Ken Urban

PRESCRIPTIONS FOR MID-CAREER

What does it mean to be a mid-career playwright? The term implies time in the field, not necessarily age. You put in ten or more years being a writer, then lo and behold, you graduate from being an emerging writer to this mythological midway point in your career. These terms are—I suspect—the product of play development and its central role in playwriting since the 1980s. I don’t mind these terms. In this time of uncertainty, anything that implies a sense of forward movement instead of soul-crushing stasis gets my vote. In a career where it’s hard to find readily identifiable markers of progress, defining yourself as a writer in the middle of something (be it a trajectory, a path, a journey) feels empowering.

The trick is that institutions have conflicting notions of what the term “mid-career” means. One foundation I spoke to regarding a fellowship for emerging artists defined “emerging” as not about the number of years writing plays. Rather, “emerging” meant a writer who hadn’t yet received recognition from an institution like the MacArthur or Guggenheim Foundations, or other large markers of success (such as productions at notable theaters). Many playwrights who self-identify as mid-career might appear to a foundation more like writers on the cusp, somewhere between emerging and mid-career. I’ve also been told that I might be too far along in my career to apply for an opportunity targeted specifically at mid-career artists. Here, I was perceived as on the flip side of the cusp, late mid-career approaching the promised land of firmly established: a flattering albeit confusing diagnosis. A playwrights’ organization like New Dramatists doesn’t even consider whether a writer is “mid-career” or “emerging” during the admissions process since, according to Artistic Director Emily Morse, it implies that a playwright’s career is linear, progressive, or even consistent.

Ultimately, being “mid-career” is a matter of perspective. Like the difficult second act of a screenplay, the first act goes by quickly, while that middle bit goes on and on. You know you’re not at the beginning anymore, but you haven’t yet made it to the satisfying conclusion. Where are you in that arc? Well, that’s open for debate.

What isn’t up for debate, however, are the very real challenges facing mid-career or emerging writers on the cusp. There is a sexy allure to supporting the new writer. Giving that writer the first commission, the first production, the first mark of approval, bequeaths the giver the satisfaction of saying, “We knew before anyone else did.” We have all been the beneficiary of such generosity. But artists and institutions agree that maintaining a career as a writer becomes increasingly harder after those initial successes. A new set of hurdles present themselves in the second or third decade of a writer’s career. Though its data is over a decade old, Todd London’s Outrageous Fortune (published by TDF) makes clear the difficulties facing mid-career writers. The study’s thesis is clear. Our field struggles to support playwrights financially, and they must choose between teaching or television to survive. In the decade since the study’s publication, the opportunities for mid-career writers feel like they are shrinking even more.

Anecdotally, we all know accomplished peers who have talked about leaving the field after a series of setbacks, and some follow through on the threat. Who can blame them? A sense of stagnation coupled with increasing financial hardships is not a fun combo. True or not, being underpaid when you’re emerging feels character building, but when you’re middle age, it makes you wish you finished that degree in (sorry Mom and Dad!) engineering.

If we agree on this diagnosis—“Sorry, I got a case of mid-career”—we also need to understand a prescription for improvement. What interests me is not just solutions to be accomplished by institutions, but also personal goals, things that we writers can do ourselves to help ease the burden of this in-between state. There is no magic elixir to eradicate these challenges, but suggestions like these three below might help us continue to make work:

