It’s become a given that “you can’t make a living in the theater,” at least not in this country.
And for the most part it’s true, especially for playwrights.
Playwrights typically receive 5% or 6% of ticket sales for a full-scale production, which in a six week run of 7-8 shows a week in a 1000 seat house can amount to as much as $15,000. But only a handful of playwrights ever experience such a windfall in their careers, much less count on it as a yearly yield. And of course that’s before taxes. The resulting amount would still be well under the poverty level. And, as I said, most playwrights only dream about receiving such a return on their investment of time and talent. More typical is the $500-$1,000 that playwrights receive for a four-six week run at a 99 seat theater – an event, again, that seldom happens more than once or twice a year (if at all) for most playwrights. There used to be subsidies and grants that playwrights could hope would give them some breathing room (and writing time). But most of these have gone away in the new century (and it’s sure to get worse under Trump with this new tax plan). The ones that still exist are largely tied to production grants to specific non-profit theaters, which playwrights only receive when their plays get produced at those theaters. So, again, not development grants, and only received by those few playwrights who already have been fortunate enough to have their plays chosen for major productions.
And even then… I am reminded of a chance encounter I had a few years ago with the highly successful playwright/performer Dael Orlandersmith. Her one-woman show Forever was then playing at the Center Theater Group’s Kirk Douglas Theater before going to New York Theatre Workshop for a full run, and then on to Long Wharf in New Haven. This was a trifecta of productions that, again, most playwrights can only dream about. I congratulated her on this remarkable achievement. She shook her head, saying, “Yeah, and I’ve never been poorer.” (And that’s with her also getting paid as the only actor!)
To the actors out there who are reading this, yes, it’s true that most of you receive even less than the playwrights – in many cases, much less. And that’s not fair. But your performances are also your best way of promoting your talent. This enables you to invite casting directors, agents and producers and increases your opportunity for paying work. This is especially true in the SoCal area, where two actors from my first production here booked national commercials based on their performances (or so they told me). Just a few months ago, an actor from a reading of a screenplay I co-wrote was signed by an agent based on that reading and ended up being cast in a new pilot. While such good fortune can also befall playwrights, my experience is that it’s far less likely. The few industry folk who do attend theater here mostly come to scout actors, not writers, directors or designers.
“I love theater here, but it’s very actor-driven,” Kemp Powers told me over lunch at Hugo’s in West Hollyood. “There’s no other reason to be doing it except passion. That is, if a writer has something that needs to be expressed – and can only be expressed as a play – then go ahead and write it. And don’t let anyone dissuade you from doing so. Any other reason and you’re just setting yourself up for disappointment.”
Kemp’s passion project (and first play), One Night In Miami, has been anything but disappointing. After premiering to great acclaim at Rogue Machine in 2013, the play has gone to hugely successful runs at Center Stage in Baltimore and at the Donmar Warehouse in London, where it was nominated for the Olivier play for Best Play. The play has been optioned for the movies, and Kemp is currently writing the screenplay.
Kemp described how he came up with the idea for the play in an article he wrote for the online magazine This Stage. “I was reading a copy of Mike Marqusee’s excellent Muhammed Ali book Redemption Song when I came across this paragraph: “On 25 February 1964, Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion of the world. After the fight, Clay chose to forgo the usual festivities at one of Miami’s luxury hotels and headed instead for the black ghetto, where he had made camp during training. He spent a quiet evening in private conversation with Malcolm X, the singer Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown, the great Cleveland Browns running back and an early champion of black right in sports. The next morning, after breakfast with Malcolm, Clay met the press to confirm the rumors that he was involved with the Nation of Islam.” Boom. There you had it. My four most inspirational people were friends. Bigger still, they spent the night of Cassius Clay’s victory alone, together, in a hotel room. And the very next morning, Clay made the most important announcement of his life. My imagination went wild as I started connecting the dots.”
Kemp Powers grew up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, where he was an Honors student at Edward R. Murrow high school, raised by a single mother. He was on course for worldly success when something shocking happened, something completely out of context with the rest of his life: at 14 years old, while goofing around with one of his mom’s handguns, he accidentally shot and killed his best friend, Henry. Henry’s parents refused to press charges, and Kemp went on with his life, going to the University of Michigan, where he received a Knight Journalism Fellowship. He became a respected journalist, a Business writer for the Reuters chain, but he was haunted by this tragic event. Then 9/11 happened, and it roused him from his personal hell and prompted him to write an article for Esquire about his friend’s death. The article got him a book contract, and in 2004 The Shooting: A Memoir was published.
But none of this explains how Kemp became an award-winning playwright. As he told me, “There were two main passions on the soundtrack of my growing up in Brooklyn: Hip-Hop and Theater”. But while Hip-Hop was something that he and his friends felt comfortable fooling around with, “no part of me ever saw myself being involved in theater.” Edward R. Murrow High School had an excellent Theater Department, and Kemp loved the productions of musicals like Cabaret and West Side Story that they presented. But he wasn’t an actor, and how else did anyone find a place in the theater? Kemp ended up getting a job with the Guthrie Theatre in Minnesota as a Public Relations assistant, where one of his tasks was driving around August Wilson when the Guthrie produced Fences. Kemp said that he was too in awe of Wilson to have any meaningful conversations with him, though he does treasure the memory.
As Kemp made clear to me, it wasn’t until he came to Los Angeles for a business-related job that he saw a place for himself in the art form he loved so much. “The only reason I’m a playwright is because I happen to live in Los Angeles, where there are no rules about making theater.” He explained that this is a result of a lot of people coming here to do TV and film, but bringing with them “a certain maturity and understanding” about how theater is made. Kemp stressed that because theater is something that these “practitioners” love but not something that they have any expectation of making a living from, it removes a lot of the pressure to “be perfect” and allows the creativity to “flow more freely.” Kemp’s gratitude to Rogue Machine and its Artistic Director John Perrin Flynn is enormous. “I’ve been nurtured within that community, and this born-and-bred New Yorker would never have become a playwright if not for the opportunities I found here to experiment and discover my own comfort level. I’m very militant about that.”
While Kemp has moved on to writing several new scripts – his play Little Black Shadows will receive its premiere at South Coast Repertory in April – he has also found a new day job as a staff writer for Star Trek Discovery on CBS All-Access, where he was credited with story and teleplay for last season’s fifth episode, “Choose Your Pain.”
I first met Kemp at the final performance of his friend John Pollono’s play, Rule Of Seconds, at the Los Angeles Theatre Center – a show by the way which will be on my TEN BEST List, coming out next week. Kemp was the lead producer on Pollono’s play, which was, in turn, the first production of The Temblors, a 7-member self-producing playwrights group emulating other groups such as The Welders in Washington DC. By all means, check out their website for future productions.
“There’s no part of me that believes that sometime in the near future people will be saying that one of the top three reasons they’ve come to LA is to see theater, as it often is when people visit New York or London. This is not a diss, it’s just the reality of living in Hollywood, which casts a long shadow. But if we in the LA Theater could develop a real infrastructure, then we could maybe become a Seattle or even a Minneapolis. That is something worth aspiring to, and I for one am prepared to do whatever it takes to help make it happen.”