The following article was originally printed in the Jan/Feb 2014 issue of The Dramatist. Current Dramatists Play Service President, Peter Hagan, writes about the history and relationship between the Dramatists Guild and DPS.
The summer of 1936 was the hottest ever – a record which hasn’t been broken to this day – and during those sweltering days and nights, a small group of playwrights and agents worked secretly to form a new company. The company would, it was hoped, inject a much needed element of competition into the world of amateur theatre licensing, which had been controlled for many years by Samuel French, which was the granddaddy of play licensing organizations, and which had the lion’s share of the amateur market.
The playwright contingent was led by Sidney Howard, the head of the Dramatists Guild, famous for his stage hits They Knew What They Wanted and The Silver Cord, and later for his screenplay for Gone With The Wind. The Guild had recently had a great success with its new Minimum Basic Agreement, which had replaced the Minimum Standard Contract of 1931, and which gave playwrights much greater protection in many areas. Howard Lindsay, the co-author of Life With Father, another officer at the Guild, was also a leading playwright involved in the negotiations. The agents were led by the esteemed dramatic literary agent Harold Freedman. Together with the Guild, they hammered out an agreement that was intended to be the basis for a new company which would, at its core, be in service to the playwright. And Dramatists Play Service was born. The “Preliminary Plan” for the new company stated that “It is planned to use a name which shows the connection with the Dramatists’ Guild and to include in the name the word ‘service’ to indicate the cooperative character of the service.”
Nearly every prominent playwright of the era entrusted the Play Service with his or her plays – George Abbott, Maxwell Anderson, Marc Connelly, Rachel Crothers, Russel Crouse, EdnaFerber, Moss Hart, Ben Hecht, Lillian Hellman, Du Bose Heyward, George S. Kaufman, Clifford Odets, Eugene O’Neill, Elmer Rice, Robert E. Sherwood and Bella and Sam Spewack were just some of the legendary names who helped set DPS on its way. Virtually all of them handed their plays over with no advance payments from the fledgling organization.
Barret H. Clark, who had been an employee at Samuel French, led DPS as Executive Director from its inception until his death in 1953, with Howard Lindsay as President. He was succeeded by Margaret Sherman, and then by F. Andrew Leslie, who was Executive Director with Samuel Taylor on board as President. Bradley G. Kalos next served as Executive Director, with A.R. Gurney as President. In 1994, Stephen Sultan became President (the Executive Director position having been retired in 1992). I will become president as of January 1, 2014, appointed by the current Board of Directors. That board consists of four writers (Donald Margulies, Lynn Nottage, Polly Pen and John Patrick Shanley) and three agents (William Craver, Mary Harden and Patrick Herold; I was the fourth on the board).
Why do I give that brief history? Because I think it’s important to remind Dramatists Guild members, and the agent community, of the unique relationship which exists between writers and the Dramatists Play Service – a relationship which goes back to the company’s very founding. And we have to include the agents in that special relationship as well. Stephen Sultan had worked at ICM for many years before coming to the Play Service, and my 30 years as an agent included time at William Morris, Writers and Artists, The Gersh Agency and, for the past five years, Abrams Artists Agency.
My transition to publishing and play licensing may have seemed quite a leap to some, but in fact, the play licensing business has always been driven by the agents (a favorite mantra of Mr. Sultan during his twenty years at the Play Service) – and the agents, of course, are driven by their clients, the playwrights. So this new world for me is not that new after all. The cooperation which was demonstrated by those visionaries back in 1936 – yes, I think it’s appropriate to call them that – is something which I think all of us, on both sides of the table, can aspire to today. Theatre has always been a cooperative venture, on both the creative side and the business side. If the playwright, director, designers and actors don’t see eye to eye, you’re going to have a disaster on opening night. If the agent can’t make a deal with the producer, the show’s not going to go on.
And it’s important that the Dramatists Guild and the company which it helped found continue to find ways to work together as DPS heads into its ninth decade. The Dramatists Guild Foundation participates to a significant degree in the financial success of DPS, because of the role the Guild played in the Play Service’s founding. A substantial portion of the profits of DPS goes directly to the Foundation, with the remainder divided in a pro rata fashion among the agents who represent the various properties. While the four Guild members who sit on the DPS Board of Directors make genuine contributions of their time and talent to the yearly operations of DPS, I believe that there are other areas where those two organizations can work in a productive, creative way, continuing the cooperation and synergy that led to that founding.
On-line piracy is an area that comes to mind. As most Guild members are well aware, this is an issue that only becomes more pressing with each passing day. I’d like to find ways that we can work together to find ways to combat piracy that are both result-producing and cost effective.
What other areas can we find in which we can work together? One possibility, perhaps, would be to foster younger playwrights, as well as those from more diverse backgrounds. Outreach into under-served communities – places which think that the theatre is something only for the wealthy – is another possibility. I’d love to hear the thoughts of Guild members, and I believe the leadership at the Guild would as well.
When I was a high school student in Alexandria, Virginia, and dreaming of a life in the theatre in New York, I had a teacher who took pity on me and got me plays that I couldn’t find in the library. Of course he ordered the plays from DPS. I remember the excitement of receiving those distinctive acting editions month after month. That’s something I know continues to happen all over the country, and the world, to this day. People will always be hungry to see and read plays, and to write them and perform in them. It’s humbling and thrilling to me to know that I’m now part of an organization which exists to serve that need –and that we are working with the Dramatists Guild of America to do it.