Podcast Episode 35 Transcript – Ralph Sevush

Ken: Hey, guys, it’s Ken Davenport here. Before we get to this week’s podcast I wanted to tell you a secret. Ready? You all know I’m doing Spring Awakening on Broadway? Well, there’s a secret in the logo. In the art itself there’s a little Da Vinci Code-like symbol. Know what it is? Well, if you want to find out, visit SecretOfSpringAwakening.com. It’s pretty cool . . . check it out. Now, on with the podcast!

Ken: Hello, everybody. Welcome back. I am Ken Davenport. This is the Producer’s Perspective Podcast. This is going to be one of the last few podcasts of the summer. Sad face. But don’t worry, we’ve got some really exciting people to warm you up as we get into the fall, including today’s guest. Everybody knows, who I talk to out there in the world when I talk about Broadway, everybody usually knows that every staff position on a Broadway show is covered under the jurisdiction of a union or an association or a guild of some sort, from the actors to the director to the ushers. But what many people that I talk to don’t know is that there’s also an organization that represents the writers of dramatic works as well, and that organization is the Dramatists Guild of America, or the DG as we like to call it here in the biz, and I am so grateful that today we have on the podcast the executive director of business affairs at the Guild, Mr. Ralph Sevush. Welcome, Ralph!

Ralph: Thank you, Ken!

Ken: Ralph has been with the guild almost 20 years now and is actually also a writer as well, of stage plays as well as fiction. In fact I think we were in a few BMI workshop classes together.

Ralph: That’s right, a long time ago.

Ken: So, Ralph, why don’t we start by telling everybody out there who may not have heard about the Guild what it is and what it does?

Ralph: It’s an organization with a long, storied history. It starts about 100-plus years ago as the subcommittee of an organization called the Authors’ League. The Authors’ League was an association of writers that started at the turn of the twentieth century, the rise of the Progressive Era, the rise of labor and unions in America, and they were there as an association to look out for the interests of writers. At the time, it became clear that the interests of playwrights were somehow different than the interests of novelists and other writers, so a subcommittee of the League was created called the Dramatists Guild and that committee became its own organization within about ten years, and it really was based on the first contracts. 1926 was the first Guild contract. It was called the MBPC, the Minimum Basic Production Contract, and people like Eugene O’Neill and George Bernard Shaw and folks of that period fought long and hard to come up with an agreement that producers would respect and live up to. The reason that came out was because, up until then, playwrights didn’t own or control their work. Producers would pay them very little. Very often the author had to have another role in the production. Either they were the actor or the producer themselves or the presenter of some sort, so that’s how they made their living, and the writing was supplementary to that. There wasn’t any such thing as a professional playwright until the late 1800s, and then this organization came along to standardize terms and help writers stand together with each other so that there would be a defendable contract, in effect. And there was, since 1926, up through the 1980s, at which point the producers got together and sued the Guild, and we sued them back and out of that lawsuit came another contract called the Approved Production Contract, or the APC, and that’s been the contract that’s been in effect for the last 30 years or so. So the Guild is not a union. It’s a trade association of property owners, essentially, writers who own and control their work and license the rights to present it to producers for limited periods for limited territories and limited purposes and, as a result of that license, a producer can earn an ongoing interest in the author’s future revenue streams from that, and that’s the business model that evolved from the early 1920s until now.

Ken: Do you know what that first contract was in 1926?

Ralph: I think it was an O’Neill contract. I’m not sure exactly.

Ken: It’s amazing to me to hear that those names were so involved in something that we’re still using today, in some shape or form.

Ralph: It’s interesting that, at the time, the producers, of course Lee Shubert being the leader of the producers’ group at that time, had no interest in participating in a standard contract, so they decided to break this contract by going across to England to import plays because the American writers wouldn’t give them any. So they went to Shaw and Noel Coward and said, “We’d like to bring your plays over,” and Shaw said, “That would be great, as long as we do it under a guild contract,” at which point they realized that wasn’t going to change anything and so terms were agreed to.

Ken: How did you end up here at the Guild?

