To Fee or Not To Fee?

Full Disclosure: I do not pay submission fees. At first it was mostly because I don’t budget for it, but the more I submit to play-writing contests, the more it just doesn’t jive with me. I liken it to the nearly-only-in-LA procedure of dues-paying ensemble companies. More full disclosure: I used to work for one and was partly responsible for collecting said dues.

It makes my stomach turn.

Submission fees for playwrights isn’t as sickening to me. I understand fees are sometimes considered part of the beast. I mentioned this topic to my husband and he automatically assumed you paid for your play to be in the contest, not just considered. The wide eyes when I explained…

Many people have differing opinions, so instead of this being merely my thoughts, I want to share what I learned as I investigated across multiple social media platforms.

It all starts on Twitter: Local LA playwright Brian Polak was the first to answer my general inquiry.

I detest submission fees. Producing entities unfairly pass the burden of contests and productions on to prospective writers. I believe if you want to have a contest or do a production, fundraise for it. Don’t make writers pay to play.

Brian doesn’t agree that submission fees are equivalent to dues-paying companies however, a situation I could not resolve in 140 characters or less .

Gedaly Guberek of Coeurage Theatre Company quickly agreed, as did Louise Penburthy who added:

I don’t pay submission fees anymore, except for prestigious places with work-shopping. Otherwise it’s obnoxious, [in my humble opinion].

The idea of a play getting work-shopped or a production seemed to matter to some people. Through Linkedin I found the following comments:

Vic Cabrera in LA:  I would, and have, if I get a critique back.

Donald Drake & Evan Guilford-Blake both said yes because the returns can be beneficial. Evan: Last year I paid about $900 and won $3600.

Donald has also gotten more prize money with contests that charge, and sees another benefit: One of my best experiences in the theater came from a competition I paid to enter – the O’Neill, which provided me with a wonderful month in Waterford, Ct. with incredible actors and directors and a wonderful staged reading of my play. I can understand why small theaters can’t afford to pay for running a competition and I see the submission fee as a business expense on my part.

Honestly, the Playwrights Group on Linkedin is so interesting and varied that I encourage everyone to read it.

Ian Hornby‘s perspective was especially interesting: Having run a playwriting competition on behalf of The Playwrights’ Co-operative, there are two edges to this topic. We started with a small entry fee ($10), purely to fund a decent prize at the end. But we had so many sites that would not list us because we had an entry fee that we dropped the fee and made it free entry. What a mistake we made. Although it’s not the right kind of filter and has so many undertones of not providing equal opportunities for those unable to afford the fee, at least it was a filter. We were completely snowed under with entries, and our panel of judges didn’t have time to do anything more than speed-read all entries so as to arrive at a shortlist, which could then be read in detail. Without doubt we’d have missed some gems.

Regardless, he does applaud contests without a fee.

Tony Earnshaw from the UK has an interesting perspective: …in the poetry world it’s difficult to find any contests which don’t have a fee attached and I’ve heard no grumbles. I’ve recently entered a short play for a competition run by a small theatre and am one of the winners (there are ten of us). The read through, at which I met the other writers, the directors and the casts, was worth it in itself.

Anyway, 5 on Linkedin from all over the world say YES, 9 say NO and 1/3 of the NO’s will make exceptions in rare cases.

Gregory Fletcher believes: If a theater company wants to attach their name to my play as the premiere producer, then figure out how to evaluate my play without charging me. Do painters, musicians, dancers, actors, or anybody else in the arts pay to have their work considered for production?

The answer to that, of course, is yes, in some cases.

I then took to Facebook. The results are as follows:

