Compensation, Part One: Commissions, Advances, Per Diem, Royalties

In this edited transcript, discover how writers have been getting compensated at different stages of the production process. You can also watch the video of the full panel discussion at the end of this article.

Three monochromatic photos merged together showing Roger Q Mason, Lauren Gunderson, and Diana Burbano
Roger Q. Mason, Lauren Gunderson, and Diana Burbano

Ralph Sevush: We’re gonna talk about money: the dirty little secret of the industry. The last time there was any kind of systemic look at the way dramatists are paid was a book, Outrageous Fortune by Todd London [with Ben Pesner and Zannie Giraud Voss],* but that’s thirteen years old at this point and [we] need [current] facts to use for advocacy and to offer you information about what is standard and what is not.

Today, we’re talking about the kind of compensation that playwrights and musical theatre writers get from the productions of their work. That includes options, advances, commissions, royalties, (sometimes) net profits, and other fees relevant to the production process.

Let’s start at the beginning. The playwright is the only one who starts with the blank piece of paper—the blank screen and the little cursor blinking at you demanding to be fed—and you’re not paid anything.

You have no labor union. You have no collective bargaining. You have no health insurance. You have no pension. You have no commitment from anyone to even read your work, much less produce it.

That’s the world you are crazy enough to launch yourself into, and I salute that courage. I also encourage you, as people who do that, to recognize that you do that, and to honor that. So, let’s start at the beginning: the blank piece of paper. Sometimes, like I said, you’re getting paid nothing. But sometimes, you get a commission to write something.

Just to define the term, a “commission” is a fee for services. It is paid either by commercial producer or nonprofit theatre producer. It is a fee paid to a writer so that they can spend their time, their skill, their expertise, to write something that the producer or theatre wants to be written, rather than something you would have chosen to write for yourself. It is a fee for your time, your labor, your skill. It is not an advance against royalties and it’s not a license.

It is not any of those other things. It is a fee for labor. So, I’d like to open it to the panel. [Have] you had experiences with commissions and what were those experiences like?

Lauren Gunderson:  I’ve come to a point in my career where I am both incredibly grateful for commissions but do see some of the limitations that they place on you. A commission is an incredible gift. Well, it’s not a gift. It’s an agreement.

It’s saying, “I believe in you.” And the other parts, besides money that you get, are support. Especially for nonprofits—their literary team, team of dramaturgs, conversations with directors—they often include at least one or two phases after you turn it in. Usually, one of those phases is a chat with the artistic director or the literary team so that they say, “We read it. We have some questions. Maybe this. Maybe that. What do you think?”

Usually, that spurs something in me to do one more pass or polish, or at least gives the option to do that. I can also say, “No. It’s good,” and that’s fine. And usually, there’s also some sort of reading that comes after that, which, for me, is so critical, because there’s only so much you can learn when it’s just you and the computer, you and the page.

So, as soon as you have actors in the room, their ideas, their questions—all of that is so immensely valuable, and part of what I treasure about a commission is that that’s built into the process. So, yes, the money is wonderful, and we can talk specifics. I’ve been paid, through my career, a very big range of fees.

Ralph Sevush: Give us your best and worst.

Lauren Gunderson:  All right. Early on, it was probably $1,000 for a TYA touring play. When I was a baby writer, that $1,000 was a lot of money. I took it also in that dangerous way of like, “Oh, but the experience I’ll get.” That’s a dangerous thing when somebody’s like, “But you’ll get such great experience or exposure or connections.”

Can’t pay the rent, so we need that money. But it did give me a chance to prove what I can do and a little bit of money, and a great relationship with that theatre. And it went really well, and it toured all over. I was living in Georgia at the time, then it toured in California, so that was great.

That was probably the lowest, excluding little ten-minute plays or monologues you write for events or something like that, which happens every now and then for me. Nowadays, sometimes a commission can be upwards of $20,000-$25,000 for a full-length play, so it can be a very big chunk of money, which I feel like I have earned over writing for the last twenty years. When I get that commission, I’m like, “Great. This buys a year of my life to work on this play, to research it, to spend that time, to mess up, to fix it, to ask questions, to learn.” So, if you think about it like that, like, $1,000 for a year of your life—not good enough.

