On the Writer Beware blog, we talk a lot about the danger to book writers of reading fees, submission fees, and vanity or “partnership” publishing arrangements. But being forced to pay for the promise (not necessarily the actuality) of exposure isn’t just a danger for aspiring writers–it’s a problem in all areas of the arts.
Our guest blogger today, writer and playwright Jill Elaine Hughes provides a fascinating expose of fees and pay-to-play in the theater world.
In the United States, the theater world is, for the most part, not-for-profit. Only Broadway productions and national tours (think shows like The Producers, Rent, and Jersey Boys) actually make money (on paper, anyway). Theatres are generally nonprofit, tax-exempt organizations that are chartered under the 501(c)3 section of US tax code, and rely heavily on donations for their income. Even when these theatres charge hefty admission prices for their shows (and they often do; the average price of a professional theatre ticket in this country hovers around $40 and is often higher, especially on Broadway), admission fees generally cover only a tiny fraction of production costs. The rest of the money comes from–you guessed it–donors.
When we think of “donors” to the arts community, we generally don’t think of the artists themselves–we think of wealthy individuals, corporate sponsors, and private foundations. In a perfect world, the donated monies would always go towards paying the professional artists–who in the theatre, include actors, directors, designers, and playwrights. But increasingly, theatres that produce new plays are exploiting a new source of income–the playwrights that write those new plays themselves.
Why target playwrights? Actors aren’t charged to audition, directors aren’t charged to submit resumes; neither are designers. But more and more, in the American theatre, playwrights must pay for the privilege of having their work produced, even read. Why? Well, probably because playwrights are often quite willing to shell out the cash.
Percentages and Pitfalls
Playwrights are already accustomed to poverty. Very few theatres produce new plays at all–because they are financially very risky endeavors. With American theatres cash-strapped as it is, small wonder they will avoid new works altogether and instead choose to produce already well-known and popular plays like The Sound of Music or the (royalty-free) works of Shakespeare.
Because theatres take a big risk whenever they do produce a new work (especially a new work by a relatively unknown writer), most mid- and large-sized theatres require something called subsidiary rights from playwrights in the initial production contract. In a nutshell, subsidiary rights is a rights agreement that guarantees the first theatre that produces a new work a certain percentage of that new play’s earnings for as long as that play is in copyright. (In other words, if the Goodman Theatre in Chicago produces your play for the first time, and you agree to give them a subsidiary right percentage of 20%, then the Goodman Theatre gets 20% of that play’s earnings, whether from production, publication, film, translation, whatever–forever.)
That might not seem like a lot, but consider this. Playwrights who get produced by big-name theatres like the Goodman must also have literary agents, and those agents take 15-20% off the top of their clients’ earnings. Playwrights generally earn very little from a play’s first production, anyway (5% of gross, if they’re lucky, 10% of gross if they’re very lucky; but it’s usually a flat fee averaging about $5,000-$10,000), and therefore they rely heavily on future production, publication, and film rights earnings for income. (That’s assuming the play ever gets produced more than once–they often don’t.)
And the first producer of a new work is seldom the only organization that demands subsidiary rights. These days, new plays must often spend years in “development” (i.e., staged readings, workshops, etc) before they even see a full production, and all the theatres and dramaturgical organizations that do play “development” usually want a cut of subsidiary rights, too. This can really eat away at a playwright’s earnings As an example, a few years ago a new play called Intimate Apparel by New York playwright Lynn Nottage became quite popular, and was produced in theatres across the United States. But that play spent years and years in “development” at numerous other theatres and development organizations, to the point that when it finally made it to its first big production, a huge percentage of its royalties were already committed elsewhere. (Rumor has it that when combined with the first producer’s cut, the subsidiary rights percentage was in excess of 60%, which means when combined with her agent’s cut, Ms. Nottage was only earning about 25% of what she’d otherwise be entitled to.)
Think that’s bad? It gets worse. In addition to the very poor financial terms that playwrights already must endure, many legitimate professional theatres (and countless amateur and semiprofessional ones), as well as reputable play development organizations and playwriting contests, are now actually charging playwrights for the privilege of reading their plays. Peruse any call for unagented play submissions (and even some agented ones) and you’ll see requirements for “submission fees,” “processing fees,” “reading fees,” “donations,” etc. These fees can be as low as $5 per play for small theatres and playwriting contests, to as high as $30 per submission to the internationally renowned New York Fringe Festival and even $35 per submission to the highly prestigious Eugene O’Neill Theatre Conference (the US’ most highly respected venue for developing new plays; the latter two organizations also require participating playwrights to agree to significant subsidiary-rights grabs). Submission fees upwards of $50 or even $75 have been reported.
