A Different Kind of Professional

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one astounded at Arena Stage’s effort to broadcast their New Play Convening, held this past January, online. I was incredibly heartened by Arena’s desire to make the convening an accessible and inclusive conversation. Which is why I was all the more troubled by a trend I noticed in the various articles, interviews, and manifestos the convening inspired: the ubiquitous use of the term “pro-am,” which is meant to describe people who create art but make a majority of their income in another profession.

As soon as I read the term, it felt exclusionary to me. It felt like a reminder to the many theater artists who might consider their work to be of “professional” quality that they are not in fact “professionals.” To be sure, theater artists and administrators don’t always employ pro-am in order to exclude. In her essay Theater of the Future, Meiyin Wang affirms her belief that pro-am theater artists can “assault our traditional notions of cultural authority” thereby transforming our values as a community. Yet I still wince every time I read the term. And when I read Ronald McCants’ An Endangered Playwright of Los Angeles on HowlRound, I immediately understood why. In his article, McCants asks if he just completed an MFA “in a hobby” because he’s been unable to pay his bills writing plays. I had the same reaction to McCants’ use of “hobby” as I have to the use of “pro-am.” Each of those word choices implies a strictly capitalist definition of professional, one that only includes artists who pay their expenses solely from their art. Why are we still giving capitalism such power in shaping our definition of theater professional? Especially when capitalism is so antithetical to how most theaters in the U.S. operate? So antithetical to the real conditions within which we generate theater in the U.S.?

Neo-liberal capitalist societies such as the contemporary U.S. are founded on the belief that markets are the best tool for determining the value of a good or service. Yet most theaters in the U.S. are not-for-profit entities created out of the recognition that we as an industry can no longer say profit is the best indicator of artistic quality. Not-for-profit arts institutions still rely on ticket sales for revenue because they must grapple with the larger capitalist society to which they belong. But those same not-for-profit institutions were founded, as NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman said at the same convening, out of a desire "to work outside the exigencies of the box office … to do work that otherwise wouldn't exist." Our industry created not-for-profit theaters to shield artists from the fickle nature of markets. Even the processes by which we generate theater in the U.S. run counter to the very fabric of capitalism.

If so much about theater in the U.S.—including institutional missions and the processes by which we generate work—is antithetical to capitalism, why do so many theater artists and administrators still rely on its assumptions when defining theater professional? 

a man looking at the camera
Martín Zimmerman. Photo by Carin Silkaitis.

During my undergraduate study, my economics professors constantly reminded me that the capitalist countries that have historically experienced the most robust economic growth (and, therefore, most successfully employed capitalism) have had the strongest traditions of property rights: laws clearly delineating who owns what. These laws make the transactions that drive markets simple and easy. You can’t, after all, sell a product or idea if you don’t know it’s yours to sell. But the collaborative nature of theater makes it nearly impossible to determine who owns what ideas in a work. Take for example the debate about subsidiary rights gaining so much attention in the U.S. theater community. At its core, the controversy surrounding sub rights is about ownership. It is about who owns the various ideas that give life to a piece of theater.

The debate is so contentious because of how difficult it is to designate individual ownership over the different ideas in a theatrical work. And the sub rights controversy centers on playwright-driven work, on processes in which each collaborator has a clearly defined role. If it's so difficult to designate ownership of ideas in playwright-driven processes, imagine how difficult it is to do so in devised or ensemble-driven processes. Is it because the strictest definition of professional refers only to those who make a living from their chosen discipline? Are we afraid that applying the term to anyone else is misleading? When I consult dictionary definitions of professional, I do find “a person who earns a living in a sport or other occupation frequently engaged in by amateurs.”  But I also find the simpler definition of “a person who is expert at his or her work.” And when I dig into the etymology of the term I find a more complex history.

The root for the word professional is the verb “profess” which originally meant, “to take a vow” of a religious nature. From profess we get the word “profession” meaning “occupation one professes to be skilled at.” It wasn’t until 1798 that professional became linked with remuneration and capitalism. The word professional historically connotes expertise, as well as someone who has chosen a certain discipline as her vocation. These connotations still hold true today. So when we use such a narrow definition of the word professional, do we risk inherently saying those who don’t pay their bills with their art aren’t experts? Or those who do pay their bills with their art inherently possess more skill and commitment to the field than those who do not? Are we comfortable using a definition of professional that inherently implies the book writer of a hit Broadway musical possesses more skill and commitment than someone who has dedicated their life to creating experimental work?

