The Dramatists Guild released a statement March 18 urging playwrights to keep their advances, even if producers or theatre companies are pressuring them to give the money back following the cancellation of productions.
“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... as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic,” said the organization. “It needs to be made clear that options and advances paid to dramatists are not returnable.”
Playwrights including Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage (Sweat, Intimate Apparel) brought the issue to the guild’s attention on Twitter yesterday, while Mike Lew (Teenage Dick) tweeted support in response to the statement.
Now theaters who’ve cancelled our productions r asking playwrights to return advances.Those advances r how we survive. I’m totally sympathetic to the plight of theaters, but to ask artists for money back during this heightened insecurity is tone deaf.@dramatistsguild @tina24hour
— Lynn Nottage (@Lynnbrooklyn) March 17, 2020
In addition, the Dramatists Guild is collecting a database of all canceled and postponed shows to determine the extent of the impact of the coronavirus on theatrical productions and readings. You can add to the list here.
See below for the full statement Ralph Sevush, executive director of business affairs at the Guild.
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 canceled 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 canceling 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.