A Serious Act: Are You a Professional Dramatist or Not?
Paper money falling in the air in front of a piece of colorful, contemporary artwork in a traditional gold frame hanging on the wall
Artwork in Frame: Mediation on Madness and Delight • Artist: BlackGirlOil (aka Faith Wilson Rivera)

My oldest child is a young professional fine artist. I consider myself a true advocate for her work. In early 2022, I commissioned her to create two pieces of artwork for my office. Below is the conversation that followed:

“Can you create two pieces for my office?”

“Yes. Price is determined by size and medium. What are you looking for?”

“Wait. Why do I have to pay you? We’re family.”

“I don’t give anyone a discount. Not even to family. You’re paying me for my time, and you must respect that.”

“Can I at least deduct the cost of supplies I have to buy so you can create the artwork I’m asking for?”

“No. You’re both a client and a parent.”

My oldest is nineteen.

Building a contingent of advocates for our work is essential in crafting a career as a writer. As theatre makers, we do not progress alone. We are propelled in forward motion by the passion and advocacy of others. Finding people who understand our work and can translate that understanding onto a theatre stage or in a backroom conversation is the everyday task of an artist. The goal is to amass as many advocates as possible from artistic directors, literary managers, dramaturgs, mentors, agents, donors, designers, audience members, musicians, directors, and more. Over time, saying yes to what we create requires less effort. We make something fabulous, and in turn, the world responds. But this requires a great deal of waiting, and dramatists are always kept in abeyance—waiting for an acknowledgment, a check, or even a simple yes or no.

The act of waiting often shifts the balance of power in our industry (I’ll discuss power dynamics in theatre in a future article) and waiting for approval to move forward begins to feel...personal. Our ideas, competency, talent, and skill are sometimes called into question, even in our own mind. The everyday practice of building a career and waiting to move forward begins to negatively impact the single most important relationship we have in the American theatre: the relationship with our entrepreneurial self. Waiting for an answer turns into waiting for any answer. We naively give our power away expecting others to provide even the most basic answers in how to be a dramatist. While it takes time to build a company of advocates to support our body of work, we should not be waiting for someone to tell us what our entrepreneurial values are. To become a professional, we must BE professional. While you might submit your work, you should never submit TO your work. You cannot negotiate on your knees, and far too many dramatists are cashing checks on the currency of gratitude and exposure. This is symptomatic of an industry that values product over people, but it is also endemic to a more significant problem: a lack of skill in the everyday practice of being a professional playwright, composer, lyricist, or librettist. 

We create, we submit, and we wait. But what happens after someone says “yes?”

I’m often asked the following questions when providing member service to dramatists.

“Can you help me find a producer?”

“I had a wonderful production of my work. How do I attract a professional theatre of note?”

“How do I get an agent?”

These questions make sense in theory, as they are often proposed by a writer, excited (as they should be), in the middle or at the end of crafting a new play or musical or engaging in next steps after a development reading or production. I usually take the opportunity to steer the conversation into a different line of questioning.

“Are you ready for the next step?”

“Well, yes, my play/production is finished.”

“No, no. Are YOU ready?”

“I don’t understand what you mean.”

Becoming a professional dramatist is a serious act. It is vital that every dramatist understand their profession, but what does it mean to be a professional playwright, composer, lyricist, or librettist? The word professional has three meanings: to be a part of a profession, one’s main occupation for income rather than a hobby, and lastly, one skilled or competent in a particular activity. 

Many perceive the second definition as the primary catalyst to genuinely owning the word professional, but, in my opinion, this is incorrect. As a dramatist, one can (and should) make income from various sources—teaching, writing in different mediums, licensing, or another occupation altogether—none of which diminishes your competency or status as a dramatist. Some writers work more, some less; you’re still a writer.

I offer a fourth definition of my own: a professional is one who becomes competent in a skill by studying a craft, the business of how to sell and manage the byproduct of such craft, and engages in the practice of building a career of it.

Suppose you’re waiting for a producer or theatre to “anoint” you by producing your work. Do you understand what it means to be produced? Regardless of whether you’re engaging in your first production or your twentieth, do you understand how you need to show up for yourself? If you do not, you are doing yourself a disservice and opening yourself up to possible exploitation.

Are you suddenly a professional because you received a check? No. The check only represents a return on your years of investment, shepherding the work into existence.

You become a professional the instant you understand how to create the conditions to negotiate the best deal possible for yourself, resulting in remuneration and a production that deems your intellectual property viable in the market. 

