The Dramatists Guild is unique. I’ve always considered writing for the theatre entrepreneurial. Not unlike Steve Jobs, though on a grander scale (Steve Jobs may have envisioned world domination but not the battle of Agincourt), writers for the theatre not only come up with the idea, they create the indispensable first draft without which nothing proceeds (or, as Moss Hart reportedly said to a director taking credit for a show they’d worked on, “Where were you when the page was blank?”). Initially, writers for the theatre frequently take all the risk. With the help of others, they hire and fire, nurse the work through production, often help raise capital and sell. If their play or musical is successful, they reap; if not, they lose every shirt they own. What could be more entrepreneurial?
Because writers for the theatre own their own copyrights, the Dramatists Guild cannot, at the moment, be a union. What this status sacrifices in economic clout, it gains in artistic control – no one can change a word or a note of theatre writers’ work nor hire creative personnel without their agreement. Writers for television and the movies (and, presumably, the Internet) have none of these artistic advantages.
Unlike most (perhaps all) of my colleagues in the Guild, I’m glad we’re not a union. In my opinion, no theatrical union has ever benefitted the theatre – its members, yes, but not the theatre as a whole. For each self-interested advance by theatrical unions, there has been a concomitant penalty for the rest of us – restrictive work rules, shorter rehearsal periods, exorbitant costs – all passed on to the ticket-buyer. The directors union seems determined to cut into the playwright’s revenue – hardly a benefit to the theatre and certainly not a benefit to the writers.
Because we’re a guild, we don’t have the power to frighten our members into compliance with threats of unemployment that most unions wield. We cannot strike. Rather, what makes me value our Guild is that it is an ongoing, moral proposition: when any one of us signs a Guild or non-Guild contract, s/he signs not only for himself or herself but for every other member of the Guild as well, strengthening or weakening the organization. But it remains an individual choice: one may be expelled from the Guild but not prohibited from working.
In addition to the most enjoyable camaraderie, the stimulating exchange (and frequent battle) of ideas, and the long-wrangled agreements wrested from those on the other side, it is the unwritten, unspoken advocacy for the moral responsibility of the individual that makes the Guild so meaningful to me.