Learning to earn: the artist makes progress

Imagine you are a playwright with a dream. Your dream is to have a play produced in New York. Now imagine a theatre company in New York calls you…

Imagine you are a playwright with a dream.

Your dream is to have a play produced in New York.

Now imagine a theatre company in New York calls you up and says, “We want to produce your play.”

Your dream has come true, right?

Not quite.

Now imagine that same company saying, “By the way, we can’t pay you.”


Nope. Not one red cent.

Well, hey. Who cares? It’s New York, right? It’s a dream come true … right?

Well … isn’t it?

It is, in the strictest sense of the word, a conundrum.

Do I accept an opportunity because it means recognition of my efforts even though said recognition will produce zero financial reward?

Sigh. This is the artist’s dilemma.

I know there are people in the world with bigger problems than this. If the most pressing situation in my life is whether to let a New York company produce one of my plays for free I’m doing all right.

And believe me, I’m grateful.

That’s the problem.

Too often, artists are willing to accept little to no money in exchange for the chance to be recognized.

What makes this particular situation even more problematic is that it’s happening to me for the second time.

Two years ago, Snore, a short one-act play I wrote received a production in New York City.

I was thrilled. It was a big deal both personally and publicly.

This paper covered the story and eyes would light up when I told of having a play produced in the Big Apple.

The company sent me a contract.

If I signed, I was agreeing to give them the play for free.

I would receive no money for the rights and no percentage of the box-office revenues (both are standard forms of remuneration for the playwright).

In addition, if the play happened to get picked up as a result of the initial production, my signature would then guarantee the original producing company three per cent of any royalties I might receive from any subsequent productions for three more years.

I signed.

“Only this once,” I reasoned. “Come on, it’s New York! If I can make it there I’ll make it anywhere! I’m somebody now!”

Snore was well-received and I made some interesting contacts.

Best of all, I got to be a part of it and wake up in the city that never sleeps.

A month ago I received an e-mail from the literary manager of the very same theatre company saying they have chosen to produce another one of my plays this June.

“her only customer…” is a play about an out-of-work psychologist who is presently employed as a waitress. Her only customer is an uptight, stressed out depressive who doesn’t realize she’s being psychoanalyzed between salad and dessert.

It’s a good play. I produced it in Montreal in 2001 during the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and we were a big hit.

I’ve always felt the piece deserves a wider audience. So I sent it to New York.

Of course, the literary manager sent me the same contract with those same defeating words. No pay for the playwright and the potential for significant royalties for the company.

Why in the world would I send my work back to an organization that does not pay the writer what she deserves?

Sigh. The artist’s conundrum.

There is another good explanation as to why an artist would turn on herself so easily. It is because we live in a society that is incredibly schizophrenic about art and its worth.

On the one hand, we deeply value art and are willing to pay for it.

A Picasso will sell for $100 million.

A ticket to see A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway will set you back $140. Anthony Hopkins is given $15 million to deliver a brilliant cinematic performance.

On the other hand, arts funding is usually the first to get cut by our government bodies and people generally think artists rely on grants because we’re slackers.

Where is the balance?

And isn’t the artist just as responsible for perpetuating this out-of-whack belief system because we consistently undervalue our own worth?

One of the ways we can directly counteract the notion that artists are worthless is by speaking honestly about the money we (don’t) earn.

In 2005, the Low-Income Cut-off (LICO, or the Poverty Line to you and me) for a family of one in a community of less than 30,000 was $16,273.

I earned $14,000 in 2005.

According to Statistics Canada, this means I was living in “straitened circumstances.”

Ahem, I think they mean, “strained.”

In 2006, I earned $22,000. Not bad, eh?

I increased my income by $8,000 bucks.

I did this by learning to say, “Thank you for the offer, this is what it’s going to cost you,” instead of, “Oh, I’m just so grateful you chose me.”

My parents would be appalled if they knew I’d just gone public with my yearly earnings.

I still have no idea how much my own father makes. Money is like cancer, everybody whispers about it.

I’m breaking that most-cherished taboo and telling you what I earn because the truth is, it is still too little to compensate for the amount and the quality of work that I do.

Picasso was once quoted as saying, “I don’t own any of my own paintings because a Picasso original is a luxury I can’t afford.”

I know how he feels.

If I don’t receive the travel grant I applied for from the Canada Council for the Arts I can’t go and see “her only customer…” in New York.

Ah-ha! This means I accepted the crummy contract and I’m a hypocrite for choosing status over recompense.


But I told them I was unwilling to sign unless we could renegotiate the royalty clause.

I said I’d give them one year, not three.

They agreed.

Start spreading the news…

Celia McBride is a writer who lives in Whitehorse.

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