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March 7th, 2016 donnahoke




I fear the writing on the wall.


Before I was ever a playwright, I was a freelance writer. It’s a flexible career that has allowed me to live where I want, raise kids while I work from home—and one I never thought would be outmoded. I write primarily for smaller publications, trade and some national magazines; I’ve never been a cream-of-the-crop freelancer who gets regular calls from The New Yorker, but, for a long time, I made a good living working part-time. Then, about ten years ago, my income started to erode. Today, I make one-quarter of what I made a decade ago. Twenty-five percent.


Here’s why: the rise of the Internet. Not the rise of the Internet obliterating the need for print writing, but the rise of the Internet obliterating the need to pay writers. Ideally, the Internet—even as it contributed to the decline of print publications—should have given rise to endless opportunities for freelance writers. And it did. But it also made writing way easy to get from anywhere in the world, and with slews of writers eager for bylines, the rate of pay dropped precipitously for in-the-trenches freelancers like me. And so did the overall quality of much of the writing you see online that’s being farmed out for a penny—or less—a word. Even non-byline writing, which used to be well-paid tedium, has taken a heavy hit. Newer freelancers I know work three times as hard for a third as much.


And now the same thing is happening in the playwright world. As with those New Yorker writers, there has always been and will always be room at the top for the biggest name playwrights to earn money. And, comparable to freelancing, there have always been playwrights making modest incomes to actual livings from smaller theaters. And it’s those latter playwrights who are losing and will continue to lose income as more and more theaters assume that production is value enough, a notion is perpetuated whenever playwrights agree to have world-premiere plays produced without royalty.


Yes, I recently wrote a blog about the increase in opportunities for ten-minute world premieres, opportunities that most often pay nothing. Opportunities at new, small, or unknown theaters that in all likelihood aren’t going to further your career. For those opportunities, I provided a list of reasons why one might consider such an arrangement, for a ten-minute play, and only when there is no fee.  And even in considering those opportunities–because I understand that we need to have these opportunities and successes; I do–I still write letters to the theaters asking them to reconsider the unproduced requirement, and with some success. We always need to ask.


And now more than ever, because now those same “opportunities” are cropping up for full-length plays with increasing frequency. My fear? The trajectory will be the same. Let this be a line we do not cross; please, do not allow any theater to produce your one-act or full-length play for no royalty! And if this is your world premiere? Having it done at one of these small theaters isn’t going to give you the exposure you’re looking for (and the type of the theater that will isn’t going to do it without paying you!), so you may as well get some money out of it.  And if they can’t pay you, then negotiate a workshop contract, so that you at least still retain your world premiere rights.


Allowing a world premiere full-length play to be produced without compensation is far more egregious than paying a fee to have it considered; at least if you’re out a fee, you still have your play. Recently, a New York company asked for submissions of plays it could produce for little to no royalty. I wrote: Thank you for the call for plays. I checked out your website to get a feel for the kinds of shows you do, and noticed that you have quite a few licensed shows listed among your past productions. I’m curious, then, about the reason for “no or low royalties” for this script call. Can you please elaborate on the discrepancy between this call and the licensed shows you have done in the past?


The response: We have a budget for royalty shows, and once that budget is used up, then we rely on low or no royalty shows to keep the production company in business.  Making money doing theatre is very difficult, and quite often the shows with higher royalties loose [sic] money.” Where is the logic in that? If the higher royalty shows lose money, why do them? And why are the playwrights who write new plays expected to offset the season’s deficit? The response to that: “I am not the producer… I can remove you [from my mailing list.]”


Nothing will change at this theater, but that doesn’t mean we give up, because there are people willing to listen. I had a play done at a very small theater that never paid royalties for new work. When I asked why, there really wasn’t an answer (though I’m sure it was along the lines of, “We never had to”). So the Artistic Director went to the board, and now all new plays will get seven percent of the box office. It might not be a lot, but it’s something. It plants the idea. It lets them know that they aren’t throwing us bones by producing our plays.




A few days ago, a brand new festival call went out from a small community theater in Southern California, a theater that produced Broadway musicals for which it no doubt secures licensing. And yet this call for unproduced one-acts required a fee and world premiere rights, and offered no compensation to the winner. So I wrote the artistic director asking if there were royalties, and got this response: “The winning playwright receives their play fully staged and produced as a world premiere.”