A rigidly capitalist definition of professional also begs the question of who fits such a definition. Take for example my own discipline of playwriting.  Many of the most successful U.S. playwrights have to supplement their royalties with the steady salary and health benefits of a university teaching position. These include some of the most produced playwrights in the U.S., as well as playwrights who have won some of the most prestigious awards in the field. Only a handful of playwrights pay their bills solely from royalties and commissions. Is it useful, then, to employ a definition of theater professional that includes only a handful of playwrights while excluding so many of our nation’s most accomplished playwrights? Perhaps it is, if we can use such a rigid definition to draw attention to the economically challenging state of our profession. But is that the reason we continue to use our current definition of professional? I’m not saying we should ignore the very real constraints capitalism places upon our community. These constraints are ones we must reckon with every day. But that doesn’t mean we need to give capitalism such unchecked influence over the one thing we can truly control: how we define ourselves. It seems that, in using such a strictly capitalist definition of professional, we apologize for the fact that many expert theater artists don't pay their bills with their art. If, however, we use non-capitalist parameters when defining professional, we can make our use of the word a point of pride.

We can use it to proclaim our belief that many expert artists do not receive sufficient recognition or compensation for their important contributions to their communities. Of course, dispensing with a capitalist definition of theater professional opens up the thorny question of how exactly we should define the term. If we take the term professional to mean “expert,” how do we define expert? Is an expert someone who possesses a certain level of education in the field? Someone who has won a certain prize? Someone who has a certain amount of experience? Someone whom another expert labels as such? Or should we dispense with the word professional altogether? The word does have a two-hundred-year bond with capitalism. And, if the language we use inherently shapes our values as a community, do we, therefore, need new terminology to describe levels of artistic accomplishment? If so, what terminology should replace professional? How do we describe theater artists who are experts at their discipline? How do we describe artists who have decided to make the theater their vocation? I don’t know. But it’s a conversation well worth having.

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To clarify my "living off your art is not a privilege someone gives you. It's something you decide to do" comment: I think money is a by-product of a commitment. It's not what makes you, in my eyes, a professional. The commitment is what makes you a professional. But what is commitment? I can't say for you, but for me it was/is quiting my day jobs, not knowing how I was going to pay my rent, and deciding to make my living solely as an artist (I include the administration of my art part of the art). As a result I had more time to make the work, promote the work, and manage the work. It could be commitment for someone else is writing everyday, working a day job and raising a family. But if you want to live solely off your art, my experience has been, you don't need someone to give you permission but you do have to create the circumstances that allow you to do so (make a cheap life and fall more in love with verbs than nouns). I can already hear the arguments about privilege and access (all of which I agree with) but making what I deemed the commitment to my art (not the money that came from it) is what made me feel like a professional. As a result I love the word. But I also embrace all adjectives and pronouns so if you can think of a better one, I can't wait to use it. Xo

After reading this article, I was thinking about a few historical writers and playwrights who famously did not make their living solely from writing, such as Anton Chekhov and Franz Kafka, and this reminded me of the argument that Shakespeare made his living from his work as a theatrical manager rather than his playwriting. Thinking of that, it occurred to me that the vast majority of people I know who make their living solely from the arts are art administrators rather than full-time artists. It's a bit odd to think that you have a better chance of getting a regular paycheck from managing other people's artwork than from creating your own.

As for the comment that "living solely on your art is not a privilege someone gives you. It’s something u decide to do," I don't see how that can be true in a culture that considers art a luxury, unless you're okay with the chance that you might starve to death. The only way to live solely off of your artwork is to convince other people that your work is worth paying a rather high price for--something many famous artists have been unable to do. Does this mean that people like Vincent Van Gogh or Christian Schad, who were commercially unsuccessful during their lifetimes, should not be considered "professional" artists?

I knew a fellow who, on his tax returns, listed his occupation as "reprobate." I don't need affirmation from people I don't respect.

Most of the people who propagate these "pro-am" notions do so out of a desire to bludgeon down aspiring talent and/or competition. Screw them and their pretentions.

“Neo-liberal capitalist societies such as the contemporary U.S.” Neo-liberal?!??!!!??

“It wasn’t until 1798 that professional became linked with remuneration and capitalism.” Hello… “The Wealth of Nations” by Adam Smith was first published in 1776. The English ideal of “C3” (commerce, capitalism and conquest) is the root of many continuing societal ills.

