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April 17, 2009


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Mmmmm. I read this little interview a few days ago. I am trying not to be too hard on Young Jean Lee, she seems nice enough...

But, that last quote you post up there is not enough to salvage the rest of the piece, in which she outlines how she is, well, just too good for the "backwards" artform of theatre.

So, she can't make a living in the theatre and wants to make money. NOBODY begrudges that. But it just seems weird that she would kick theatre in the ass on her way out the door, without so much as a question about the quality, irony or aesthetics of the general output of her new employer...Hollywood. Indeed, all she has to say about LaLa Land is that "the really talented writers," are going there.

And, naturally, she sets all this up by prefacing it with "This is a little bit controversial."

Like I said, she seems nice enough. I don't know her. I think her work is exciting and interesting, but I can't get that excited about the interview.


Wow, it doesn't say much for the state of theater that Young Jean Lee, one of the stars of the new theater, with a company that tours all over the place, and who wins all sorts of awards and grants, as well as the praise of critics, still feels she can't survive in it. If things aren't working out for her, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Jason Grote

Who says she's leaving theater? It doesn't say that anywhere in the interview -- she implies that not being able to pay people a decent living, and having the dominant institutions in our theater produce or program sentimental dreck that most people don't care much about -- is a recipe for creative brain drain. Would any reasonable person disagree with that?

She's also not kicking theater on the way out the door, she's engaged with it, cares about its future, and is 100% accurate in her criticisms. Speaking personally, the most convincing reason to keep writing plays is so that I'll have a competitive edge as a screenwriter. Does that mean I'm ready to throw the entire art form under the bus, or that I hate it? Not necessarily. Conversely, my desire to go Hollywood has a lot to do with the fact that success there could allow me more freedom as a playwright. But my love of the art has taken something of a back seat to cynicism and practical realities. One can only fight the system for so long before coming to the conclusion that the system might just deserve what it gets -- truth be told, despite the good game that most nonprofits talk, their values are not significantly different from Hollywood's. It's just that there's less money at stake.

As for Ken's comments, alls I can say is, no one ever said this was going to be easy. The average downtown superstar who tours Europe and the USA -- and these are people beloved by the NYT and who have been notable for over a decade -- is $30k a year, no health care or retirement fund. No big deal if you've got a trust fund, but otherwise untenable. The alternative for us working stiffs is to write the American Play (see http://threatqualitypress.files.wordpress.com/2009/04/how-to-write-for-the-theater1.jpg), but if I have to compromise my integrity that much, I'd much much rather be making TV money. I just got hired on a tiny independent film and they're paying me twice the largest commission I've ever made for a play (still not enough to live on in NYC, however).

Daniel Bourque

I commented on Art's Blog something similar to what Jason wrote here. I just don't get the level of hostility directed towards Young Jean Lee because of this article. She didn't say anything about leaving it behind at all, merely that she had to make a living and that it might not be the answer. As much as anything, I think she's talking about the PLACE that Theatre has in American culture- and what you can ultimately do with it and hope to get back. The majority of the population in America does treat Theatre like it's something of a backward art, or at least with something approaching bemusement

It's funny... I was struck reading an interview with David Tennant the other day when he was asked if he intended to do a lot more theatre now that he was leaving Dr. Who (And for those who haven't been paying attention, Tennant is arguably the best Doctor ever) when he said that "For the first few years, I’d do the odd episode of Rab C Nesbitt, but theatre paid the rent." Of course, he's an exceptional case and someone who found success at a relatively early stage but making a living primarily on the stage is a lot more of an option over in Europe then it is here. I've said it before and will say it again: we shouldn't be crucifying Young Jean Lee because she can't make a living doing theatre and feels the need to do other things some of the time. It just seems crazy to me to get mad at her for something that virtually nobody can do without a trust fund, tenure or a wealthy spouse. As Isaac put it a year or so ago (and I'm paraphrasing here since I can't find the exact post- it was in one of the "Making a living posts") "How many professions are there where people's biggest aspiration is to someday make a living doing it?"

Joshua James

What Jason said.

Interesting to me is that the controversial part she mentioned is different for me than others ... I think it's terrible that playwrights get paid next to nothing, especially someone like Young Jean. To me, that's the controversy.