Ralph Sevush:  Not so much.

Lauren Gunderson: $25,000? Okay. I mean, I’m worth so much more than that, but yeah, that’s a pretty great thing. And for so many of us, that’s like, massive, and that’s life-changing.

Diana Burbano: I have had a range of commissions. I’ve been working on a piece for Hero Theatre. It’s a relatively low commission, but they took me to Colombia for a two-week, all-expense paid research trip that was an important part of the process and, I love to travel. So, it’s not for everybody, but it certainly worked for me.

My commissions have ranged the same as Lauren. For ten-minute [plays] and monologues, maybe $500, and at the top range, I’ve had $10,000. But the problem, I think, over the pandemic—and it’s a good problem to have—was that theatres were giving playwrights commissions because people had time to sit at home and write. And what happens is you say “Yes” to everything. I was looking at my work board, and there were seven or eight projects that are all in different stages of non-completion. Commissions are fantastic. But you also need to be mindful of what you can accomplish and whether you’ll be able to finish what you set out to do.

Ralph Sevush: Right. That’s a really good point. Sometimes, the commission becomes the sort of Damocles, and you’re living under this constant pressure. It’s a fact of life for any freelance artist to try and keep all those balls in the air.

Roger Q. Mason: In addition to being freelancers, we’re folks who are making this work sometimes on our own volition and may or may not have a commission for it.

We are storytellers. And what we do—not only for theatres, but for society at large—is priceless. So, when we get any kind of commission, it is a pittance compared to the true civic and aesthetic work of what we’re contributing to society. And I think, before we sit down with that page, the most important thing we need to do is recognize that we are worthy and that we are essential. So, that is what goes on in my head before I even put pen to paper or finger to keyboard.

Because I know that this is a story that’s worth the attention and the affirmation, but also, a piece that can help people in some way, whether it’s just folks saying, “I see myself in that experience” or “I never knew that before.” Whatever the cultural value is, the work is doing something for society. So, when it comes to money, therefore, I’m not looking at it from a perspective of looking to these theatres to give me what I know it’s worth, ‘cause you could never truly pay what it’s worth: twenty years of experience that led up to this moment. We just want to come up with a number that’s fair to the scope of the work and what the expectation of the theatre is. They’re paying for a part of your year.

Don’t let them take your whole year from you. They’re paying for a part of your mind, and they are retaining your services as a thought leader for a period of time whose scope you define. You determine, based on how much they’re paying you, how much effort and work you’re going to put into this, and don’t go into it thinking, “Oh, I’ve gotta slave away ‘cause this theatre and getting this commission is what’s gonna make me.” You are already made. You are already brilliant.

In terms of numbers, you know, the bread and butter of the Corona years has been smaller commissions. So, I’ve taken gigs for smaller things that have been a couple of hundred dollars. I think the smallest one was about $150. The largest one was about $500 for ten-minute pieces. For a full-length play, I established a couple of years ago a minimum of $5,000.

I can’t do a piece that’s less than that. That number has since expired. The price has gone up very severely since then. The numbers I’m looking at now—and I can’t say exactly the number, ‘cause there’s an active project that I’m doing—but it’s between the numbers that Diana and Lauren have stated. And I think $25,000, which is what Lauren has said, is a fine amount of money to compensate a writer for a first draft with a guaranteed read and a conversation.

And Lauren, I really love what you were saying. I just want to add one thing to it: to really take these theatres up and to see if they’re interested in either producing the work or in building a network of support for you with other theatres that might be interested in its further life. They have started this story. They can’t just leave you in the street barefoot with no hope and no prospects

Of course, they could say, “We don’t know anybody. Screw you. You got your money. Go home.” In the best case, either they produce the work, or they introduce you to somebody else who might be a better fit, and now you’ve started building a life for the aftermath of that commission.

