Big Think Interview With Scott Adkins

A conversation with the playwright and founder of the Brooklyn Writers Space.
  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Scott Adkins: Scott Adkins. I suppose I run the Brooklyn Writers Space.

Question: What are your views on healthcare for freelance writers? 

Scott Adkins: I have huge issues with health insurance. I don’t actually believe in it. I think we should abolish it completely. It’s actually a form of nationalized health care that doesn’t work because it’s only available to a few, and not to everybody. And it seems like we already have mechanisms in place like Medicare and Medicaid to take care of catastrophic situations. So if you can divert health insurance money into a larger pool to handle catastrophic situations then you don’t need health insurance. What that would do to the overall economy, I don’t know, and I’m sure there are plenty of economists who would disagree with getting rid of health insurance because of the jobs that it creates.

But personally I just feel that a 20 to 28 percent profit margin on the individual’s health is immoral and unnecessary. And then once catastrophic is guaranteed and paid for by the government, we don’t have to worry about it. And you move into a competitive market, and you make your preventative care, paid for on an as needed basis which sort of changes the entire model of how to take care of yourself. So you make sure you go to the doctor once a year, you exercise more, you eat better because if you take care of yourself, it will cost you less money, then the services become competitive, so you can actually shop around. You’re not restricted to an in-network type of doctor or that sort of situation, and I think you will see a drop in the expenses of how much health care is and everyone will be able to afford it and will go to the doctor. Why we expect a preventative care health to be paid for by anybody is sort of a strange phenomena and it also causes a lopsided service within the economy and for the general population.

Question: What do you think of the Freelancers Union healthcare policy?

Scott Adkins: The model that the freelancers’ union has is actually probably a step in the right direction because they’ve taken it on their own, providing their own service of health insurance, reducing the profit margin, eliminating it, giving the power of group to negotiate rates downs.  You still have the fundamental issue of in-network and lack of choice but it does create a model that’s more affordable for freelancers. So it’s a necessary stop gap I think to probably the ultimate goal which is to abolish health insurance by and large.If you look at the differences between how much health insurance cost in New York state versus how much health insurance cost in Iowa, say, it’s a dramatic difference, and that just shouldn’t exist. Why does health insurance costs more in certain places and in certain places not? It just shouldn’t exist.

Question: Do you like any overseas healthcare models?

Scott Adkins: I look at them as mostly unattractive just because of the nightmares that they project. If you look at the National Health Service in England, I know people who think of that as like how not to provide health care which is why the concept of a competitive healthcare market becomes much more attractive than a completely nationalized one. What you want to do is create an environment where people are seeking services for what they need, and not unnecessarily. Health insurance actually makes you seek services unnecessarily because you want to get more bang for your buck. Just because a corporation or a company provides your healthcare, doesn’t mean that it’s not being paid for and it’s an unnecessary weight on corporations to have to pay a thousand dollars a month per employee to be competitive in a market. Health insurance is just a lot of money that is going into other people’s pocket unnecessarily.

Question: Are retirement savings plans practical for freelance writers?

Scott Adkins: It sounds like Sarah Horowitz and the Freelancer’s Union is actually making strides and helping the independent worker. But I really can’t speak too much on it because I’m not that familiar with it. 

I can give you my personal take on retirement savings which is just my own personal confusion as to how the stock market actually works in our current time as a contemporary stock market versus its previous inception which was to help companies expand and give them money to do their work. It seems like we’re moving towards the decorporatization of the country because corporations actually fundamentally are flawed for some reason so in that sense it feels like “Why are we pouring more money into the stock market? Do we really understand where we put money in to the stock market, how it’s being used?” We’re trusting funds to be managed by very few people in the country, and to invest it wisely and we’re looking at bottom line returns and the expectation is to get a return on that versus thinking of it in terms of  “I would like to invest in this company because it’s a green company and I believe in it and I’m not going to worry about the return. I’m actually putting my money in there because I want that company to do well.” So the model of retirement savings is a broken in a way because the expectation is you need a seven to eleven percent return annually over the life of your investments over thirty years so you can have enough money to retire with. 

Retirement is a strange concept to me as well as a freelancer because I don’t believe I’ll ever retire. And so I sort of have, I have very mixed feelings about putting money into a retirement plant right now. My only investment plan is I put a hundred dollars a month into Intel, into a dividend reinvestment plan because I believe in technology, I love technology, I’m an addicted technolophobe or whatever and so I give Intel a hundred dollars a month. I just give it to them.  I don’t expect anything. I hope it does well. The dream would be to have the stock growing and double and do all those sorts of things but those are pipe dreams in the end. You can’t bank on that, you can’t rely on that. So I have no current plan in my retirement savings because I don’t have enough money to do that. I wish I did.

Question: What skills do freelancers need to develop during the recession?

Scott Adkins: I really don’t know. I feel like it’s not a skill as much as an ability to think critically and seriously about what’s going on around people and I’m thinking about the new generation coming out of universities currently. Their computer skills are already inherent and so older freelancers will need to continue to keep up with their technological skills and ability to work with the internet and be able to work electronically in general with their clients.

I think that’s just a productivity issue but possibly skills that would be more relative would be the ability to seek out work, to create work for themselves, to create their own micro economy for themselves. I feel like that’s possibly something that I’ve done for myself in order to maintain a career as a playwright. I don’t actually have any expectation to make money as a playwright until I’m really, really old, hopefully. But I’ve created a day to day existence that sort of fits into a model, so it’s need based thinking, it’s rethinking what my expectations are for myself and how I would like to exist day to day, and I think that’s an important skill to have like being able to say I don’t want to get on a train everyday and go to work for somebody. I want to work for myself and this is how I’d like to see my day structured.

Question: Can freelancers really work from any location?

Scott Adkins: Absolutely. I work everywhere. It’s amazing what we can do now, from working with an iTouch you can do so much work to working on your laptop. I have my entire business on a laptop. Everything’s here, all my plays, everything. Photos of my children, whatever. It’s completely self contained and virtual, so I can sit down and do my work anywhere. The existence of the Writers Space is interesting because people actually make that a destination workplace. So we have roughly 160 to a 170 members a quarter and people come and do their work there but they also do some work at home and do some work in the coffee shops or wherever. So, it’s sort of like another place for them to put in their mix of locations to do their work. Technology is amazing right now in terms of wireless technology being readily available, predominantly free and accessible and it does enable you to do things anywhere.

Question: What inspired you to create the Brooklyn Writers Space?

Scott Adkins: Well, my wife and I had a child, our first son, and we realized that working at home and in the apartment wasn’t going to work for us anymore. So we needed a place to work and a friend of ours told us about The Writers Room, which is the first space of this kind I think in New York City that was made and we went over and talked to them about it and realized that the waiting list was way too long. At that time it was two and a half years to actually get accepted into the space. So, we talked to them and asked them what they thought about us starting up the similar space in Brooklyn and they responded very positively and said that would be great because of their waiting list. It would actually alleviate the pressure for them.  So that was the inspiration. 

Also, I had just lost my job, I’d been severed from a corporation. I was working for a financial company and I had started there as a temp and then very slowly the golden cage built up around me and I had been feeling trapped and complacent at the same time so it’s difficult to have the motivation or initiative to leave the cage so they did it for me and that was a major inspiration. Once I left there then I started thinking about how I wanted my day to be structured and what I would like to do. And so, it became sort of a great union in terms of creating the space, making that sort of the thing that occupied me to provide some sort of income and also having a space for us to make our creative work and to be surrounded by an incredible community of writers which has been an unbelievable inspiration that’s been totally amazing.

Question: What is the writer’s community like at the Writers Space?

Scott Adkins: It’s a fascinating experience.It’s as diverse as there are many kinds of writers. And some people don’t like to talk to anybody at the Writers Space but they will talk about how amazing it is to actually sit in a room with twenty other people working together and typing out their work and you sort of get this buzz, this undercurrent of energy even though someone might be playing solitare next to you. Well it doesn’t matter because you sort of project that they are doing this amazing work. It becomes this motivator for you to work really hard and in that sense you’re still solitary because you can’t see anybody in our space but you can feel them. And that’s a great experience. And then there’s another group of people who like to take breaks and they’ll come out until lunch and talk to other people and work things out verbally or vent about the current political things or whatever, whatever is on their mind and, and have great discussions about that and heated debate sometimes, and then they’ll go back and get to work on their fiction or their autobiography or whatever.

Question: How does the Brooklyn Writers Space foster creativity?

Scott Adkins: We try to keep a consistent environment as much as possible and I think that’s the key:  allowing people to know what to expect when they come into this space. Consistency is important for fostering anything, I think. Changes are difficult for everybody. Anytime we change one little thing in this space there’s always a little bump and sometimes it’s a positive bump, sometimes it’s a negative bump and then everything evens out and everyone’s okay again.  So, we just keep a clean space, we provide a place to put their food, a place to talk on the phone, to print their work, there’s no secret really. I also try and keep the walls blank as possible in the backroom, provide an eclectic collection of books which are completely random and found on the streets of Brooklyn so that also I think helps a lot too if someone gets stuck, they can just pick up this random book about mythology and start looking through it, or a quotation book and find some inspiration there that get the gasoline lit again.

Question: What advice do you have for fellow entrepreneurs?