“But that’s what an agent is for!”

Yes, but no. As a working artist, you are responsible for building a knowledge base on when, how, and why YOU say yes or no to any deal. Your agent is responsible for being the bad person to your good; they are not responsible for running your business. You are. The final decision will always arrive at your desk.

“I can hire a manager.”

If you are fortunate enough to build an income level to pay a manager or lawyer, that is outstanding, but YOU still run the business of creating and managing your intellectual property. There is no way to hire your way out of it. And hiring a team makes only makes you MORE responsible to the people who work on your behalf, not less.

“I don’t handle business concepts very well.”

How do you know? As writers, working with complex ideas and structures is part of the gig. We choose words, forms, music notes, theatrical conventions, when characters talk or sing, and why. If you can craft a script or score, you certainly have the ability to become an excellent and ethical businessperson. 

“It’s very overwhelming with all the legal and business terms.”

Yes! Yes, indeed. You are not required to become an expert in copyright law or accounting to become a dramatist. However, it is incumbent upon you to understand your rights, your industry, the basics of copyright, and (as this issue suggests) the concept of managing money and finance. Without that understanding, you allow others to dictate how you run your business. It would be best to discover who you are (or need to be) when making any business decision. If you do not, you never fully understand the power of “no.” And understanding when to say “no” makes it much easier to say “yes” when appropriate.

Let me say this for the cheap seats: if you don’t understand when to say “no,” you’ll never trust yourself when you say “yes.” And trusting yourself as a business owner is key to negotiating with others. How can you know what you want if you are constantly overwhelmed with what everyone wants from you? And EVERYONE wants something from you in this industry, expecting you’ll say…

…Yes, I’ll cut those lines. 

…Yes, I’ll cut the third act. 

…Yes, I’ll write a new song.

…Yes, I’ll give away subsidiary rights. 

…Yes, I forgo my fee so you can pay everyone else. 

…Yes, I’ll wait for my check. 

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!

Sometimes it feels as if nothing is expected from you but a script, score, and the word yes. And sometimes, yes is the answer. But you need to ensure yes is YOUR answer. Not an answer forced or guilted upon you but one you can fully own in strategizing how to navigate any particular negotiation or collaboration. 

In the effort to be seen, we often say “yes” too fast, agreeing to terms or conditions that hurt us and all the writers who come after. Be not afraid. Or even thankful. When someone is interested in producing your work, it is not a favor or act of kindness. It is a business deal where all parties should benefit—and not solely at your expense.

The Money Issue represents a salvo into the war against passivity, fear, ignorance, and, most importantly, the fight against being exploited and leaving ourselves open to exploitation. Yes, this issue is about money, but it is also a guide to taking yourself seriously as a professional writer. And that is the ultimate difference between an amateur and a professional: a seriousness in how you treat yourself, your body of work, and everyone you work with. Please understand my usage of the words “serious” and “professional” do not mean you are inflexible in your negotiations or collaborations. There is a difference between being formidable and being an asshole. No one wants to work with an asshole. But you can be knowledgeable and confident. 

Treat people well (yourself above all). Be not afraid. Ask questions. Be curious. Learn definitions. Have courage in your negotiations. Join the Dramatists Guild. Get comfortable with contracts. Learn to say no. Take joy in saying yes. Take your time. Never sign anything at the behest of others (and contact us first). Use Guild services (especially our unsigned contract review and business advice services). Redefine what success means to you. Sign collaboration agreements (even with your friends). Ask for what you need. Know thyself. Take yourself seriously.

The Dramatists Guild is here for you. But we can’t advocate for you if you won’t advocate for yourself. You must do the work. You are your very first advocate. But you are never alone. You walk on a path cleared by the advocacy of every dramatist that came before you.

Advocate for yourself and advocate for each other. Always. And please, take yourself seriously. If you do not, then why should anyone else?

Note: When asked for permission to use their artwork for this article, the artist, BlackGirlOil, asked “I’m getting paid, right? I don’t do exposure.”

Emmanuel Wilson
Emmanuel Wilson

, a playwright, is the Executive Director of Creative Affairs and Membership at the Dramatists Guild. He manages member service and programming for America’s professional playwrights, composers, lyricists, and librettists. Emmanuel also oversees the Guild’s industry outreach, strategy, and communications. He is the proud parent of Faith and Imani Wilson. #PayWriters