The development of the nonprofit theatre network has dramatically changed the face of the American theatre. Fifteen years ago most plays originated in New York and then went on to a life outside the commercial arena; today most plays begin their lives in one or more nonprofit theatres and then move into the commercial theatre. It is now generally agreed that an originating theatre is entitled to a share of the money earned by a play in its commercial life, but the nature and the extent of that participation has become a source of great controversy as the theatres have been increasing and enlarging their demands on the playwright.
Basically, these demands fall into two categories: a share of the future monies earned by the play and control of the play’s future. On point one, although the principle of a theatre’s participation is accepted, there is frequently disagreement over the rights which the theatre wants to share, and the size and the length of time of its participation. The reason for a theatre sharing in the future of a play is to recompense the theatre for its initial investment in a production and for launching the play on its professional theatrical life.
The authors maintain that the degree to which the theatre is entitled to share should depend on its role in that process. If the nonprofit theatre production of a play actually transfers to a commercial venue with the same director, designers and a majority of the cast intact, then it is reasonable for the originating theatre to earn a percentage of the gross box office receipts from the transferred production. If the production does not transfer, which is usually the case, then the many criteria in the theatres’ demands are more difficult to assess.
Among the many variables the playwright must consider are these:
1. The reputation of the theatre, the level of production that can be anticipated, the chances of attracting the best possible actors and directors to the production.
2. The geographical location of the theatre, its accessibility to New York producers and, perhaps, to New York critics; the quality of its local critics and audiences.
3. The extent to which the theatre will give the playwright artistic control over the production, and whether choice of actors and director is wide open or must come from an established company.
4. The money to be earned from the production. Although the author’s royalty is almost universally five percent of the gross, this can come to anywhere between $1,000 and $15,000.
The second point is the control of the play’s future, and it is only in recent years that some theatres have made that a requirement of their mounting a play. They are asking for an option on the commercial production rights to the play when they are not in the business of producing commercially. This is a device by which the theatre rather than the playwright can have the dominant voice in the choice of a producer and the commercial production plans for the play, and it is understandable that it is a trend the playwrights strongly resist. Such an arrangement can be seriously detrimental to the playwrights’ best interests.
There is no easy solution to all of the problems which arise when negotiating a contract for a new play at a nonprofit theatre. Because the Dramatists Guild has chosen not to have any involvement in its members’ contracts in this arena, and because each nonprofit theatre has its own contract with varying terms, the unhappy prospect of ever longer and more complex negotiations seems inevitable.
It is imperative that the theatre community find a balanced perspec-tive among the interests of the playwrights, the nonprofit theatres and the commercial producers.
Gilbert Parker and Peter Franklin represent playwrights and directors at the William Morris Agency.
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