Tag Archives: writing advice

Pay-To-Play, Theater Edition: Companies Who Make Playwrights Pay

Imagine you’re a doctor. You’ve put time, money and effort into your training, and have come to be regarded as a professional in your field. Now, there’s a job for a local hospital where you’d like to work. The job carries a $50 “application fee,” and once the hospital in question has decided they want you practicing under their auspices, you’re going to have to pay $5000 in order to see or treat any patients. You can expect about $100 per patient seen as a “kickback” for the chance to treat them, as a way of “honoring” your “investment” with the hospital.

Are you going to take the job? Are you even going to apply?

More importantly, as a patient, are you going to believe that the hospital involved is really interested in providing you with the best medical care available?

Now imagine the hospital is a theater company, and you’re a playwright.

The number of theater companies who think it’s okay to charge both reading and acceptance fees to playwrights seems to be on the rise. And that’s not okay. Playwrights aren’t going to cut into your body (not physically, at least) and they’re not going to save you from an acute life-or-death situation (though they might write something that sticks with you for years to come), but they’re still artists(often trained and practiced) who have put time, effort and ability into their work. And they have no business subsidizing theater companies.

The other day on Facebook, a friend pointed out an “opportunity” for writers who wanted to work with one of NYC’s downtown theater company. After paying a $15 application/reading fee, anyone who was accepted could also look forward to being charged a $175 “acceptance fee” to see their work performed.

Excuse me?

Dear budding playwrights and other writers: the name for a company that poduces or publishes you in exchange for money is “vanity publisher.”

IScreenshot_2014-04-29-10-26-44 realize that reading plays takes time, and producing them takes money, but as a company, if you’re not making enough off your ticket sales and from producer investments to profit from a play without charging the people who wrote them (who are notorious, industry-wide, for NOT GETTING PAID FOR THEIR WORK) to put them on — and you’re not okay with that — then do you really have any business running a theater festival?

Open a theater school. Run a summer camp. Set yourself up as a dramaturg-for-hire. Open your company to development-for-hire.

Just don’t pretend you’re interested in producing theater that opens opportunities or artistic space for those who can’t afford to subsidize you.

When I co-produced ANY OBJECTIONS? for Glasgay 2012, my fellow producer and I put out a global call for short plays dealing with marriage equality. We were particularly interested in getting plays from Asia, Africa and other regions that were under-represented in the world of Western theater, because those were the perspectives we felt it might be most important to show our primarily English-speaking audience. Our only barrier to entry? The plays had to be in English – we simply didn’t have the time or money required to make a translator available.

Did we charge a reading fee? No. Did we charge an “acceptance fee”? No. Did we make any money off anybody but the patrons who came to the performance? No, we did not. And did everybody involved get some kind of paid?

You bet your underwear they did.

The actors got paid, the director got paid, and every single participating writer (with the exception of one who chose to remain anonymous and who, I believe, we were unable to contact with follow-up information, despite our best efforts) got a check as payment for their participation in the event.

Paying For The Right To Work

While the language of the Playbill notice differs slightly from the language used on the company’s website, let’s note that this is posted in a major theatrical publication under the title of “Editorial/Job Opportunity,” and the last time I saw a job you had to pay to take it was because they were selling you a kit of “E-Z ASSEMBLE-AT-HOME JEWELRY, MAKE $5000/MONTH” or a list of real estate leads. Let’s also note that this is a production festival for female playwrights, a group that’s historically under-represented in theater productions worldwide – which, to my mind, makes it even more unethical to charge them for the privilege of having their work produced.

Screenshot_2014-04-29-10-30-27The company who placed the ad cited above offers a $1-per-ticket return (they call it a “kickback) after a $175 “acceptance fee” – which comes after a $15 “reading fee,” mind – so that the playwright can hope to recoup some of her investment. That means a playwright has to see three sold out shows and one half-full house before she’s broken even. Does the company give any information on their average audience size for the festival, past production attendance or marketing reach? No? What? You mean the festival’s only in it’s first year, so there’s no data on how much reach it has or what ticket prices should be? (Note: While I’ve emailed the company regarding questions about past audience size, marketing reach and more, they requested more information Tuesday and have not responded to subsequent emails.)

