CarPER DIEM: How Authors Working in Theatre [do not] Get Paid for Their Time

Imagine showing up to work every day for hours on end and then, when payday comes, all of your co-workers get paychecks, but you do not. Sounds like a nightmare, right? Unfortunately for authors working in theatre, this is not just a bad dream…it’s reality.

still life photo of a calculator, pen, receipts, and eyeglasses sitting on a wooden table

The Problem

Dramatists have a different set of circumstances than their creative colleagues on a theatrical production due to their status as independent contractors. Without a union that can collectively bargain on their behalf, dramatists must negotiate their compensation on an individual basis, whereas, the cast, designers, director, and choreographer, who are represented by their respective unions, are afforded compensation based on collectively bargained agreements that the producer must abide by in order to work with them. While this disparate treatment of dramatists has become the standard practice in the theatre industry, it does not mean that it is equitable.

The dramatist’s creative colleagues typically receive a weekly rate compensating them for their time and labor spent in rehearsal. If the production is out of town, they will receive housing, travel reimbursements, and per diems as well. Then, after the show opens, they receive additional weekly compensation, either as a royalty or flat fee.

The author, on the other hand, may get a lump sum prior to rehearsals, but this is a recoupable advance against their future royalties, not payment for time and labor. The author will not get paid again until they start receiving royalties from performances. In some cases, when the run of a show is relatively short, the author may not get paid until 30 days after the close of those performances. Now, this model would make some sense if the author were merely licensing the rights to their show with no intention or requirement to be part of the creative process. However, if an author wants to exercise their contractual right to be present, and to otherwise exercise their approval rights with regard to the production, or if the author is required to be present to make revisions in their work, then the costs to do so should be covered by that production. Otherwise, these authorial rights are “rights” in name only and only those authors with sufficient resources can afford to exercise their rights. This is a discriminatory process that penalizes authors who can’t afford to bear such costs and functions as a systemic barrier to entry for those in historically underrepresented communities.

How DG Is Addressing the Problem 

The Best Practices Committee at the Dramatists Guild has been investigating this question as part of the larger conversation regarding the best practices for non-profit and regional theatres. This is because, very often, non-profit and regional theatres are presenting the first production and/or the world premiere of an author’s work and either the theatre requires the author be present or the author wants to exercise their right to be present.

What we’ve been able to establish thus far is that, while it might not be standard for authors to be paid a weekly sum for their time and labor during the production process, authors are often offered stipends (called “per diems”) as well as travel reimbursements and housing accommodations during the production process. The problem, however, is that when per diems, travel reimbursements, and housing accommodations are included in a production contract, they are heavily negotiated and can vary widely from author to author and contract to contract. Therefore, the Best Practices Committee is working to create a set of guidelines based on industry practice that authors can use when negotiating with theatres to be included in the Best Practices Guide for Nonprofits and Regional Theatres.

How You CAn Help

This is only the beginning of the conversation. We hope to release the Best Practices Guide for Non-Profits and Regional Theatres in early 2023. However, in order to do that, we need to hear from you! A Best Practices Guide is only effective if we have a clear understanding of all of the issues facing our members who are working in these spaces, not just the issues surrounding compensation and/or expense reimbursement. A few of the topics we are interested in learning more about are:

Your experiences working in theatres outside of your home state/city and whether there were efforts made by the theatre to include you in their community;

Your experiences in exercising your approval rights over artistic personnel and script revisions; and

Issues related to a theatre’s request for submission fees, subsidiary rights, and/or future production options.

This is not an exhaustive list, and we invite you to share your experiences surrounding these topics, as well as any other experiences working in non-profit and regional theatres that may be relevant. Please reach out to us to share your experiences by emailing us at questions@dramatistsguild.com.

In the meantime, we encourage all our members to advocate for the inclusion of per diems, travel reimbursement, and housing accommodations when they are negotiating their production contracts—particularly when the author’s presence is not just permitted but required.

Remember, you can always reach out to the BA Career Help Desk with questions, and you can submit your unsigned contracts for review.

Jessica Lit
Jessica Lit

is thrilled to join the Dramatists Guild as the Director of Business Affairs, a job she truly considers a dream come true! Born and raised in Charlotte, NC, Jessica is a New York-based attorney with a passion for empowering artists of diverse backgrounds and disciplines to take control of their careers by educating them about their legal rights. She recently decided to channel that passion into launching a solo practice, The Lit Esquire PLLC, aimed at doing just that.