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
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
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
"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"). …