  1. Funding earmarked for the work of mid-career writers given directly to the artists: This lofty solution would go a long way to easing the burden for mid-career playwrights, funding designated for a specific work of a mid-career writer, but that isn’t tied to a specific producing organization. There is much more grant and institutional funding available for producing emerging writers, while many mid-career writers find themselves asked by artistic directors if their play has any enhancement money attached. Funds from donors or institutions that could enhance productions of specific plays by mid-career writers would be incredibly seductive to theaters. It could tilt a maybe to a yes during season planning, especially when theaters resume producing during a recession. Whether it be just $1,000 or something larger like $50,000, such funds could offset the cost of a play’s world premiere or second production.
  2.  Refining our hunger: When you are first starting out, you say yes to (nearly) everything. As a mid-career writer, you have an opportunity to figure out what’s worth pursuing, what’s worth saying yes to. You have a better sense of your own value now. You can ask bigger questions: What are my priorities? What am I still hungry for? One of the difficulties in our field is feeling constantly “less than,” comparing ourselves to others as a means of evaluating self-worth. But as a mid-career writer we know more than we did a decade ago. We know the amazing review, the award, the fellowship isn’t going to change everything. It just doesn’t work that way. Armed with that knowledge, I have been able to step back and really think about what I want, what gives me joy. Before I start sounding like a Marie Kondo disciple, I’ll just add that it’s been helpful in looking ahead by thinking back: What has made me happiest in my career so far? I want more experiences like those rather than opportunities that I feel I’m supposed to look for based on assumptions about success. I’m not advocating passivity, but for refining hunger.
  3. Finding inspiration outward or in new forms: Playwright Karen Hartman recently told me that ten years ago, tired of writing about her own experience, she started creating work based on interviews that she conducted. She found new inspiration in writing plays about people who were far removed from herself. This feels like great advice for the mid-career writer feeling the burden of stasis. We have been doing this for a good amount of time. We know how to write a play. Looking further afield for inspiration, and trying our hand at writing something other than a play for the stage could really re-energize the artist in us. TV writing, adaptation, narrative podcasts, musicals, short stories, a novel. This is a perfect time to try a new form, to seek inspiration in a new place, to get outside the burden of finding inspiration solely from within.
About the author
Ken Urban
Ken Urban is an award-winning playwright whose work for the stage and screen engages the pressing political issues of our time, while avoiding simple didacticism and the false comfort of cynicism. His plays tackle a wide variety of subjects ranging from the rise of anti-gay violence in Uganda to the tragedy of gay divorce in Boston. Yes, all his writing shares a deep sense of radical empathy and intellectual rigor.

Ken's plays include A Guide for the HomesickThe RemainsSense of an EndingThe CorrespondentA Future PerfectThe Awake, and The Happy Sad. His plays have been produced Off-Broad way at Rattlestick Playwrights THeater, 59E59 Theatre, the Amoralists, and the Summer Play Festival at the Public Theater. In London, his work has been seen at the Huntington Theatre Company, Studio Theatre, SpeakEasy Stage Company, First Floor Theater, and the Mill at Stage Left.

Awards include the Weissberger Playwriting Award, New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, the Independent Reviewers of New England's Award for Best New Script, Huntington Theater Playwriting Fellowship, Headlands Artist Residency, Djerassi Artist Residency, Dramatist Guild Fellowship, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts Fellowship, MacDowell Colony Fellowships, and the Fay Chandler Faculty Creativity Seed Grant from the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST). He is a resident playwright at New Dramatists and an Affiliated Writer at the Playwrights' Center.

For the screen, Ken wrote the screenplay for director Rodney Evans's feature-film adaptaion of his play The Happy Sad. The film screened internationally at over 25 film festivals, and is now available on iTunes, Hulu, and Amazon. His TV pilot The Art of Listening was optioned by ITV Studios and David Oyelowo's production company, Yoruba Saxon.

His plays are published by Dramatists Play Service, and they have been featured in numerous monologue anthologies.

He leads the band Occurrence with vocalists Cat Hollyer and Johnny Hager. Their latest releases are Everyone Knows The Disaster Is Coming and If He Were Here, both released in 2018, available on all major streaming platforms and Bandcamp. The band are currently writing and recording new material at their studio in Washington Heights, working with Tony-nominated composer Daniel Kluger.

Ken is the Senior Lecturer and Head of Dramatic Writing in the Music and Theater Arts program at MIT. (Yes, MIT has a theater program.) He has also taught writing at Harvard University, Princeton University, Tufts University, Davidson College, and Rutgers University.

He lives in New York City with his partner, Johnny.