Whereas other folks seem to think it's controversial that she has the gall to mention that theatre doesn't pay well in an interview.

It hearkens back to the lack of respect if not distain, mentioned in the Daisy/Olson flap, that some folks seem to have for theatre artists.


Just for clarification, in case any was required, I wasn't knocking Young Jean Lee. I was trying to be sympathetic in expressing amazement that an artist at the height of her powers, beloved by many in the theatrical community and in the critical community, can't make a living. That is distressing. If she were to leave theater for television and films, even for a limited time, who could blame her?


To follow up to Ken here. I wasn't being "hostile" either.

Remember, nobody is begrudging ANYBODY wanting to make a living.

After reading the comments here, I went back and read the interview, and, well, I stand by my original comments. Although I may have been a little strong with "kick theatre in the ass."

Of course she is not giving up the theatre for good. I just disagree, Jason, that she is trying "to engage" with the problems of theatre in her statements.

Joshua, if the interview consisted solely of her comments about how theatre is just not the place to get your work seen by many people or a way to make a living then I wouldn't have even commented. I actually think that paragraph is RIGHT ON.

However, it seems as if she isn't content or comfortable with that. No, she has to say that theatre is backwards and that the writing, in general suffers, because all the GOOD WRITERS are leaving the theatre. She puts herself in that category, naturally.

Furthermore, the "controversial" thing is NOT, if you read the interview again, the idea that it pays so little. She is actually playing artistic politics. She parses her language as an expert campaigner would. Notice: mainstream theatre writing is not bad because it emulates television, it is bad because it emulates: "pretensious, TV showsbad tv shows." (Emph, mine.)

In fact, the more you read it, the more it doesn't make sense. Mainstream theatre is bad because the only people writing for mainstream theatre are hacks that arent' GOOD enough to make it in Hollywood or television? Non-mainstream theatre is good, but the artists writing it can't make enough money at it, so they have to go to television. Of course, the reason mainstream theatre is bad is because it is so much like television....

Maybe, I just wish she would have defined her terms a little bit more. What, for instance, is mainstream theatre? Because I can think of a couple of very successful television writers who also write plays that premiere at LORT/Manhattan Theatre Club type venues around the country.

Once again, I have no problem with somebody writing for Hollywood or television. Or wanting to make more money. And I have no problem with Young Jean Lee as an artist or a person. I was just commenting that I didn't find the article as exciting as other people did. I still don't.

Or maybe I should have kept my mouth shut. ;)

Joshua James

Fair enough, though I certainly agree with her that many good writers are migrating to film and TV where they are compensated more fairly and write much less theatre.

And personally I think theatre does suffer because of that, something that I've written about extensively.

Jason Grote

Well, Mirror, that is the 500-pound gorilla, isn't it? Who, exactly, are these mediocre theaters and mediocre writers? Of course YJ's points would be stronger were she naming names, as mine would be, but that's asking a little much. It's not just that slagging off specific institutions would put our careers at risk (a concern I've obviously abandoned a long time ago), but that we actually know a lot of these playwrights and literary managers (and often critics), and they're not assholes or idiots. They're good people working under lousy circumstances. Yes, some of them do have terrible taste, in my opinion, but this is still where the boundary between writer and critic exists for me -- even if I hate a particular play passionately, I can't bring myself to publicly insult a colleague. The world is too small for that.

That said, YJ is talking about something more than just money. It is in fact possible to make a decent living as a playwright, but it's a lot easier if one is interested in writing what most institutional theaters are interested in, which seems to be stuff like sitcoms, treacly soap operas, or Lifetime TV movies. The big issue for me, and the thing that really makes me want to get out more than any of the standard complaints (development hell, sub-rights, penury) is this relentless irrelevance. It's perfectly normal for intelligent, cultured people -- people who would never say, "I don't read/listen to music/like contemporary art" -- to say they never go to the theater. For a long time, this was just people under 30, but more and more I hear it from people pushing 60. We are in a serious crisis where, in order to sustain themselves, theaters must program for a core audience that is quite literally dying off, and new audiences are - understandably - not coming in to replace them. Again I quote Gary Groth who, in the 80s, complained that "mainstream" comics were 180 degrees out of sync with the rest of the cultural mainstream. What is "mainstream" in theater doesn't really reflect the culture as I know or live it.

