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.
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.