Lauren Gunderson: One other thing, for folks out there engaging in their first commission—or their tenth or twelfth—is there are two ways to think about a commission. Are you writing your next play, or are you writing a play for that theatre?

And either one is a totally valid choice. I tend to really think about “What would this theatre produce? What have they produced before? What haven’t they?” And maybe I can write that new thing that makes them challenge their audience, bring them to a new place.

Because, frankly, they’re more likely to get you to that next place—that first production, that premiere—which could be a rolling world premiere, which could be a co-production. So, the business savvy part of me tries to think, “What would South Coast Rep or the Goodman or Denver Center—what [will] likely [make them want] to say, ‘We’re so glad we commissioned this. We want to premiere it, and we’re going to champion it, and put it in our new play weekend.’” The commission is step one, but that trigger is flipped when the premiere production happens or is included in a big new play reading thing or something. But that’s [deeper] into the conversation about commissions and how to keep that going.

Diana Burbano:  Talking about the play you want to write versus the play the theatre wants you to write—often, the commissions I get are not the play I am craving to write. [Since] I’m a Latinx femme and theatres are trying to diversify, the plays end up as a staged reading, but not necessarily [fully produced] in the season.

Sometimes, I take the gig because I want to get paid. And I know that particular theatre isn’t going to move forward, unless I write it a certain way and that might not be the kind of writing I want to do. So, it really is a balance of when do you write to get paid and when do you write because it’s a passion project?

Roger Q. Mason: I’mma be real with y’all. I’m a very particular flavor on the page, so the types of places that are going to commission me are the ones that know what they’re getting into. Typically, people are coming to me saying, “We want that Roger Q. Mason play and we know there’s a certain narrative”—structural elements I’ve become known for—and people are looking to commission a piece around that. So, inevitably, each of these plays, for me, ends up becoming a combination of what I know the theatre will want to program, and what I want to write in terms of elements that I bring that are quite colorful and unique to what I do. [Laughs]

Ralph Sevush: From a contractual point of view, commissions are often what are called “step deals,” that is, you get paid in installments. You get paid up front, you get paid a percentage of the fee when you submit a draft. They will have a period of time to review the draft and make comments, which you, as a playwright, are free to reject. But there’s generally a second draft, so you would be paid another amount. Sometimes, they’ll pay it all at once, but that’s a rare situation.

Commissions are also paid by commercial producers, particularly with regard to musicals. A commercial producer will acquire the underlying rights to a property and then commission bookwriter, composer, lyricist to adapt that property. And it is often done in steps. The thing to be careful about with commissions, from a money point of view, is you don’t want it being treated as an advance.

A lot of theatres and producers try to do that. They try and make it an amount that’s recoupable against your future royalties if they produce the play. That’s a no-no. It’s a payment for part of year, as Diana and Lauren and Roger were saying. They’re buying your time.

Whether they produce the play or not is a separate matter entirely. But they paid for the expertise and the life of work that you’ve done up until that moment that made them choose you to offer a commission to. So, please, don’t confuse those things. They are not buying the play. It is not a work for hire.

It is simply a fee for time, for your services, for your labor. These contracts will also generally have an option for the theatre to then produce the play, so that’s a second step in this process. As Roger said, some of these places will commission without producing your work. They do that because they can fundraise and get grants and subscribers because they’re the kind of theatre that commissions new writers or commissions writers of color or commissions whatever they feel like they can raise money on. But it becomes a dead end.

It becomes a play that doesn’t necessarily go anywhere. And remember, you have a finite commodity: your time. So, any time you’re spending writing this without having any emotional investment or belief, at least, that it could generate future revenue, it is time you’ll never get back. So, you better make sure that that fee is worth it. But let’s talk about those options and advances now.

The theatre that commissions you may have in their contract the right to option the play, to pay you money, to reserve exclusive right to produce the play for a period of time. This option is a form of advance. It’s not the only form of advance, but it is a form of advance. It is an advance against your future royalties. So, here, instead of buying labor, they’re buying time. Not your time, but the work’s time: the exclusive opportunity to produce this play.