And so what does one do? Continually take up arms against Todd Haimes or Charles Isherwood until the economy does away with them for us? Try to live off of $30k a year touring Europe and doing downtown theater, and defaulting on obscene student loan debt? Or altering our writing styles to become more commercially viable? And if the answer is the last one, wouldn't it make more sense to do so for the largest paycheck and the largest audience?

This is not to idealize TV in any way -- I'm sure that's a grind, too, in ways that we all probably already know about. But this is the hardest thing about doing theater, even if one is fairly successful: the knowledge that most large institutions would ideally be programming sitcoms and melodramas that nod towards importance by doing stuff you wouldn't see on most TV/film, like portraying fat people, or old people, or left-of-center sentiments. Not that there's anything wrong with any of these things, just that they don't really go as far as theaters seem to think they do.


Not a problem, Jason. I hope you are not surprised to hear that I agree with most of what you a saying here.

However, I will point out that what you are saying is NOT what Young Jean Lee is saying, at least not in the interview.

You are saying that even talented writers, good people, are FORCED into writing drek because of the circumstances theatres find themselves in right now. Is that what you are saying? Honestly, I don't want to put words in your mouth.

YJ is saying that the problem is that these "colleagues" AREN'T talented and this problem is bringing down mainstream theatre. She pins this problem on the fact that the GOOD writers are leaving for television because they can't make money in theatre.

Now, either of these are arguments, (yours or hers,) I am down with discussing.

My problem, I guess, is that I am assuming YJ's definition of "mainstream theatre" is LORT/Regional/Manhattan Theatre Club etc. And I can list many playwrights who also write for television operating in those venues. I know you don't want to list them, but I'll start with Theresa Rebeck, Diana Son, Gina Gionfriddo, John Patrick Shanley (all of whom, yes, STARTED in theatre.) And, as you point out, many productions and plays aren't even approaching what you would see on a good night of premium cable.

I guess this is the part of her interview I couldn't square. Maybe I was just over analyzing it.

Aaron Leichter

There's a false dichotomy between writing for theater & writing for film, TV, etc. A playwright can be just as flexible about the medium as he or she is about the structure or subject. And the concept of selling out is just as empty as that of defining artistic success in terms of money generated (or of ticket sales).


I'm in agreement with Aaron; selling out has to do with what the individual artist feels about his/her work. If some avant garde theatre gives you a big commission (it could happen...in OppositeLand) and you hate every second of working on that piece, you're selling out. If you're working on a buddy-action-comedy that's just right for Chris Rock and Anthony Hopkins (it did happen) and love it, dude, good on ya. It's just a way we have of talking about the work, and putting thoughts into the heads of writers.

I do have to side a bit with Mirror here. Reading the article again, she's calling out the quality of the work, not just saying that the allure of Hollywood and paying one's rent with writing is too much. I think that's what's touchy about it. The other stuff, it's pretty much what you hear every day on all sorts of blogs. And Jason's right; she can't name names or productions or theatres. So it feels like she's tarring everyone with the same brush. But...come on. We all know. There are some bad, bad plays that are being produced on some pretty major stages. There are a lot of poorly written, poorly structured plays filled with bad sitcom-level writing strutting across our stages. And some of those people are writing for film and television and maybe their talents lie in that arena...but I doubt it. And I know a lot of very, very good writers who can't get arrested in most theatres who are fleeing for L.A. to make some money at least. Not to mention the fact that as soon as a writer gets a good notice, film and TV come a-calling. In the list of folks you mentioned, Mirror, are quite a few people who've written a good play or two, gotten snapped up by film and television and now can get productions much more easily. We can all name a few more. Which in the limited market for new plays means good, young new writers are going west earlier. I don't mean to ramble on and on, but this is a good topic to start up on.

Anyway, one last thing and then I'll shut up: I give the audiences more credit than YJL does. I don't think they're laughing at the bad jokes, or, if they are, it's mostly out of public embarrassment. Audiences know bad when they see bad.

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