How to Become a Playwright
Ask most people in the theater business and they’ll tell you that the legit theater is dying. During my six years of college, I learned over and over again in my classes in theater that the number of people going to see live theater entertainment was dwindling. Popular statistics bandied about these days say that ten percent of one percent of the country “regularly” attend theater events. Count out the friends and family of actors and other participants, and it is a wonder that we even have live theater anymore. Ever since the proliferation of films and television, the demand for theater has dropped.
The other side of the coin suggests some optimism for practitioners of theater. This group talks up an increase in arts funding, a boom in interest in theater (as evidenced by an increased number of people studying theater at the university level) and the high cost of alternative entertainment as signs that theater is not dying, but is experiencing a sort of revival. After all, spending $20 a head for a movie isn’t really a better bargain than $5 tickets to a community theater musical.
The point is this — depending who you ask, seeking a career as a playwright may be the smartest or the dumbest thing you’ve ever done. Here’s how to do it.
Where does the word “playwright” come from?
This is an important point — the word “playwright” is meant to align a writer of plays with any other craftsman. You may have noticed that people who built wheels in the olden days were called “wheelwrights”, and builders of ships are known as “shipwrights”. The suffix “wright” is meant to imply a sort of crafting of words into the shape of a play. As a playwright, you’ll be crafting language and stage business (alongside other expert theater practitioners) into a unified work of art.
What kind of training does a playwright need?
Very few people are born wanting to write plays. Exposure to written drama (either from school or from theatrical practice) is usually the spark that young writers need to start their career as a playwright. That’s why the question of “What kind of training should I get?” is sort of moot. If you have an interest in writing plays, you are probably on a path that could lead to work as a playwright.
Young people interested in writing plays should participate in as much live theater as they can. From community theater to participation in local community college or junior college plays (many plays at that level require child actors that these colleges usually cast from within the local community), there are ample opportunities to take part in theatrical productions. It doesn’t matter what role you play; in fact, it may be better to take any and every job you can get your hands on. Audition for acting roles, work as a stage manager, design sets and lighting, help out with set construction. Do it all. The more exposure you have to the business and practice of theater, the better.
Once you get to college age, you would do well to major in one of a handful of subjects. Pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Theater seems the obvious choice, but it is not the only one. Many higher level educational systems offer majors in Dramatic Writing, where students learn how to write plays, screenplays, teleplays, and all sorts of other dramatic presentation styles. A degree in any writing intensive field, including Journalism or Literature, will help a young playwright develop their style. In truth, you can major in anything you want, as long as you get exposure to live theater.
While in college, avail yourself of any and all play writing opportunities. Theater departments teach classes in play writing and the business of theater, and they often hold short play competitions (usually one act or short scenes) that expose a young playwright to the practical and creative side of play writing.
How do you make money writing plays?
I wish this question were easier to answer. The truth is, most people who write plays don’t make a living doing it. It can take years of practice as a playwright to achieve the loftiest of your goals — a production on Broadway, a position as a writer in residence at a major theater, or as touring theater artist overseeing the production of a play. Like any other job in the theater, you’ll have to prove your worth and your talent over time to be able to write plays for a living.
But you can start small. Theaters around the world hold new play competitions, looking for new material to show their audiences, and hoping to elevate the art of the theater by contributing to its development at the new play level. These contests give prizes, ranging from a simple full production (and a flight for the playwright to come to town and see their premiere) up to large chunks of money for the bigger contests. Outside of the new play contest world, you can shop your play scripts to theaters, hoping one of them will bite and put on your play. This kind of work takes time, and is often a frustrating series of rejections and empty bank accounts. That’s why young playwrights work day jobs, hoping for a big break, or at least a check big enough to pay a few month’s rent.
Technically, as soon as you have written a play, you are a playwright. Until you make money for your writing, you are an amateur playwright with high hopes. Once you get paid for your work, no matter the amount, you are a professional playwright. Once you get to this level, you should seriously consider joining some professional writer’s organizations, especially guilds and unions directly related to the art of play writing. They provide invaluable resources for writers, like information on contests and theaters looking for new work that may not otherwise be available to the amateur writer, as well as a kind of support group atmosphere that is perfect for a playwright looking to break into the business of theater.