Advances are another step of the option. That is when the show actually goes into production, or they raise the money for it, or they’ve cast it and they’ve gone into rehearsal.

At that point, they may be paying you an additional amount of money. That’s also an advance against royalties. It’s less common with nonprofit theatres to pay both an option and an advance. They’re usually going to pay one or the other. But commercial commissions will do both.

So, let’s talk about your experiences with options and advances. How often are those part of your deal and what’s the range of them? And how are they treated, Lauren?

Lauren Gunderson:  Advances, for me, have usually shown up in publishing, where you get a chunk [of cash] to publish the play and that is definitely recoupable from getting licensing fees from people. So, I might see [a] $10,000 [advance] for the right to publish Miss Bennet, for example. [Over time], that’ll get chipped away, and then, they let me know, “We’ve got it all back. We’re gonna pay you money again.” So, that’s usually where I fit.

The option has been a part of most world premiere productions of mine where, once I’ve turned in the draft and we’ve gone through the steps—maybe it’s a conversation with them and then a reading…[then] there’s some negotiation. “Well, we have a play that’s like that this season, but could we please wait for next season?” That’s a conversation with my agents that I’m peripherally involved in, but that’s usually where those options come in. It’s usually a year between [the commission and] when it’s like, “All right. I’m done writing for now and I will rewrite and continue to learn if we go into production.” But it’s an either/or route. Are you doing it or not doing it?

Ralph Sevush:  Great. Diana, any thoughts about those up-front monies?

Diana Burbano:  I work with Artists Rep up in Portland, and they actually said, “We want you to write whatever you want to write, and we’d love to support you while you’re writing it.”

That relationship is an interesting one, because Dámaso Rodriguez nurtured my play, Beheading Columbus, through COVID by paying me for my labor as a company member, which means I also get readings with actors about every six months. They’re always interested in what’s going on with the play, but there’s not been a promise made that there’s going to be a production. I was on payroll specifically to support that work. As a matter of fact, I’m going to Portland to work with them on a staged reading of it with actors that I’ve been working with online.

So, it’s a different model, but it’s certainly valuable for a play that I’m excited about. It’s not life changing money, but I’m a member of a company, which makes me feel a part of something bigger than just my play. And I love that. The Public Theater of San Antonio’s doing the same [with] my play Fabulous Monsters using the Artists Rep model. They are a smallish theatre, but they’re interested in doing Latinx work, and they are nurturing this piece and in a way that I find incredibly valuable, because I haven’t had that boost before, you know? I feel like it’s going to help raise my visibility. I’m still in that phase where I need to get my work seen, but I won’t do things for free. It’s a little bit of a catch-22 in that way, but I do appreciate the support I get it.

Ralph Sevush: Do they treat it as an advance or as a fee?

Diana Burbano:  They treat it like a paycheck.

Ralph Sevush:  Okay.

Diana Burbano:  It’s a paycheck. It’s like you’re a company member.

Ralph Sevush:  Yeah. That’s great. Because the complaint I hear from writers, even on Broadway, is they’re sitting in the rehearsal room and the company manager comes in with the checks to pay the actors and everybody and everybody in the room gets a check and you’re sitting there and you’re the one who wrote it. Nothing for you.

Diana Burbano:  Yeah. And you have nothing for groceries that night. No kidding.

Ralph Sevush:  Right.

Diana Burbano:  That’s why I love Artists Rep. It’s very holistic that way.

Roger Q. Mason:  First of all, that play sounds amazing. I would love to read it someday—Beheading Columbus.

It has happened to me, too, where I’m in a development situation with a company that’s paying me already, but [the play] is being revised, and they are specifically earmarking those monies as finishing grant monies for the script knowing that that’s different from the money received when it goes into production. And I have done a couple of things [where] there is some kind of advance, knowing that there will be royalties that that gets deducted from. The range of those sort of depends on the capacity of the theatre.

