Where Have the Playwrights Gone?

Article excerpt

Playwright Kelly Stuart is frustrated.

Three regional theaters turned down her recent play, "Mayhem," calling it "too challenging for our audiences." She already has to rely on teaching to bring home a steady paycheck. And after 20 years of writing, she'd like to support her family with her craft. Wearied by the theater, she's decided to look westward for help.

"Usually in my career, I've written a play every year. But now I'm going to also make sure I write a screenplay every year. I have to," says Ms. Stuart, who teaches at Columbia University in New York.

Playwrights have shuttled between Hollywood and the theater for decades. But the commute is looking more attractive lately, with the poor economy affecting the arts, and mass media growing in influence.

Last week, the University of Southern California (USC) announced it plans to expand its graduate program in playwriting next fall to include required courses in writing for film and TV. It's just the latest indication that spotlights alone are not enough to light up a career.

"It's a contemporary reflection of what dramatic writing is like," says Velina Hasu Houston, a playwright and director of the USC dramatic writing program. Any young writer who plans to make a living as a dramatic writer, "should have as extensive a portfolio as possible," she says.

On the East Coast, the dearth of staged drama is perhaps making the case for cross-genre experience. During the month of September, only one play will be on Broadway - "Take Me Out," the Tony-winning tale of a gay baseball player.

It's a temporary situation, as at least six plays will arrive in October. And playwrights say that Times Square doesn't always equal high theater - pointing out that top talents from Arthur Miller to Edward Albee recently have picked regional theater and off-Broadway over the Tonys' stomping grounds.

Even so, with the economy not exactly booming, now is not a great time (if there is one) to be trying to earn a living from the theater, note observers - making Hollywood look all the more appealing. In New York, for example, several theaters that focus on new works are doing fewer plays than they did 30 years ago, dropping from two dozen a year on average to six or eight today.

Playwrights report that some regional theaters are taking fewer risks on the plays they do produce, sticking with classics or nationally tested works. Several of those theaters have also closed their literary offices - their liaison to the playwriting community.

"It does feel like a very conservative time.... It's very discouraging," says Todd London, artistic director at the New Dramatists, a laboratory group in New York that helps playwrights hone their work.

About a quarter of the 40 artists he works with also write for Hollywood in some capacity, but he says that's hardly new. It takes too long between the time a play is written and the time it is produced to expect to use the money to cover rent. Instead, teaching at a university or writing for "The West Wing" or Paramount Pictures typically helps pay the bills. Hollywood can also help finance the time needed to concentrate on a playwright's first love, says Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel.

"[As a screenwriter], one makes in four to five weeks the same salary as an assistant professor in a year," says Ms. Vogel. "In four to five weeks, you gain the independence of a year."

Those who choose to do so follow in the path of famous writers like Horton Foote and even earlier masters such as Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett. Modern luminaries include Tom Stoppard ("Shakespeare in Love") and David Hare, who adapted "The Hours."

In return for the chance at a heftier paycheck, playwrights offer TV and movie audiences more character-driven stories and, perhaps, greater creativity in the writing (think "Six Feet Under"). …