Losing Stephen Sondheim, both as a dramatist and as an advocate for dramatists, has made the world an emptier place, but has also urged us to again sit up and take notice of his unique gifts. Rummaging through old Dramatists Guild Quarterlies and Council meeting minutes has reminded me how profound his impact on us all truly is and continues to be.
Sondheim was elected to Council in 1964 and served as its sixteenth president from 1973 to 1981. His presidency seems to have been a turning point in the Guild’s history; in 1976, he sent a letter to the membership and stated at that year’s annual meeting, “A number of us on the Council have felt over a period of time that the Guild is simply not active enough. Culturally and fiscally, we want to make it more forceful….The protection of the dramatist may be the major function of the Guild, but it isn’t the only function...the annual meeting is one of the few times when active members who aren’t on the Council can come and find out what is happening at the Guild. I want the Guild to become even more effective in any way we can help playwrights to write more plays.”
To begin his proposed changes, Council recommended four new committees be formed: basic questions, protective activities, promotional activities, and stimulative activities. These committees began discussions on broadening the Guild’s efforts and Sondheim stated at the 1977 annual meeting, “We have a renewed sense of purpose, and that is to make the Guild a positive force in the American theatre, not merely a wise, fair, and faintly smug guardian of dramatists’ rights.”
Beginning in the 1977 Quarterly, in an effort to promote the Guild’s contracts, the following statement was printed (and reprinted in many subsequent issues):
“It is a rare season when the Dramatists Guild doesn’t hear from a playwright (usually a new one) who signed a non-Guild contract, is being screwed, and wants the Guild to do something about it.
Since the Guild contract is the best contract writers have ever had (in protection of rights and money) we ask the injured party why they went non-Guild.
The answer is always the same: the producer said they couldn’t live with the Guild contract and if the author insisted on one then there would be no production.
We know how eager, even desperate, you can get for production—especially the first one. But don’t fall for it.
Any producer who would be dissuaded from production by insistence on a Guild contract is either a fly-by-night without adequate resources or an established producer without sufficient enthusiasm.
In either case, isn’t it better to know that going in?
Many of the proposals Sondheim (and other Council members) put forward are still in play today: an early version of Playwrights Welcome, where Guild members could receive free and/or discounted tickets to productions; seminars on the business of being a dramatist; a Guild newsletter; an evening devoted to presenting Guild awards; a Resource Directory; increased advocacy around copyright and censorship issues; a new membership brochure; allowing universities to become Quarterly subscribers; an early version of Young Playwrights; director/dramatist exchanges; changes to the MBPC; and expanding Active membership requirements.
During Sondheim’s five terms as president, Guild membership nearly doubled and the issues faced by dramatic writers became more widely known throughout the arts community. He advocated to the governor of New York for dramatists to be included on the New York State Council on the Arts, and also supported satellite efforts in Los Angeles and Chicago, to better understand the needs of writers outside of Broadway. He even went to London to discuss closer cooperation between British and American dramatists.
Sondheim used his influence to better the lives of dramatists everywhere and even after his presidency ended, his commitment to Council continued. He could always be counted on to add his voice and his influence whenever needed. I was fortunate to work closely with him on several Council endeavors during my years at the Guild and can personally attest to his dedication and commitment. When young writers ask why they should be members of the Guild, we need only point them to the example set by Stephen Sondheim, and other Council members over the years, who sat down and considered what all writers might need to achieve their theatrical dreams. Contracts and financial terms that are standard for all writers today, Guild member or no, are in place because of the far-thinking dramatists who knew we all had to stand together to be able to make a difference.