Money Talks: How Playwrights Earn a Living

It’s a common myth that ‘successful’ playwrights make a living  from writing plays. This idea can make us feel like an impostor as we trudge to faithfully to an unrelated day job; but the fact is, even the most “successful” playwrights tend to supplement their incomes with other jobs, from teaching to other types of writing to different careers altogether!

Whilst it might not be ideal that writing plays isn’t the most lucrative of jobs, it’s sometimes good to know that you’re not alone. So, in this blog series, we’ll be chatting to playwrights to find out how they earn a living. We hope that by uncovering your stories, we’ll be helping to promote equality in the Arts, albeit in a small way.

In this post, we talk to playwright,Isla van Tricht.

I moved to London in April 2016 and signed up for a bunch of temping/zero hour contract jobs which I could do alongside writing. I found these through a combination of researching, suggestions from friends and asking on social media. In the three years since then my ‘money’ jobs have included: bar work, children’s entertainer, tutor, youth worker, “greeter” for an Airbnb style company, office temping, nannying, schools speaker, receptionist. I’m sure there’s some I’m forgetting. I would fit in writing in between these jobs, usually juggling 4-6 different jobs simultaneously and by doing so, just about making ends meet to live in London and write unpaid. The only consistent job I’ve had since for the past three years is working part time at the library of the drama school where I did my MA (2014-2015), they have been hugely flexible and supportive.

 

A lot of these jobs I found pretty soul-destroying, some of them I didn’t mind and others I loved – however, the stress and exhaustion of juggling so many of them and regularly working 6-day weeks definitely took it’s toll.
I suffered from chronic tonsillitis throughout 2016 & 2017 (until I got the little bastards removed December 2017, woohoo!) meaning I got knocked out with it for 5 days every 4-6 weeks. Prior to moving to London I had lived at home during my MA and had a job pulling pints at my local pub and managed to save some money as a ‘buffer’ for the insecurity of freelance/zero hour contract work in London. However, being ill so frequently (which was probably a result of overworking and constantly trying to make up hours missed from being ill previously) and having no sick pay available through any of my jobs I blew through my small pot of savings pretty quickly and had to move back home for 6 months because I could no longer afford to live in London anymore and the work schedule I had was unsustainable. I don’t get any financial support from my parents but I’m aware of how privileged I am that there is space for me to move back home (and that I get on with my mum). During this time I really had to fight the feeling that I had failed, which, obviously, I hadn’t, but it felt pretty crap at the time.
In the period April 2016 – April 2018, I had 3 plays produced in London (one of which transferred to off-Broadway NYC in 2017) but they were all fringe/off-West End productions with no funding and, so that the actors and director could be paid (granted not nearly enough for their brilliant work) I was not paid for any of these projects – important to note, neither were any of the producers. I also wrote 3 plays and a musical during this period, all of which were unpaid. I squeezed writing in at weekends and evenings, as well as sometimes on the job – with office temping/receptionist work I would sneakily work on writing in between answering phones and franking mail…
Something which gave me breathing space to write during this time was being the recipient of a grant from The Peggy Ramsay Foundation. This foundation was set up by extraordinary playwright agent Peggy Ramsay and it’s whole purpose is to give emerging playwrights money in order to afford them space and time to write. I think there are other initiatives like this and it’s worth researching and applying. It was pretty life-changing for me and allowed me space to write without making myself ill.
In November 2018 I got my first paid commission from a brilliant producer I had connected with and who had read some of my work earlier in the year. Here’s an info-trailer for that project, which will be touring in Spring 2020 – if you’re curious click here.
I also got paid a small amount from productions of a new play called Becoming Electra: A Queer Mitzvah which was performed in London in 2018 & again in 2019 and is touring the UK November/December 2019.
As of April this year I now only work two jobs alongside playwriting (which feels like a holiday in comparison to the last three years): still working one day a week in the library (means I get to read all the new plays…) and I travel all over the UK giving talks in schools to students, staff and sometimes parents about pornography & consent – I guess I’d probably consider the latter my second career alongside writing. I’m lucky that I enjoy both of these jobs and they are flexible enough to fit writing around. Sometimes I tutor to get some extra income and over the summer (when I am not giving any talks because of school holidays) I will be picking up some extra work on top of that alongside writing. I am also fortunate enough to have received a second grant from the Peggy Ramsay Foundation to write a new musical – this grant will help me pay my rent and bills over the summer and have time and space to write.
Starting to get paid for writing has made a huge difference but I’m still doing the majority of my writing unpaid at this stage and will definitely continue to work other jobs for the foreseeable future – maybe forever! Having a job/jobs alongside writing is pretty standard from my experience and the people I know, so don’t be discouraged. But also try not to do what I did…juggling 6 jobs and making yourself ill is not the vibe.

You can find out more about Isla van Tricht on her website or on Twitter Islavt13

Read about Isla’s latest project below: 

After sell-out shows in London, the heart warming, hilarious and hugely enjoyable one woman drag show, BECOMING ELECTRA: A QUEER MITZVAH is touring the UK October-December 2019. Written by Isla van Tricht and performed by Guy Woolf (best known as one fifth of drag supergroup DENIM), BECOMING ELECTRA, is a cabaret show like no other: exploring what happens when Jewish and queer cultures collide.
Electra is turning 18 and wrestling with her identity: can she tell her queer friends she’s Jewish and her Jewish friends that she’s queer?

You’re invited to the party she’s throwing to find out.

CLICK HERE for tour dates, venues and ticket links.
Photo by Harry Elletson Photography
Read the previous post in the Money Talks series, with playwright Matthew Gabrielli here. 

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