Prefer not to, but will if the contest interests me enough: 17 votes
No, because I usually can’t afford it: 6 votes
No. I am philosophically opposed to fees: 5 votes
Also much more interested if the outcome is a production: 1 vote
Yes, it is just part of the beast: 1 vote
I don’t even read those submissions: 0 votes
I don’t mind and have submissions fees in my ‘expenses’ budget: 0 votes
I don’t mind at all; I just want my work produced: 0 votes
Adam Szymkowicz : Only for Sundance and O’Neill.
Edith Freni : All others I’ll ask for a waiver.
Here is the thing. (We’re back to my opinion now.) Regarding my more recent experiences:
Last summer, I self-produced a Fringe show I wrote with under $500 budget. I felt shame every single time we cut corners, every time I saw how very hard these wonderful actors and director worked for nothing more than a hug and immense gratitude. We had an incredibly supportive and hard-working awareness team as well, who donated their time for some experience and the cause of the piece.
There was a chance to remount and I had to turn it down for many reasons. I knew the team was happy and willing, but I just couldn’t look these artists in the eye and ask them to work for free again. I also have had some fights in my day with supervisors on Equity rules for actors and the worth of one designer versus others.
What’s changed? I often work freelance and negotiate my contracts. On a weekly basis I tell someone my worth and stick by it. When I began working for myself, I undercut my rate. That changed pretty quickly.
I also see way too many people pay upwards of $30/month to join an ensemble company; sometimes I’ve heard of $85/month. Actors may have their reasons – and I fully admit I have it easier as someone who can create my own work – but honestly, I’m fed up.
If you don’t have the money or means to produce a show, you shouldn’t do it. I have done it myself and will not do it again. Personally, it demeans everything in the work that has value, be it the writing, directing, performances, dramaturgy, design, right up to the viewing audience who pays money (in most cases) so that the artists involved may at least get nice thank you gifts.
This is a personal decision after years of self-producing and co-producing. As an extension, I refuse to pay a submission fee. If your readers (and Lord knows, I’ve donated my own time to reading plays) need money, raise the money. If you can’t produce without artists paying into the production in order to be considered, don’t produce.
Some excellent and imaginative pieces don’t “need” money. Artists involved should still be paid.
Yes, it’s hard. So is writing and acting and directing and designing….
Find the people who will donate to your work. They are out there. They are hard to find. They are hard to woo.
Art ain’t easy.
I do not mean any of this as a judgement on those who choose to pay fees and who choose to join ensemble companies, nor do I want to demean the artists who have worked for free on my work over the years. They hopefully got enough in return out of the investment.
They deserve better.
I also know for a fact there are plenty of playwrights out there who will happily pay fees for their own reason. No theater company is crying right now that they won’t get the chance to consider my plays for their competition.
Every even mild success I have from last June onward rests squarely on the backs and pocketbooks of the actors who braved traffic in LA, subways in NY, missed opportunities elsewhere or felt guilty for skipping rehearsal to audition for a commercial (they shouldn’t).
I don’t feel the need to go further into production teams’ sacrifices; just know I married a designer and learned everything about negotiating a contract from friend Cricket S. Myers. By the way, she was nominated for a Tony last year and will walk away from a job rather than accept a mediocre situation.
Often times, she is my hero.
Some may think these arguments are separate. I do not. Every time we de-value our work, an arts education program dies. After all, what value is there in it? Arts advocates are saints. Not all producers or self-producers are money-grubbing and selfish either. Many produce for the sheer joy of art, some for profit, numerous others simply because they’re good at it and theatre needs producers. It’s unfortunate that the most meager of producing codes must dictate paying actors gas money.
That is all.

2 Comments

  • By Brian, September 16, 2011 @ 10:28 am

    Thank you for writing this, Cindy.

    This is a subject that has been irritating me for for years.

    One of the arguments stated above was that the theatre company was so inundated with scripts once they removed their submission fee, they couldn’t handle it. That seems like an argument for fees. But why should a fee on the playwright be the factor that helps you, the company, with being able to logistically handle a contest? Why not plan for such an undertaking by lining up readers, allowing enough time for the process to play out so that you don’t feel like you need to speed-read the scripts. OR decide not to do it at all because the whole thing is just too overwhelming. As a playwright, I’d rather have a company not do a contest, or run a program instead of pass a fee on to us. Our script is essentially our interview with you, or audition. Would you charge actors to come audition? Would you charge designers to interview with you?

    What I was unable to say in 140 characters on Twitter was that companies should budget for these contests and/or programs. Figure out what it will cost you (in time and money) then fundraise for it. We, the playwrights, should not be your source of income. If that means you are inundated with scripts, so be it. Find other ways to reduce the script count. Shorten the submission period. Create strict guidelines that must be followed. Have the contest fit your mission so that not every play is right for it, but only those that fit your aesthetic. What you should be concerned about is the quality of the work you get as a submission and not the number of scripts submitted. You want to find the best, right? Well, you may be losing out on the best with a fee attached to it because the playwright that could/might win your contest may not submit their play. If you don’t care about quality, go ahead and do whatever you want to do and charge whatever fee you feel like. Unfortunately there will always be playwrights will to pay.

    -Brian (a playwright who was willing to pay when he was much less experienced and a former managing director of a company that charged a fee before it really knew what it was doing.)

  • By Bil, September 16, 2011 @ 1:11 pm

    I think we don’t talk about this topic enough. I absolutely agree that it’s unfair in nearly every case to charge a playwright to submit a play. I also think it’s unfair to ask an ensemble member to pay to be part of the ensemble.

    Problem number one (for both of these): there’s no guarantee of return on investment, let alone profit, even if your play gets produced or if you (the actor) get a leading role or you (the designer) get to design the show. Money that goes into even the most artistically sound productions often does not come back in the form of paying audience.

    Problem number two: it’s lazy on the part of the payee. If a producer requires artists to pay out of pocket to put up a show, it means the producer is bad at producing, and should probably find another job.

    I don’t mean to sound like a greedy old oil baron, and there can certainly be validity in pouring not only your time and energy but also your money into a work of art that rewards you in so many other ways…But let’s face it, this is why so much talent, talent that might last for decades to come, burns itself out by the age of 30.

    I’m pretty sure every undergraduate program that churns out theatre degrees, no matter how good on the artistic front, does the entire nation a disservice if they don’t require basic business classes. (Mine did not do this for me, and after the fact, I wish I had opted to take business classes on my own.) If artists become a bunch of art-focused “artsy types” with no idea of the worth of a dollar and no sense to ask for money for their craft, then producers who can’t raise funds elsewhere will continue to charge fees from artists, productions in communities will become pay-to-play rather than play-if-you’re-the-best-at-what-you-do, and production value will plummet. And then audiences will turn away, forcing producers to lower ticket prices and consequently charge the artists more to produce their own work, and down the spiral we all go.

    Let’s try to be adults here. This is not Neverland. Our bills must be paid with actual money, same as everyone else’s. Artists are no better than non-artists…But artists are also no less valuable than any other laborer; compensation must be demanded or we’ll all continue working for free.

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