Broadway's Emergency Relief Deal Doesn't Cover Playwrights

Walter Kerr Theater Broadway March 22 2020

Stage scribes are independent contractors and their organization isn’t a union, so they couldn’t be part of the multi-union deal with theater producers.

A deal reached Friday between a coalition of stage unions and the organization representing Broadway producers for wage payments and additional health contributions to aid stage workers in distress doesn’t — and couldn’t — include playwrights, The Hollywood Reporter has learned.

The reason? Unlike screen and television writers, playwrights are independent contractors who license their work to producers for a fee. They’re not employees, and for that reason their organization — the Dramatists Guild — could not participate in the collective bargaining that resulted in the deal between the Coalition of Broadway Unions and Guilds and the Broadway League.

“As a member of COBUG, the Dramatists Guild supports the Broadway unions in their efforts to protect their members,” Ralph Sevush, the guild’s executive director of business affairs and general counsel, said in an email interview with THR. “However, the DG is not a labor union; we are a trade association with a voluntary membership. As such, we did not participate in any industry negotiations, and a deal for lost wages and health insurance provides our members with nothing.”

That emergency relief agreement, in the wake of a complete shutdown of New York theaters, provides reduced wage payments for two and a half weeks and health benefits through at least April 12, and applies to for-profit Broadway theaters and, in a pact announced Saturday morning, to Broadway shows on tour, as well. But it covers employees only.

“Yet our members are suffering, too,” said Sevush. “In fact, dramatists are being uniquely damaged, getting hit both as independent contractors who’ve provided unpaid services and as small businesses who will not be able to collect the rent on the properties they’ve licensed. Our members — including playwrights, composers, lyricists and librettists — aren’t even currently eligible for unemployment insurance, at least not in their capacity as dramatists.”

Advances at Risk

To make matters worse, Sevush noted that some playwrights have been asked to return monies they have already received for productions that have been canceled.

“It has come to the attention of the Dramatists Guild that producing theaters around the country are asking (in some cases, demanding, and even coercing) writers to return options and advances for upcoming productions of their work that have been canceled as a result of the coronavirus pandemic,” he wrote Wednesday. “It needs to be made clear that options and advances paid to dramatists are not returnable.”

Added Sevush, “Our request to the theatrical community is to stop scapegoating the dramatists at this unprecedented time, and our advice to dramatists confronted by these demands is to just say no, with the full knowledge that it was unfair for you to be put in this position in the first place.”

Sevush explains that playwrights and other authors get some upfront money on Broadway in the form of commissions, options and advances, while “non-profits around the country may pay a limited advance or a commission, but not always.” Options and advances are recoupable by the theater or producers from the author’s future royalties, if any.

On Broadway, those royalties can be a percentage of gross box office receipts or of weekly net operating profits (with a specified minimum weekly guarantee), and “right now there are neither.”

Playwrights may individually try to negotiate reduced royalties from the closed shows. The guild does offer guidance to its members to inform them of industry standards and promulgate suggested contracts, but, Sevush told THR, “there is no standard for this; it is unprecedented.” And since no other theater artists (such as directors and designers) are receiving royalties under the COBUG deal, “there is nothing for us to reflect in our recommendations.” (In a related matter, DG is offering some guidance on live-streaming of shuttered productions.)

And “outside of Broadway and major non-profit theaters, dramatists may not get any advance at all,” Sevush added. “Yet such productions often have a rehearsal period when authors are expected to travel, do revisions, if necessary, and collaborate with artistic personnel.” Rather than a percentage, royalties in smaller venues can be a flat fee, either as a lump sum or per performance. But those don’t get paid if the theater is dark.

All of this puts dramatists in a tough place. The DG is currently working with groups whose members are similarly situated independent contractors, like those in the Authors Coalition of America, “in order to find ways to get some kind of support for our members.” In the meantime, emergency grants are available from the Dramatists Guild Foundation, which is also seeking donations. (Disclosure: This reporter is an associate member of the DG.)

What about Washington? Sevush is pessimistic about government relief programs.

“Most of the coronavirus governmental responses being enacted, or even proposed, will primarily help employees, which playwrights are not,” he wrote. “Unemployment insurance, healthcare coverage, payroll tax abatements … none of it goes to help playwrights, unlike every other person working on that production, including the theater’s own staff.”

He added, "Yet playwrights have bills to pay, too. If you prick them, do they not bleed?”