The way this was phrased made me believe that they thought the “fully staged” production was prize enough. So I wrote back: Thank you for your quick response. Is there a reason that you would ask to do the world premiere of someone’s work, and not pay a royalty? Very often, the world premiere is the easiest production to secure; subsequent productions are much harder. To give a world premiere to a brand new company without any royalty is something established playwrights will not do, which means you will be getting only plays that are worth what you’re paying. Is there any chance you can reconsider? Playwrights need to get paid for their work.


I’m happy to report that the AD took the letter to her board, and got a royalty approved. What I found most telling in the response was this line: “When we compared our festival to other festivals our size the majority of them did not include royalties for one show either… Based off of our research, we had thought we were in line with other festivals our size.” This is happening far too often, copycatting of other guidelines with little thought to the reasons behind them. She concluded with an apology to all playwrights who were offended by the original call.


Success that wasn’t hard to come by. We don’t have to accept. We can effect change. Even small theaters can afford to pay royalties, but they won’t if they don’t have to. Which means we have to ask. Explain gently. Ask.


And keep on asking.


Please follow me on Twitter @donnahoke or like me on Facebook at Donna Hoke, Playwright.

Playwrights, remember to explore the Real Inspiration For Playwrights Project, a 52-post series of wonderful advice from Literary Managers and Artistic Directors on getting your plays produced. Click RIPP at the upper right.

To read entries in Playwrights Living Outside New York series, click here or #PLONY in the category listing at upper right.

14 Comments on “SLIPPERY SLOPE: NO ROYALTIES FOR FULL-LENGTH PLAYS #playwrightrespect”

  1. 1 Sara said at 7:15 pm on March 7th, 2016:

    I really appreciate that you write and share you point of view on this, especially for people who are new to this (like me and similar readers).

    A couple related thoughts:

    -No royalties for full-length? I won’t even submit 10-minute plays that have nothing attached with rare exceptions.

    -By the same token, I am new to this and probably would want an opportunity to develop a play with a theater. So I really, really appreciate that you are sharing the point that…one can negotiate for having the play be made as a “workshop” and that it is important to keep that or jeopardize the future life of that play.

    -This last point isn’t mentioned in your post, but I do think it is important to think about: What are the implications for the future and is there a way to go around that? So I look at other industries and how things have dramatically changed (ie, think about TV and how at one time, only pple who went through official channels got produced, etc. and in the end…it was so limiting. But now, people do kickstarter, to whatever, and make their own stuff…and I believe that it far more diverse, interesting, and some people who never would have been allowed to go through the formal route can produce things and benefit financially. I have NO idea how this would translate to plays (I barely know how it works, which is why I peruse this), but my hope would be that at least a few playwrights somewhere will take it into their hands, get it produced, make some money…but maybe the future is not in the theater that doesn’t pay and only wants those (whatever it is they are doing). To be honest, a lot of the big, mainstream stuff that you see over and over boring. So I’m hoping that this could be a good sign for the future, although it might be painful.

  2. 2 donnahoke said at 7:31 pm on March 7th, 2016:

    My fear is that it will, as I said, continue to open the door to opportunities that pay no royalties for full-length plays. And as long as playwrights continue to let their plays be produced in those opportunities, they will proliferate. This is what’s happened with ten-minute plays; the overwhelming majority of them now don’t pay royalties. And we, myself included, are the ones who let that happen because we view ten-minute plays as calling cards, and we wanted to get to know a theater, and all the other reasons that I list in that linked blog post. And I still think those reason are valid; playwrights can learn a lot from building a resume of ten-minute play productions, and that’s valuable education. But we have to draw the line at full-lengths, because slowly, they are taking their cues from those ten-minute festivals. And then the only money to be made will be at the top, which is a tough place for an in-the-trenches playwright to get.

  3. 3 Janis Contway said at 11:26 pm on March 7th, 2016:

    Many of my friends are novelists and faced with problems with traditional publishers, they published their own work.

    Perhaps we as playwrights could somehow do something similar though I am unsure how.

    Maybe we could form a non-profit and acquire funds for a group of performers to perform our works. Lots of issues to be addressed and obviously a dream at this point, but everything that becomes an accomplishment begins as a dream.

    Without performances, the work of a playwright is incomplete. We need productions and that need may be blinding us to opportunity.

    There has to be a creative way to address this situation.

