H.G. Wells believed that in order to be an effective citizen in a modern democracy, one ought to be able to read, write, and think statistically. We playwrights are pretty darn good at the first two, but that third one? Odds are—see what I did there?—we aren’t half as good as old H.G. would have liked us to be. (Is anyone?)
I’ve been thinking about one particular set of statistics quite a bit in the last few years as I’ve been working on the New Play Exchange. Let me quickly run some numbers for you:
- By my best estimate, there are approximately 10,000 playwrights living in the United States. I base that figure on a small number of sources, from membership in the Dramatists Guild to the number of entries in Doollee, and though it might be off somewhat—the number could even be as high as 20,000—it’s accurate enough for the moment.
- Each of those playwrights produces, on average, approximately one new play a year. Some may finish two or three, and some may have entirely fallow years… but one seems to be a believable estimate. So that’s 10,000 new plays (one per playwright) entering the American theatrical landscape every twelve months.
- At the same time, there are approximately 500 world premieres of new plays at regional theaters every year. I’m also uncertain about that number, but I don’t think I’m off by very much. (I’m also not including, for the record, fringe festival or university or workshop productions.) Is the number as high as a thousand, even? Maybe: so, okay, let’s use 1,000.
So if you take those numbers together—10,000 new plays annually for 1,000 world premiere production slots—then for a playwright, the odds of having a new play produced in any given year? They’re only 10%.
The other 90%? They never get produced.
Think about that for a second: 90% of all new plays are never produced. With odds like that, in any given decade-long span, a playwright is only likely to experience one world premiere of a new play. Ten years; one opening night. On average.
Okay… you know what? Let’s go ahead and be generous and call it 2000 world premiere productions per year. That’s still only 20%, or one opening night every five years for each playwright. That would still leave 80% of all new plays without productions. And what if there really are 20,000 playwrights, rather than 10,000? We’re back at a 10% success rate.
Have you let all that sink in?
My guess is that you fall into one of two categories. You’ve either had premieres at a considerably higher rate than that… or you haven’t any at all. That’s how averages work, actually.
My second (and more important) guess: no matter how many premieres you’ve had, it does not feel like enough.
Here’s my own world premiere track record—which, I am happy to say, took a nice boost the other day with the news that my play THE BUTCHER will be having a world premiere next season at the fantastic Gulfshore Playhouse (about which I could not be any more excited)—is as follows:
- THE BUTCHER in 2014-15
- REALS in 2012-13
- THE CONSTELLATION in 2009-2010
- THE FAITHKILLER in 2008-2009
- ABSTRACT NUDE in 2007-2008
- LET X in 2006-2007
That’s six world premieres in a span of nine seasons. Considering the odds I’ve just laid out, I ought to be thrilled, right? But until recently I hadn’t considered those odds. If you had asked me whether I was happy with my track record, I would probably have said that I was grateful… but “grateful” would have been code for “I’m genuinely trying to accept with humility the opportunities I’ve been given, but I really wish I’d been given a few more of them.”
Now, though, having done the hard math, I am actually happy. Thrilled, even. But I’m also a little bit sad when I think about the fact that if I’ve beaten the odds, there must be at least one or two other playwrights out there, statistically speaking, who have it worse. The law of averages seems, in this case, to be cruel and unjust.
That’s not good enough for me. Is it good enough for you? Even if you, like me, happen to have beaten the odds, don’t you still think more than 10% of all the plays ever written deserve productions? Not all of them, perhaps, but… 15%? 25%? We have to be able to do better.
Changing this number, I believe, should be among the highest priorities of playwrights everywhere. For our own good, of course, and for the good of our fellow artists. But how? (Aside from advocating broadly for the production of new plays in favor of the same old chestnuts-and-classics menu, of course.) Personally, I think our energies ought to be spent building playwright-led institutions that will produce new work, rather than trying to convince existing institutions to change their priorities.
As a co-founder of The Welders, a DC-based playwrights’ collective, I’ve done just that. I already know, in fact, that my track record of world premieres is going to grow from six plays in nine years to seven plays in ten years, thanks to the collective’s efforts. And that feels really good.
Then again… I also believe that it’s worth taking a minute (or more than a minute) to heap praise on the theaters that are giving us those 500 or 1000 slots right now. These are our best damn friends in the whole wide world, and I love and admire them. These are people who are working hard as hell in the current landscape to find, develop, and produce new plays. It would be easy for all of them, I’m certain of it, to give up… but they don’t. And for that, they deserve great praise. So whenever you get the opportunity, say thank you. Tout their new productions to your friends… and don’t forget to go see them yourselves, too. Anything you can do to make it easier for them to produce our work… do it.
And until things change, here’s to beating the odds. All of us. Even if isn’t, statistically speaking, possible.