Guest Blog — Playwriting in America: Percentages, Pitfalls, and “Pay-to-Play”

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.


  1. A blogger said that agents can only charge 10%. I'm not aware of any law restricting agent's cut.
    The financial situation is dire yes but to me, the 12 ton elephant in the room is the reality of political correctness.
    When did you last see a play anywhere that was PC. I haven't in over 40 years. I've had responses to a 150 pg play where one phrase or even word choice that was not considered PC by the theatre's PC monitor (aka literary manager) is singled out as a "problem". I have been told by a well-placed person at Lincoln Center theatre decades ago during a confrontation over the political control the Left has over the American theatre (an ideological monopoly) that if I didn't like it I'd have to "get them out of power". Well it's 30 years later and they are still firmly in power. When I asked if she didn't think it was unethical to only promote or often even only show one side of a political issue her response was "We're not the government. We don't have to be ethical". That's verbatim.
    I've also been told by an highly placed assistant years ago to J. Papp (and also told by another management the same thing) that if they like the politics of the play they will go some way to over look it's artistic defects.
    So many in the American theatre today are political operatives who happen to chose the stage as their platform. Others go into academia and distort that or the media, etc. Very few people I have found really – I mean really – believe free speech and the free and open exchange of ideas. It is tiresome to see the stage used as a bully pulpit for the Left but in the non-profits it's the reality for many decades. At least since the sixties. The commercial theatre lags behind this doctrinaire mission since money is the main focus. But it often presents simply diluted PC'isms rather than real robust diversity of opinions.

  2. **Only Broadway productions and national tours (think shows like The Producers, Rent, and Jersey Boys) actually make money (on paper, anyway). **

    “why would you say “on paper, anyway” regarding national tours? – tours are where plays that were not necessarily successful on B’way or OB can make back their nut and then some. Investors in shows like the ones you mentioned (and far smaller) are protected by the Securities and Exchange Commission, so I think the shadiness you’re implying doesn’t exist. I’m close to investors in several shows, big and small, and they get their checks when they’re supposed to, and in the amounts expected. And the Off-Broadway Alliance members would agree that making money Off Broadway is not easy – but it certainly is possible (example: Ken Davenport’s Awesome 80’s Prom only performs twice a week and is still making money for him).

    **But increasingly, theatres that produce new plays are exploiting a new source of income–the playwrights that write those new plays themselves.**

    Many theatres are re-thinking their policies regarding asking for sub-rights, but the ones that do are following a model established by Joe Papp and the public. Plays like “Rent” and “A Chorus Line” quite famously keep the NYTW and the Public alive, and able to produce more plays and playwrights, in a way that nothing else can. This is a good thing.
    If you don’t think the terms under which a not-for-profit is asking you for sub-rights are fair, see an entertainment lawyer. The Dramatists Guild can advise you on how to find one. And the size and prestige of the theatre should be considered. If by some miracle your new play is going to be produced at the Goodman, with their prestige and visibility, they probably deserve 20%. However, if you are going to premiere your play at the only place that you can – Bob and Rose’s Strip Mall Theatre by the Pit perhaps – they shouldn’t be asking you for sub-rights because getting produced there gets you very little other than the ability to see your play up and learn from it.

    And you should never sign a contract with a theatre without a lawyer, no matter how small the theatre. As for paying someone to read your play – you’re right – don’t. And donations are solicited via mail and e-mail, so if a theatre has your name, you’re probably going to be asked for donations just like thousands of other people – I wouldn’t think you were being “targeted.”

    **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.**

    Agents take 10%. Legally, that’s all they’re allowed to take. Managers, on the other hand, can take any percentage they like, and many take 25%. An entertainment lawyer can cost you three or four hundred dollars an hour, but once the deal is made, that’s it; no more fees – in the early stage of your career, a lawyer makes more sense than an agent. And as there are only around a dozen agents that handle playwrights in any kind of cogent manner, getting yourself attached to one of them is virtually impossible anyway.

    **All the theatres and dramaturgical organizations that do play “development” usually want a cut of subsidiary rights, too.**

    They may want them, but there’s no reason they should have them. If a theatre wants sub-rights from you for doing a staged reading or a workshop, when they probably are subsidized by philanthropic organizations for doing just that, then they’re crazy and there’s no reason you should give in to them. Sub-rights are supposed to be granted for productions. Period. Again, find an experienced entertainment lawyer – not your cousin who’s a real estate lawyer.

    **The fact that prestigious theatre organizations like the O’Neill are now charging monies just to read professional playwrights’ work is bad enough-**

    Don’t even get me started on the O’Neill.

  3. Victoria & Jill,

    Thanks so much for this. It's very informative and gives a strong foothold for anyone thinking about entering the world of the stage.

    There are some similarities here with the film world — a lot of disreputable managers ask for submission fees, and almost every single competition and lab asks for a submission fee, with almost none of them having any relevance to somebody's career. It can be frustrating sometimes to watch these exploitative models work for the companies that use them, but all you can really do is help spread the word, like you've done here. Thank you.

  4. I think my motivation to write plays in spite of the odds is the same as my motivation to write fiction—-because I have to. If I didn’t write, I would go insane.