Scott Adkins: Ah, yeah. I think the nugget is to, which was the piece of advice given to me from some folks at the Writers Room, keep it simple and don’t try to expand beyond what you’re trying to do which in our case was providing a desk, a lamp, and a chair. There really is no need to differentiate yourself in providing a space so whatever you do, if you stay focused on the primary objective which should be a simple objective, then you can do that really, really well. If you diversify too much, it could become an issue. 

One of the other things is that when we first started the Writers Space, banks were very reluctant to even consider providing money to us. In fact, nobody gave us money. We had to put most of it on credit cards, luckily at that time it was all zero percent credit cards so we took a major risk.  So we asked ourselves the one question of, if we put—I had a little severance package—we put all the severance into this and we come out of this with a major piece of debt and that doesn’t work, will we feel good about having done this? And the answer was yes, it would be worth it and if it’s worth the risk, then you can go for it; if it’s not worth the risk, then don’t do it. I did try to create a non-profit and the state denied it. They said that we were not a non-profit company, we were a for-profit company choosing not to make a profit. Interestingly enough, I realized from that and going over to the foundation center, that we didn’t need to be a non-profit. We were just following in the footsteps of the Writers Room which was a non-profit and so if you can think of ways to create an efficient model where you don’t have to have extra programming and extra sources of revenue—in terms of if you’re a non-profit you need a grant-writer so that person needs to write grants to actually pay themselves and then provide another stream of programming which could be unnecessary and more work than you actually need to do. 

So, for us it really was one of these things of like, I need time to write and I need a place to work, and so we kept it as simple as possible and I wouldn’t consider that an entrepreneurial outlook. Actually it’s more anti-entrepreneurial. It’s more limiting and modest. And so I think it’s important to look at what your needs are, what your expectations are for yourself and go there and not try to say “In ten years I want to have yachts and extra summer houses and all this stuff,” if that’s really not what you want to do ‘cause first of all you can’t do that if you open up a writer’s space but if that’s the kind of business you want to open then you go down that path.

Question: Is there enough focus on teaching the humanities?

Scott Adkins: I think there is a problem with fostering writing in the educational system. I have two kids. One’s eight and one is turning six in June and what I see right now in the lower grade levels is such an incentive to provide high stakes tests, and performance on these high stakes test, that it negates the purpose of education in general. And testing is useful, however when so much pressure is put on it, it becomes in my mind negative, it has a negative impact.  You squelch the creative environment in an odd way and that makes it very difficult for teachers to operate. I think teachers do an amazing job in the New York public schools system in working with these high stakes tests and trying to create an environment but it’s extremely difficult. I don’t know what that means for the upper grades yet, I’ll find out. I do know what it means for students coming in to Brooklyn College, for example. My wife teaches English 1 there and playwriting. And she sees a vast array of students coming in and my father taught English for about 32 years and he saw a traumatic downturn in students’ abilities to actually write on their own and it is nerve-racking and scary and it was very frustrating for him and it’s frustrating for my wife as well to have students coming in who are really smart and intelligent people but they don’t have the ability to think as well as they should. So it becomes a double challenge in the humanities area of trying to teach critical thinking and take that critical thinking to the page. 

I see so many writers at the Writers Space. We’ve served over five hundred writers and they’re all amazing and the kind of work that they’re putting out is incredible. My community of playwrights is huge. It might not be visible, but there is a really, really strong community. The master’s programs seem to be getting more aggressive and more alternative. I happen to go to the Brooklyn College MFA program for playwriting and studied with Mac Wellman where, what he taught me was not how to write because the assumption is you know how to write when you come in, but he taught me how to think. He taught me how to follow a passion, how to follow a path, how to open up a book and find the nugget inside that book and research it, and continue working with it until I could use that as the fuel for my work in the right place.And there’s a lot of new writers coming out of those programs, the fiction program is incredible over at Brooklyn College as well. 

I also feel like blogs are inspiring writing as well. There’re a lot, even though it’s a freer form, it’s more of a journal, a public journal. There’s a lot of writing going on there as well. They’re not always good but practice makes perfect and so if there’s more opportunities to practice, more opportunities to write, the better you will get. That’s proven over time. 

Printed matter? What’s going happen to printed matter? That’s a big question. We’ve seen the music industry suffer. We’ve got the Virgin Megastore shutting down in Time Square maybe because of the recession, likely because people are downloading more music so what’s going to happen to printed matter and the brick and mortar bookstores and that sort of thing. Are people going to actually read more online? Are they going to be able to read long pieces in electronic format, that’s questionable as well. But I don’t feel like, I don’t feel like writing is suffering, I feel like there’s more opportunity for writer’s now than there were in the past. Maybe this is an ignorant or a naïve perception but it feels like in the old days, writers were independently wealthy.

