Features Guest Column Published 31 October 2012

Defending The Working Playwright: A Reply

Not collaborative utopia; being kept out.

David Edgar and Amanda Whittington

Photo by Flickr user Shannon Clark (cc).

Playwright and director Selma Dimitrijevic is angered by two booklets which have been produced by the Writers’ Guild and the Antelopes playwrights’ group. The booklets were intended to be helpful to playwrights ‑ and directors, actually ‑ so it’s distressing for those of us who compiled them that they’ve provoked this reaction.

Selma’s argument [published by Exeunt here] is that the booklets “advocate a way of working in which the writer holds the lion’s share of power and control over the creation of work” and offer this “as the best way to work and clearly posit it as the model to which writers of all degrees and processes should aspire”. She sees the The Working Playwright booklets as a “pre‑emptive strike against an imagined cohort of directors and producers lying in wait to do unspeakable things to me and my play”.

We think Selma misunderstands the booklets and what they’re doing. They are quite different. Engaging with Theatres (the green one) arose out of wide-ranging discussions with playwrights and theatres, and describes the many ways in which playwrights now work with companies, in various forms of development (mentoring, attachments, seed commissions, workshops, rehearsed readings), as well as in alternative forms of playmaking, from site specific performance via portmanteau plays, various forms of collaborative development and working with schools and in communities. Each section ends with three or four suggestions for how these processes have and might work best, which we hope will form the basis of best practice guidelines for theatres and writers. The big message is that playwrights and companies should be clear about what their aims and expectations are before they start working together. We’re pleased that ‑ already ‑ dramaturgs and directors have responded positively to them. We hope that playwrights and companies will contribute to their development online.

Selma only mentions one of the proposals in the green booklet but she is very critical of the other one, Agreements and Contracts (which is mauve). However, this second  booklet isn’t a proposal, a work of advocacy or a pre‑emptive strike: it’s a description of the existing agreements that playwrights have with three management bodies, the TNC (the National, the RSC and the Court), the TMA (the reps, the smaller London theatres and some larger touring companies) and the ITC (the small scale theatre). The TNC agreement was first made in 1979, the TMA in 1986 and the ITC in 1991. They have been revised and updated over the years (in collaboration with the PMA, the agents’ organisation), and almost all regularly performed playwrights will have had work presented under their provisions.

The reason for negotiating them was that ‑ in the 1970s ‑ playwrights were often paid appallingly, particularly in small studio theatres where the royalty payment was tiny. Companies insisted that playwrights pay over a proportion of their future earnings from the play, however small their house and short their run. And playwrights’ rights ‑ to preserve their text as they wrote it, to attend rehearsals, to be consulted on casting ‑ were granted erratically and and often not at all. Well‑known playwrights were able to get good deals; unknown writers were ‑ frankly ‑ exploited. The agreements increased payments to writers, codified best practice and made it applicable to everyone. Britain remains the only country in the world where playwrights have the right to attend rehearsals of their plays and be paid for so doing. The last update ‑ with the National, RSC, and the Court ‑ increased the commission fee for a play to £11,500.

The reason for summarizing the agreements now was that ‑ although the companies and the playwrights working for them are obliged to follow these agreements (as companies and actors, musicians and production staff are obliged to stick to Equity, MU and BECTU agreements) ‑ they are complicated documents and companies sometimes don’t implement them in full. There have been cases of playwrights being underpaid,  pressured not to use the agreement, either excluded from rehearsals or not paid for attending them and having their scripts changed without their permission.

Selma supports some of the provisions of the agreements (notably, the preservation of the play’s textual integrity) but not others. She’s got some of the provisions and proposals slightly wrong: playwrights don’t get paid for researching their plays under the agreements, though they can get paid research expenses if agreed in advance. (In Engaging with Theatres, we recommend that writers should be paid for researching a pre‑commission treatment if the theatre has come up with the idea, and when doing community plays, in which the research is an integral part of the collaborative process with the community). Playwrights can indeed claim for time talking to the press (as actors who leave the rehearsal room to do interviews continue to be paid), but they can’t insist that the director follows the stage directions (though if playwrights decide to reflect production choices in the published text, they retain the copyright on those directions). In the case of a playwright contributing to a piece created by improvisation, there are provisions for a collaboration agreement between the various copyright owners to be made, as long as it is made in advance (this clause is clearest in the most recently updated agreement). The agreements only cover premiere productions, so they are not responsible for (good or bad) productions elsewhere.

However, Selma’s biggest concern is with the clause which gives playwrights right of approval of the choice of actors, directors and some other members of the creative team. She suggests that this means that writers “have the right to decide what the design looks like”, which it very precisely doesn’t: it means that the producer, director and writer should agree on a designer they all trust. There is a caveat in all the agreements requiring the writer to give due consideration to the company’s resources (in the TNC agreement it’s the company’s artistic requirements, financial resources, casting and company policies, and custom and practice). The scenario of a writer turning down everybody whom the theatre offers is possible but would be a dramatic own goal ‑ for that reason, it’s never happened. The clause does not give the writer “the lion’s share of power and control over the creation of work”; all it does is to allow playwrights (it’s a right, not an obligation) to contribute meaningfully to a conversation which other people will already be having about how their play will first be presented to the public. The alternative to spreading a little power to the writer is to keep it with the director. The alternative to being allowed into a conversation is not a collaborative utopia: it’s being kept out.

When these agreements were first negotiated, the various managements issued dire warnings that their financial clauses would price new plays out of the market and that the consultation and other rights provisions would poison relations between writers and their colleagues and collaborators. In fact, the 33 years since the first agreement was signed have seen an unprecedented upsurge of new writing, particularly over the last decade. British new plays still dominate the continental European market, and are proverbially successful in America. Over the last decade, the proportion of new plays in the English building‑based sector has more than doubled, from around 20% to 42% of the repertoire. In addition, playwrights have eagerly embraced new forms of working: they work collaboratively with companies, with other theatre artists, and each other. They participate in portmanteau projects and increasingly structure their plays to open up production options (see Kane, Churchill, Crimp, Greig, Stephens). Some are finding imaginative ways of working with performance companies like Sound and Fury, Suspect Culture and Frantic Assembly. The success of British playwrights is of course due to their talent; but the fact that they are properly paid and respectfully treated has clearly persuaded writers who might otherwise have written novels or films to stay with the theatre.

These new ways of working have led to revisions of existing agreements, and will doubtless lead to more. What would happen if we went down the alternative route, and tore them up? Selma Dimitrijevic would lose the rights she cares about as well as the ones she doesn’t. As hard times led to pressure on unknown writers to write for nothing (as young actors acted for nothing before Equity agreements), eminent writers would survive on their current terms for a bit ‑ but watch this space. Theatre would become more and more like television and film, in which the writer is a dispensible employee (for writers, losing copyright in television was one of the saddest losses of the late 20th century). Would theatre writing ‑ or the production of new plays ‑ get any better?

David Edgar is President, and Amanda Whittington Theatre Chair, of the Writers’ Guild. They are joint editors of The Working Playwright (Agreements and Contracts and Working with Theatres).

Download booklet one, Engaging with Theatres; and booklet two, Agreements and Contracts.




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