The Dramatists Guild spoke out Wednesday against theaters that have reportedly been asking playwrights to return advances now that their productions have been cancelled.
The advances are paid to the playwright, who is the owner of the work being presented, and allow the producer to present the work within a specified period of time at a specific locale. Even if productions have been cancelled due to coronavirus, the “force majeure” contract clause will often allow them to present the work at a later time, and thus should entitle the playwright to keep the advance, according to the Guild.
Further, the Guild notes that the advances are often the only money playwrights receive for many years, and that playwrights have not been included in relief packages for entertainment workers affected by coronavirus.
Playwright Lynn Nottage tweeted that she had been asked to return an advance, as did playwright Annie Baker.
Full statement from Ralph Sevush, executive director of business affairs:
It has come to the attention of the Dramatists Guild that producing theatres 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 cancelled as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic.
It needs to be made clear that options and advances paid to dramatists are not returnable. They are payments to a copyright owner that give the producer an exclusive option (but not the obligation) to present the play during a specified period, in a specified manner, within a specified locale. There are generally “force majeure” clauses in contracts that can extend the producer’s option period due to an event like this, so the theatres may be able to delay the production without cancelling it.
However, whether theatres choose to delay or cancel, those advances are the only compensation dramatists may get for their years of work on a play, during which time they received nothing. If you amortized the few thousand dollars they receive over the years that writers work without compensation, it would be clear why most writers never quit their day jobs.
Furthermore, most of the coronavirus governmental responses being enacted, or even proposed, will primarily help employees, which playwrights are not. Unemployment insurance, healthcare coverage, payroll tax abatements… none of it goes to help playwrights, unlike every other person working on that production, including the theatre’s own staff. Yet playwrights have bills to pay, too. If you prick them, do they not bleed?
So, 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.