon will get us out of this mess, then I would suggest to you that that strategy has been fully implemented for decades, and you can track the results yourself.  Whereas fully engaging new works about new events, like our recent Living Newspapers, have made huge strides in building new audiences for very low initial investments. (There’s one new model for you, Amy.) Name me a golden age of theatre, and I will show you how they were most certainly NOT leaning into an earlier golden age of theatre.

        In the end, we do what we want to do.  And the vast majority of regional theatres in this country do not WANT to develop new plays.  So be it.  But don’t expect the playwrights to help you when you’re struggling.  We don’t want to.  We found a way to survive.

        • Yes, I agree that the audience for the discussion makes a big difference as to how your questions are perceived. I’ve assumed that you’ve been addressing these questions to those of us in the industry. It seems that you’re asking the questions in an industry space, after all.

          I don’t believe it’s remotely tautological when asked “why is X happening?” to briefly sketch a couple factors that contribute to X. Now, perhaps you’re more focused on whether X is just, and why we tolerate X, which is quite a different question. You will not catch me saying that equilibrium in a system necessarily equals justice.

          I don’t have a lot of good answers for you on whether our current compensation for playwrights is just or not. There is a part of me that sort of instinctively says no, but I also assume (perhaps falsely, not being one) that playwrights need to have a larger set of life experiences everyday than I get at my desk in a performing arts center. I suppose that might be a rather convenient response, too, on my part.

          You will not catch me saying that we only should produce tried and true material. You, further, will not catch me saying that leaning on the canon is the solution to the fact that economics in theater are difficult. Believe it or not, I like new work and believe that we have to have new product all the time to keep theater vital. It sounds like we are both hearing from each other that which we are most annoyed by, regardless of what each other is saying.

          • Nathan Sorseth

            Mr. Anderson,

            I’m afraid that I can’t let your original premise slide –
            the idea that theatres pay artists a pittance because the labor market is
            flooded.  While your argument could
            certainly hold water if we were speaking of institutions that produce shoes or
            widgets, that is not the purpose of these nonprofit businesses. 

            In your post on Paul’s blog, you asserted that the arts are
            not a model, but an ecosystem.  You then
            suggest that the purpose of an ecosystem is not to “pursue some optimal result
            for a mission or vision…”, but to “pursue equilibrium among a set of
            cooperating and competing forces and inputs and players”.

            Nothing could be further from the truth.  Nonprofit theatres and symphonies and museums
            were set in place specifically to
            pursue an “optimal result” for a mission and/or vision.  To suggest otherwise is to entirely misread
            the history of the modern American nonprofit arts sector.

            And when an arts institution places “equilibrium” in a
            category of importance above its mission, then it has chosen to operate like a
            widget factory rather than a caretaker of the arts.

            I’m not so dense as to suggest that you don’t understand the
            field of arts administration (in which your experience no doubt far exceeds my
            own), nor so disingenuous as to question either your motives or your passions
            for the arts.  But to suggest that the
            primary driver of low artists’ wages is over-supply on the part of the artists –
            while neglecting to introduce “mission creep” as a possible factor – seems a
            fairly short-sighted view of the issue. 
            There are no “simple” explanations for sector-wide problems, and to
            suggest that there are seems to detract from the conversation, rather than add
            to it or help it to progress.

          • Nathan,

            My short response is that there is a world of difference between intent and reality. The intent places optimization of mission at the center. Ecosystems in equilibrium are not an expression of the intent of the nonprofit arts structure, but rather an expression of the reality. And while my explanation seems simplistic, the problem itself is not, nor was my explanation intended to be comprehensive.

            Mission creep is real, but my hypothesis is mission creep is often the result of forces pushing towards equilibrium. We add an education program because a wealth funder endows it, even if we aren’t good at that (an equilibrium response). We build a bigger building because we think that’s what it takes to raise funds and build excitement to sell more tickets, even if it drives up our fixed cost structure and requires us to take less programming risk in the future (an equilibrium response). Equilibrium responses can be short-sighted. Because then we have to pay the debt service and the heat bill for that new building, so we find we have to cut somewhere. What can we get cheaper? The answer is usually people. Both artists and administrators.

            I would argue that the intent of the nonprofit tax exempt, philanthropically supported structure is utterly, absolutely, irrevocably incapable of extracting nonprofits from the realities of markets, where equilibrium rules. Instead of widgets, we sell tickets, and we also sell an intangible sense of joy, warm fuzzies, and even networking opportunities to donors. I go into more detail on this elsewhere, if you’re curious: http://createquity.com/2011/02/attendance-is-not-the-only-measure-of-demand.html

            There is also an alternate view of how and why the tax exempt, nonprofit arts structure exists. We like to think it exists so that we can take risks and create art that the “commodity” art markets can’t support. However, others (including Bill Ivey, former NEA Chair) have made the case that the tax-exempt nonprofit structure exists to sustain highbrow entertainment for societal elites. I’m not sure if I agree, but I certainly agree that this is a common result.

          • As to whether my point helps us progress, I think we can’t begin to understand the solutions without really understanding the problems.

          • As to whether my point helps us progress, I think we can’t begin to understand the solutions without really understanding the problems.

          • Nathan Sorseth

            In spite of my consciously maintained veil of naïveté, I
            understand that the gap between theory and practice can be quite large.  But I feel that the notion of
            “ecosystem”, as you are using the term, is distracting from the
            conversation.  What we are trying
            to build (and the founders of the nonprofit theatre movement tried to put in
            place) is an environment outside of
            the winner-loser dynamic, the dynamic of the market economy, and – incidentally
            – the dynamic of your “ecosystem” metaphor.