Ralph: Oh, a long and winding road. I started out in the film business. Before I even went to law school, in the early to mid-80s I worked for New Line Cinema and some other film companies doing coverage of scripts and working in the marketing department and things like that. And then I went to Cardozo Law School and, in the early ’90s, I got out and was working for an independent producer and did that for a number of years and I learned the business side of theater. He, the producer, brought me in to do film deals because he wanted to do theater and film and so, while I was doing film deals for him, I learned the theater business. Theater wasn’t a stranger to me. I grew up in a house where my mom was the Ethel Merman of the local Y, so she gave me piano lessons at an early age so that I could be her rehearsal pianist. And that was fine when she was doing Annie Get Your Gun because Irving Berlin was a hummer and his songs were usually in a major key, but then she did Follies and I was looking at a score by Sondheim with seven sharps that changed to six flats, at which point I said, “Mom, I’m going back to play little league. You’re on your own.” Actually, I was one of the few kids in my high school who loved the Mets and show tunes with equal passion, which put me in a very small group. So musical theater and theater, generally, was something that I grew up with and something that I was very happy to be back in when I was working with the producer. After he had produced a very large number of unsuccessful shows, I was looking for other opportunities and the Guild, at that time, was looking to expand their legal staff, so that was a really good match because you sort of have to know what side of the table you belong on. I was never really particularly comfortable fighting on behalf of a producer’s opportunity to make more money. That was never where my heart was. So when the playwrights said, “We’d like you to come and help us,” I felt much more at home and I found I slept a lot better. I didn’t make as much money, but you make those kinds of sacrifices. So that was 18 years ago. I know because my daughter was born three months after I started here and now she’s going to college next week, so 18 years later. I mark the time. It’s very easy to remember how long I’ve been here by her birthdays.

Ken: You’ve seen a lot of changes, obviously in your personal life, as you’ve watched your daughter grow up in those 18 years, and I assume, like all of us, you’ve seen a lot of changes in our industry. But I’m interested, from your perspective and from the desk you’re sitting at right now, how has the industry changed in terms of what the writers face now and your challenges?

Ralph: What’s happened over the last 20 years, and it was part of a process that was going on long before I got here but I’ve been aware of it, is this notion that somehow the risk that writers run by being writers, by choosing that as a calling, is sort of discounted or not valued in the same way that the risk of money is valued. So what I’ve seen in the producing community is an effort to shift the burden of risk of the money from themselves onto the creative team, and particularly the authors. See, everybody else in the production is represented by a union. There’s the producers on one side and a union on the other. Everybody, from the people who hand out the programs and take tickets to the people who sell the tickets in the box office to the people who clean up the bathrooms afterwards, to the people who pull the curtains and do the designs and wigs. Of course the actors and the directors and the designers and choreographer . . . everybody has collective bargaining. The playwrights don’t. The playwrights only control their work. They’re not employees so they don’t have that. What they have instead is ownership and control of the work. That’s the deal, the Faustian deal they made a hundred and something years ago. So they offer that play to the producer or are commissioned to write it, however it comes about, and then the producer used to raise money to produce that play. Now, because money became harder and harder to come by, producers had to pay more and more to get it and whatever they ended up giving away in labor negotiations to the other creatives or the other people in the room, they simply looked to the author to make good their losses. So what happened is you have royalty pools, which takes writers from being compensated on gross to being compensated on net weekly profits. Then you have amortization, which reduces the net weekly profits by taking the cost of the show and spreading it out over 50 weeks or whatever, to make sure the money gets its money back first, before the creatives. So there’s this ongoing process of burdening the writer with the cost of the money when the writer is already taking the risk of being a writer. Nobody was in the room when he forwent law school and medical school, disappointed his parents by going into this business. Nobody was in the room when he was staring at an empty screen, nobody was in the room when he took something blank and filled it up with words and nobody promised them anything, that they would read it, much less produce it. But now they’ve written something that’s good enough for people with money to want to put money into it and the people with money are saying, “But you have to bear some of the risk now.” They’ve borne enough of the risk and that shift in the burden of risk is sort of the symptom, is representative of the trend that I’ve seen over the last 20 years. Then you have the commercial, the major corporate producers, moving into Broadway, who have their own Hollywood model of doing things, but of course it’s okay to be treated like a screenwriter if you’re being paid like a screenwriter. But to be treated like a screenwriter and paid like a playwright is the worst of all possible worlds and it’s taken a long time to get the movie studio producers, the corporate producers, to accept the fact that this isn’t Hollywood and that the writers here are operating under a different paradigm and that everything they’ve given up for ownership and control of their work is not going to be given up lightly. So I think those are the main conflicts that we’ve seen.

