Does It Matter if Playwrights Can’t Make a Living?

In his 2009 study Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play, Todd London, artistic director of the playwrights’ advocacy organization New Dramatists, reaches a bleak conclusion: “Financially speaking, there is no way to view playwriting as anything other than a profession without an economic base.”

Alena Smith
“You Can’t Make A Living: Digital Media, the End of TV’s Golden Age, and the Death Scene of the American Playwright”
Los Angeles Review of Books
December 8, 2014

Here’s the unspoken part of that last sentence: it was not always that way. Ask Neil Simon.

The elephant in the room is that the economic base for screenwriters is being eroded by the combined onslaught of digital video and unscripted television. Late at night when we’re all lying in bed and our deepest fears come out of our subconscious to play, this is the cloud that hovers over the wordsmiths of the Golden State.

I don’t buy the “Doomsday is Nigh” for writers nonsense. The media for storytelling have changed regularly since Neanderthals began drawing on cave walls. The opportunity for great storytelling will always be there. All that will change are the tools we will use for doing it.

Ebooks have opened the door to books between 20,000 and 50,000 words, sending some of us back to look up “novella,” “pamphlet,” “chapbook,” and “monograph” in search of a term to fit our new formats. YouTube is becoming a repository for a growing library of scripted content. And as video game storylines become more flexible and complex, a screenwriter’s art is more essential than ever.

Is it going to be difficult to figure out how to make a living at this? Naturally. And a lot of us won’t: most of us who write will find that it becomes either an avocation or a means to a living rather than a living itself. But with apologies to the Bard of Avon, the play is the thing: man will ever need storytellers, and we need good ones now more than ever.

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Author: David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.

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