Selling to the Stage
Four Playwrights Reflect on Their Royalties
Every five months or so, I get a check in the mail. It can be anywhere from $4 to $190, and it is always welcome but often a bit of a surprise since, as a chronic hustler, it’s weird to get money without having to log the hours that directly correspond to it.
This is my royalty check for a couple of plays that I published a few years ago, and I am very thankful to have it.
My first full-time job out of college was working at a play publishing company. I had kind of fallen into it — I was interested in book publishing but always had a passion for theater, so I applied for an internship I found on Craigslist and ended up being offered a full-time job after graduation. The office where I worked was a small team of passionate creatives, and soon the playwrights of the office were encouraging me to write pieces of my own.
You could probably only recognize a handful of names/titles in the company catalog, but the play publisher did a lot of business because a big part of their market was schools. Drama classes around the country (and globe) are constantly looking for new material for their students. Short one-acts, in particular, are important classroom tools for performance competitions, directing exercises, and scene work. Knowing that my company was always looking for new voices, I wrote two plays that were published in my time there, and I have been lucky enough to have gotten a check every once in a while when schools perform them.
Recently, I realized that my 1099-MISC was keeping me from being able to file my taxes for free through TurboTax. That was especially frustrating when I saw that getting the Deluxe version would cost about $70, while I had only made about $140 last year in royalties. This money was certainly helpful and required little upkeep, but it was also not big enough to warrant any noticeable changes in my finances.
Still, writing a dramatic piece for publication is as legitimate of a business and side hustle as anything else: I have friends and fellow playwrights who make significant money off of their plays and write them in a disciplined way that mirrors any other freelance gig. Curious about what role royalties from shows written for schools plays in people’s incomes, I talked to some of my fellow published playwrights about how they view the income from their works and what that means for their finances.
Don Zolidis is quite prolific in the school play sector, with about 79 published plays across five different publishers. When I worked in publishing, Zolidis was as close to a celebrity as I could get, and his plays have become so lucrative that he was able to quit teaching three years ago to be able to focus on writing. This year, he expects his income from his plays to be “somewhere north of $150,000.”
With the success of his plays also comes focus and a need to recognize his writing as a business. “I put some money back into the promotion of the plays,” Zolidis explains.
At the moment that’s hosting a website, using Mailchimp, and then traveling to the various thespian festivals. I usually go to at least two thespian festivals a year on my own dime, so that probably costs me about $1,000 each. Sometimes I can get them to pay me to go and teach workshops, but for the most part I think of that as an investment in my career and spend the money. I also go on the road and visit schools. (Usually schools pay me to do workshops, but it’s just about enough to cover expenses. I figure it’s a good way to get my work out there, like a book tour.)
Playwrights also sometimes pay for promotion of their work through time. “Right now, my marketing is limited to what I can do for free: Facebook page, a blog, an email list, and newsletter for people who have done my plays in the past,” says Bobby Keniston, who has 30 plays and three anthologies published with four different companies and whose take last year was about $5,267.50. “I do believe my blog, Theater is a Sport, has helped me a little bit, and it’s a cheap and easy way to promote myself while also writing about subjects I enjoy.”
Within the content of the plays themselves, pressures to be aware of the market and book sales can also play a role in the writing process. When asked about whether or not writing to be published influences his writing process, Keniston responded,
I guess the short answer is that, if you want to make a career in this market, you have to be aware of what’s selling, and the needs of the market. Most of my plays have more female characters than male characters (or gender neutral characters), because that’s what the market wants (and I think that’s very cool). You need to know what publishers want. I would love to write a play where the teenagers talk like real teenagers I know, cussing and all, but I know it would be difficult to get it published, and that only the brave high schools would produce it. It’s not like a John Green novel where teens can talk how they talk and still sell. Most parents don’t want to see their kids swearing in a high school production.
