Why I Joined the Guild by Young Jean Lee
I once did a production where I was forced to temporarily join the Dramatists Guild, but I let my membership lapse for the following reasons: 1) They weren’t a “real union” and I couldn’t understand what they did; and 2) Every theatre I’d ever worked with had treated me very well, so I didn’t feel that I needed protection.
Recently, while working on a play about class in America, I started to get interested in the idea of workers organizing, and I posted the following question on Facebook: “Does anyone know why playwrights don’t have a theatre union that negotiates minimum fees for us the way that WGA does for film and TV? Like, why doesn’t the Dramatists Guild do this?”
I got a flood of responses, many of which were from Dramatists Guild president Doug Wright himself.
I found out that the Dramatists Guild isn’t a “real union” because you have to be categorized as an employee to unionize, and it’s been determined by the courts that playwrights are not employees. Because we own and control our work, we are considered independent contractors. I also found out that the Dramatists Guild is actually part of the reason why I’ve been treated so well. They’ve advocated for fair contracts that most reputable theatres adhere to, and they can go after theatres that break their contracts. Before the Guild, playwrights didn’t even have the right to attend rehearsals. Not only did we not own our own scripts, but theatres could change them however they wanted. The Guild fought for all the rights that playwrights enjoy today.
On my Facebook wall, playwrights told stories of how the Guild—through the emergency grants program at the Dramatists Guild Foundation—bought them a new laptop when theirs died, how the Guild and the DGF supported them while they were temporarily using a wheelchair, and how the Guild reached out offering help even when they weren’t even a member.
I found Kristoffer Diaz’s explanation of the Guild’s power especially compelling: “The Dramatists Guild provides the framework for collective response, if not bargaining. If someone tries to egregiously screw up-and-coming playwright X, they risk incurring the wrath of Doug Wright, Marsha Norman, and Lin-Manuel Miranda. A theatre (especially on the higher professional levels) that doesn’t honor the Guild’s guidelines (at least roughly) risks losing access to other plays and playwrights in the long-term.”
So, I reinstated my account for full membership specifically so that I could help to protect playwrights who are more vulnerable than I’ve been, and to help to ensure that playwrights keep their rights. If you’re an up-and-coming playwright, and anyone tries to mess with you, then my Dramatists Guild colleagues and I will have your back.
If you are a playwright who is in a similar position to me (not feeling the immediate need for protection but wanting to be a part of protecting everyone), please join the Guild. And if I know you and notice that you’re not a member, be prepared to have me hunt you down.
YOUNG JEAN LEE has written and directed ten shows with Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company, and toured her work to over thirty cities around the world. Her play Straight White Men will have its Broadway premiere this summer, and she is currently working on a Broadway-bound play commission for Second Stage.
Learn how you can submit your Why I Joined the Guild essay here.