If we playwrights are investing, shouldn’t we be doing so in an informed manner? And shouldn’t the company we’re investing in encourage that?

With this kind of barrier to entry, the company is already excluding any playwright who doesn’t have nearly $200 in her budget from even competing. Is this approach really going to net them the most talented, most engaging entrants? Is it going to open up the possibility of performance in a meaningful way? As an audience member, do you think that this company is more interested in producing an evening of theater that excites and challenges you, or in finding a way to wring as much money as possible from an evening of performances?

I get it, making theater takes money. I also understand that not everyone has a deep-pocketed producer on board to help offset their costs. I’ve produced theater under those circumstances, too. You know what we did? Anybody who put money in got their money back first, and any profits were split evenly between all members of the company.

Know what else? Every single one of those productions was profitable.

Artists Get Taken Advantage Of All The Time – Don’t Be One Of Them

Many years ago, a co-worker told me about a friend who had started a photography festival and was now living off the entry fees. Each photographer who sent an entry was charged $150 for the privilege, and in addition to making enough to pay for a considerable cash prize, the person who had started the contest was now making a full-time living off the fees.

So excuse me if I’m a little skeptical of companies that set up on this kind of model. As a producer, either you believe in the work you’re putting on stage or you don’t. If you do, then you assume the financial risk, pay your artists (or take them on in an equal, transparent profit-share), and hope for the best.

If you don’t believe in the work, and you don’t think you’re going to make a profit, and you have a problem with that, then don’t produce the play in the first place.

That said, the only way this practice is going to stop is if writers stop responding to these calls for work. So writers, if you value your work and your time, don’t buy into the hype. Submit to the hundreds of opportunities that don’t ask for your financial investment. You’ve already put your time, training and effort into your art. Don’t feel like you have to pay someone else to make it for you.

Charging artists to produce their work in order to make yourself a buck isn’t about making quality theater. It’s about running the production equivalent of a vanity press.

Presenting that as a great opportunity for new playwrights is not okay.


*To note: this is not the only company charging for acceptance (although Manhattan Rep frames their Spring One Act as a production fee, not one aimed at playwrights, and doesn’t charge for entry) nor are they charging the most.

Somebody Out There Hates Your Writing

There are a lot of articles about “coping” with negative reviews. One-star, zero-star, slams and takedowns can make even the most confident writer go through a moment of self-doubt. As a writer and reviewer, I’ve been on both sides of this equation. One time, an offended writer even came to my blog to object to my review in the comments. Which, I think we can all agree, is never a good move for a writer.

But I understand that it can be upsetting, particularly for new writers, when someone gives their work a negative review online. As an editor, I’ve even had writers who’ve even been upset by less-than-effusive (and I don’t mean negative, I mean less-than-effusive) comments made about their own work in reviews of larger collections.

It’s a big bad world out there, and not everyone is going to adore every word that comes off your pen (or keyboard). So here are my tips for quieting the “OMG I’m worthless!” voice that might pipe up when someone says something unflattering about your writing.

1. Any review is just one person’s opinion.

Find out who that person is, and see what other kinds of opinions they’ve shared. For example, the other day I noticed that someone had slammed one of my early plays with a 1-star review on Goodreads. Since the previous review had been much higher, it was a little annoying to see it fall by several stars with one fell swoop. But when I clicked on the person’s profile and checked out their website, I found out that not only was their independent review site dedicated to slamming books “so bad they couldn’t be unread,” but they also took issue with the work of writers who are widely acknowledged as leaders in their particular fields. Realizing you’re in good company definitely helps get rid of the bitter taste of a negative review.

2. People have different tastes.

Not every piece of work is going to connect with every reader. And you don’t necessarily want it to.