  4. 4 donnahoke said at 6:44 am on March 8th, 2016:

    Playwrights are endlessly encouraged to self-produce, and many do; what doesn’t become part of that equation is that it matters A LOT where and how you self-produce, but that’s another issue.

    Without performances, the work of a playwright is incomplete. We need productions and that need may be blinding us to opportunity. I absolutely think this is the issue, that and just the desire to be acknowledged. But with the ten-minute plays, I’ve seen a handful out of a couple hundred–having those produced didn’t help me more fully realize the work; that’s probably true for most with tens produced. When the full-lengths are produced by these same types of entities, there is no travel stipend, and so the playwright foots the bill for his/her own travel–which only compounds the no royalty situation–or misses that opportunity entirely. So, rather than it being that much-needed opportunity for development, it becomes nothing more than a line on a resume for that playwright, and one that won’t really help him/her get better or get more productions.

  5. 5 Ralph Michael Brekan said at 2:38 pm on March 10th, 2016:

    As a producer, director and artist, it irks me both ways. It irks me to pay a royalty and it irks me to not have patrons interested in theatre. I’m starting to believe intellectual property laws only benefit lawyers. I don’t see the purpose for royalties other than to created perpetual paper trail for accountants and lawyers. It’s a total hindrance to progress and creativity.

    Shakespeare didn’t receive royalties for his work.

    Andy Warhol would have been sued out of NYC in today’s creative climate.

    Food for thought. When is comes to creativity, anarchy is better than regulation.

  6. 6 donnahoke said at 4:55 pm on March 10th, 2016:

    It irks you to pay a royalty? Wow. Do you charge for tickets?

  7. 7 Claudette said at 3:43 pm on March 10th, 2016:

    Dear Donna
    What about theatres that charge you for performing your play?

  8. 8 donnahoke said at 4:54 pm on March 10th, 2016:

    Thank Zeus I haven’t run across those yet, but if I did, I’d keep on running.

  9. 9 T.R. Ryan said at 5:49 pm on March 10th, 2016:

    Hi Donna,

    Thank Zeus is a good one, I’ll have to start using it. I’ve written a one-act and am working on a full-length, but have primarily been an actor. For years in NYC, I had some good dramas and comedies I performed in, but Broadway is heavily weighted towards musicals, and I don’t sing. For me, the great value of theater over movies is the depth of ideas that can be explored on the stage, yet we don’t see much of it in the larger theaters.

    The Internet has opened up additional opportunities, but where’s the money? I wrote, directed and produced three movies on video that I could not find a decent distribution deal for, even in Europe, so maybe I’ll put them, or part of them, on youtube or vimeo. But the chance of getting back the $75K I spent making them is slim indeed.

    The media lies by not saying America is in a financial Depression along with Europe and much of the world. Elections are rigged and meaningless. Non-violent rebellion is the only thing that might improve the lot of the masses, if they could only get unglued from their cell phones and other gizmos
    long enough to see the big picture.

  10. 10 donnahoke said at 5:54 pm on March 10th, 2016:

    Or as I’m fond of saying, everybody “treasures” the arts, but nobody wants to support them.

    Parents are DELIGHTED when their kids can draw, or sing, or are in the school shows. That’s what people generally mean when they talk about someone having “talent.” You don’t hear “good with people,” “can speak articulately in front of a crowd,” etc. Nope; you always hear about the one line that cousin had in a movie. It’s oddly disproportionate.

  11. 11 CLW said at 2:40 pm on March 12th, 2016:

    Shakespeare was one of the producers; he got a piece of the door. Other playwrights we’re commissioned by the producers; paid up front on spec. Playwrights of the time didn’t expect to make royalties from productions as there were only a few a year, though there was a small expectation of payment by selling copies of the scripts.
    Indeed, copyright law can have aspects of a Kafka novel. Especially if you choose as subjects of your art works created by advertising and design companies. Nevertheless, shouldn’t the playwright or the painter be paid for their work?

  12. 12 donnahoke said at 4:27 pm on March 12th, 2016:


  13. 13 CLW said at 2:49 pm on March 12th, 2016:

    “Food for thought. When is comes to creativity, anarchy is better than regulation.”

    In that case,on my way to the Saatchi gallery to break a couple windows and liberate a few pieces that caught my eye. Or maybe just walk thru with sharpies to add some new features,label them as my own, and sell for profit.

  14. 14 donnahoke said at 4:27 pm on March 12th, 2016:


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