For Zolidis, sometimes writing his plays specifically geared towards schools actually helps support his more personal projects:
I write for the professional market as well, but the returns there are sporadic and take a long amount of time. This January, for instance, I realized I needed money for my taxes in April. I was working on a professional show which is going to take a year to write, but I took a break from it to write a different show because I needed money right away.
I’m the only playwright I know that can say, ‘I need to write a play that will make me $5,000 next month.’ So I wrote the play. It’s still artistically fulfilling and it’s still fun work, but I wrote the script that I knew I could sell to teachers. I finished the script in about 2 weeks, and then sent out emails to my list (actually, I did this last Wednesday), and marketed it directly to the teachers. In the first six days since I did that, I’ve lined up about 25 productions and have earned about $3,000. So it looks like I will hit my mark. Then I go back to writing my professional play.
While most of the playwrights I talked to admitted that they can usually tell which of their plays might strike a chord with the market content-wise, at least for a season or two, they admit that it’s hard to predict longer-term success. Says Zolidis, “I do set yearly goals, but it’s almost impossible to set goals for individual plays. Sometimes I think a play will be a hit and it won’t really catch on. I’m pretty good at pegging which play will be a success (Game of Tiaras, for example, I was sure was going to be a success; same with Brothers Grimm Spectaculathon). But I probably have a 50% success rate on plays that I think will really sell well.”
For Jason Pizzarello, who has 23 plays with two different publishers, including Stage Partners, which he founded with Morgan Gould, income varies but continuing to put out new material is important. “Some plays take time to find a following, or some sputter out, so I try not to put pressure on plays individually,” he says. “The best thing I think you can do is to increase the number of plays you have out there. It’s important to have new options available for groups that have performed one of your plays in the past.”
Of course, there is reward gained from writing for schools other than just money. Catherine Rhoden Goguen wrote the first of her two published plays while she was a high school drama teacher. Now in retirement, playwriting represents something deeply fulfilling for her on another level. “It’s a difficult balancing act for me because I’ve always been a writer who wrote to convey a message,” she says. “Conveying a message with plays means having it on stage for audiences. If no one performs it, it’s a message wasted.
“On the other hand I am not going to be an assembly line that just mass produces plays that might make money but for which I have none of my soul invested in. Obviously if writing plays had been my career choice, I would have had to change my approach or been a starving artist and starving doesn’t work that well for me. Now, in retirement, if there is a contest that pays $50.00 but the guidelines for it invoke an idea that I’m passionate about, I’m right on it.
“I don’t write just for the money and would say money is less important than seeing my work performed. I love having the best of both worlds and publishing offers that sometimes but the thrill I get from someone in another state or country sending me a message that my work changed their life is far more valuable to me at this staged of my life.”
Pizzarello agrees: playwriting fulfills him career-wise, even if it’s not quite paying all the bills. “I’d definitely consider writing my career. Although my writing career hasn’t reached the level where it’s providing a full-time income, I don’t think that’s what defines whether or not it’s a career. To me, it’s a mindset.”
These published plays can also be springboards for getting other writing published. “I like to look at my playwriting career as a way to build contacts,” explains Keniston. “I’m hoping that having these publications will show that people feel my work is good enough to publish, especially since I’m hoping to seek representation later this year for a young adult novel I am finishing work on. It’s already been valuable in getting some articles published here and there.”
I personally value everything that has come out of the publication of my plays. Even if I will never be a household name or will never be making it rain from my royalties, every once in a while, a student will email me telling me how fun a play was to direct or a class will ask me if I could Skype with them about my writing process. It feels like a million bucks.
And the beautiful thing is that the barrier to entry is not impossible. As Pizzarello mentions, “New playwrights are always welcome in the school market. I’ve seen this first hand most recently with my new play licensing company Stage Partners. Unknown authors, new plays finding success in this niche. The focus is more on the material than other professional markets. That should certainly be encouraging news for playwrights!”
Kimberly Lew has two published plays available for licensing with Playscripts, Inc. Her latest play, Subway Stories, will soon be published by Brooklyn Publishers. Check her out at www.kimberlylew.com.