The fact that prestigious theatre organizations like the O’Neill are now charging monies just to read professional playwrights’ work is bad enough, but when you consider that even the most successful playwrights rarely–if ever–earn a living wage, it’s even more despicable.
Playwrights’ member organizations that provide production and development opportunities for playwrights, especially those that maintain prestigious (and free) “residency” programs for a select group of playwrights, are also jumping on the submission fee bandwagon, especially in the current economic downturn. Those fees can range from $40 a year for The Playwrights’ Center of Minneapolis (which buys you access to a submission-opps newsletter, some script-review resources, and access to some local programs) to hundreds of dollars annually (such as the Chicago Dramatists’ Playwrights’ Network, which in my opinion does not offer a good return on investment.)
There are indeed still prestigious residency programs out there for playwrights that provide new play development, promotion–and even productions–free of charge to a select few playwrights, such as the venerable New Dramatists in New York City. But the once-venerable Chicago Dramatists (which in addition to its pay-to-play Playwrights Network also runs a free-of-charge, prestigious playwright residency program modeled on New Dramatists in NYC), recently started something it calls the “Senior Network Membership,” where for the bargain price of $300, a playwright supposedly can get fast-tracked into its prestigious (and “free”) residency program–something that used to be offered based on merit and professional accomplishment alone.
If all of this weren’t bad enough, playwrights are frequently called upon to make individual donations to the theatres that produce their work, especially now that the economy has soured. Recently I received an impassioned plea from none other than Chicago Dramatists (full disclosure: I used to be a dues-paying member of their Playwrights’ Network) for “urgent” donations; that email got instantly deleted from my inbox. While many playwrights are happy to assist theatres in fundraising efforts (such as appearing at benefit parties, selling raffle tickets, etc), I don’t believe any playwright should be asked to donate his or her own money to keep a theater going. Playwrights are broke as it is, and there are plenty of other sources for donations beyond an arts organization’s own artists.
It’s disheartening to any up-and-coming playwright to see how much of the legitimate American theatre operates on a “pay-to-play” model. But there are bright spots to report. The Dramatists Guild of America has recently enacted a policy that it will not publicize any production opportunities or playwriting contests that require submission fees. Many playwriting newsletters (such as The Loop for Playwrights) have adopted similar policies. And I’m pleased to report that despite the fact I don’t submit plays to any producing organizations that require submission fees (even the prestigious ones, like the O’Neill), I still manage to get my work produced–a lot (for example, I recently had several plays produced by the nonprofit Love Creek Productions in NYC, a theatre where I knew no one prior to submitting, have never paid a submission fee, and have never been asked to donate or help fundraise a dime). I also no longer support playwrights’ organizations like Chicago Dramatists that have gone heavily over to the “pay-to-play” model, and that hasn’t hurt my playwriting career, either (though I’m sure they’d rather I didn’t say that in public).
My advice to any aspiring playwright is this: Learn how the business of the theatre world operates (it’s very different from the publishing world), get an agent, and watch your back. And never, ever pay a submission fee to anyone–no matter what.
And keep your day job.
JILL ELAINE HUGHES’ plays have received productions and staged readings in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, Atlanta, Boston, Phoenix, Ohio, Toronto, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere. She also founded the nationally renowned Stockyards Theatre Project, Chicago’s only theatre company dedicated exclusively to women’s theatre and performance art in 1999, and served as its artistic director/producer for five years. She served three years as President of Chicago Women’s Theatre Alliance (2000-2003) and formerly served as Treasurer on the executive board of the International Centre for Women Playwrights (ICWP). Her plays and monologues have been excerpted and anthologized by Smith & Kraus, Applause Books, and Meriwether Publishing, and she has written plays for the high school drama market which are published and licensed by Brooklyn Play Publishers.
In addition to her theatrical endeavors, Jill Elaine is a fiction writer, essayist, and humorist, and has contributed to many newspapers and national magazines, including The Chicago Tribune, Chicago Reader, Missouri Review, New Art Examiner, Dialogue, Cat Fancy, Black Gate, and many others. She is also a published novelist under her pseudonym “Jamaica Layne.” She is represented by Lori Perkins of the L. Perkins Agency.