How is theatre structured in the US?
The main differences between theatre in the United States and the United Kingdom is defined by how theatrical productions are financed. Most commercial producers in the US receive funding from individual and corporate investors; the non-profit theaters are funded by sponsorships, grants, donations, subscriptions and single-ticket sales, but (unlike the UK) with only a relatively small amount of government support.
Also, while many dramatists in America are members of the Dramatists Guild, the DG is a voluntary trade association (established in 1919), not a labor union like the Writers Guild of Great Britain, and is therefore not currently authorized to collectively bargain on behalf of its members.
However, while no writer is required to join the Dramatists Guild, its members are required to license their Broadway production rights pursuant to the DG’s “Approved Production Contract” (the “APC”), which is counter-signed by the Guild to ensure that its members are maintaining minimum standards. This agreement, a version of which has been in effect since 1926, requires members to pay the Guild a small percentage of their royalties from productions presented under the contract.
“Broadway” (the equivalent to the “West End”) is the center of commercial production in America, with 40 Tony Award-eligible stages in mid-town Manhattan. Broadway theaters earned over $1.7 billion dollars in gross revenues during the 2017-18 season ($1.4 billion in musicals alone). These are primarily commercial “First Class” houses (over 500 seats) but a few of them are operated by non-profit theaters (Manhattan Theater Club, The Roundabout, Lincoln Center, and Second Stage).
There are also chains of large commercial theaters throughout the U.S., where successful Broadway (and, sometimes, off-Broadway) productions are toured for limited runs, which generally commence after the initial Broadway production. A production may also “sit down” in a major city to present an open-ended run. Such tours and sit-down productions are generally produced pursuant to the rights originally granted to the producer under the APC, but some shows tour without ever having a Broadway run (tours in the 2017-18 season earned over $1.4 billion).
Other commercial productions in New York are either “off-Broadway” (100-499 seats) or“off-off-Broadway (under 100 seats) as these categories are defined by various union contracts (including Actors Equity). The DG promulgates model agreements for such productions but does not certify or assess them.
Non-profit theaters in New York and around the country are members of various theater associations (The League of Resident Theatres [“LORT”] is the largest, with over 75 theaters in 29 states). These non-profit theaters are funded through a combination of city, state and federal subsidies (including tax exemptions), as well as corporate sponsorships, foundation grants, individual donations, and earned income from subscriptions and single-ticket sales, as well as a small slice of the future royalties earned by writers whose works were premiered on their stages.
Many LORTs program their seasons with limited runs of public domain classics, as well as post-Broadway tours or revivals licensed from “stock and amateur” publishers (like Samuel French and Dramatists Play Service).
A non-profit theater’s production may later move to an open-ended commercial run, usually produced by, or in conjunction with, a commercial producer. A new show is sometimes presented by a non-profit that is funded in part (i.e., “enhanced”) by acommercial producer who is developing a show on its way to Broadway.
A non-profit may also “commission” a dramatist to write an original work for its audience (commission fees vary greatly throughout the country). The DG has agreed to a range of recommended terms with many LORT theaters for their productions of new works, but LORT theater agreements are not subject to Guild review unless it’s a Tony-eligible production.
In addition, there are also a wide range of festivals and contests, as well as developmentaland self-producing opportunities, around the country. There are also a growing number of companies that collaborate to “devise” new work.
The DG offers guidelines and model agreements for all such activities, and business advice about how to navigate this archaic labyrinth of interlaced commercial and non-profit opportunities.