Some theatres will give you a couple thousand bucks; some of them will just make it a higher percentage of box office. Ralph, correct me if I’m wrong, but at the intimate theatre level—usually, 99 seat—there isn’t a set percentage that is established for writers to ask for. Is that generally true?

Ralph Sevush: I’m sorry. You mean a percentage—

Roger Q. Mason:  Box office sales.

Ralph Sevush:  Box office is different. There is actually a way to calculate an appropriate option or advance. If you want to think about it in these terms, what would be the equivalent of one week’s royalties at that theatre, given their ticket price, given their seating capacity, given your royalty rate? Assumingly sold out, a week’s worth of performances, what kind of royalty would you run?

That’s a way of backing into an option or advance number, or at least estimating what might be a fair advance—a minimum, at least.

Roger Q. Mason: That’s useful.

Ralph Sevush:  So, no, while it’s not a given percentage, it’s just a way to look at it. But it’s money they’re going to get reimbursed out of your royalties, so let’s talk about those royalties.

I just want to contextualize, before we move on, under the Broadway contract—[which] becomes an industry model—advances for a play are only $5,000. That’s a number that was calculated and negotiated in 1987. It’s changed a little bit, but not a lot. Advances are much more when the show gets catalyzed and goes in rehearsals—then, another $30,000 to $35,000.

But all that, as I said, is calculated and recouped against royalties. Now, royalty rates obviously vary, but in my experience, it’s generally been in the five to ten percent range of gross box office receipts. I’d like to know what you all have experienced or other ways that it may have been calculated for you. Lauren?

Lauren Gunderson:  Yeah. That sounds about right. Musicals are different, so that’s when it’s split two or three ways and I have to do that math, because I’m used to between five and eight percent. I think that’s usually what I get. Musicals, if it’s [my] book, we share lyrics credit, and my collaborator [composes music], then we just split the royalties.

If it’s three [separate writers], then it’s [split] three [ways]. If my collaborator does music and lyrics, they get two-thirds, I get one-third, but that’s also negotiable. If they wrote music and lyrics but I came up with the whole story and everything, it’s more like half and half, because two-thirds doesn’t quite sound like it covers the whole idea and generation, all that stuff. So, that’s my kind of spread.

Ralph Sevush:  And with musicals, you tend to see like, six percent, because two, two, and two, you know?

Lauren Gunderson: Right.

Ralph Sevush:  Diana, any thoughts on royalty or ways you’ve been paid for the licensing of the work?

Diana Burbano:  Yeah, I think a few payments I received during pandemic were for the streaming rights, because it was sort of hard to figure out royalties, tickets sales, et cetera. This was specifically for a college production. We agreed on a fee per show. It’s interesting, because like we are all saying, it’s all negotiable, right? And if you are smart about what you want and where you feel you need to be compensated, you can negotiate things and shouldn’t be afraid to try, even if you’re a neophyte.

Ralph Sevush: That’s right. And that kind of “flat fee” payment is really common with the amateur market if you’re licensing to schools, community theatres, camps, et cetera. They’re used to paying a fee per performance.

Diana Burbano:  Right. But you can also hold back things like premiere rights and make sure they call it a workshop and put that in the contract as well. And that way, you can have your work done. When you get a production offer you might be a bit overwhelmed, but you really have to think about those things. You don’t want to give a college the full premiere rights to do your show just because they’re paying you. I’m glad we’re talking about this, because it really is a lot to think about when you’re trying to negotiate your own contracts if you don’t have an agent. It’s not that everybody wants to take advantage of you, it’s just that there are a lot of moving parts.

Ralph Sevush: Yeah. And that’s one reason why the Guild has a Business Affairs department, and you can call and talk about that very subject and talk to people who’ve looked at a lot of contracts and know a lot of ways that these things are calculated or determined. In terms of flat rate, you can also calculate that based on their seating capacity, ticket sales, and what would be a royalty if you were getting a full gross royalty, and then, take half of that as a flat rate or some percentage of that. Or you could do a flat rate versus a percentage. There are lots of ways to do this.

