DISCLAIMER: The folks at The Dramatist asked me to write a piece about some of the advocacy I’ve been doing around playwright compensation, specifically how I was able to secure an increase in playwright production rates at The Public Theater for the first time in twelve years. In the spirit of pay transparency, I think it’s important to note that I was not paid to write this piece, nor is anyone who contributes writing to The Dramatist, which I don’t agree with. I’m writing the piece anyway because I think this issue is important, but I do think it’s more than a little ironic to be writing an article about fair pay for writers for a publication that doesn’t pay its writers.
That aside, let’s dive in.
Read the Dramatists Guild's Response to Ife's Disclaimer
PROCESS & THOUGHTS
Two things to know about my status as I entered into conversations with The Public about pay:
1. I have a production of my play, Jordans, at The Public in Spring 2024.
2. Since July 2022, I’ve been both an artist-in-residence and an employee of The Public Theater through Creatives Rebuild New York’s (CRNY) Artist Employment Program, an initiative of the Tides Foundation. It’s a two-year residency ending in July 2024, and through it I earn a salary of $65,000, pre-tax, paid by the Tides Foundation, as well as the opportunity to enroll in The Public’s employee healthcare plan, also supported by program funding.
When first starting to discuss plans for Jordans in the fall of 2022, I received an email from The Public outlining the basics of a production timeline and information about pay, letting me know that the standard offer to all playwrights in a given season was a $5,000 option fee (AKA advance) and 5% net-adjusted gross box-office receipts (AKA box-office royalty), starting at the first performance. At the time, I didn’t know much about standard production pay, but even so, that seemed pretty low to me. I spent five years working on a play, it gets picked up by one of the biggest off-Broadway theaters in New York City, and at the end of all that is… $5,000? Umm… no.
So, in January 2023, after talking to my agent, Sam Barickman, we decided to petition The Public to pay playwrights for rehearsal/pre-production time on top of the option fee. As I saw it, this was an unpaid labor issue. Especially for new plays, playwrights are expected to be in auditions and rehearsals and are not compensated for that time, while other artists in the rehearsal room are. In conversations with general management and other folks at the theater, we were met with repeated resistance from multiple sources, largely centering around the (manipulative) argument that because I was already receiving a salary through my residency, I shouldn’t be pushing for an increase in production pay because I didn’t need or deserve the “extra” money. Never mind that the money for my salary comes from the Tides Foundation, not The Public! But more generally, it represented an effort to take a collective issue—fair pay for all playwrights—and turn it into an individual issue, then use the specifics of my unique position at The Public to disqualify me from increased pay, thus disqualifying all the other writers I was advocating for from the same. I’m laying this out not to disparage The Public specifically (I’ve endured similar manipulations from other theaters), but to illustrate the difficulties I encountered in this process, and to say that I had to keep pushing past several rounds of disingenuous rejection before I got to the productive conversations. Most playwrights, if they even ask for more, accept the first “no” as the final answer. Really, that’s where the conversation starts. If Sam and I had accepted the first five nos we were given, this increase never would have happened. I’ll add as caveats that my status as artist-in-residence/employee made it easier for me to engage in difficult conversations because it lowered my fear of retaliation from the theater, and it also gave me the ability to call certain meetings I may not have been able to call if I were engaging from the outside solely as a playwright. However, I have had similar conversations about pay with theaters even when I wasn’t in residence and was able to, alongside my peers, get increases in reading and development pay at the Bushwick Starr, Ars Nova, and Manhattan Theatre Club, all in 2022. These kinds of pay increases typically and unfortunately don’t happen without some degree of conflict, and we as writers who are currently legally prohibited from unionizing need to learn to embrace productive and even uncomfortable conflict if we want to see meaningful changes in our pay and working conditions.
After those months of obstacles and obfuscation, I expressed my concerns about the tenor of the conversations I was having—in a series of strongly-worded emails and a Zoom meeting—to my residency supervisors at The Public, Jack Moore and Amrita Ramanan in the New Work Department. Following that, Amrita set up a meeting for the two of us with Jeremy Adams in General Management, during which I was able to make the case for rehearsal payments for playwrights with prep and hard numbers from Sam. From there, things turned around. Jeremy heard me out, and then he and a small brain trust of folks at The Public including Jack, Amrita, Sarah Lunnie, Joe Hetterly, Chantal Easterling, and Cody Johnson helped put together an entirely new payment proposal based on what we had learned from a document Jeremy made comparing The Public’s overall rates to theaters with similar budgets in the city (“similar” being used loosely—The Public’s budget is larger than its peers by far). The new Public proposal was: $15,000 option fee against royalty, $3,000 preproduction fee, $2,000 health insurance reimbursement, and 5% box-office royalty starting at the first performance. This new model was based on what we learned about the payment structure at Playwrights Horizons, another nonprofit theater in Manhattan. At the time we checked, Playwrights was paying a few hundred dollars more for both the preproduction fee and the health insurance fee, and 6% box-office royalty against advance. At the time of this writing I cannot confirm that this is still their current payment structure, but it was at least for the previous season when Jeremy inquired in April 2023. In addition to our financial proposal, we also proposed a yearly review of playwright compensation at The Public so that rates wouldn’t go ignored for so long ever again.