The first thing would be to emphasize the difference between professional and professionalism. Professional just means you’re getting a check – it says nothing about quality.

Second, start telling these people and their pretentions to kiss your a$$ - if we get enough people to realize that most of the bull we accept can be dispensed with in this way there’ll be some changes.

My slogan on the matter is: “Money is how people with no talent keep score.”

I have the respect of my peers and associates, which is more than enough.

I found Martin's article to be relevant and timely. Just this month TCG published its "State of the Artists" survey. 1,600 individual artists "working in the professional not-for-profit theatre" responded. I will refrain from quoting all the findings, but here are some pieces of data that are especially relevant to the questions Martin is raising:

1. Median artistic income is 39,600. One quarter of the respondents make less than $25,000.

2. "On average, the percent of income from theatre work is only 42%... The leading sources of income outside the theater are teaching (40%) and non-arts related jobs (37%)... 21% of respondants say their greatest source of income is from non-arts jobs."

If for the moment, we accept that the artists surveyed are "professionals" simply because they work with "professional", non-profit companies, then we must also concede that the vast majority of our field's so-called professionals do not survive solely on their artistic work (This is to say nothing of all of our great artists who do not work with "professional" companies). This is a major problem our field must confront. This problem is exacerbated by the pervasive spoken and unspoken attitude that those who seek income outside of the field are either not professionals and/or are producing inferior work. Ultimately, I don't think Zimmerman's article is really about copyright/issues of ownership. Rather, I see it as a pointed critique of those who have wrongly associated quality/artistic merit with economic viability. I have seen performances by administrative assistants and caterers that far exceed the work of actors on LORT stages, yet these talents are not referred to as professionals because they make their living carrying trays of hors d'oeuvres. What they do to pay their bills says nothing about their talent or their level of professionalism (It does, however, say a lot about our field's inability to recognize talent or offer jobs to all those who deserve them), and I want to commend Mr. Zimmerman for trying to rid our discipline of this toxic discourse which values money over art.

For those who have challenged my tone while ignoring the substance of my reply to Martin's article, let me summarize the essential points:

1. In one paragraph, Martin asserted as a factual matter an indeterminacy or uncertainty about who owns the ideas in a theatrical work; and so

2. I responded to that paragraph to clarify the nature of such ownership, in legal terms, and to describe the implications for playwrights, directors, theaters, audiences, and those in other creative fields of endeavor, should "ideas" be confused with "property". I also described the sacrifices playwrights have made in order to ensure their ownership and control over their work.

Are there other ways to look at the concept of "ownership", beyond its legal meaning in our society? Of course. But I will leave any discourse as to the metaphysics of theatrical identities and processes to those less limited in their conceptions, and will continue to offer no view on the subject.

3. My comment about Martin’s non-membership was offered to explain why he may have misstated these facts, since the Guild has been working hard to inform its current member playwrights about this issue in recent years.

At no point did I criticize or engage with Martin's larger themes about self-definition, professionalism, other modes of theater-making, etc., nor will I. Nor have I have implied that Martin "disregards" his fellow playwrights, despite some here making that inference.

As for my “tone”… in the neighborhood where I grew up, gentility was not a useful survival mechanism. That being said, Martin, though you seem to have accepted my critique in the spirit of heated debate, I apologize to you if you felt I was over the line, or “going after you” as Polly would have it.

However, to those of you in this thread who called my comments "harsh", "unnecessary", "snarky", "disingenuous", “naïve”, “reactionary”, or who see villainy in my use of the word “bootstrapping” (a common colloquial term in legal jargon), or who compared my comments (through a hyperlink) to those of white supremacists, rest assured that I ask for no such apology, since I understand you were merely using rhetorical devices to make your points persuasive. Just as the whole focus on my “tone”, deflecting attention from the substance of my points, can be viewed as a rhetorical strategy in and of itself.

I would ask for an apology from Kelly Howe, who characterized me as someone only “supposedly standing up for playwrights”, except that I deem her statement unforgivable and so her apology would be irrelevant. Kelly, I’ve made “standing up for playwrights” my career for the past 14 years, and there is nothing “supposed” about it.

Anyway, Martin, if you’d like to rejoin the Guild, give Gary Garrison a call. He’s the “nice one”.

As Borges said: There are no more "new" ideas in this world.

