The Playwright


        Robert Cohen and Donovan Sherman. Theatre: Brief Version, 11th edition, Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2017; Chapter 4: The Playwright.

Outside reading...
        Louis E. Catron. The Elements of Playwriting. Waveland Press Inc. 2001
        Jeffrey Hatcher. The Art and Craft of Playwriting. Story Press. 2000
        Michael Wright. Playwriting In Process: Thinking and Working Theatrically. Heinemann Drama. 1997

        E-script, the internet's scriptwriting workshop
        Who owns the rights? Copyright, the law and licensing the show
        The U.S. Copyright Office

Objectives of Unit I, Lecture 4: The Playwright
To identify the functions, duties and responsibilities of the playwright.

1. What is the playwright's function?

To write the text of the play. He develops the characters, outlines the plot, and presents this creation to the audience through dramatic dialogue. Remember, a character's dialogue is written to be spoken by an actor and heard, and understood by an audience.

2. What are the playwright's tasks?

  1. Select the specific subject matter of the play,
  2. Determine the focus and emphasis,
  3. Establish the purpose,
  4. Establish the point of view,
  5. Develop the dramatic structure, and
  6. Create the dramatic characters.

3. Generally, what is the subject matter of a play?

Aristotle defined drama as "the imitation of men in action." There for, the subject matter of all drama is "man," the human being. It is the playwright's responsibility to select a specific human being, and to focus on this person's story.

4. What is the purpose of drama?

To entertain, to teach, to question, to excite, to move, to thrill, to frighten...

Answering the question: "What is theatre for?," Jeffrey Sweet, a playwright on the Theatre Mailing List, posted...

Theatre is for a lot of things. Entertainment, of course. It's also a social event at which groups of people jointly participate in creating / witnessing images of their culture and so see these images in a new way. It's also for play -- to provide an outlet for people to have a good time in a structured way. It can also be for education -- to make vivid, for instance, arguments and controversies which would look less vital summarized in historical, philosophical, sociological or anthropological texts. (Jeffrey Sweet, Theatre Mailing List, 1999)
5. Where does a playwright get his ideas?
From his own personal experiences, from a news story, from history.
6. What is a scenario?
A plot outline. A chronological listing of each episode (or scene or moment) in a play and a description of what happens in each episode. What characters are involved? What do they do? What does the audience need to be told? The scenario is used by the playwright to document the plays internal structure.

The playwright begins with a series of episodes, and builds a play. A director and dramatic scholar begins with the play and breaks it down into a series of episodes. When I was an under graduate, I took an Intro to Drama (not theatre) class. We took the 15 assigned plays and broke them down into ten to twelve dramatic episodes. We took the Shakespearean play and not only broke it down into 10-12 episodes, but defined each episode with a line of Shakespearean text from the play. It was a challange, but we were able to reduce Shakespeare's King Lear into 15 lines. (No, I will not ask you to do this!)

7. When in the writing process is the dialogue developed?
Writing the dialogue is one of the last steps in the script development process. Typically once a playwright has a "rough working draft," he will "workshop" the play before friends and family. A workshop production can be as simple as a staged reading or as complicated as a full production minus set, lights and costumes. During this performance, the playwright discovers what works, and what doesn't. What needs to be re-written, and what can remain un-changed? It has often been said that "Plays are not written, they are re-written!" A script is ocassionaly revised even after a show has opened on Broadway.
8. What type of shows are normally written on spec?
Broadway at Night
Broadway at Night
Most Broadway and off-Broadway scripts. A few screenplays, such as Joe Eszterhas' Basic Instinct (1992), which was bought by TriStar for three million dollars (a record at the time), are also written on spec.
    On order?
TV Studio
A Television Studio
Almost all television scripts, many movies, and often the book, or dialogue, for a musical.
9. How does a playwright "sell" his script?
Most playwrights market their work through an agency. Some send their work directly to a regional or educational theatre. Scripts sent to a Broadway producer, or a Hollywood film studio, will normally be returned unopened and unread.

Because of the difficulty in getting a script mounted, some playwrights will produce their own work. They will rent a small theatre, put a couple small ads in the paper and count on good reviews and "word of mouth" to draw an audience. Budgets for these independent, non-union shows range from six to twelve thousand dollars. Charging ten to fifteen dollars a seat, the playwright, with a little bit of luck, may break even. The writer is hoping that good reviews will lead to a major production and publication. The chance of this happening is better than winning the lottery-- but not much better.

10. What is the function of an artist's agent?
The agent's job is to bring a new play to the attention of a producer.
11. When does he earn his income?
He earns his ten percent when the script is first optioned, and then produced. The agent will not earn his income until the author's work is presented to a paying audience. An option is a contract between the playwright and the producer. For a fee the playwright gives the producer a set amount of time, six months for example, to raise the necessary funds to produce the play.
12. What is the size of the film/television script market?
Between 4,500 and 5,000 television and screenplays are produced each year. Nearly five times that number of scripts are registered yearly with The Dramatists Guild, the union representing the playwright.
13. What factors can make a play marketable?
A play should have a small cast (for example: 3 men, 2 women), contain a little humor, require a single set, and use contemporary, non-period costumes. In todays market, it is almost impossible to mount a Broadway production of a large cast play. It's simply too expensive. One of the reasons there are few revivals of the great plays of the 30s is that the casts of those shows are huge. According to, the original production of Our Town in 1938 had a cast of 54. That's alot of paychecks.

Be sure to read "Photo Essay: Playwright Neil LaBute" starting on pages 78 of the text.

14. Who holds the copyright to a play?
The author. The producer of a first class commercial production does not purchase the play, only the exclusive performance rights for a limited amount of time.
15. How long can a play be in copyright?
Sonny Bono
Sonny Bono (1935-1998)
In October 1998 the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (Named after the singer, record producer and Congressional Representative from California) was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton extending the maximum copyright period for works written before January 1, 1978 from 75 to 95 years. Those works written before January 1, 1923 which have passed into the public domain will remain in the public domain. A work created in 1923 will be under copyright for 95 years, are till January 1, 2019. Scripts developed after January 1, 1978 are under copyright for the life of the writer plus 70 years.
16. What rights are included in the copyright?
All rights. These include the right of performance, publication, adaptation (changing the play into a movie or a musical, for example), and translation into a different language.
17. Who owns the rights to a film or television script?
When a studio or production company purchases a screenplay from the writer, they buy the entire property, including the copyright.
18. What is public domain?
When a script is no longer under copyright, it is said to be in the public domain-- owned by the public. American plays written before January 1, 1923 are in the public domain and can be performed, adapted, copied, etc. without receiving permission from the playwright. The reason that William Shakespeare's Hamlet, F. Storr's English translation of Sophocles's Antigone and Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest are available online and published in inexpensive "Thrift Editions" is because they are in the public domain.
19. What is royalty?
The money paid to the author (or copyright holder) for permission to perform their work. The royalty fee for a commercial production of a play is a percentage, usually between 5 and 7 percent, of the box office gross. The fee for a non-commercial production is determined by the playwright's agent.
20. Which will be higher, the royalty for a non-commercial production of a Neil Simon comedy or a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical?
The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. The royalty for three performances of a Neil Simon comedy, such as The Odd Couple (1965) will probably be around $300. The royalty for three performances of a popular "Broadway" musical, such as Oklahoma! (1943), Beauty and the Beast (1994) or Miss Saigon (1991) will probably be between $1800 and $2400. A play usually has only one author, a musical may have as many as five: Composer, Lyricist, Playwright (book writer), Vocal Arranger, Orchestrator.
21. What is the legal definition of a performance?
Anytime a work is presented before an audience. An audience is anyone watching the show who is not directly involved in the production.
22. What is a boot-legged production?
Performing a copyrighted work without first receiving a "license" (permission) from the playwright (or owner). The Copyright Act (Title 17 of the U.S. Code) provides for a statutory fine of $ 50,000.00 for the first infringement or performance. The presenter may also be sued for damages by the author or the copyright holder.
23. How does the playwright (or his agent) learn of a pirated production of one of his works?
Through stories printed in local and regional newspapers. Copyright holders also learn of pirate productions through on-line posts to Facebook (and other social media outlets) as well as YouTube videos. Caution: If you are going to steal someone's intellectual property, don't advertise.

Some advice from Geralyn Horton, a playwright on the Theatre Discussion List.

Take yourself and your art seriously. Ask for what you need as an artist -- money, advice, allies, readings. Don't expect encouragement. There are already more good plays than can be produced, so nobody's eager to nurture yours. On the other hand, nobody else in the world can write the plays you would, so don't let disinterest discourage you. The road to accomplishment runs through a wilderness of rejection.

A "good school" is a big help. Not for instruction, but for contacts and resources, and because it gives you the best chance to team up with talented young acting and directing peers,--- especially those with good luck, generous dispositions, and family money. Twenty years from now you want to be part of a "new" movement in theatre with some of these same people, having built a common vocabulary from mutual inspiration and the hard work of learning the skills to communicate to the audience.

Whatever you do, get your stuff read, workshopped, performed. Direct other writers' stuff. Learn dramatic and comedy construction from production, not in a classroom or from books. (Books are important, knowledge is important, but for enriching the content rather than learning the craft that goes into your work). Don't be afraid to make mistakes, be bad, fail-- but try to do that in a forgiving environment that finds even your failures interesting.

A nurturing environment is 90% of the battle. If you have founded a tiny theatre that considers you their resident Shakespeare, or are in a town where the reviewer for the Weekly News believes that you are the next Ibsen, stay there and grow.

Don't expect to make a living in the theatre unless you are a genius entrepeneur as well as a dramatic genius.
Copyright © 1999 by Geralyn Horton. Link to Horton's Stage Page

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Updated: August 9, 2016
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Text Copyright © 1995-2016 by Larry Wild, Northern State University, Aberdeen, SD 57401