This morning I woke up to the sun shining through my window, my cat, Puck, sitting at the foot of my bed, giving me the most puckish smile you can imagine and my phone buzzing. I sleep with my phone near me. It serves as my alarm clock and is a lot easier to ignore when I don’t want to get up. It cuckoos instead of BUZZESSSS if you get my drift.
I open up my phone and scroll down through the notifications I got in the night. Weather updates, a paycheck deposited in my banking account, some new emails. As I always do, I opened up my emails and began filing through them when one caught my eye. A friend of mine, a fellow writer and playwright, had emailed me. Not unusual (in fact I hope to be working with him on some things soon) but always exciting. I open it up and see that a play he had written, and based on a true event, had received some extremely positive feedback from the family of those the play was about. In fact they expressed an interest in producing the play in their town as part of an upcoming summer celebration. Exciting news! But he also wasn’t quite sure how to proceed. The play (or rather musical) he had written had been for his school and he hadn’t been through any kind of submission or publication process and he wanted to know “what do I do?”
This is not the first time I’ve gotten this kind of question, either through Facebok, Twitter, or my email. “I’ve written a play, what do I do?” And if I’m getting these questions, what about the big name playwrights? So I’m going to write today about what to do once you’ve written a play and have a producer interested in producing it. And if you know me, you may see some things that I advise about but don’t personally do. This is a case of “do what I say, not what I do.” Bad attitude, but when I bend one of these “rules” or suggestions, it’s because I have a good reason.
The most important thing you should know, after your play is written, what your rights as a writer are. The Dramatists Guild of America has a very well reasoned, and thought out “Playwrights Bill of Rights.” to me these aren’t hard rules that you have to follow, but what is your right as a playwright. If you choose to ignore them, the drama police aren’t going to come knocking on your door, but you may be shooting yourself in the foot.
1. ARTISTIC INTEGRITY.No one (e.g., directors, actors, dramaturgs) can make changes, alterations, and/or omissions to your script – including the text, title, and stage directions – without your consent. This is called “script approval.”
2. APPROVAL OF PRODUCTION ELEMENTS.You have the right to approve the cast, director, and designers (and, for a musical, the choreographer, orchestrator, arranger, and musical director, as well), including their replacements. This is called “artistic approval.”3. RIGHT TO BE PRESENT.You always have the right to attend casting, rehearsals, previews and performances.4. ROYALTIES.You are generally entitled to receive a royalty. While it is possible that the amount an author receives may be minimal for a small- to medium-sized production, some compensation should always be paid if any other artistic collaborator in the production is being paid, or if any admission is being charged. If you are a member of the Guild, you can always call our business office to discuss the standard industry royalties for various levels of production.5. BILLING CREDIT.You should receive billing (typographical credit) on all publicity, programs, and advertising distributed or authorized by the theatre. Billing is part of your compensation and the failure to provide it properly is a breach of your rights.6. OWNERSHIP OF INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY.You own the copyright of your dramatic work. Authors in the theatre business do not assign (i.e., give away or sell in entirety) their copyrights, nor do they ever engage in “work-for-hire.” When a university, producer or theatre wants to mount a production of your play, you actually license (or lease) the public performance rights to your dramatic property to that entity for a finite period of time.7. OWNERSHIP OF INCIDENTAL CONTRIBUTIONS.You own all approved revisions, suggestions, and contributions to the script made by other collaborators in the production, including actors, directors, and dramaturgs. You do not owe anyone any money for these contributions. If a theatre uses dramaturgs, you are not obligated to make use of any ideas the dramaturg might have. Even when the input of a dramaturg or director is helpful to the playwright, dramaturgs and directors are still employees of the theatre, not the author, and they are paid for their work by the theatre/producer. It has been well-established in case law, beginning with “the Rent Case” (Thompson v. Larson) that neither dramaturgs nor directors (nor any other contributors) may be considered a co-author of a play, unless (i) they’ve collaborated with you from the play’s inception, (ii) they’ve made a copyrightable contribution to the play, and (iii) you have agreed in writing that they are a co-author.8. SUBSIDIARY RIGHTS.After the small or medium-sized production, you not only own your script, but also the rights to market and sell it to all different media (e.g., television, radio, film, internet) in any commercial market in the world. You are not obligated to sign over any portion of your project’s future revenues to any third party (fellow artist, advisor, director, producer) as a result of a production, unless that production is a professional (i.e., Actor’s Equity) premiere production (including sets, costumes and lighting), of no less than 21 consecutive paid public performances for which the author has received appropriate billing, compensation, and artistic approvals.9. FUTURE OPTIONS.Rather than granting the theatre the right to share in future proceeds, you may choose to grant a non-exclusive option to present another production of your work within six months or one year of the close of the initial production. No option should be assignable without your prior written consent.
10. AUTHOR’S CONTRACT:The only way to ensure that you get the benefit of the rights listed above is through a written contract with the producer, no matter how large or small the entity. The Guild’s Department of Business Affairs offers a model “production contract” and is available to review any contracts offered to you, and advise as to how those contracts compare to industry standards.