As a writer, and as a girl grown up in nomenclature (dictatorial) system, member of a big artists group/family in Albania - where few of them were killed or punished because of the "new ideas", I don't really feel to have the right to discuss here, but just wanted to say that if an artist does not have a difficult life, if he does not face a lot of problems, what is he going to give to the society? How can anyone be a millionaire in a second? That's a good moneymaker process but it is not art and we all know it.

I loved all the posting and they were very interesting and helpful for me so I wanted to say Thank You to everyone..

Warm Regards,

Lediana

A slight correction to my post: I incorrectly typed "Dramatist's Guild" rather than the correct "Dramatists Guild." Seems an unfortunate typo in a conversation that is in many ways about the tensions between individuals and collectives, so apologies!

Thank you very much, Mr. Sevush, for your response and the passion with which both you and the Guild advocate for playwrights. Unfortunately, though, you have made a lot of assumptions about what I said in my article.

My argument is one about self-definition, about why we shouldn't allow capitalism to shape the one thing we can truly control in a capitalist society: what we, as theater artists, call ourselves.

While I did say it is "nearly impossible to determine who owns what ideas in a [theatrical] work," nowhere did I say that I believe we, as playwrights, do not (or should not) own our plays. Nowhere did I say that we, as playwrights, owe a certain portion of our royalties to other artists or institutions. I merely acknowledged the reasons why the debate around subsidiary rights is so contentious, and that this debate points to a friction between Capitalism and the processes by which we create theater and define professionalism in the U.S.

If you acknowledge that there can be collaborators who contribute to a work without necessarily receiving capital compensation, that gets to the heart of my point. Are those people who are not financially compensated for their contributions necessarily "amateurs?" Are those people who are financially compensated inherently more "professional" than those who are not? That is what I am asking in this article.

Now I also personally believe it is important to generously credit everyone (artists and otherwise) who has helped me in the process of writing my work. I do this in order to debunk the dangerous myth of the individual Tony Kushner has spoken about at length (thanks to Joy Meads for sharing some of TK's words). But I credit these contributions while still vigorously defending my ownership of my plays. In fact, I spiritedly defend my ownership of my plays not because I believe that I created my plays in some vacuum, but because I know that defending my ownership of my plays is the only way I can make a living off my work. Other theater artists have institutions and structures that help secure them a living wage for their work, and we playwrights have ours. One of the most important structures we have as playwrights is our ownership of the words we write. It is possible for me to defend that structure as crucial within a larger Capitalist society while—at the same time—still acknowledging that the structure doesn't always perfectly reflect the processes by which theater is made—or how one should measure legitimacy or professionalism of contribution to a field. Because that is first and foremost what divisions like amateur v. professional do—they act as cultural gatekeepers for determining various kinds of legitimacy (and legitimacy is of course nothing if not subjective).

I also offer here some clarification in relation to your assumption that I have chosen to stand apart from my fellow playwrights by not joining the Guild. In fact, my current status in (or not in) the Guild stems from a variety of factors, none of which have to do with a desire to stand apart. I have been a Guild member in the past when my membership fees were subsidized by my grad program. I even used Guild contract templates to negotiate with theaters when I was a student member of the DG. I am aware and grateful for the fact that I have benefited and continue to benefit from some of the important work the Guild does on behalf of playwrights. The only reason I am not currently a Guild member has to do with membership dues. This past year I have been in the tenuous financial situation confronted by many playwrights just out school. As a result, I couldn't quite justify paying the membership dues this year. But I anticipate being able to manage the expense very soon, and very much look forward to joining the Guild again.

I also want to be absolutely clear about the fact that I have a deep and abiding respect for guilds, unions, and other organizations that represent and further workers' rights and interests. I believe all of these institutions have tremendous social value and treat them accordingly in every aspect of my politics.

This conversation has been so generative because it reminds me once again that a piece of writing is never finished and that a community often helps you clarify what you mean to say. Thanks to Ralph Sevush, Polly Carl, Joy Meads, and everyone else who has chimed in for helping me do just that.

Sincerely,Martín

I read Zimmerman's post not as tethering ideas to property, but instead as doing exactly the opposite--of pointing out that it's important to note the huge problem of using a vocabulary of professional that inherently CONSTRUCTS (because this distinction is not inevitable--the whole point of the article) a difference between playwrights (or other artists) who pay all or most of their bills as a result of their art and those who don't. I feel like Zimmerman's article acknowledges what Sevush's post seems to avoid: that there are many, many models of making theatre beyond the one to which Sevush's post defaults.

