Had an odd experience this week. I was doing a little self-googling, and found out that a company had decided to produce a script that I'd sent them, although they hadn't let me know yet (their web site made it apparent that it had already been cast). I got an e-mail the next day, informing me that they'd picked my play.
I didn't make a big deal out of the fact that they should have waited to be sure I agreed on terms before making plans. After all it was a pretty low-key festival, just two performances.
However, it's my policy not to allow my work to be done for free (unless it's a reading or charity event). So, when small theatres send me those e-mails, saying "congratulations, we want to do your play," I respond: "thanks, I'm very excited. Do you have a contract that you usually use, or do you need me to provide one? Oh, and how much are you paying the writers?" Or something like that. (This is usually just a problem for short plays. I haven't had this happen for a full-length play yet.)
Often, they write back and say, "Oh, well, we're a small theatre and hadn't planned on paying the playwrights." Now, these companies are used to paying royalties to produce "The Odd Couple" or "Fences" or "Oliver!" But they thought they might not have pay to this time around.
Almost every time, the company agrees to pay me a small, nominal royalty. Often they end up realizing that they should pay all of the writers. We're talking $25 for a weekend, or sometimes $50 or $75 for a two-week run. Vastly underpriced. But I'm a professional playwright, the work is good, and I should be paid. Only a few times have companies decided they won't pay, and when that happens, I say, "well, then you can't produce my play." (This has happened three times so far.)
I think playwrights need to think of themselves a lot like landlords. (I've been one.) Landlords rent out their property to all sorts of people, who then add their own furniture and gear and make it into a place of their own. But it's still the landlord's house. And the landlord gets paid first. He doesn't care if you have money for food or your car payment or your electric bills. The rent comes first. And if you don't pay, you can't live there anymore.
Theatre is not a collaborative art, when you're talking about playwrights and completed scripts. Sure the developmental process is heavily collaborative (including the first production or two). But after that, the playwright is generally removed from the production process. She rents out the script upon which the theatre company will build its production. She gets paid, no matter what. If the play is published, the publisher collects the royalties from small companies before the curtain even rises on the first performance.
Anyway, back to the story: so this small company responded to my standard response, saying that they'd consider paying me, but they never sign contracts for one-acts. I thought that perhaps they were thinking that I meant a complicated legal document, rather than a fairly simple licensing agreement, whose sole purpose is to state what rights are being licensed and state clearly that we both have the ability to enter into this agreement (it was a Dramatists Guild simple agreement), so I sent a copy.
I have no idea if they even read it. But they reiterated, they don't sign contracts. I responded that while the terms might be negotiable, the use of a contact was not.
They decided not to produce the play.
I still haven't figured out why they'd be unwilling to sign. I was pretty disappointed. Sometimes it really gets me down to have to haggle with small theatre companies over these fundamental issues. I'm not trying to get rich, I'm just trying to get treated professionally (and at least help cover my costs). I've been doing this for a long time, and I'd sure like to be negotiating over slightly larger issues.