Failure and Success for Playwrights

playwright Don Zolidis

Failure is a stranger to no artist. I need no reminder; failure stares back at me every day. But if I were so oblivious as to need reminding, reviews of John Patrick Shanley’s newest play could do the job.

This would be the same writer whose screenplay for “Moonstruck” won the 1988 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and whose plays Doubt: A Parable (2005) and Outside Mullingar (2014) received Tony Awards for Best Play. Doubt also got tossed the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Such bona fides – and fides don’t get more bona than that in theatre – do not inoculate against failure nor do they buffer the sting when it strikes. Shanley’s play The Portuguese Kid recently premiered at Manhattan Theatre Club on Broadway. I’ll share just one painful paragraph from Jesse Green’s takedown review in the New York Times: “I’m not sure you can credit as jokes the mechanical dings that the play spews every 15 seconds. They are, at best, the husks of jokes, all specific personality scraped out. With their obvious setups and predictable payoffs, any of them could be delivered by any character — in any comedy ever.” Exhaling an empathetic “ouch” is permitted at this point.

Of course playwrights are not the only artists assailed by flops and humiliation. According to novelist Stephen Marche, 300,000 books are published in the U.S. every year. A few hundred, at most, end up in the financial or aesthetic success columns. The majority of books by successful writers are failures. The majority of writers are failures. And then there are, Marche wryly observes, “the would-be writers, those who have failed to be writers in the first place, a category which, if you believe what people tell you at parties, constitutes the bulk of the species.”

A tolerance for humiliation is a job requirement in theatre. While I know less about composers, songwriters, poets, painters and sculptors, I am confident the sky over their heads is no less gloomy.

Every artist knows how failure feels but it’s more difficult to define success. For some the bar is just persevering (“just!” he says) – getting back up to face the easel, press the piano keys, push the pen, go to another audition. For playwrights, number of productions can be a useful metric. I’ve recently read of three playwrights, all working far from Broadway, who are enjoying substantial success as judged by number of productions.

The approximately 25,000 public high schools in the U.S. represent a sizable market for plays. And that “young adult” market extends well beyond the U.S. The income per production may be modest but with that many schools the coins can add up. Jonathan Rand and Don Zolidis have had remarkable success writing primarily for the high school market. In fact they may well be the the most-produced playwrights in the world, despite the likelihood that you’ve never heard of them.

Rand’s website claims 20,000 performances of his plays in 59 countries. My jaw did drop. In a recent podcast interview, conducted by New York producer Ken Davenport, Rand explained that he has written 25 plays for this young adult market. Rand’s scripts tend to be one-acts or short full-lengths that are comedies and avoid the “f-bombs.” He says his comedy Check Please receives about 100 different productions a year and has been the most produced play in the U.S. for the last 13 years. Another play of his, Hard Candy, has been staged 100 times in 12 countries.

Don Zolidis, also focusing on Y.A. audiences, will have close to 2,000 productions this year, which he admits is “kind of an insane number.” He points out that Neil Simon’s plays get about 1,400 productions a year. Zolidis achieves those numbers across 90 different scripts. Like Jonathan Rand, he is not restricted to the U.S. – last year his plays appeared in about 50 countries. The Prime Minister of Bhutan, after enjoying a performance, mentioned Zolidis on Facebook. For the past four years Zolidis has been making a living solely from his writing. (Most people outside the theatre would be shocked to learn how few playwrights can say that.) Zolidis’s income is now comparable to what his wife, a corporate lawyer, earns.

Adam Szymkowicz, while not concentrating on the Y.A. market nor working on Broadway, is also having a strong year. Through the first nine months of 2017 his work has received 34 productions – 22 full-lengths and 12 productions of a medley of short plays. Symkowicz’s financial results more closely reflect the typical impoverished picture for dramatists. A lot of his productions are at schools and small theaters. He assumes an average income of $500 per production, less than that if more schools are in the mix. He estimates that his 34 productions have earned him $17,000 so far this year. He’s not about to quit his day job as Literary Manager at The Juilliard School.

Although Rand, Zolidis and Szymkowicz are not unacquainted with failure, their numerous productions remind us that failure is not the only destiny of the non-Broadway dramatic landscape.

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