But has anybody ever asked any of you to be paid not on the gross box office receipts, but on weekly net operating profits—what they call a royalty pool or profit pool or just on weekly profits? There’s a lot of different terms for it, but what they all mean is, “We’ll give you a percentage of the week’s profits, not the week’s gross. So, we’re gonna deduct all the costs in producing the show, and then, we’ll give you a percentage of what’s left.” In a profit pool on Broadway, you would get between twenty to 25% of the net profits. Musical writers will get between fifteen and eighteen percent.

I don’t think it’s very common in the nonprofit world. How would you even figure out what their expenses are? They could claim all kinds of things into the expenses that have to do with the running of the institution, not just the production of your play. So, it would be really difficult to do that.

Lauren Gunderson:  Certainly with published plays, there are contracts that go through the licensing agent, as well as my agent, so there are people [saying], “No. We’re not gonna mess around with how we do things.”

Ralph Sevush: We’ll discuss stock and amateur licensing [later], but right now, we’re still talking about that commissioned play that you option and got produced in first theatre, and what did they pay you?

Roger Q. Mason: I just want to point out [a] comment in the chat asserting that some theatres are interested in taking advantage of people. I want to highlight that that was stated, and that we don’t want to be argumentative or skeptical, because ultimately, we’re in this craft for the passion and the joy of doing it.

The other thing I think that’s important is that we are freelancers. I was on a panel a month or so ago where an artistic administrator said something really quite profound. She said, “You guys are out here on a limb with no insurance, with a story in your pocket, looking to us. We’re salary administrators at a nonprofit organization, so we ultimately have the responsibility to respect you and your time, because you guys are out here on the hub [while] we’re gonna be fine next month.”

Ralph Sevush: You’ve raised a point that I just had to say something about. I was having a business lunch with a prominent Broadway-produced writer, the executive director of a major institutional theatre, and their company manager. And the writer observed that of all the people sitting at that table, the only one who didn’t make most of their money from theatre was the writer. Everybody else was making a very good living off the theatre, and the playwright was writing screenplays and television and teaching, even though he’d had four other Broadway plays.

Roger Q. Mason:  Yeah. Right.

Ralph Sevush:  So, Roger, [what is] your experience with royalties on initial productions you’ve had. Have there been variations—?

Roger Q. Mason: I’ll be honest with you. I start at ten, knowing that they’re gonna chip it down, and I just see how far down we go. And I know that my floor is five.

And I just calculate it from there. I usually end up in the middle. I will say this: smaller institutions or institutions that are run from this very altruistic place, that are really genuinely interested in developing playwrights—they’re happy to pay you a little bit more because they respect your time. [And] some of these institutions [are] trying to chip it down.

And it’s like, the difference between seven and nine, for example. [And maybe] you’re running a house of 99 or 100 or 120 seats at $30 a seat, so it’s miniscule. It’s really just ego for them. “Oh, I got this number.” So, you have to be firm. If you don’t have an agent who can be the bad cop, you have to be very firm and assertive and know your worth. That’s where that first statement that I said actually comes in handy, ‘cause it’s not just atmospheric. Yes, it’s preaching, but what you’ve got when you go in that room is your sense of self-worth, and that’s what you are gonna have to use and call upon, ‘cause people may challenge it and they may test it. So, that’s my number range, know[ing] they’re probably gonna try and chip it down.

Lauren Gunderson:  Nothing happens without the playwright or the bookwriter. Nothing. It all starts with us.

And we know the answers to how the play works because we wrote the dang thing. We don’t know all the answers. We’re there to collaborate. But we know the core answers. We know the why we wrote it [and] what it’s for. We know the big soul of it. We know the big questions [and we know] if you do it right, this play can fly.

But none of that happens without us. And it’s easy to forget that.

You have to remember the tidal wave of brilliance and courage that it took to get to this moment where we can all argue about whether the table needs to be blue or green. So, finding the strength in that, being very aware of what I like to think of as the gratitude tax. “Thank you for choosing it. Thank you for choosing me.” And especially when you’re early on in your career, you’re like, “I’m just so glad to be here. You don’t need to pay me. It’s fine. I’m just so happy to have my name on the billboard.”