As just one of way too many examples to name here, what about a playwright who works very, very closely with a collective of artists who purposely do not define themselves with individual specific theatre roles (because they actually do a little bit of everything in their collective)? Even if the collective and the playwright agree that the playwright is the one writing the play (but drawing on collective explorations) and should be the one to retain copyright and receive any monetary compensation that ends up attending the work, are we left with the idea that in that context the playwright working on the project is a professional and that the other artists are functioning as amateurs? And that they can only call themselves professional artists if they're making some money off art in other venues? This is surely not even the best example (indeed it probably lacks more nuance than most), but is merely the one that comes to mind at this moment.

I care about this issue a lot as an artist with a very hybridized identity, like more than half of the artists I know. (My artistic world obviously lacks the clarity of definition of Sevush's.) Zimmerman pushes on the idea that the money trail defines professionalism or expertise. He's talking not quite as much about law in and of itself as about discourses (a different set of laws, really), about how concepts constructed in the cultural imaginary(ies) have real, material effect. Even a cursory understanding of power, privilege, and discourse allows for the consideration that laws don't govern facts or even constitute the only realm in which power is forged and preserved in this country or anywhere else. That's why people devote their whole lives to discourse analysis--because how ideas are constructed (or, more specifically in this case, how a very discipline is defined) have implications that are at once monetary, ethical, moral, aesthetic, etc. Law doesn't get to steamroll those other realms of power and meaning with a simple "Actually . . . " That's why the questions Zimmerman raises--about the material force and effect of discourses of professionalism in the arts--feel immediate and pressing. Sevush’s (I think snarky; perhaps some will disagree) implication at the end of his post—that Zimmerman’s just toying with semantics and opting not to advocate for the profession--feels so naïve about the relationship between words and power that it’s staggering. It’s also hobbled by an implied false binary between critical inquiry and advocacy.

Sevush talks about how ideas do and don't work (and who does and doesn't own them) as though the law is automatically the best or most valid standard of measure, evaluation, or conversation on the subject of artistic property. I want to be clear: I don’t disagree with him about the importance of playwrights retaining ownership of their property. Rather, I disagree with his language’s implication that laws are self-evident as a trump card in this conversation.

I did not read Zimmerman's article as at all implying that playwrights should have to give up their rights to authorship. Neither do I believe that accepting the basic premises of Zimmerman's argument necessitates the kind of "slippery slope" reactionary response here from Sevush, where he implies that following Zimmerman's logic would just have to lead to the various and sundry "cultural chaos" he details in his paragraph about “bootstraps.” In artistic politics or any other form of politics (not that you can separate them), I'm suspicious of anyone who deploys slippery slope logic. (By the way, I also find myself concerned when anyone invokes the word “bootstrap” when talking about capitalism. Discourse matters, and that word’s got a long history in the U.S.’s political imagination, particularly in relation to money and power.)

I also did not read this article as communicating any disregard for the economic state of fellow playwrights. Quite the contrary, in fact. I saw it as 'fessing up to how, regardless of what law or capitalism (which, by the way, are pretty tight pals) might dictate, plenty of artists are doing work all the time that would be dismissed as "amateur" by many people just because they don't pay their full rent with the earnings. I saw this to be the heart of Zimmerman's useful post. Well, that and his invitation to start a conversation, which has surely happened here, so thanks to him for that.

Finally, I want to agree with Joy Meads (whose post I thought was very smart) that I do not at all follow how Zimmerman's not happening to be a member of the Dramatist's Guild at this time in any way necessarily signals a lack of regard for fellow playwrights. For Sevush to say in his response that he stated that as a merely factual matter feels a bit disingenuous. The reality that Zimmerman is not a member of the guild may indeed be a fact. But the "electing to stand apart from his fellow dramatists" part of the original post crosses way over the line from fact into presumption. And it feels strange for someone supposedly standing up for playwrights and their economic conditions to not acknowledge (until pushed to do so) that there might be reasons one might not be a member of DG at a given moment other than "I elect to stand apart." In the past, I’ve had many reasons to respect and value DG and its work, so I choose to assume that the tone of Sevush’s post and the limited conception of theatrical identities and processes indicated by it are more exceptions at DG than the rule.

With permission from the participants I saved a robust Twitter dialogue sparked by this post and the comments for others to see here. The dialogue occurred between playwright Taylor Mac (@TaylorMacNYC) and Howl Round editor Polly Carl (@Pollykcarl). It is pasted in chronological order, unedited, below.

