I have some advice I’d like to give young playwrights. Before I do, though, here is a list of the careers in which I have worked during my lifetime:
Food service. I worked my way through high school as a busboy in an Italian/Greek restaurant. (After four miserable days as an ice cream vendor that put me off soft-serve ice cream forever.) The job was rough, but it kept me in movie money… and it taught me a great deal about how hard some people have to work for a living.
Carnival work. After high school, I ran away and joined the carnival. No, I’m not joking. I took a job as a carny at Jolly Roger Amusement Park for the summer, then joined Deggeller Attractions, the largest touring carnival company in the country… mostly because I was terrified by the thought of going to college. But at the last second I reversed course and headed off to Northwestern.
Typesetting. My first gig in college was a radical shift: I basically lied my way into a gig as the typesetter for the renowned Daily Northwestern. The interviewer asked: Have you ever used a Linotronic 300? I lied, point blank, and he hired me, then read the entire operating manual overnight and stumbled my way through things for a week or so till I figured it out for real. That work-study job led to a full-time deal the following summer as the typesetter for the Jewish Times, plus a weekend gig (I needed tuition money) for Penny Stock News. It was good work in a now-dead industry. I was part graphic designer, part computer programmer. I learned a lot.
Journalism. The next job I lied my way into: reporter for the now-defunct Windy City Sports. I was a poetry major at Northwestern, and by then I was working as one of several assistant sports editors of the Daily, but I was still completely unqualified to write about what I got paid (very well) to write about: running, swimming, health clubs, jet skis, you name it. Later in my life, I parlayed that experience into a year as a book critic for the Baltimore City Paper and a subsequent year as restaurant reviewer for another now-defunct publication, Voice of the Hill.
Health Food. Toward the end of my tenure at Northwestern, I took a second job — I wanted to graduate with as little debt as possible — as a clerk at a place called Good Earth Natural Foods in Evanston. I worked in the dry goods section most of the time, though occasionally in produce, and I really liked it; my co-workers were wonderful people. I wasn’t there long enough to get the really choice assignment of working behind the register, but I was able to parlay the gig — when I moved to London to write for six months after I graduated — into a job at the legendary Selfridges. (There’s a Masterpiece series with Jeremy Piven about the founder of the hundred year-old store that I’m really looking forward to.) It paid well enough, but the real lasting benefit was having been a temporary but genuine part of the UK’s Are You Being Served? experience.
Publishing. Back in the United States — in Boulder, specifically, where I’d gone to follow a girlfriend — I took my first job in publishing at Westview Press, which was at the time (and may still be) the largest publisher of academic books that isn’t affiliated with a college or university. I arranged our exhibitions at major academic conferences and managed our advertising program. I left publishing for a year to get a master’s degree in poetry, but I returned for a gig as subsidiary rights editor for Brookes Publishing in Baltimore; the highlight of that gig was an unforgettable trip to the Frankfurt Book Fair. Seriously, if you’re a bibliophile, that’s heaven.
Teaching. I started my seventh career at 24 years old. I became a teacher of creative writing for middle school students at the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins, a position I held off and on (while pursuing other jobs) for five years. Those young students were miraculous. I loved that work in the complicated way in which anyone really loves anything of genuine importance.
Curriculum Design. At that point, I’d been teaching writing for so long that I started to stumble into side gigs designing a variety of writing curricula… and for a brief period, those gigs became my sole financial support. I wrote lesson plans on subjects with which I had some expertise (poetry, fiction, composition) and on those with which I was utterly unfamiliar (environmental science, history, anthropology) — once again, I cheated my way into being offered various opportunities for which I then had to scramble to prepare myself. Though I ended up writing curricula for great clients — Kaplan and Sylvan chief among them — I found it to be tedious work that I was quite happy to stop doing as soon as I could afford to.
Academia. I found more solid financial footing when I also began working in academia. Having taught at Johns Hopkins while getting my master’s degree, I became an adjunct faculty member first at the Community College of Baltimore County and then, later, at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), where I was happily ensconced for a couple of years. I almost turned the corner and became a full-time academic, but something in me resisted the thought of being cloistered in an ivory tower. It felt like something I shouldn’t do until I was much older, if at all.
Web Production. While I was hanging out at MICA, I made what turned out to be a really pivotal career decision: I joined the communications department as a web producer. At the time, the internet was a very new thing, and my only qualifications — having designed a remote-learning writing curriculum for Johns Hopkins and having once programmed a Linotronic 300 — were enough. I did limited graphic design work and programmed a small amount of HTML, and I honestly believed at the time that it was really no big deal. In point of fact, though, I left MICA to take a gig as a full-time producer at a company managing website development for Discovery Channel, Toshiba, US News & World Report, and a few other major clients. I had no idea when I made that decision that I was setting a new course for the next 15 years or so… but I was.