And as Roger said, your worth is your worth. And I’m terrible. I hate talking about money. I hate conflict. I love writing it but cannot stand doing it.

This is why I’m not an agent. [If] you feel that way, [you] have to find a way to make it have logical and emotional sense to you so that you can say things that are true to you and not feel like you’re out of your element. “Well, you have to go to fight for yourself.” No. You just have to say true things:

“This is an important thing that I wrote. I spent a lot of time doing it. I spent my own money on the books, the movies I had to see to research it, the conversations, the dinners and the coffees. I took people out to understand the play.”

It’s like teachers paying for their own school supplies. I pay for my own computer, pay for my phone. All that.

Ralph Sevush:  The MFA that you had to pay for.

Lauren Gunderson: The MFA. There’s so much of this to really remind yourselves—you’re the reason. You’re the merry-go-round that everyone else is riding on. For those, like me, who are conflict-avoidant, it’s hard to talk about money and it’s hard to stand up for yourself. That’s why I like to think, ‘Is this true or not true?’ Because I can argue for a true thing.

But [fighting for] my opinion is hard for me, and I just run away. But I have to, because otherwise, they’re gonna chip down that percentage. They should be finding a way to pay you more and the most, not pay you the least. They should pay you like, “You are the reason we’re here. Have all of it.”

Ralph Sevush:  Right. That’s why I started this whole conversation by honoring your courage in facing a blank page. You’re the only one who has to fill it. That’s precisely what we’re talking about, folks: you’re a professional if you demand people treat you professionally. If you are willing to work for free, then you’re not a professional; you’re a hobbyist.

If you’re willing to work for nothing, then other writers have to deal with the fact that you worked for nothing at that theatre and now they have to push back against that. So, there’s an aspect of community involved in charging a fee. Even in the smallest production—they’re probably paying a director. They’re probably paying the actors. Why aren’t you getting at least that? So, if you demand to be treated professionally, then that’s how you’ll be treated.

Let’s talk about other [forms of compensation.] When you’re at a theatre, do you get per diems or expense reimbursements? Diana, you were saying they flew you down to another country to do research. How often does all that happen?

Diana Burbano: I’ve been flown places and fed. I get pretty well taken care of.

Ralph Sevush: Good.

Diana Burbano: I mean, so far. I guess we’ll see if anything changes. Per diem and housing—I think that’s pretty standard. If you don’t [provide] housing when they’re flying you in—ugh.

Ralph Sevush: There are a lot of theatres that don’t reimburse travel and they expect you to show up on your own.

Diana Burbano:  I would never do that. I would say, “No. You gotta bring me in.”

Ralph Sevush: Good to hear.

Lauren Gunderson:  Absolutely. As I get older and older, I’m even upping that ante and being like, “And if it’s over a five-hour flight…”

Ralph Sevush:  Business class.

Lauren Gunderson: Give me the extra room! Business class would be fabulous. Come on, y’all. But it should be bare minimum that they fly you. If they’re doing your play in Texas, you’re like, “Well, is Texas coming to me or are you bringing me to Texas?”

And yes, I’ve done per diem, and I’ve done—the things that I do not expect to be paid for—kind of what I mentioned earlier—like, research stuff. Books. Technology that I need for my own writing. That’s kind of a me thing. Maybe I could make an argument that it’s a them thing, but I don’t. But yes, housing, per diems, and travel are minimum.

Roger Q. Mason: Because some of my work is historically based, I have made sure to ask for dramaturgical support if it’s not [already] provided by the theatre—specifically for the purpose of research. In my experience, I have noticed what Ralph is talking about, where the theatre provides [either] accommodations or travel. That’s the experience I’ve had, but I’m now advocating for a different level of accommodation.