And now writers aren’t necessarily independently wealthy, they’re able to actually create their work and maintain a freelance lifestyle for their income until they can get paid for their work. I think one of the major changes in this recession though is the expectations from publishers right now. The thing I’m seeing over at the Space, is they’re looking for 30 to 60 percent proposal of a book versus 10 percent. That’s a huge, a huge strain on a freelancer when you have to dedicate six months to creating 30 to 60 percent of a book before it’s even considered for publication. That’s a lot of time and you got to be able to be able to bank that time with some sort of income versus before, five years ago, writers were getting paid sizable advances, enough for them to live on based on shorter, much, much shorter proposals and even thirty-second pitches, that sort of thing. That’s a big change right now and so, yes, we’ll probably see some, some impact there. Fewer writers will be published because they won’t be able to support themselves while they put together these long proposals.

Question: What is the current state of theater in America?

Scott Adkins: Completely flexible. Theater is not something that should be taught, theater is something that should be done, and you can create a teaching environment for that by doing.  It’s more of a practicum than anything.  You can work with form and structure and try to rewrite plays within a certain form and structure, but that’s only one way to do it.  Theater is an experiential, communal entity. It’s people coming together in a live environment, and having a common experience together.  It’s unlike any other form. It’s not literature.  It is performance and experience. It’s a visceral thing.  And so, I think probably one of the problems with theater which—I hope you will contact Mike Daisy about this because he’s currently writing an open letter to a regional theater and his point is that theater has failed America.  He’s got this amazing piece on that and the reason is because it’s become corporatized and artists need to be paid and theater artists need to be paid: writers but also the performers and they need to be paid appropriately, and because of the corporatization, they aren’t being paid appropriately.  And so that’s how he believes that theater has failed America and that sort of model, that sort of conventional model I think is a not very helpful, not very helpful at all for creating new work.  There’s no incentive to produce new work.  The incentive is to produce work that isn’t new and it also forces expensive tickets.  Ultimately theater should be free.  That would be wonderful.  But we’re looking at downtown theater now.  I think the base ticket price is $18 or $20.  That’s unbelievable!  That’s a lot of money and I can hardly afford to go see shows and so I don’t go see shows very much.  I go see shows that are produced by my friends, and sort of my community which becomes an insular bubble in a way, but those are the shows that I know I’m going to like and it’s low risk.  But it’s difficult for me to think that spending $65 on a ticket is right, that’s so much money. 

The theatre model is broken right now, and the canon should not be taught. I think that to continue teaching the sort of conventional model of how to make theater and do theater is not productive as far as creating new voices, as far as creating new instigations, new questions, new ways of thinking, impacting more people in a wider audience.  Inherently, theater has a small audience.  It only has so may shows, it only has so many seats, and it’s not like movies.  And theater should not be written like a movie.  Movies should be written like movies.  If you want to write a piece of theater like a movie then go make a movie.  You’ll have a much bigger audience and it won’t be a waste of time for the people sitting there.

Question: Which independent theatre companies are succeeding?

Scott Adkins: Nature Theater of Oklahoma.  They’re totally resisting the corporate trend but they’re in the—what would the model be called?—the elevator repair service. There’s the Wooster Group. These are independent groups that create a piece of theater over a long period of time. So they really, they really stew inside of it and then they take it on tour. Their market is not in America, it’s Europe. 

So I guess in terms of resisting the corporate model, they’re resisting—well they’re not resisting.  They’d love to be able to tour America indefinitely but it just doesn’t happen that way. So they are resisting the corporate model in terms of regional theaters just won’t take them all the time.  I think other groups that are doing that are ClubFEM and 13P. 13P—my wife’s part of that, started by Rob Handel and a group of twelve other playwrights.  And they’re a collective, and so that’s a collective of playwrights and they produce their own plays, and they produce it every, every year and their, their motto is “We don’t just write plays, we produce plays.” 

And that is a complete about face from the corporate model. And so this sort of fits into the model of the Writer Space where there is power in numbers. And if you have enough people, everybody benefits and so 13P gets a lot of attention. They have a great fundraiser every year, they raise enough money to produce the next show and that also works well. There’s a group that I’m in called Joyce Cho. We’re not able to pay ourselves anything but that’s not the point. The last show we did was back at the Prelude Festival at the CUNY Grad Center and someone asked the question of what would we do if somebody gave us  a big check and the response was we’d buy health insurance and so that—even though I’m anti-health insurance so I can be a hypocrite right—and so basically the concept behind that is using the money for something that’s a little more humanitarian versus spending it on the wiz-bang lights and sounds and this and that and the other.

Technology in our environment has been a huge help, coming up with technological solutions, making stop animation videos that are actually theatrical and eliminate a piece of theater or it allows us to present something in a way that help us juxtapose against the live performance also happening. Sound is a lot easier to do. All these things could be done on laptops so it’s reducing the model of having a huge budget. Big budget does not necessarily mean wonderful show.  Sometimes it works, but a lot of times it’s pointless.

Recorded on: April 24, 2009