@TaylorMacNYC: @Pollykcarl @howlround I actually had a similar reaction when I read some of what Zimmerman wrote. sadly Sevush's tone trumps the message. @Pollykcarl: @TaylorMacNYC I think this is a very complicated issue but it's a conversation we have to have. Now it pits playwrights vs. other artist. @Pollykcarl: @TaylorMacNYC and I don't think that's so useful. The disenfranchised all fighting over a sliver of the pie. @TaylorMacNYC: @Pollykcarl i don't feel disenfranchised. Maybe cuz I don't give subsidiary rights to directors. I love 'em but love owning my work more. @TaylorMacNYC: @pollykcarl and I'm one of those artists who make my living only from my art. Maybe because I honor my ownership of it. @TaylorMacNYC: @pollykcarl living solely on your art is not a privilege someone gives you. It's something u decide to do. @TaylorMacNYC: @pollykcarl and that decision, in my eyes, is what makes you a professional. @Pollykcarl: @TaylorMacNYC I honor your process and your self-definition as artist and proprietor. But there isn't one way to make theater and hence @Pollykcarl: @TaylorMacNYC there can't be one way to define ownership/ or the outcome of the creative process and when the dramatist guild @Pollykcarl: @TaylorMacNYC goes after a playwright grappling w self-definition in the name of harnessing cultural chaos, I worry, not for you, but maybe. @TaylorMacNYC: @Pollykcarl I agree the tone of the dramatist guild's response was unfortunate. @TaylorMacNYC: @Pollykcarl but the reason there's a guild and not a union is so playwrights can self-define and still own their work or give it freely. @TaylorMacNYC: @pollykcarl we should honor the guild's desire to give the playwright the choice. @Pollykcarl: @TaylorMacNYC do you feel I'm not? Don't think I'm saying that at all. @TaylorMacNYC: @pollykcarl as opposed to unions, corporations, and some of our non-profits who try to decide for the individual artist @Pollykcarl: DG is an institution with a desire for perpetuating itself, like all institutions. And they too make decisions for @Pollykcarl: @TaylorMacNYC individual artists and perhaps it's an institution you like better, than a non-profit theater and I get that. @TaylorMacNYC: @Pollykcarl You are an advocate of the freedom for ideas expressed @HowlRound (and elsewhere). As I would hope you would be. This is grand @TaylorMacNYC: @Pollykcarl because it's a guild & not a union, we can choose to work outside its industry standards & the worst they can do is disapprove

Again, again, again... ideas are not owned. Plays are owned. Quoting DG council member Kushner doesn't change that fact, despite the aura of authenticity you think it lends to your and Zimmerman's incorrect assertion to the contrary.

And my observation about Mr. Zimmerman's non-member status in the Guild stated that he chose to stand apart from his fellow playwrights, as a factual matter. I did not state or imply a "why" for his decision (the inference of “disregard” is yours, not mine… it may be that his non-membership is based on expense, or ideological objections, or whatever), but if he had been a member, he'd be aware of the "idea/expression" dichotomy in copyright law that we inform our members of on a regular basis and so would have been less likely to misrepresent it in his post.

Does that observation seem like a harsh and personal attack? Maybe so, but my comments are directly related to a public position Zimmerman (and now you) have staked out on this issue, not some unrelated matter or personal attribute. And this position, coming as it does in an internet culture where piracy is rampant and authorship is increasingly devalued, impacts on the ability of playwrights to make a living. Which is a problem I take EXTREMELY personally.

@Ralph Sevush, I'd respectfully like to submit this quote from Tony Kushner, as singular a voice as our field has produced:

"The fiction that artistic labor happens in isolation, and that artistic accomplishment is exclusively the provenance of individual talents, is politically charged and, in my case at least, repudiated by the facts. ...

"...Americans pay high prices for maintaining the myth of the Individual: We have no system of universal health care, we don't educate our children, we can't pass sane gun control laws, we elect presidents like Reagan, we hate and fear inevitable processes like aging and death. Way down close to the bottom of the list of the evils Individualism visits on our culture is the fact that in the modern era it isn't enough to write; you must also be a Writer, and play your part as the protagonist in a cautionary narrative in which you will fail or triumph, be in or out, hot or cold. The rewards can be fantastic; the punishment dismal; it's a zero sum game, and its guarantor of value, its marker is that you pretend you play it solo, preserving the myth that you alone are the wellspring of your creativity."