Ralph Sevush: You know, when you’re negotiating these contracts, what you really want is equity. You want to be treated fairly. You don’t want to be treated worse than any other writer that’s been produced there recently. So often, a Favored Nations’ clause gets into your contract: your per diem, your housing, your travel, even [requiring] your royalty and advances or options will be no less than has been paid to any other author that season or in a prior season. So, at least you have a floor.

There was a question about the difference in royalties between workshops and world premieres, but I want to talk about just that concept for a moment. The world premiere is a term of art. It’s something that theatres want to have. It is a commodity that you can sell or monetize in some way. And what you’re saying is this is the first fully professional, fully staged, production in a particular territory for which you’ve been compensated, where the show has run for at least a certain number of performances, and where there’s been an official opening of some sort.

You want there to have been standards met in order for you to give up that commodity of calling it a world premiere. I said before regarding productions with commissions, [theatres] want to be able to say they do world premieres. They want to be able to raise money on that. They want to sell that to a subscriber base and to corporate underwriting and to governmental agencies. That’s their bread and butter.

And to be able to say, “We premiered three shows last season.” It puts them on the map. So, it’s a commodity that you need to value. And if you give it away cheaply, if you give it away for a school production, one night reading, you’ve wasted that value. You must be careful, essentially, and this is a contractual issue. When you get these kinds of contracts, please, run them by the BA department so we can walk you through these things.

Roger Q. Mason:  Sometimes, you must be a little savvy and a little flexible in terms of what that means. You may be in a situation where you have a theatre that is interested in producing the world premiere of [your play]. And you’ve shopped it around to other places and you’re sort of in this limbo with it so, you have to think, “Is it worth it for me to keep the thing on the shelf? Or is this the boost that this product needs in order to generate further interest in it?” And that’s where I think you have to weigh your option and decide if it’s willing to take the bird in hand formula for what is the right answer to that question. Maybe what you need from that piece in the larger context of where you are in your career, because each piece is, in some ways, an encapsulation of a particular moment of your thinking and your way of writing and where you were. If someone wants to produce it and you don’t see any prospects for it being presented in any other format in the foreseeable future, then you might need to take it, and just know that that’s gonna cost you something. And maybe like, two months later, someone says, “Oh, I was going to...” You’re not clairvoyant. You can’t predict those things.

So, it’s just the balance and the sacrifice that you sometimes make. The compromise.

Ralph Sevush: Roger, I can’t agree with you more. The thing that you need to do as a writer is take responsibility. Make informed decisions. You don’t have to get paid a royalty in a particular instance if there are circumstances that warrant you not getting one—that you feel comfortable with. But you have to know what the consequences of that are and be willing to accept those consequences.

*an earlier version of this article failed to include the other authors of the 2009 book Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play.

Diana Burbano
Diana Burbano

is a Colombian immigrant, playwright, and Equity actor. Ghosts of Bogotá was commissioned and debuted at Alter Theater, Feb 2020, Fabulous Monsters opens in 2023 at the Public Theatre of San Antonio, featuring the music of FEA. dianaburbano.com

Lauren Gunderson
Lauren Gunderson

is a playwright, screenwriter, and short story author from Atlanta, GA. She received her BA in English/Creative Writing at Emory University and her MFA in Dramatic Writing at NYU Tisch, where she was also a Reynolds Fellow in Social Entrepreneurship. She has been one of the most produced playwrights in America (American Theatre magazine) since 2015, topping the list thrice including 22/23. www.laurengunderson.com

Roger Q. Mason
Roger Q. Mason

(they/them) was dubbed by Theatremania as “a major voice in the theatrical vanguard.” Their playwriting has played on Broadway (Circle Series); off/off-off-Broadway; and regionally. They’re a member of the DG, Page 73’s Interstate 73, and Primary Stages Writing Cohort. www.rogerqmason.com

Ralph Sevush, Esq.
Ralph Sevush, Esq.

is an entertainment attorney. He’s been with the Dramatists Guild of America since 1997, and their Co-Executive Director and general counsel since June 2005. He is the Treasurer for the Dramatists Legal Defense Fund.