All I can offer you

The other week some questions came up over at the Yahoo group known as MusicalMakers, and I found myself giving a long-winded lecture on theatre economics.

I know nothing about economics.

I need a vacation. The good news is, I’m on vacation now, writing blog posts in advance so it doesn’t seem to you, reader, like I’m slacking off.

Except I am slacking off by repurposing some of the economics thread from the other group.

First, a writer named Whitney asked for thoughts on her travails finding a director. Apparently, what she termed “a top director in L.A.” loved her show but wanted $3,000 to direct its first staged reading and some claim of copyright. I nearly screamed. In fact, I did the internet version of screaming, I pressed my “caps lock” button:

UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES SHOULD A WRITER EVER PAY A DIRECTOR

I then examined the pros-and-cons of signing a Right of First Refusal with a director. It’s one thing a writer can give that doesn’t cost the writer money. 

This prompted a question from another writer, Shelley, who understood, she said, the principle of writers not paying directors for a staged reading, but couldn’t see what was wrong with paying them for the first production. “Please tell me what I should have done instead.”

The answer seems simple enough: find a producer. A producer is responsible for raising money, negotiating contracts, and spending money. Shelley, claiming she lives in some distant backwater where she’d never be able to find a producer, said that, looking back on the experience, she’s satisfied with the course of action she took: spending money to produce the show herself.

Eek: I thought this post would be a retread, and yet everything I’ve written so far is original. Grrr.

We writers usually write on spec: that is, we do our work without immediate compensation. Often, there’s never any compensation. The beginning stages of most musicals involve years of us doing work for free.

I bow to no one in my appreciation of directors. There are zillions of good directors who aren’t evil, and a great many of them are willing to work for free, in the early stages of a project (or their careers) just as we do. Good non-evil directors know (and value!) the difference between writing and staging. Like us, they’re longing for compensation for the valuable creative service they provide.

The early stage of a career in the arts – all sorts of arts – often involves doing jobs for free. It’s a sorry state of affairs when so many writers and directors do so much uncompensated labor. But we’re in the same boat.

Now let’s talk about getting screwed. If Whitney’d paid that Californian viper $3000, the amount she would have earned from that musical would be negative $3000. If she’d allowed a copyright agreement that surrendered part of your royalties to the director, she’d be screwed in perpetuity.

Shelley’s response to this point indicated that she was fine with the idea of spending money to see her musical on stage. One imagines a madcap heiress from a screwball comedy, with money to burn, realizing her dream of writing a musical and putting it on stage. Sounds harmless, when you put it that way. To understand the iniquity and inequity of it all, you need to think like an economist.

In a world…[spoken in the stentorian tones of a trailer narrator] … in which many talented people are willing to do a lot of creative work for free. $0, I think we’d all agree, is small compensation for all the hard work it takes to write a musical, or to direct a musical.

There are some people who settle for even less. They’re willing to do hard work for a negative amount; to them, less-than-zero seems adequate reward.

Now, the argument is sometimes made that a writer benefits, in non-monetary ways, from having work on a stage. She learns a great deal, both from the nuts-and-bolts of putting on the show, and  especially from the audience reaction. She derives pleasure, and maybe even a good reputation, from the run, which may be positively reviewed. And, obviously, a track record of mountings and good reviews is helpful to one’s career.

So, we’re left with a set of economic questions on which reasonable minds may differ. The benefits set out in the last paragraph: How much are they worth? Should an artist work for free? What about Less Than Free? In what other field is Pay-To-Play acceptable? Should I have charged my dentist $2000 for the privilege of fixing my teeth?

In the situation Shelley described, it sounds like she decided that substantially less-than-zero was acceptable compensation for her hard work. Her director decided that acceptable compensation was some positive amount of money. Like Shelley, the director got to add another line to his resume, learn from the experience of putting the show on, enjoy and learn from the audience reaction, and enhance his reputation, possibly with critical raves. Who do you think got the better deal?

It’s been ages since I used a “greater-than” sign, so I can’t resist:

Some Compensation > No Compensation > Negative compensation (losing money)

One can try to look at this situation dispassionately, like a disinterested economist, but people tend to get rather passionate about getting screwed. First, picture a world in which nobody does any work for less than $2000. That would be a world like those legendary Good Old Days, and a limited amount of new work could get done. Second, picture a world where people are willing to work for free, the All-Volunteer Corps. Not as nice a world, since every party is undervalued. Finally, picture a world in which people are willing to work for Less Than Zero, and Pay For Play enterprises become common. Seems to me the worst world of all. The more people who accept Less Than Zero, the more we evolve into that very worst world. Economics dictates that payers naturally seek to pay the lowest price. It follows that the mere existence of artists who accept Less Than Zero makes it more difficult for the willing-to-work-for-free crowd to find work. And the writers who won’t work for less than $2000 are a vanishing breed. Like the dodo.

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