You may disagree with Kushner, and Zimmerman, over the existence of a bright and shining line of individual ownership of an idea: it is a question over which intelligent people of good conscience differ. Our field is made stronger by passionate arguments over sincerely held beliefs.

But I do not think that the fact that Mr. Zimmerman has not elected to join the organization you lead is relevant to this argument, nor do I agree with your implication that his choice signals a lack of regard for his fellow playwrights. I know it's difficult to nuance tone on the internet--notoriously so--but, to me, this response comes across as unnecessarily harsh and personal. It's a seductive tactic, but I think we've all seen where that road leads. I don't think we need to go there.

I feel obliged to comment, as the co-Executive Director of The Dramatists Guild. Mr. Zimmerman raises important issues but misstates some key facts about “property”, “ideas” and subsidiary rights along the way.

He says: “But the collaborative nature of theater makes it nearly impossible to determine who owns what ideas in a work.”

No, actually case law and statutes have been pretty clear on who owns what. It’s only those who don’t like the law that insist on its indeterminacy. And currently the law provides that ideas aren’t owned by copyright unless they are in the form of original expression fixed in a tangible medium. Direction does not meet the test, often failing the originality standard (with staging generally consisting of functional movements implicit in the text), but ALWAYS failing the fixation standard, since any fixation of newly created stage directions could only be made pursuant to the author’s approval.

Directors no more own their ideas about the play than they do their ideas about the sets, costumes, lighting, music, or the performances of the actors. They no more own their ideas about the play than a conductor owns their interpretation of a concerto.

To bootstrap “ideas” into “property” would bring about the very indeterminacy of which Mr. Zimmerman spoke, and would create cultural chaos. Every production would create new layers of property interests, turning public domain works of Shakespeare into properties owned in one way or another by every high school drama teacher in America who has put up their version of "Romeo & Juliet". Every actor would own their role, every conductor their interpretation of the concerto they conduct. Directors would be under constant threat from other directors, as we have already seen in the URINETOWN cases in Chicago and Akron. Litigation would be a constant throughout the industry, burdening theatrical production beyond reason, closing theaters (like the Carousel Theater in Akron), and making works virtually unproduceable.

Zimmerman goes on to say: “Take for example the debate about subsidiary rights gaining so much attention in the U.S. theater community. At its core, the controversy surrounding sub rights is about ownership.”

No, the sub rights controversy is about power, not ownership.

Playwrights live and work in isolation, often desperately grateful to anybody who even agrees to read their work, much less deigns to direct or produce it, while barely eking out an existence from it. Actually, they mostly don’t, and so do other things to pay the bills while engaging in this hobby… or vocation, profession, craft, art, whatever you’d like to call this endangered activity (feel free to read Todd London’s seminal work OUTRAGEOUS FORTUNE for a thorough understanding of the dire circumstances for playwrights in America).

Directors, on the other hand, are members of a national union, and they’ve been told by their union that they own “property”, despite our laws to the contrary. But they’ve been unsuccessful in obtaining a share of their Broadway employer’s subsidiary rights share for their services, having to settle for substantial fees, advances and royalties instead, which regularly increase under periodically renegotiated collective bargained agreements that also provide directors with health and pension benefits.

The union’s failure has emboldened directors to continually turn to the vulnerable playwright and make their demands directly… such demands often made regardless of the nature of their particular contribution, sometimes at the 11th hour, perhaps even with a tinge of extortion. Playwrights may concede, often under duress, because they want to see their work produced. None of this has to do with “ownership”. It has to do with a disparity of power.

Zimmerman continues: “It is about who owns the various ideas that give life to a piece of theater. The debate is so contentious because of how difficult it is to designate individual ownership over the different ideas in a theatrical work.”

Ah, but there’s the rub, as a mere playwright once said. As I’ve already explained, ideas are not “property” that can be owned under copyright law.

And directors are supposed to have ideas about staging a work; it is the very thing for which their employer is paying them. To the extent the idea may change the text (including the play’s stage directions), it is subject to the approval of the playwright, who may reject it or incorporate it in the play, as s/he may elect, just as the playwright has chosen from the universe of ideas as to what is included in the work. And the director has been compensated for the idea by their employer, through the terms of collective bargaining. If directors are unhappy about their bargain, they should take it up with their employers at the next collective bargaining session.

