On May 31, playwright Larissa FastHorse shared her “thoughts for theatres regarding playwrights and the great reopening” on Facebook. It was a provocative post that spoke to the heart of the mission of the DG Best Practices Committee. In it, FastHorse outlined the many ways that playwrights are overlooked when it comes to planning, caretaking, and—not least of all—budgeting for productions. To wit:
- actors frequently make more money than the playwright, despite putting in the same hours at rehearsal
- actors get paid for travel, ground transportation, and occasional food per diems, and playwrights don’t
- if actors work long enough, they get insurance, and playwrights don’t
These, says FastHorse, are basics. “I spent a lot of my career hiding that I could not afford the luggage fees so I did carry on, I couldn't afford the taxi to the hotel so I walked miles or took a bus that took an hour, I could not afford to be reimbursed for a hotel room so I pretended I wanted to stay on a friend's couch, I signed up for endless free trial weeks at gyms and yoga studios because I needed to work out after rehearsal, I begged actors for rides to get groceries because the playwright isn’t on the company car list, I couldn’t go out to dinner or drinks with the actors because they were getting paid for rehearsal time and I was not,” FastHorse wrote. “Playwrights aren't connected to HR (we rarely even get a swipe card to get in the building) so I’ve heard many stories of playwrights being sexually harassed and having no idea where to go for help or the ability to get to the office without asking the abuser to swipe them in. Yes, there are others who have it worse in our field, but this is the position I know about.”
As chair of the Best Practices committee, it was hard to read this and not be moved to action. In the past, our committee had focused on guidelines, treatment, and general #playwrightrespect for festivals and contests, i.e. the business end of selection of work and playwright participation with its presentation. This post was enough for me to reconvene the committee to address these oversights and figure out ways to advocate for #playwrightrespect when it comes to the more human needs involved with that participation.
As FastHorse suggests in her post, there are easy and inexpensive fixes for the situations she describes. “A board sponsor is a great one I’ve heard,” she writes. “They give the playwright rides and guest passes to their gym and make sure they get fed. Everyone can give the playwright access to the building and introduce them to the HR folks in the office. Pay them for rehearsal time. Give them money for health insurance. Give them one extra day in housing to arrive and get settled instead of taking them from the plane to rehearsal to home without any groceries or a way to get them. It always falls on the overworked company manager to realize that the playwright needs a ride to the store at 10 p.m.”
While I don’t disagree with any of these, it’s important to acknowledge that the majority of Dramatists Guild members are being produced at smaller theatres with limited means. While we would love all the compensations she mentions, we’d like to suggest a baseline mindset of treating the playwright as an invited friend. Would you not provide that person with airport transfers, a means of transportation, food, guest passes to your gym, an invitation to dinner, etc.? The best situations I’ve traveled to—even for the smallest of theatres—were the ones where I felt like I was treated as a welcome houseguest.
These situations are more egregious when a playwright’s presence is required for a particular opportunity, which is understandable—developing new plays works best with the playwright in the room—but few to no accommodations are made to facilitate that. In the Zoom world, this means including playwrights in discussions about rehearsal and performance schedules/conflicts and talking about director options, etc., i.e. don’t exclude playwrights from the entire process and then tell them what time they’re expected at the talkback (common practice in this virtual era).
In person, I was once accepted into a presence-required opportunity that paid a $100 stipend that barely covered my rental car and gas. Seeking a hotel room at peak season, I found nothing nearby for less than $300 a night. I finally asked if there were a board member who could put me up and that’s what happened. Turns out, the actors were all being put up already, but nobody considered the playwright. Happily, this opp now routinely offers accommodations to the playwright; it had just never occurred to them before. We need to start asking.
At the end of the day, we want the same perks, attention, and courtesy as other artistic participants, and that it not cost us money to be part of the development of our own work. And that if we do decide to invest in our plays by spending money on airfare that the theatres do all they can to ensure that’s all we’re paying for. We understand that small houses don’t have deep financial resources but they do have people resources; if you care enough about the play to develop and/or produce it, care about the person who provided it. There is so much value in thoughtfulness and low-to-no-cost courtesy.
“I am very privileged now, but the majority of my career in mid and small houses, I fought for these basic things because there isn’t a system in place for playwrights,” FastHorse concluded. “When the reopen happens, please remember the playwright.”
Did the theatre that produced your work make you feel welcomed? What are the current Best Practices used by producers?: Getting a production of your work is a great accomplishment. It is validating no matter what stage you are in your career. Now that theatres across the country are starting to re-open, the Dramatists Guild wants to know about your time working with a theatre on your production. How was the experience? Did the theatre make you feel welcomed? Would you do something different in the future? We're interested in collecting data from across the United States about how theatres do business with dramatists. The following survey will ask you about an individual production at a theatre. The survey will take anywhere from five to twenty minutes, depending on your responses. You will have the opportunity to add up to five different productions. We’ll ask you about the level of production, number of performances, options the theatre offered, or were negotiated, and then you’ll have the opportunity to tell us in your own words about your experience. Your answers will be invaluable to helping us create new programming and resources for our membership. The input we receive is anonymous, and you are in no way obligated to share any identifying information, such as the name of the theatre. We simply want to hear from our members what it’s like working in the American theatre today.
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