Cover Artwork of The Call and Response Issue: an illustration of people marching
DGF Emergency Grants

This year, in response to the pandemic’s devastation of theatrical work, the Dramatists Guild Foundation (DGF) has increased its cash gifts to playwrights fifteen-fold, an unprecedented rise.

In the first six months of this year, the Foundation has given nearly $650,000 to dramatists to help cover rent, food, medical expenses and other necessities.

DGF had been expanding its Emergency Grant program over the last several years to meet growing community need. It increased its emergency grants from $40,000 in 2011 to $150,000 in 2019. The Foundation had planned, pre-pandemic, to award $200,000 in 2020.

But with theatres shuttered and uncertain re-opening dates, most Dramatists Guild members and writers across the country were left without current or future income. A deluge of applications arrived when the nation began locking down in March, and the requests have continued steadily since.

Without hesitation, Dramatists Guild members and donors stepped up to help, with substantial gifts received from Alan Menken, Stephen Schwartz, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Andrew Lippa, Jon Robin Baitz, the Seller-Lehrer Family Foundation, the Howard Gilman Foundation, the Rosenthal Family Foundation, and Venturous Theater Fund of the Tides Foundation, among others.

An easy-to-apply form was put at the top of the Foundation’s website, as well as publishing links for help aimed at non-eligible professionals, such as actors, journalists, novelists, musicians, and screenwriters. In the early days of the pandemic, the Foundation was flooded with requests from those outside the 8,900 membership of the Dramatists Guild and the writing profession.

“If you are a playwright, composer, lyricist or book writer, DGF is here to help you,” said Rachel Routh, Executive Director of the 58-year-old Foundation. “Our Board and supporters have been building a reserve for a moment like this, though we did not expect it so soon. Whether from the reserve or additional fundraising, we are here to support our community through this—however long it may be.”

When the theatrical industry shut down, playwrights could not apply for government and union-aided unemployment funds like other theater professionals. Playwrights are independent contractors, not employees. The Broadway Emergency Relief deal, which covered multiple theatrical unions this spring, also didn’t cover the Dramatists Guild’s membership of playwrights, composers, lyricists, and book writers.

Unlike many European countries, the U.S. government has not directly supported artists during the health crisis. In response, the industry and its supporters have taken charge.

DGF’s Emergency Grants have averaged $2,429 per playwright. Although normally a one-time grant, DGF has opened the program for writers to apply more than once, due to the unusual circumstances.

The help is needed. As one Los Angeles Guild member wrote to the Foundation recently, “We usually say that the universe has our back, but really, it comes down to people and organizations like you who provide direct support to artists. Thank you so much for your support at this strange and difficult time.”

Theatre professionals helping each other was the impetus behind the creation of the Foundation, which was started in 1962 by lyricist and Guild member Alan Jay Lerner after his success with My Fair Lady and Camelot. Musical theatre composer Richard Rodgers was on the original board as well.

Dramatists needing financial help either fill out the online application or call the Foundation office, which can help writers by phone. The requests are kept confidential and are evaluated by a seven-member volunteer committee of Guild members. During this global pandemic, the only criteria is that the request comes from an actual dramatist in need – not from a professional in another field within the arts community.

“The process is completely private,” said Routh. “There is no embarrassment in needing help, especially now. We are here to support writers so that they can continue their profession.”

This rings true for a recent grant recipient. “Your gift legitimizes my craft, when oftentimes people like me are unpaid, unsupported and unrecognized. Words cannot express how grateful I am.”

A New York City recipient noted, “This will go such a long way towards helping me continue my current output of trying to support both myself and other artists in these harsh times.”

The cruel and quick mathematics of theatre shutdowns have rocked the industry, with few ways for dramatists to regroup. The grants have been treated as emergencies and monies are transferred quickly to recipients’ bank accounts.

One playwright related that she cried upon reading the Foundation’s email confirming that funds were sent to her. “Thank you, thank you, thank you for your generosity and how amazingly quickly you are working,” she said. “We are all incredibly grateful.”

Routh, and the Foundation Board, are committed to handling all emergency grant requests throughout the pandemic. The Foundation has been raising funds and building a reserve for the grants.

Former Guild members who assigned royalties to the Foundation—most notably playwright Joseph Kesselring, who donated the royalties from his 1939 play, Arsenic and Old Lace—have kept the grant program solvent. Among other plays, royalties also were assigned from 42nd Street by Michael Stewart and P.S. Your Cat is Dead from James Kirkwood Jr.

The Foundation reminds DG members and supporters in a yearly letter that royalties can be left to support Emergency Grants in wills and estate plans. The devastation of the COVID-19 virus will encourage this effort to solicit royalty donations, Routh said.

With the effects of the pandemic on the theater industry expected to continue for many more months, the Foundation is committed to keeping the door open to all requests for help.

“Our number one priority has been, and will continue to be, to help writers in need,” Routh emphasized.

Some of the entities that donated to the Emergency Grant Funds during the pandemic include:

Concord Theatricals

Distracted Globe Foundation

The Educational Foundation of America

The Ettinger Foundation

Howard Gilman Foundation

IAMA Theatre Company

Jean and Louis Dreyfus Foundation

Jewish Communal Fund

The Lillian Hellman Fund in honor of Terrence McNally

Michael Stewart Foundation

Rosenthal Family Foundation

The Seller - Lehrer Family Foundation

Venturous Theater Fund of the Tides Foundation