Instead, however, they continue to turn to the playwright to make good on their perceived shortfall, because it is assumed that the director has added value to the play. But the presumption of “added value” only flows one way. But what of the play’s added value to the career of the director… why is that never considered? When directors insist that authors give them rights of first refusal to direct future productions, authors become employment agents. Shouldn’t authors then get a 10% agents commission? No, because the benefits of the collaboration are generally bilateral, not unilateral. Both parties may be benefiting from the collaboration. And while the director has the benefits of collective bargaining, and a playwright has nothing more than a blank page to fill, both parties bear their own risk as they move forward in their collaboration. Or at least they should.

Mr. Zimmerman speaks of himself as a playwright, so I’m shocked by his assertions here. But since he is not a member of the Dramatists Guild, electing instead to stand apart from his fellow dramatists, perhaps I should not be surprised. In any event, he may well dismiss my criticisms as predictably centered on the capitalistic aspects of theatrical production, what with my ill-mannered focus on an author’s property.

But dramatists in America are in a unique position. In exchange for retaining ownership and control of their words, they have foregone the benefits of unionization enjoyed by other groups of writers (like the Writers Guild, representing TV and film writers), and unlike any other participants in a theatrical production. They have sacrificed to keep ownership and control of their work. They have, in a sense, made a contract with society... "You don't have to support us. Just let us say what we need to say, in the way we want to say it." So when conflicting ownership claims are made against their work, the social contract is broken, not just federal laws.

This violation of the social contract is detrimental -- for both the writer and the society as a whole – because it inevitably results in the theater being abandoned by its best and brightest. After all, if you’re going to be treated like a screenwriter, it’s better to be paid like one. It is in this way that the growing lack of respect for authorship, evidenced by Mr. Zimmerman’s article, may be causing a migration of talent that undermines the vitality of the theater as an art form.

But I suppose that is of no account when you are more concerned with defining what a theater “professional” is than in advocating for the continuing existence of the profession itself.

Thank you for an excellent article. In fact, I find all of the articles published here to be thoughtful and very well written. Thank you for provoking us to think, in this case about the term "Professional" as it applies to the playwright.

I think the results are different if you argue from reality and not from self-description. The self-description of capitalism is something about markets being magic. In fact, money drives companies. There's no conscience, no responsibility. A lay-off saves money that goes into profits, the stock goes up. The following quarter, well, a business plan will come to us as needed. And there are no consequences. If the stock goes up, you managers get rewarded & if it goes down you still get rewarded. These standards are imposed on the art institutions by the money owners. Modern art and modern music were capitalist markers vs. communist realism. They were fostered by the government, universities, etc. With the end of communism, the government (created, sustained & controlled by money interests - or do you think slavery in the constitution was a moral choice?) lost its interest in supporting art. Art no longer served its (business's) interests. Popularity, that is, vulgarization, is the source of so-called professionalism as measured by income. Or do you think the Harry Potter industry is based on artistic values? Popularity is the luck of the draw. The lucky one makes lots of money and the unlucky one doesn't. Do good work. That's the best I know. Art is experimental and experiential. Earning a living is not related to this. Moby Dick sold 600 copies or so & was a dead issue until it was 'discovered' in the 20th century. Melville worked as a customs inspector, a political appointment.

This is excellent, Martin, thank you so much for taking the time and energy to put these thoughts down and share them. It is a wonderful reminder that theater, to me at least, is not and should not be a market-driven endeavor (theater is more important to me than commerce). This also makes me aware that market-driven language then does not belong in the work I do.

Lately I've been wondering about the way that we define our terms as a community - or rather how those terms have been defined for us - and I think this exploration fits snugly in that line of thinking. I love the idea of it being enough for us to assert with a simple "I am a - " the roles we fulfill as artists. Is it possible to take the commerce and capitalism out of our individual conceptions of ourselves, even if we might have to encounter commerce and capitalism in other areas of our work and lives? It's comforting to think we may be able to do just that.

This makes wonderfully good sense. Simple, straightforward, good sense. It is fascinating that it is written in a tone that implies that the intelligent and insightful author expects significant push-back or resistance to his very reasonable central thesis. And he is probably right in some ways. But it is a shame that this is so. We are amazingly attached--hook, line and sinker-- to capitalism. It surrounds and defines so much of our lives that it is hard to see past the frame. Thanks for doing so so simply and eloquently. And in terms of what terminology we need to replace professional... it would be lovely to think that none were necessary. Wouldn't it be lovely if simply saying/thinking/feeling "I am a playwright" or "I am an actor" or "I am a director" was enough. Leaving the commerce side out for a change. Just that. This is what I do...