            Does this mean that we can escape the realities of ticket
            sales and crowded marketing channels and the need to seek donated revenue?  Of course not.  The nonprofit arts need (always have
            and always will) a certain amount of widget-making.


            But the widgets are made in
            direct service of the mission, and the art.  And that is where
            organizations lose their way, mistaking the art for just another widget that is
            manufactured in order to sustain the institution.  Mission creep is not,
            I maintain, a natural reaction to the forces of equilibrium, but rather a
            misinterpretation of the mission or the imposition of other, non-mission
            oriented priorities.


            As for the notion that the nonprofit arts are, by their very
            nature, oriented only towards supporting “highbrow elites”, I have to say that
            I’m siding against Mr. Ivey in spite of his standing.  Speaking from the sector of nonprofit theatre – the one I’m
            most involved in – even a casual observer can perceive that for every American
            Repertory Theater or SITI Company or Wooster Group or other “highbrow”
            organization, there are fifty Shakespeare festivals, resident theatres, and
            companies of every stripe doing popular fare…  And if Shakespeare and Neil Simon are now considered to be
            the property of the societal elite, then I fear that we have lost the battle.

          • Nathan Sorseth

            And one of these days, I’ll figure out the formatting on this site…

  • Sarah R. Rowan

    This “us” vs. “them” mindset is scary and, frankly, devastating. I would like to point out that arts administrators have skill sets that are able to be directly carried over into the world of for-profit. With that in mind, in the case of almost every single arts administrator that I know, they have chosen this path in life very specifically because of the love and devotion (fluffy words, but true nonetheless) that they have for the art form. They could be out there making boatloads of money, receiving the glory, and working HALF the hours, but they don’t. I’m not going to play into this “who works harder?” game because I think that it is unhealthy and unjustified. I very much appreciate the statement “we are of much more use on your side than seen as the enemy” and, unfortunately, I think this is an issue that is not just between artists and art administrators, but also production staff and many departmental areas of a theatre company (including education). How do we bridge the gap and start working as a team – from the rehearsal room, to the office, to the auditorium, to the streets? 

  • I love the “consortium of theatres hire between them a team of playwrights” idea.  Not only would it benefit the playwrights, but there could be other collaborations waiting to be born out of this idea. 

  • Weskey K. Andrews


    I am one of those commenters who supports the notion of a staff playwright. I am also a professional arts administrator, and proudly so. 

    I disagree with two of your objections to the concept:

    1) that demanding regular output would harm the creative process. Television seems to pull that off, why not theatre? I think that the greatest impediment to quality new plays is the fact that we write them in our spare time, not that we write them quickly or on deadlines. 

    2) That it would make the field less diverse. On the contrary, it could make the field more diverse by incubating writers who currently have a day/night job. 

    Thanks for writing,
    Wesley K. Andrews

    • You’ve anticipated my follow-up post on the concept of staff playwrights on both counts.  Stay tuned…

    • Hey Wesley,

      I don’t disagree with either of your points (and I look forward to David’s post to elaborate).  However, I think that we are both right. 

      1) The skills set to work for a television show is one that some, but certainly not all, playwrights have.  The staff playwright position could be tailor-made for those that have that skill set.  However, just as some actors can cross-over between theatre and film and tv, others don’t work in a way compatible to other medium.  There will be a segment of the playwright universe (perhaps a large one) that will not be suited for the television-style cranking out of scripts. 

      2) I didn’t say that it would make the field less diverse, I said it could make the particular theatre employing the staff playwright less diverse.  I still believe that to be a strong possibility … it might also cause the playwright’s own work to be less diverse if they restrict themselves from following the impulse to write scripts they know would be inappropriate for the theatre for whom they work.

      Thanks for joining the conversation! 

  • I think you’ve got a really interesting and exciting idea here, thanks for sharing it!  I also remember Rocco Landesman making the argument that there are too many arts admins being paid too much during the whole supply/demand uproar and I thought to myself, “Well, okay.  If he says so.”  I mean, I personally have never met an arts admin who doesn’t work way too hard for way too little money, but maybe this is a problem I’m not seeing because it exists on a level I don’t work on?  I took it at face value because nobody was providing another perspective.  So thanks for giving a much needed counter to that voice.  In my experience, arts admins have always been artists’ biggest allies and supporters. 

  • Gisela Petrone

    One point is overlooked, in adapting the staff playwright concept from television: Authors lose their intellectual property rights, in exchange for that office and chair. From the studio system era on, the corporate battle has been to get the most out of talent while leaving them the bare minimum of rights. Do we want this to happen to theatre? Is that the final step to assimilation — corporatism, through bankruptcies/bustouts/despair over a broken model that required full government and big foundation support to be sustained?

    And, from this statement above:
    “The way theatre is typically produced and the way playwrights are
    typically compensated does not lend itself to the authors of the work
    making a full-time equivalent salary.  This is, obviously, a very bad

    — I’m getting the hint that the problem with the livelihoods of playwrights lie in those darn royalities and author ownership. Yes, I know, any place that gives you your workplace and tools, in this age, owns your work. It just feels that this conversation, on the arts-admin side, has the faint strains of deprofessionalization for authors — go work-for-hire, get health insurance? Why not give up your royalties, or share them with your boss? It’s not as if you’re making any practical money with them….

    If this is the future of playwriting, it will be sad, because we held out for so long.