    I honestly think that the only people who should pursue writing as a career are the people who have no alternative but to write in order to maintain their sanity. If you have any other possible means of making your living, don’t become a writer. There are far easier ways to make a living, believe me. I wouldn’t advise anyone to pursue a career in writing, simply because it’s a career with a 99% failure rate.

  5. Hey, Jill, brilliant post, a real beauty, shedding light on this world of writing plays. Ross here again, BTW. Just letting out a few ideas… A serious song writer must feel upset and frustrated when s/he sees the Beatie Boys topping the charts. Such junk makes it while so many “serious” songs don’t. Do you think that everyone has a chance at the end of the day? Is it the luck of the draw, connections, just being persistent..? Please share your thoughts. Why do you go on writing a play knowing that you’re up against such odds? Eagerly awaiting your reply… and I must say that I loved yor post with so much detail and proof to back up what you say. I always like to see the evidence. You’re able to back up what you say with facts. That really impresses me. Too often we see ideas thrown out there as paramount, but you back them up with solid statistics. Congratulations once again on your excellent post.

    And you won’t believe that my word verification is BUTLESS! I wish I was! Then I could get into those trousers I got for Christmas…

    Great work and, once again, coratulations for opening up a new world for me… I hope you become a regular contributor to this blog. Your insight will save a lot of people a lot of bother!

  6. Jill, what is your reason to keep writing when you are so sure that it's difficult to get your plays produced? I would love to read a post of yours about this, if Victoria & Co. are willing to give you some more space. When things look so negative, why go on? The mainstream thought is that if you're new you won't get (or have very little chance to get) published. So what's the point? Is the will to write so strong…? Please give us more!

  7. Thanks Ross for your comments.

    Ross and Anonymous 8:17:
    What is so disturbing about my post (to me, anyway) is the fact that these exploitive practices are accepted as a matter of course at the highest levels of professional theatre—i.e., at theatres where the top playwrights in the country work. Lynn Nottage, the playwright who reportedly had to give away more than 60% of her royalties on her hit play INTIMATE APPAREL a few years ago, is nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama this year. Only the tip-top playwrights in this country (you could count them on two hands) make any real money at all on their works, and even they are forced to swallow horrible terms. And it’s only getting worse and worse for playwrights every year.

  8. Jill, thanks for taking some time out to write this post. It was an interesting read. Like some other recent posts on this blog, your comments can sound disheartening to hopeful writers, and I’m sure not a few will say “Yes, she’s lording it around because she made it and now she wants to tell everyone to give up”. But, unfortunately for most playwrights (and authors in general) they will never get anywhere with their writing. Your best advice was keep your day job!

    What I like most about this blog is that, besides protecting writers, it is not afraid to be cruel to be kind. It’s easy for people to lash out at uninterested publishers, indifferent agents and slushpiles, but at the end of the day most of us won’t make it in this business, ninety-nine times out of a hundred because the writing just isn’t good enough. This blog (and this latest post especially) have helped me take a fresh look at the way I see the publishing world. Once you’ve made that first payment of thirty dollars, you’re in the red – which is the opposite of where you hoped to be.

  9. Thanks for this post. It didn’t shock me, as it seems to have done to others. Vanity is what it’s all about, and desperation. People write because they want to sharre their ideas and (inevitably) hear praise for their skill. Then they get desperate because after all their hard work nobody is interested. And so, the door opens for the money makers. That doesn’t shock me, because where there’s money to be made, there are people making it. But it does sadden me. I imagine meetings in the offices of vanity publishers and the people who run these schemes. They must sit round a table and a guy in shirt sleeves will say: “All right people, how much more can we squeeze out of these suckers?” And the others will laugh and the suggestions will trot out. That’s sad.

  10. Wow! Thank you for that very educational post. I had no idea that this kind of systematic highway robbery, for want of a better term, is so much a part of theatre.

  11. This business model arose for two reasons—-a) American theaters are nonprofit and cash-strapped; and b) most playwrights are more than willing to pony up the dough. The theater has always been a miserable place to make a living, but now things are going too far. Playwrights are ripe for exploitation and the people who run theaters know that all too well.

  12. I can’t wait for the novel-publishing world to get on board this business model. “Hey! Playwrights pay–why can’t we charge novelists, too? For only $300, you can have the right to get rejection letters from a prestigious group of NY publishers…”

    I don’t understand how this paradigm arose in the first place. Would you walk into the grocery store and expect to get your week’s food for free? Yet the author is expected to be happy with an ever-decreasing percentage of the happy profit. Le sigh.

  13. I should also note regarding subsidiary rights—-playwrights and their agents can frequently negotiate a term limit to the subsidiary rights period (say, ten years) but more and more theatres are grabbing rights for the full length of copyright.

    Plus, playwrights only earn $$ for their work at all if they’re writing for the absolute top-tier theatres. Small and medium-sized professional theatres pay playwrights little to nothing for new works.

  14. Thanks Victoria and Writer Beware for letting me contribute this!

    Jill Elaine Hughes (Jamaica Layne)

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