Software Development. The next two years of my life were a complete blur. In an attempt to get filthy rich quickly, then retire and do nothing but write — though at that point, I’d pretty much stopped writing poetry and hadn’t yet found a replacement — I joined a dot com called HiFusion: the first free, filtered internet service provider. I put in hundred-hour weeks for a year for a company that went from 25 employees when I joined to 250 employees six months later back to 75 employees six months after that. At the end of the first year, the company was bought, and almost everybody was fired… except me (and a handful of others). We became an educational software company called Mindsurf Networks, and we repeated the exact same cycle of hiring and firing and furious work for another twelve months, at which point the 23 of us who were still working were sent home with several months of severance and a slew of crushed dreams. The software I’d helped design was bought for a pittance by McGraw-Hill and, I think, quietly discontinued after a few years.
So… here’s the catch. I did all of that — ALL of it — before I ever wrote a single line of a single play.
When the last dot com went from boom to bust, I walked out with no debt, enough savings to keep living without work for another six or eight months, and a case of complete and total psychic exhaustion. I was 33 years old, I’d long since abandoned poetry (which had been my raison d’etre since I was 20 or so), I’d tried my hand at what felt like every other genre of writing, and I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do next. I’d lost something, and whatever it was, I had no clue where to find it.
The happy end to that story is that a month later, I enrolled in the only playwriting course I ever took (at the Bethesda Writer’s Center, bless their hearts)… and a year after that my first play, THE TREE HOUSE, was winning awards and getting readings… and the next decade of being a playwright has unfolded in a similar fashion… and I still feel like I’ve finally come home as a writer. In addition to being a playwright, as you probably realize (or you wouldn’t be here), I write blog posts and give lectures on a variety of theatrical subjects and advocate for playwrights in DC and nationwide. Theater has become my dominant career.
Meanwhile, I’ve also spent the same eleven-year span of time happily earning my keep in yet another career: Digital Communications. I spend half of every day as an account director and communications strategist for Threespot; I get to help organizations I really believe in engage with people on the web, on social media, through videos, and in every other digital channel. I’ve worked with the Peace Corps, the National Wildlife Federation, NPR, the Drug Policy Alliance, Zipcar, Medicare, the Department of State, and about fifty similar clients. Every day is a new intellectual challenge. Every year I continue to learn more about technology and brand strategy and audience engagement; this year, for example, I became a Certified Scrum Master. It’s been good for me.
What’s really REALLY been good for me these last eleven years is having a combination of financial security, intellectual engagement, and creative opportunity. My days can sometimes be crazy. I’ll write a blog post and revise a scene and take a meeting with a client during the morning; send out scripts and write a creative brief and do some audience analysis in the afternoon; then attend rehearsals and catch up on work emails during the evening. (All while being both a husband and a father, I should add.) But everything gets done, and everything finds its proper level, and I can afford a nice home with a library and a study and a playroom for my son, and I still get to sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world, so to speak. It’s a good life.
I want this same life for every playwright. A combination of stability and creative adventure. But I really don’t know how to tell young playwrights to get what I got. Do I tell them to spent 19 years working in 11 different careers before taking up playwriting? It seems absurd, and yet… all that experience is what qualified me for a part-time position that pays me a more-than-decent salary and gives me time to write. Without those first 11 careers, I wouldn’t have the final two. Moreover, so much time spent living in radically different cultures — everything from the carnival to the classroom — has proven to be great fodder for my work.
All of which is to say that, though I’m wary of generalizing too broadly from my own esoteric experience, I do think I can assert with some authority: if you want to be a playwright, get a second career, too.
With the same passion you pursue writing for the stage, pursue something else. Something more lucrative, something you like, something the world clearly wants more of. (Because that’s sometimes hard to see about theater.) Make it your second-favorite profession, if you must, but make it something you expect to do forever, or at least until (like me) the next career comes along. Get a degree in nursing; you can work three shifts a week and support yourself really well. Learn how to do graphic design and take on flexible freelance jobs that flow around your writing time. Spend your winters giving snowboarding lessons at ski resorts and your summers writing. Find whatever combination works for you.
The truth is, you are almost 100% certain never to make your living writing for the stage. It just doesn’t happen very often. But you are going to live your entire life as a wage-earning contributing member of society. It is — and you must hear me on this one, because I lived hand to mouth for several years early on — much better to do that with some financial certainty and day-to-day enjoyment. If you don’t pay any attention to your need to be a worker in the world, you will end up marginalized and impoverished and unhappy. And believe me, your writing is going to suffer.
Now… I’m not saying you should enter some demanding, more-than-full-time career like, say, the law. Let my two years in that dot com be enough sacrifice for all of us. And yet… if you love the law, for example, as much as you love writing, DO IT… but only long enough to convince an employer to let you do it half-time so that you’ve still got time to write. The five years or so you’d put in getting to that place might be worth the next thirty years of security and time to make art. You never know.
So that’s that. That’s my advice. Be like me, but don’t take quite as long as I took to figure it out. Get a second career early. Get it instead of an MFA, because (unless you’re getting that MFA from one of the top five playwriting programs) it will definitely be a more sound investment in your future as a playwright. It will keep you connected to the rest of the world. It will inform your work in ways you cannot now imagine. And most importantly, it will give you a fighting chance to live a balanced, happy, productive, creative life.
Trust me: that’s something you want.