Hi, my name is Kevin Gillese, you might remember me from such things as being the artistic director of Dad’s Garage Theatre in Atlanta for the past eight years. Dad’s Garage is an ensemble-based theatre known for original plays, improvisation, young audiences, and unique management strategies. In this article I’ll be reflecting on the impact intellectual property policies can have on company culture and how we chose to navigate those waters in the hopes that it can benefit other arts organizations who may be dealing with (or not dealing with, even though you really should be!) similar issues.
When you take 50 or so actors, writers, directors, and improvisers and put them in a space together, the air becomes electric with collaboration. It’s like flipping on a Tesla coil of creativity. But once the topic of intellectual property rights comes up, that energy dies down quickly. I think it’s because deep down everyone is grappling with the same fundamental thought: “I don’t fully get what’s going on here, but I’m pretty sure I’m getting screwed.” And that doesn’t just apply to artists. I’ve seen smart, successful people fumble with their understanding of intellectual property and react emotionally. To say it can be contentious is an understatement.
The stakes only climb when work is actually being produced, because not only are there immediate questions (Am I being paid a flat fee or a percentage of sales? Do I get a cut of merch? I heard Lin-Manuel Miranda keeps all his merch sales!), but also of course if the show is a brilliant success and is definitely off to bigger and better things, suddenly any distribution of future income generated feels like a big damn deal. Does the theatre that produced the first run really get a piece of this moving forward? Okay, so you own my sketches because you paid me good money to write them, but do I own the character that I created in this sketch? Hey, this concept we all came up with together in a bar is actually doing really well… so… who owns it?
All theatre involves input from a variety of sources, but we take that to another level at Dad’s Garage by deeply incorporating the ensemble dynamic into our process, with many folks having a direct impact on what the final product looks like. Not only that, but the improvisational foundation for our aesthetic has caused our work to spill out of the traditional theatre paradigm to include web series, podcasts, semi-scripted theatre, non-performance-based festivals, and other less-easy-to-classify projects, in addition to our annual slate of new works that fall more neatly into the bucket of original plays/musicals.
So you can imagine our delight when we discovered that in our organization’s esteemed 22 seasons, the IP language in our contracts was all over the place, and the assumptions of ownership made by staff, board, and artists were equally disparate. That meant we were the lucky ones who got to work out complicated, heated issues with deep roots in our company’s history.
At the end of a long process which engaged a cross section of stake holders, we arrived at a policy that I believe takes care of all sides, a policy that is as progressive as it is simple: Everything any artist makes at our theatre is 100 percent theirs, period. If you make something with someone else, then it’s up to y’all to decide what you wanna do…but either way, Dad’s Garage isn’t claiming ownership of anything. All we ask is that you recognize where the project originated in official materials.
But wait a second: How does that clearly artist-centric approach take care of all sides? It is very challenging to make a profit with original content in the live performance world, and if companies producing this new work can’t stay financially solvent and go out of business, that certainly doesn’t help anybody. With a policy like this, wouldn’t your theatre be better off producing proven material instead of new work? All the risk is on the theatre, with no upside if something goes on to be huge!
On the surface those arguments make sense. But upon closer inspection it’s clear that companies like ours succeed by being a hub of innovation—Tesla coils of creativity. Audiences come to see our shows because of it, artists come join our company because of it, businesses hire us for all sorts of projects because of it. And any policy that siphons any amount of ownership away from the artists actually produces a cooling effect whereby artists feel less comfortable creating here. That feeling of getting screwed would pop up in the hearts and minds of the artists, no matter how reasonable an argument was made that the company that fostered the environment deserved a share in the success, and they would feel less free to just create.
And for what? How many properties really go on to make enough profit that a small percentage is a meaningful amount? One in a thousand? Maybe? That imaginary amount of money was never going to compensate for a slowing down of our artistic vibrancy. And besides: What if that special project does come along but the artist decides they don’t want to share that piece after all? Are we going to sue them? That just wouldn’t be in sync with our company culture. Better to stay true to our roots of being an artist-driven organization that makes decisions that are right for us, no matter how radical they may seem from the outside.
Yes, we do ask that artists recognize when works originated at Dad’s Garage. This may be at festivals, in the media, or even at other (bigger) theatres that produce the work after us. Our goal here is to increase perception of Dad’s Garage as a hub for innovation; when artists name-drop us, it supports our brand, as well as their involvement with us.
Additionally, in an effort to fix our inconsistent IP contracts of the past, this new policy is retroactive. Any artist who has made work for Dad’s Garage in the past can sign a new contract, giving them full control of their work. Any claims we may have staked in the past on an artist’s creative work is dropped with this retroactive policy.
I’m grateful for the forward-thinking board of directors we have at this theatre, which allows for progressive ideas like this to be hammered into policy. And I’m grateful for the culture of collaboration and artistic community that has been cultivated at Dad’s Garage for so many years. Who knows? Maybe one day someone will make something here that makes it really big. I just hope they remember to come back and make a donation.