Pursued By A Bear: “Playwrights make no money, should I do something else?”

Pursued By A Bear is our weekly advice column with playwright Adam Taylor.  He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.   

“I’ve heard playwrights earn hardly anything. Should I write screenplays or novels instead?”

It’s easy to say we do it for the love. But it’s difficult to pay for a home, food and clothes with love alone. The stereotype of the starving artist is a reality for a lot of writers. Can we expect to make a decent living from writing alone? And if not, what are the alternatives?

Recognition is great, expressing yourself is incredible and working with talented artists is fantastic, but when Valentine’s Day is coming up and you haven’t collected enough Tesco Clubcard points to take your significant other to Pizza Express you find yourself wishing you had money too.

So what’s the answer? Should we all abandon the theatre and go to Hollywood? Or do we shut ourselves indoors for six months and write that debut novel?

I hate to say it, but both of these avenues are just as likely to end in despair (and bankruptcy) as writing plays. If you’re writing films or books you’re going to come up against the same lack of funds at the start of your career. And worse still, they’re possibly even more competitive industries because there’s a perception of great financial reward if you’re successful.

If you read a lot of interviews with screenwriters and novelists it also becomes apparent that a lot of them are quite disillusioned about their earnings. By the time money’s taken out for agents, publicists, producers and whatever else, the pay isn’t quite what they expected. Plus these are fickle industries where you’re subject to highly volatile market trends.

And it takes ages to write a novel.

A lot of playwrights actually move into film or novel writing later in their careers because the theatre gives them the recognition they need to get a foot in the door in those industries.

Is it true that playwrights earn hardly anything? It’s obviously relative to how prolific and in demand you are. However, I remember hearing a few years back from a highly-regarded writer that the biggest commission you could hope for as a playwright would be around £10,000. He had received something in this region for a commission at the National Theatre.

This sounded like a lot of money to me. At the time, ten grand would have probably lasted me five years. But the more I thought about it, the less impressive it seemed.

The average salary in the UK is £26,500, so for every year you spend doing unpaid projects for the love at the start of your career, the average person is banking roughly £20,767 after tax. If I’m generous and you spend a mere three years slogging away at it before getting commissioned by The National, you’re already £62,301 in the theoretical hole.

That ten grand suddenly doesn’t look so generous.

But let’s ignore the potential earnings you missed; you made a choice to become a playwright and you presumably suspected it would be a long, hard road. For the sake of argument we’ll take the £10,000 commission at face value.

In order to earn the UK average salary as a playwright you’d have to get three plays commissioned. That’s if you’re lucky enough to place plays with the biggest theatres, which very few people are able to do more than once a year. You will of course be paid royalties, but this is highly variable and depends on the number of tickets sold. The reality is you’d probably have to take loads of smaller commissions to get anywhere near that £26,500 mark.

How many plays can you write in a year?

And of those plays, how many will be produced? How many of those productions will turn a profit?

Personally I struggled to churn out more than three full-length plays a year even when I was writing full time. Doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s one play every four months. When you count the time you spend researching, planning, writing and rewriting I don’t think it’s too far from the average. I also spent some of my time attending rehearsals, readings and shows.

That £26,500 is looking like a pretty unattainable goal at this point right?

And don’t forget, most playwrights aren’t just playwrights. When you’re starting out, you’re likely to be your own publicist, agent and manager. If you go the route of producing your own plays you may also find yourself taking on the roles of stage manager, transport manager, director, actor and lighting assistant.

I never bothered counting up the hours I spent working, because I really did love what I was doing, but as a full time writer I’m certain I was earning well below the minimum wage per hour.

If you’re in it for the money, do not be a playwright. I’d also say don’t aim to write films or novels unless you’re comfortable with gambling a lot of time on the promise of success later on.

So what about people like myself (and I’m presuming you) who love writing but don’t love being destitute or relying on the good graces of others? What can we do?

After around three years of writing full-time I took a part-time job to supplement my puny income. This kept me going for another couple of years, but when the writing money never really materialised I had to do some serious thinking about the situation.

After much soul-searching and head-scratching I decided I would have to take a full-time job. Not because I needed money, but because I needed a life.

I can now buy a sandwich without checking my bank balance. I can replace my trainers before they begin to resemble sandals. I can take holidays abroad instead of never taking holidays. I get paid leave, I can stay at home if I’m sick, I have a pension.

I’ve even paid off a bit of my student loan. Not much, but it’s definitely smaller.

Am I still writing?

Yes.

Is it easy to balance it with a full-time job?

No.

But it wasn’t easy writing full-time either. Aside from the motivation required to work solo all the time, it was actually a real challenge to get inspired.

You need something to write about, and in one way or another, that comes from your experiences. If all you experience is the inside of your bedroom because you have no money to do anything, you won’t have a lot to write about.

Now I spend forty hours a week in the office working. Obviously it’s a challenge to fit writing in around my work week but I get a lot of inspiration from being with other human beings all day. I meet new people all the time, I learn all kinds of things I would never otherwise know and I get different perspectives on life.

Then when I do have a few hours free to do some writing, I’m highly motivated because I know I don’t have a lot of time.

I’ve heard it said that most playwrights have a second job. There are plenty of careers out there which require writing as a skill. I’ve met playwrights who work as copywriters, lecturers and journalists. I believe there are even bloggers out there who can command a tidy sum.

Some feel that writing all day in a work capacity is counterproductive if you want to write creatively in your spare time. I don’t personally find this a problem, but if you do there are literally thousands of unrelated jobs out there.

Look at work as part of your eternal quest to accumulate knowledge and life experience. John Grisham was a criminal lawyer before becoming a successful writer, and he relies heavily on that experience to inform his writing. David Simon was a crime reporter before he created The Wire. J.R.R Tolkien was a soldier and later a university lecturer. J.K. Rowling worked for Amnesty International before writing Harry Potter.

Life is expensive and unfortunately when you’re starting out, writing doesn’t pay well (if at all). If you really love it and want to continue, I don’t think it’s realistic to make a move from playwriting to screenwriting or novel writing just for the sake of money. You’re unlikely to find it more lucrative in those early years.

If you love writing plays you should stick with it. And if, like me, you also like money, you’d better get an alternative source of income on the go. At the very worst you’ll spend a significant number of hours doing something you hate to finance doing something you love, while gaining some valuable life experience. If you’re lucky you’ll find something that pays the bills without gradually chipping away at your sanity.

My day job definitely wasn’t a childhood dream, but now that I’m here I do quite enjoy it. I’ve met some amazing people I wouldn’t otherwise know, I occasionally get to travel to exotic locales like Cardiff and Sheffield, I play football in the staff league and sometimes I get the great satisfaction of helping to improve someone else’s life.

Now I just need to find the time to write about it.

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