When another piece of work was reviewed with one star, and I started doing my digging, I found out that the reviewer’s single favorite line in all of literature was from…50 Shades of Grey. Not to knock EL James, her work, or her readership, but it seems to me that someone whose tastes run so intensely to that particular piece is unlikely to be looking for, or interested in, a book of social-issue themed science fiction. In this case, I doubt very much that the reviewer in question would like any of my work. No harm, no foul.

3. Bad reviews lend credibility to the good ones.

Particularly since the rise of self-published fiction, there has been controversy about how authors acquire reviews. I often provide review copies to serious reviewers, and they note this in their reviews (and I do the same when reviewing the work of others – it’s called disclosure, and lets your reader know why your reaction to a piece of work might differ from that of the general paying public). But there has been a lot of discussion of authors paying for reviews, or recruiting friends to pump them up, and I’ve even seen some readers who say they don’t believe a book is good unless it has a range of reviews at different star levels. While you might lose a few stars early on in the game, keep drumming up reviews and eventually the law of averages will start to reflect a more balanced image of how readers are reacting to your books.

4. Take it as feedback, figure out what’s really being said, and use it to  make your work better.

Recently, my play Ace In The Hole had two scenes read aloud at a “scratch” night in Newcastle, England. After the performance, audience members were encouraged to write their reactions on cards and tack them up for the companies who had presented to read and learn from. When the company forwarded the comments to me, I was thrilled that, for the most part, people seemed to have engaged with the play on its own terms – but as with any group, there were a couple of people who hadn’t liked the work as much as others. Now, theater is a little different from fiction, since there’s usually an opportunity for development of work after an initial presentation to an audience, but the same rule holds true: when an audience member takes the time to review your work, no matter what they say, take it as an honest reaction. If you’re unhappy with what they’ve said, consider whether they might have a point.

In the case of Ace in the Hole, one comment that gave a little sting was that the piece might be better as a radio play. Now, one way to take that is, “This play sucks, it’s not visually interesting, cancel the production.” But if someone took the time to give the feedback, it’s probably because they think there’s something there worth developing. In this case, my interpretation of the feedback was that the action of the play was too static, not physical enough. After all, in a radio drama you only have the medium of sound, whereas on stage both the dialogue and the physical movement of the actors need to contribute to the overall dramatic action. As I redrafted and rewrote the play to its rehearsal draft, I took this as feedback and looked for natural opportunities to make the play more physical. The final draft features a lot more necessary physical action than the first one, and it’s all because someone was thoughtful enough to let me know what part of the play they found lacking.

5. Sometimes, you just have to ignore it and move on.

As part of the same session, one piece of feedback spoke about how the company’s mission was to engage young women, but the play itself seemed like it would speak more to the young men in the audience. There’s not a lot that can be done about that. Ace in the Hole is a science fiction play, set in space, featuring three female characters fighting for survival. To my mind, that feedback speaks more to the audience member’s presupposed notions about who likes science fiction in general, and military-themed science fiction in particular. Since I know plenty of women who enjoy those genres, and since the remit of the commission was to write a play with an all-female cast, set in space…this wasn’t a piece of feedback that I could let lodge in my head.

There are other ways to think about criticism – for example, my home town newspaper has one critic who I love to read because I know no matter what he thinks of a piece, I’ll think the exact opposite. That’s one reason why I’m a big fan of critics who let you know their bias when they’re writing – if you know someone swings for experimental poetic fiction, for example, you might take their thoughts on a historical bodice-ripper differently than if they exclusively review the romance genre.

While we’d all like to think that everyone who picks up our book or buys a ticket to our play is going to love it, writers shouldn’t be afraid of someone out there disliking their work.

After all, in art, as in life – if you’re not pissing somebody off, you’re probably doing it wrong.

Have you read my work? If you have a moment to give it a review – or even just a star rating on Amazon – it would be very much appreciated. Rather leave your mark over at Goodreads? Consider this your invitation!