Sanaz Toossi, who won the 2023 Pulitzer Prize this week for her play "English," can't make a living as a playwright despite a burst of success in the theater.
The 31-year-old Iranian-American writer said in a New York Times interview Thursday that she supports herself by writing for television, which allowed her to buy health insurance.
Toossi's now on strike along with other members of the Hollywood writers' union seeking increased pay and benefits from TV streaming. But media landscape changes threaten the abundant era for TV writers that has prevailed for more than a decade.
As cable TV channels and streaming services like Netflix expanded, successful playwrights turned to TV writing to earn lucrative livelihoods.
Yet changes in media technology and audience fragmentation brought reduced compensation for writers in recent years, culminating in the walkout. As the strike continues, TV production has ground to a halt.
Playwright and TV screenwriter Alena Smith in a revealing article for the Los Angeles Review of Books mourns the lack of sustaining theater income for American playwrights.
But TV opportunities for writers have also eroded, as the strike exposes. Smith in a sobering assessment of the future says that the Internet and decline of cable will disrupt the TV landscape.
Smith, a Yale Drama School MFA graduate, said she earned only $13,000 as a playwright over six years, including a federal grant. She supplemented her income with odd jobs before heading to Hollywood, where she created the popular Apple TV+ series "Dickinson."
Broadway and the New York theater once sustained American playwrights like Eugene O'Neil, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.
From 1920 to 1940, 130 new plays were produced on Broadway each year, Smith discloses. From 1980 to 2014, the number of new productions plummeted to 14 a year, and will fall even lower as revivals, musicals and juke-box confections vie for declining audiences.
Smith foresees a similar bleak ice age for writers as the TV landscape fragments.
Toossi, the single child of Iranian immigrants, has enjoyed a meteoric rise in the theater, capped by the Pulitzer.
"English," in which four Iranians take English lessons at a storefront school outside of Tehran in order to pass a language proficiency exam, premiered in 2022 at the off-Broadway Atlantic Theater Co. Before capturing the Pulitzer, Toossi won the Lucille Lortel Award for outstanding Off-Broadway drama.
The play is frequently produced around the country, and Toossi has received commissions from several local theater companies. Her second play, "Wish You Were Here," a comedy about Iranian women's travails in America, was produced in 2022 by the off-Broadway Playwrights Horizon Theater.
But like other playwrights whose first love is the theater, she's turned to TV to survive.
Now that sanctuary is closing too.