Ken: I was going to get to this and I’m glad that you’ve already started to explore it, especially since I had no idea that you worked in film before coming here. Obviously it’s vastly different economic models when it comes to compensating their creatives on a show. I got into this with John Breglio when he did his podcast. And, of course, for those of you out there who don’t know, basically, when you’re a screenwriter, a studio says, “Yeah, we want it. We’re going to pay you a big chunk of money,” and then the studio owns it and that’s it. There’s a famous quote of someone saying the equivalent of writing a movie is like throwing it across the state line of California and then you never see it again.

Ralph: There’s a Hemingway story . . . when he was asked how he dealt with Hollywood on film adaptations of his books and he said, “I would drive through the night to the Mexico/California border. I would throw my book over and they would throw a suitcase of money back.”

Ken: That’s it, that’s the quote I was looking for.

Ralph: That could be entirely apocryphal, by the way.

Ken: It’s a good one. Let’s call it fact. What’s fascinating to me, of course, is that in the theater it’s the exact opposite. We don’t pay as much upfront, and then the writer gets to keep that work and we’re just licensing it for a period of time. My question is, is there any world in which, if I was a big time movie producer and came in and said, “Ralph, I want to do something different on Broadway. I want to take one of your members . . . and I think they’re okay with this but I want your blessing, of course . . . I’m going to offer them half a million dollars, but I’m going to own this script.” Is there any way that this would work? Is there any scenario that you would approve, do you think?

Ralph: In other words, we’ve already established what you are, we’re just dickering about the price?

Ken: Yes.

Ralph: No, because here’s the difference. The film industry works because there are hundreds and hundreds of motion pictures produced every year and thousands and thousands of hours of television produced every year, just in America. And you can make a pretty good living as a writer writing screenplays that don’t get produced or being the eleventh writer in a writer’s room. You can put braces on your kid’s teeth and get health and welfare benefits and pension and all of those things and, in exchange for that, you give up ownership and control of your work. That’s a reasonable deal that has worked for the last 60-something years. I think screenwriters would like to improve it, but whatever. The problem with doing that in the theater is that there are literally 40 buildings in America where a writer can make a living in the theater. 40, and half of them are filled with shows that have been running for years. There simply isn’t the volume or the opportunity of work to make that deal work for theater writers. It may work for that one writer, but it won’t work for writers because there simply aren’t enough people who could get half a million dollars to give up ownership and control. There’s a reason Aaron Sorkin will come back and write a play every once in a while. There’s a reason that these guys come back, and it’s because even the most powerful of them want to be able to own and control their work on occasion because when they have something significant they want to say, they want to say it it to a live audience on a stage where their words are their own. And to preserve that opportunity, we have to keep work for hire and we have to preserve ownership control for members because otherwise what writers would write for theater if there was no ownership or control? Just the ones who couldn’t get work in Hollywood where they could get paid better and could have health insurance and collective bargaining. You’d end up with the idiot stepchildren. That would be the culture. That would be theater in America, the writers who couldn’t make it somewhere else. Are we defending playwrights? Yeah, but we’re also safeguarding theater culture by ensuring that there’s something for playwrights to write for without having to abandon it as a career entirely. It’s already hard enough. There was a Guild president named Robert Anderson . . . here’s another apocryphal quote, which may or may not have been said by Mr. Anderson, which is, “You can make a killing in the theater, but not a living.” And there was a book a few years ago by Todd London called Outrageous Fortune, which documented that fact, that you cannot really make a living as a playwright. And in fact the IRS agrees because we’ve seen a number of audits of writers where their business deductions were disallowed because what they’re doing is considered a hobby. So in that environment, to give up ownership and control would be insane.

Ken: John Breglio agrees with you, by the way, of course. He said the same thing and everyone I’ve asked the question has basically said the same thing. “It’s not something that would ever work for us, on both sides of the equation.” I’ve thought about this myself and would I ever, knowing the risks of Broadway, would investors of mine say, “Oh, sure, Ken, we’ll pony up $1 million just to own this thing that we have no idea is going to resonate or not.” So I think we should just all give up on that idea. If you had a choice of being a playwright in 1980 versus being a playwright in 2015, which would you choose? Do you think it’s easier today? Are there more opportunities today?

Ralph: It’s interesting. It depends what you want out of being a playwright. If what you want is to make a living, I don’t know that you were any more able to make a living in 1980 than you are now. I do think that there was less internecine conflict. For example, because of the economic pressures that exist now, on both the producers and all the other people in the production, there are members of the production that want a piece of the play in addition to the producer. Directors want a piece of the play, the cast of a workshop want a piece of the play, of course the agents and the lawyers want pieces of the play, the producers earn a piece of the play by raising the money and producing the play. There are so many people who want a piece of the revenue stream . . . because the playwright is the only one who owns anything that has the ability to generate revenue over time. But it’s that revenue stream that plays the playwright so that they can write their next play. I think there was less of that going on in 1980 than there is now so, in that sense, the playwright is able to maintain more of their revenue stream. Of course I could be totally fictionalizing this. It could have been just as bad then . . . when I started it was 1997. I do think some of these controls and approvals were seen more as a given, and now I think people who are under tougher financial constraints are looking for any way to maximize their revenues, and if that means trying to pressure the playwright into giving up more and more so that they can have more stuff to sell to an investor to raise the money . . . I think that’s part of what’s going on. And the movie studio producing is very much a factor now that wasn’t a factor back then. So there’s this downward pressure from the corporate producers, there’s sideways pressure from collaborators, dramaturgs, directors, actors, because they all want to feel more a part of it. There’s pressure from more theaters. I mean, who would think that non-profit organizations who have received a tax benefit for being non-profit could then put their hands in the pocket of a playwright? Because they’re under incredible financial pressure as well. We’ve had some success pushing back against that in recent years, but that’s a real pressure. So the pressure comes from every direction. I don’t know if it was ever easy. I’m sure Shakespeare was sitting around saying, “Goddamn producers. What have I got to do to make a living in this business? I’ll act. That’s what I’ll do! I’ll direct.” So I don’t know if it was ever an easy job or a job you could make a living at, but I think there were certain things that were taken for granted, as a given, that are now, in recent years, under attack.

Ken: It’s fascinating what you said. I’ve never thought about it in this way, which is the playwrights are the only people who own anything so, of course, everyone looks to them. There’s no one else to look to.

Ralph: It’s The Old Man and the Sea. Did you ever read The Old Man and the Sea?

Ken: Oh, sure.

Ralph: It’s another Hemingway reference. He has the fish on the hook and he’s trying to get it back to land and all the way back the other fish are taking bites out of it, so by the time he gets it back to the sand there’s nothing left but a carcass. Playwrights are just trying to get enough back to the beach so that they can feed their family one more day. It’s an uncomfortable metaphor.

Ken: We mentioned the corporate producers a few times already. What do you think of this influx? Do you think it’s good for the industry? Does it make you nervous? How has it been already?

Ralph: I think that they’re in business to produce a certain kind of show. There’s a lot of sturm und drang about all of these movie adaptations. Shows have always been based on something. They were based on plays, they were based on short stories. What difference does it make what it was based on? I don’t see that as an inherent evil. And the corporate producers pay very well, by and large. Not well enough to own and control the work, but certainly enough to put a writer in a situation where they can go off and write their own stuff on spec, which is what they’re going to be doing anyway. Then they don’t have to write TV for a while. I think some of the producers are better than other producers. I think that’s true with commercial producers or corporate producers. Some of them are better at their jobs than others.

