April 10, 2009

Theatre writers

Jean Betts            posted 9 Apr 2009, 06:35 PM

Playmarket staff are often asked for help by members of devising companies who are having problems as a result of unsuitable contracts and agreements.

As our main responsibility is supporting theatre writers, including all those who contribute to devised work, we are putting some effort into drafting simple agreement templates that will ease the process, help prevent disputes and resentment, and which will be easily adaptable to the changing circumstances that are typical of this dynamic creative process.

To this end we would be very interested to hear from anyone who has been party to any sort of agreement, verbal or written, which attempted to define a devising or co-writing theatre process and agree how it should proceed, and how credits and royalties etc. should dealt with. All anecdotes, good and bad, signed or pseudonymmed, are very welcome – as are all suggestions and requests for advice – either here or to scripts@playmarket.org.nz.

David Lawrence                posted 9 Apr 2009, 09:54 PM

I’ve got one for you Jean, since I suspect this is one of the productions you’ve recently been consulted about:

A writer I know was approached in 2008 about working on a devised show which had its premiere in the 2009 Fringe Festival.  The director offered her $200 to write a script based on the devising work so far.  She attended some rehearsals, talked with the director and actors about what they wanted to achieve and went away and wrote a script for them.  Before Christmas, the director decided they didn’t want to use the script she’d written but the actors argued that the script was stronger than their improvisation etc., so in January the writer provided another draft.

When she saw the show in rehearsal a week out from opening night, she found that while lines had been altered and some scenes had been cut and others rearranged, they were indeed using the script she’d written for them, but in such a manner that she asked not to be credited as the writer, since she didn’t feel it was being presented in the manner it had been written, nor did she want to take credit/blame for others’ contributions/amendments.  In the programme for the production, she was credited as a devisor, along with the actors and director.

After the production wrapped and the accounts were being settled, the writer asked for her $200.  The director/company asked her to sign a contract before payment which basically said, “In signing this contract I’m giving the company ownership of the show/script and am not entitled to any recognition or remuneration should the company restage the work in the future.”

The actors apparently all signed the same contract (without asking why, from a show that did over 80% box office and had substantial funding for a Fringe show – something like $8K – they were only being paid $200 each, or why the person who designed the poster was paid more than they were) but the writer balked.  Why?  Because she doesn’t want the company performing her script? or because she was unhappy with the production? or because she’s being brattish and difficult?

No – she didn’t sign it because the company HAS been paid to restage the work for a special event in May and she thinks it’s unfair (some might even say illegal!) for a director/company to make money off future productions of a script someone else wrote when they have no intention of disbursing that money amongst the people who created the script, i.e. the playwright and original actors (some of whom have already been replaced).

The writer doesn’t have unreasonable demands – all she wants is for she and the original actors/devisors to be credited and to receive some remuneration should the director/company continue making money off a show that they helped create.

The writer in question isn’t a PlayMarket client so doesn’t have any legal back-up.  And given that she still hasn’t been paid the $200 for the script she delivered before Christmas, she can’t afford to hire lawyers.  The director/company maintain that they’ve been told by everyone they’ve consulted that “with devised theatre the company ALWAYS owns the finished work” although I reckon 201 posts elsewhere on this forum might disagree.  What’s the solution here?

Jean Betts            posted 10 Apr 2009, 02:05 AM

 Yes, I’ve had some discussion with some members of this group – thanks very much for this detailed account of a depressingly familiar form of devising group breakdown, and for alerting me to some important details I was unaware of.

A very important thing to reinforce here is that with devised theatre the company absolutely does not “always own the finished work”.  It’s up to the participants to negotiate the terms that suit them, of course, and these can vary widely with the nature of the group and the funds available.

And yes, of course it’s completely outrageous as you say for any director/company to expect that they can “make money off future productions of a script someone else wrote when they have no intention of disbursing that money amongst the people who created the script.”

Also very important to clarify – even if you are not a Playmarket client, you are still eligible for help and all queries about your rights are welcome. Even if you are engaged principally as an actor, if you are doing work that contributes towards a final script then you are a co-writer of a devised piece, and have rights we are anxious to help protect. In particular, if the principal writer you mention is still unhappy with her situation, she should contact us asap as I’m sure we could help.

I have suggested that this particular group needs to agree to abandon all previous agreements and negotiate something fairer for the future that all participants are genuinely happy with, especially as they have, it seems, received reasonable funding.  (And especially if the poster designer got more than the actors! Not a good sign.) I’ve made it clear that we can check any agreements for gaps that could lead to dissension down the line, and also suggest simple solutions should agreement be hard to reach.

Any group considering embarking on a devised work needs to figure out a good agreement beforehand that everyone is happy with, and we are available to offer advice to anyone involved in such projects.  The problems above are sadly far too common, but easily avoided, and it would be great to hear from those who have managed similar creative processes successfully.

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