27 September 2012
Posted in Theatre
David Edgar introduces two new booklets from the Writers' Guild
- The Working Playwright - Agreements and Contracts (pdf)
- The Working Playwright - Engaging with Theatres (pdf)
In the old days, getting a play on wasn’t easy, but it was simple. You’d send a play off to a theatre, and, if they read it, they might decide to put it on. The production would be cast, designed and marketed largely without your input. If the director felt like it, you might attend the read-through and a late run, to check on what changes had been made in your play. After it opened you’d get some money, in the form of a percentage of the box office. In the 1970s and 1980s, all that changed. In collaboration with the Writers’ Guild, a new Theatre Writers’ Union negotiated binding, minimum terms agreements with, first, the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Court. Then agreements were negotiated with the rest of the building based sector, and finally with independent, non-building based companies.
These agreements gave playwrights an up-front commission fee (or an option fee if the play wasn’t commissioned) as well as a royalty. It guaranteed the playwright the right to approve or prevent any changes in their play, to be consulted over the choice of directors and actors, as well as over casting and marketing, and to attend rehearsals. Despite dire warnings by theatres, these changes didn’t lead to a drop in the number of new plays being presented, but, over time, the reverse.
Over the last couple of decades, things have become more complicated. Encouraged by the Arts Council, expanding literary departments came up with schemes to develop young playwrights in particular, including seed money schemes, attachments, mentoring, readings, workshops and scratch productions of various kinds. There is a growing number and variety of co-written plays, and playwrights are increasingly working outside theatres in the community and in schools.
None of these forms of development fitted within the existing agreements, and playwrights found some aspects of them irksome and even exploitative. On the other hand, these schemes were designed in good faith and led to many more new plays being done, particularly over the past 10 years (during which the number of new plays presented in the building-based subsidised theatre has more than doubled).
In order that playwrights can get their plays on, but also get the best deal for their work, the Writers’ Guild has collaborated with the Antelopes playwrights’ group to produce two sets of guidelines: Agreements and Contracts outlines the current agreements the Guild has with theatres in (we hope) comprehensible language. Engaging with Theatres describes the various schemes to develop writers and their work which lie outside our current agreements, with examples of best (and worst) practice and guidelines for playwrights and theatres to follow.
The idea of these booklets is to inform and arm playwrights and their agents, and also to help theatres and companies to get the best out of playwrights. As we seek to preserve and improve our agreements, we hope that theatres will endorse and implement our recommended guidelines.
Please let us know of your experiences of the theatre- playwright relationship – where it goes right and where it goes wrong. We are also keen to hear how our agreements and guidelines work, and how they might be improved.
Since our first agreements were negotiated, the number of working playwrights has expanded hugely. Good agreements, contracts and guidelines are vital to keep new work at the core of the British theatre.
David Edgar is President of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain