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Friday, March 20, 2015


WRITING PLAYS = $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$

Whoa!  Slow down.  As much as I would love to have you believe that I can teach you how to earn fat stacks of cash by writing plays, I really can't.  I'd like to, honest.  But first, I would have to be proficient in making fat stacks of cash by writing plays, and, though I'm happy and grateful for all the successes I have achieved, I do not make a living writing plays.

Welcome to Theater is a Sport.  My name is Bobby Keniston, and this is my little piece of the internet that I use to write about theater.  Thanks for stopping by.

Today I want to talk about writing plays for the amateur market (schools, community theaters, etc.), and the truth about how the money works.  If you're looking for the financial possibilities for a playwright who has a play on Broadway, you've come to the wrong place.  Sorry.

There's an old expression, credited to Robert Anderson, that says you can make a killing on Broadway, but you can't make a living.  And it's true--- many of the top playwrights working today supplement their income working for the movies.  Which really means, these screenwriters supplement their income writing plays.

The late Tim Kelly, who published over 350 plays for the amateur market, once gave  talk describing how one could make a living writing for the amateur market, the way way way way way way off-Broadway stages.  Mr. Kelly admitted that writing for this market wasn't going to bring you critical acclaim, or glitz and glamour, but you could make a living.

By and large, I think Mr. Kelly is right.  But it's not easy.  If you've ever glanced through school and community theater catalogs for plays, you might notice that a playwright's name shows up many many times.  In the five years since I've first been published, I know have 33 plays with four different publishers, and have been called prolific by some people.  This might seems like a lot, but I would appear practically blocked next to many of my colleagues.  To make headway in the school and community theater markets, you need to write and focus on output.  However, you must also focus on quality, so that you'll be published and produced in the first place.

Even though this is a theater blog, I'm going to do a little bit of math right now to demonstrate.  I'm often asked by people about the financial side of my career, not out of nosiness, but out of a genuine curiosity of how it works.  I know I didn't know much about it until I was published.  In fact, to be honest, I was a bit naive.  I thought a few plays doing well meant moolah city, but it's really not that simple.

So, that one act play you write for middle schools and high schools (and yes, you want it to be suitable for both if at all possible) has just been accepted for publication!  Congratulations!  You deserve to celebrate!  And this excitement is well-deserved... it's not easy to be a published playwright!  So feel free to dance around.  I'll bet you even get goosebumps when you sign that first contract.

Now, you're a person who's looking to make writing plays for schools and community theaters a full out career.  Please do not quit your job just yet after your first publication.  Unless you've got huge savings to draw from, or are independently wealthy, in which case, go for it.  But for the rest of us, stay employed.

So, most likely, if you've just got your first one act play published, your publisher will offer it out in their catalog for a licensing fee of anywhere between $35 and $45 a performance.  Of this sum, you, the playwright, will receive anywhere between 50-60%, sometimes more, depending on the company. A good number of my plays, I receive 60% of the performance royalty.  Others, I receive 50%.  It's important to not just look at this percentage, but also to the quality of the catalog, how often it's mailed out, it's reputation for handling plays, etc.

Okay, along with this percentage of the performance royalty, you will also (most likely) receive a 10% royalty on the book sales.  For a one act play, an individual script can cost anywhere between $5.95 and $7.99, depending on the publisher.  To be honest, it wasn't until I had a few plays published that I made sure I received a royalty on script sales, but it's important to have.

For the amateur market, it is very unlikely that you will get any kind of advance, like you might for a novel.  By and large, advances for playwrights go to the shows with the big New York runs and reviews.  I've heard of only one amateur market publisher who paid an advance, and it may very well have been due to the author's previous successes.

Now, on a special note, again, before you quit that day job... pay special attention to when royalties are paid out.  Some companies pay twice a year, a select few pay quarterly, and some only once a year.

So, you want to make a living.  Well, what's a living?  Let's look at something as simple as $20,000.  I should note, I have yet to make this much in a single year from my playwriting, but I do okay.

Let's split the difference, and say your one act play is licensed for a $40 royalty per performance, and your contract gives you 60%.  That means your cut for each performance is $24.  This means you would need to have your play performed 834 times to make $20,016 from a performance royalty.  Now, let's say that the average number of performances a school will license is 3.  You will need 278 productions of 3 performances each to make that money.

Now, factoring in book sales:  let's say that each school needs to order ten books, that are priced $6 a piece.  That gives you another $6 per production.  So $6 multiplied by 278 gives you another $1,668, for a grand total of $21,684.  Well that's not too bad for a one act play, now is it?

Unfortunately, you'd have to be the rarest of the rare, or luckiest of the luckiest to hope that your one act play received 278 productions in one year, for 834 performances.  It's a pretty full market.  The play catalogs are thick, after all.  Yours is but one name among hundreds.  You'd be pretty lucky to have your play receive 25 productions in its first year (much better than mine did).  And, even more likely, it will be lower than that.

(Starting to see why we publish a lot?)

I don't mean this example to be discouraging, but just honest.  It is often true in this market that the harder you work the more successful you become, so that's a good thing.  Try not to think of yourself as competing with other playwrights, because you're not, not really.   You're competing with yourself to keep creating quality work at a decent rate.

All I really wanted to show here is how playwrights for this market are compensated, and how, not licensing a production, or not paying for every performance, is truly stealing money from a playwright's pocket.  And it adds up.

I've been saying this a lot lately, but you can't claim to support the arts without paying the money to support artists.

Thanks for wandering through this little lesson in finance with me.  Again, it's all relative--- some folks are lucky and publish major hits that do get hundreds of productions a year.  And if you become one of them, good for you!  I hope to become one too, and that's why I keep telling my stories.

Until next time, thanks for reading Theater is a Sport.  You can learn more about my plays by clicking HERE,  HERE, HERE, or HERE.  Thanks for reading, and feel free to comment below.

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