Ken: What is a better producer for you? What are the characteristics that you look at when negotiating with one, talking to one, that makes a producer better today than yesterday?

Ralph: What I would consider a good producer, many years ago . . . in the sense that he knew he wasn’t the writer, he knew he wasn’t the director, he knew he wasn’t the designer. He knew what his role in the production was and his role, from his point of view, was to be a sort of midwife . . . to birth this creature, to get everybody in the room and facilitate the creative process, and then to draw enough of a crowd to make it all pay off for everybody involved. I think there are some producers who think of themselves as authors, auteurs or something. I think that can be dangerous. I think there are some producers who don’t respect artists, and see them as tools to create this company that will then generate profits. And that’s part of a producer’s job, but it’s not the entirety. And, to the extent that there’s a lack of respect for the artists involved in the project, you’re going to get the kind of artists you deserve over time. You will develop a reputation as someone who doesn’t respect artists, and nature will take care of that. Word will get around and you’ll find yourself working with inexperienced writers who don’t know that they’re being treated poorly, rather than experienced writers who know the difference. Sometimes that can pay off big anyway, but I wouldn’t bet my house on it. So I think a good producer is one who knows his role, who respects artists, and isn’t looking to make their bones on the back of trying to break a union or Guild contract to show how tough they are or have so much ego invested that they let it get in the way of the show. I’ve seen a lot of ego in this business. It’s an ego-driven business. Any time you get into the arts, where billing matters so much and you spend so much time negotiating billing clauses, you know you’re in a business about ego. It’s fine to have ego, but you can’t let it get in the way of a production. And sometimes I find producers who are fighting for things that are literally meaningless, but they want to be able to say they have it.

Ken: Can you just describe to me the contracting process a little bit? We talked about the APC at the beginning of this, which is this template document that all of us have to use. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I would say the majority of shows are on this contract. There are a few that are not, but even the ones that are not seem to use it as the template or foundation, which I’m sure is a bit disturbing in a way. Just describe the process. Because we negotiate with authors all the time, and then there is a process in which the contract comes to you, just to take a look at it, and I think the listeners would love to know how that all works.

Ralph: Alright, well the Guild contract is called the Approved Production Contract and, in it, there’s a provision that provides for what’s called Guild certification of the contract. Certification means we’re a party to the contract and we are a cosignatory. The contract has 21 sections in it, and then there’s a section 22, Article 22, which is basically anything else the parties may agree to, as long as it doesn’t undermine the contract. So that addendum is basically what comes to the office, and I review them looking for pluses and minuses. What things are above minimum terms? What things are below minimum terms? Are there trade-offs? Are there quid pro quos? Is the contract, on the whole, equivalent to the standard model agreement? Have there been too many concessions that would hurt other writers? Have there been enough pluses to offset them? So it’s a balancing act, and our role in the Guild is we’re not there representing that writer. The writer has their own representative, their own lawyer, their own agent. We’re here on behalf of our 7,000 other members, who aren’t in the room when those two have made a deal, to make sure that nothing they did in their deal will create a precedent that undermines the ability of the other members, the other playwrights, to make a living in this business, that they don’t undermine standard minimum terms. It’s a difficult weighing process and we try to be objective about it and try to remember that we’re not here to stop productions, we’re here to facilitate them, to facilitate all members to be able to do their work. We just have to step in when the narrow interest of that one writer is putting at risk the ability of 7,000 other writers to make a living, so that’s where we draw the line, where precedents are being established that would be harmful. So we have a limited period of time to respond to the contract and we are either able to certify it or we’re not. If we’re not able to certify it, we then make comments on the contract for the parties to consider. If they can incorporate them into the contract, we’ll be able to certify it. Usually another round of negotiation happens and a final certification letter is issued, and we’re able to certify the agreement with certain provisos that have been agreed to by everybody. We often get a lot of anger and complaint from producers who have said, “Look, I spent a lot of money to negotiate this contract. The author was well represented. Why am I talking to you?” Well, because it’s a three party contract and you spent all of your time negotiating it with one of the two other parties, and you didn’t spend any time talking to us about it. If you had spent time talking to us about it while you were talking to the playwright, you would have been able to do this all at one time and it wouldn’t take two separate steps and you wouldn’t be paying your lawyer twice. So let’s do it all together and it will be more efficient. More efficient still, of course, would be to renegotiate the basic template so that it reflected the way the industry actually worked so that you, individual producer, didn’t have to renegotiate an agreement that was negotiated 30 years ago on every single show that comes to Broadway. But the League has not seen fit in its judgment to sit down with us and renegotiate it. They’d rather have all of their individual members, you producers, bear the cost of renegotiating the contract. But that’s between you and your League.

