Saturday, July 28, 2007

More on Contest Fees

This is actually the text of a post I just sent to the Binge list. A small theatre in Massachusetts is charging a $15 submission fee and requiring four copies of the script, and the lucky writers win readings, and one of them wins a whopping $75. Ouch! But I've written before about why submission fees are dumb. Playwrights on various lists continue to work themselves into a froth about fees, which is fine, but... Anyway, here's what I said (I'd love better arts funding data, if any of you have it):

First off, I agree that the Firehouse Contest charging a $15 fee and requiring four copies is just dumb. I (like many of us) have written at length about why contest fees are a bad thing for both theatres and playwrights.

However, I don't think nasty letters and e-mails will ultimately solve the problem. Small arts centers like this are trying to do the right thing when they put together a festival like this. They want to have a role in helping developing new plays. Unfortunately, they need some (gentle) education about how best to do this. As playwrights, our ultimate goal is not to condemn and close down all groups that dare to charge a fee, but rather to continue their interest in working with playwrights and new plays, but to have them do it in a way that's more appropriate.

Keep in mind that theatres do not necessarily share our high opinions of new plays and playwrights. Many small community theatres are perfectly content to continue producing old standards, or plays that have been successfully produced in New York. To them, playwrights are odd creatures, with prickly demands (they never want anyone to change their words, they want to be paid, they want to know when rehearsals are scheduled, they want their name and title spelled correctly, etc.). These theatres know that when they do a new play, their audiences aren't sure what to expect, and it'll be hard to get people to buy tickets.

Some of them know about readings and contests and think it'd be a good idea to do one. But they don't know how. They didn't think about how to pay for it. Lots of contests in life require fees. Lots of everything in life requires fees. Contests for screenwriting and fiction regularly charge fees. Fishing contests, basketball contests, soccer tournaments. They all charge fees. So they see this as normal.

So, what are we to do? I think there are several options:

1) Don't submit to contests that charge fees. Pretty simple. If no one signs up, it sends a message.

2) Send and e-mail or letter, stating why you're not submitting. The Binge could put together a template, though the ICWP (International Centre for Women Playwrights) already has a basic letter that could be slightly modified and be useful.

3) Keep educating theatres (which is really what #2 is about)

4) Direct some of the energy that's currently being focused on theatres charging fees to the real culprit: Lack of arts funding in the United States. Our country spends less per capita on the arts than most other industrialized countries (I'm trying to get the stats, but am having trouble finding the exact numbers at the moment). Part of the reason theatres charge fees is that they're short of cash. Instead of writing a hot blooded note to a theatre company, write a passionate letter to your state rep or congressperson about increasing funding for the arts. You can go to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies to see information about advocacy and state agency spending. (An overview is here .) Overall, states spend a whopping $1.21 per capita on the arts. Federal spending is less. Many other countries spend orders of magnitude more than we do. (Please post suggestions about other useful web sites)

5) Don't post info about contests that charge fees. Don't post about the listings to this list, or send the listings to your friends. Make it very hard for info about the contests to get the word out. Keep telling Gary Garrison that's he's doing a good job for excluding fee-chargers from The Loop and the Dramatist. Encourage other publications to do the same.


Most of all, keep perspective. Fees charged by tiny theatres are not the biggest issues facing playwrights. Media coverage, royalty rates, arts funding, lack of risk taking by producers, and other issues have a much bigger impact on our ability to practice our art (and possibly make a living).


As for the comment the guy at Firehouse made about thinking that playwrights should pay actors and directors to do their work. Well, sure, in a way he sounds like a bonehead. As in, your theatre should be paying the actors, directors, AND the playwrights, bonehead. However, there's also something to be said to his statement. When I put together a reading of my work, I make a point of paying the actors and director, whenever possible. Often it's just a token, and sometimes I don't have the money. My writers' group pays our actors $15 every time they come to read with us (six of us chip in $80/semester) to show them that we value them as professional actors. It's not much, sure. But it's important that playwrights realize that it's not just an honor for actors and directors to work on our plays. They're doing us a service, and their talents and efforts need to be recognized.

Now, if a theatre puts sponsors the reading, I expect them to responsible not just for paying me, but also for paying the actors and directors. If I wanted to pay them myself, I'd put together my own damn reading.

Anyway, that's way more than my two cents.

Patrick

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