After we had the official proposal, we took it to Oskar Eustis, the Artistic Director of the Public, to get his support so that he and Jeremy could present it to other members of the leadership team and board as part of the official 2023-24 budget and establish it as the new payment model moving forward. It was during this meeting with Oskar, Jeremy, and Amrita where I learned that The Public had not reviewed or updated their playwright payment compensation model in twelve years. That means playwrights were getting paid the same amount in 2011 as they were in 2023. Actually, they were getting a lot less, because economic inflation means that $5,000 in 2011 is approximately $3,600 in 2023 (according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI Inflation Calculator). Oskar was ultimately supportive of the increase and the proposal moved forward.
From that point on we were in a bit of a waiting game, desperate for updates from Jeremy about approval before the budget deadline on June 30th. We finally got the email on June 26th that the increase would go into effect for all the productions in the upcoming season. This means that my projected pay for Jordans goes from around $12,500 (based on The Public’s internal box-office calculations and past plays), to at least $20,000. This is still not enough in my opinion, but it is a very significant and meaningful change to me and will be to many other playwrights with productions at the Public now and in the future. And the overall change comes at very little additional cost to The Public—under $40,000 for the whole season.
While I am happy and proud that we got the increase, this scenario is a perfect example of the ways that, without the right to collectively bargain through a union, playwrights get left behind when it comes to compensation and so much more. But, it’s also a great illustration of the ways that we can and absolutely should still be advocating for ourselves and each other. I’m very aware of the fact that this is an incredibly precarious time financially for theaters and live arts presenting venues across the country, and there are people who think we shouldn’t be asking for more money in these conditions. I respectfully and vehemently disagree. Playwright compensation is not the reason why theaters are struggling. Even when The Public was flourishing in the Hamilton years, they were still paying playwrights $5,000. Even when theaters have done well they still pay playwrights nothing, so any suggestion that we should wait until things are better or more financially stable for them before we ask for what we deserve is complete bullshit. If you cannot pay the artists whose work your institution is built on, it’s time to throw in the towel because you are failing your mission at its core and robbing artists of their livelihoods. It’s time for theaters to pay up, but they’re not going to do it on their own. Now is the time for playwrights to take a stand and make them.
If you take anything away from this writing:
• Do not sign anything unless you know how much you’re getting paid (this goes for reading/development as well as production opportunities!).
• Do not let a theater announce your upcoming production without knowing how much you’re getting paid. I can’t tell you the number of conversations I’ve had with peers with upcoming productions at major New York theaters who, mere weeks before rehearsals were to start, couldn’t tell me how much they were making. Theaters should be offering this information freely and early, but if they don’t, we have to ask and find out. The only reason I was able to engage in this negotiation process with the Public was because they told me what the offer was far in advance, giving Sam and me enough time to strategize and ask for more before the following year’s budget was finalized and before they announced the season’s shows.
• Talk to your peers about how much they’re making, ask for more money, and don’t take no for an answer! And when you’re successful in getting more money from a theater, tell your friends about it and make sure they don’t accept less. Every individual win is a collective win for everyone who comes after you!
• My agent Sam was a true partner in this fight, and the model of what a good theatre agent should be doing. If your agent isn’t advocating for more for you every time you’re presenting your work, what are they there for? Put your agent to work or get a new one.
• If you don’t have an agent, you can still advocate for yourself! I didn’t have a theatre agent for all of 2022, which is when I got the reading payment increases from three theaters. Just be firm and persistent!
• What you are asking for is not unreasonable, it is necessary. Don’t let anyone convince you that you’re doing too much. We’re just trying to survive.
• Conflict is often necessary. Both you and the theater should be able to hold conflict about business matters without making it personal. Don’t be afraid of confrontation. Stand firm in what you know is right.
• These things often take many months. Stay in it for the duration.
• Change is possible! I just did it, and you can too.
READ: We Are Creative Professional Workers: How to Enhance the Rights of Dramatists Working in America
READ: Fighting for Collective Bargaining Rights - Our Letter To Congress
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