Ken: Wow, there are so many fascinating things in what you just said. Let’s deal with the first one, which is you would rather a producer come to you first before they go to the author, or all of us sit down in a room and say, “Hey, this is what we’re planning on doing,” and try to do it in this triumvirate.

Ralph: Yes, sometimes there will be a short form letter agreement or something, or a deal term, a short form thing that gets circulated. If we were involved, if we were CC’ed on that from the outset, we could send up flares. “If this ends up in the final deal this could be a problem because of such-and-such. Maybe you want to think about doing it this way.” Or, if there isn’t a deal memo, maybe there’s a first draft of an APC Article 22 that’s being circulated and writers are giving their comments to it and we could be giving our comments to it as well, in an unofficial capacity. We don’t certify drafts. We can only certify a signed contract that’s come in, but I think a lot of the frustration that producers feel would be ameliorated by involving the Guild earlier in the negotiation process. Because sometimes what happens is writers’ agents will give up stuff they know the guild will claw back for them in order to get something else.

Ken: What a trick! I can’t believe I haven’t realized that before!

Ralph: As I said, our interest isn’t in maximizing the playwright’s deal. It’s in protecting minimum terms, not ensuring maximum terms. And we lose our ability to have a credible, rational relationship with producers if they feel we’re just going to get the best deal for the playwrights that we can. That’s not what we’re here to do. That’s not what the APC is designed to do. It’s there to create a floor. It’s there to standardize so that unrepresented writers, new writers, will have the same advantages that more experienced writers have been able to get. And if more experienced, more successful writers are able to get terms above that, well, then good for them, but that’s between you and the agent. That has nothing to do with us. So to the extent the rep is using us as the bad guy so that they can get a better deal in some ways . . . they’re essentially playing us against the producer. That’s not a situation we’re particularly happy to be in, but we have to do that when we’re put in that position, so that’s why that becomes difficult.

Ken: It sounds like you are an advocate for opening up the APC that was written 30 years ago when the business was much different and figuring it out for today.

Ralph: Absolutely, and we’ve tried to ask the League to do that with us and they’ve refused because of what they claim are anti-trust issues, which is just a convenient way of saying, “No, we don’t want to talk to you and we don’t have to talk to you.” And they don’t have to talk to us, so why should they?

Ken: But we end up talking to you anyway.

Ralph: That’s exactly right.

Ken: So it might just save us a heck of a lot of time and legal fees if we just figured this out.

Ralph: Yeah, if you guys realized you were not being served by your own League the best way they could. That’s something you guys might want to talk about internally.

Ken: One of the biggest issues that I’ve seen the Guild become very vocal about is, of course, the piracy issues that we’re all facing because of the internet. People say, “Oh, you represent writers.” “Writers” means composers and lyricists as well as librettists, of course, and sheet music is being ripped off left and right, which didn’t happen when I was an actor. So what steps are you taking now to try to protect the writer’s work?

Ralph: It’s interesting. We’re doing a podcast right now. In 1980 there was no such thing. So you’re talking about a different world that the writer lived in then and now. The biggest difference, I suppose, is the technology. Technology is a double-edged sword. It’s a tool and, like any other tool, sometimes it’s used well and sometimes not. The ways it’s used well? It used to cost playwrights a lot of money to Xerox their script and mail it to people and wait months to hear back and send it out again and again, and we used to get all of these calls from writers, saying, “They never returned my script!” And we would write letters to producers saying, “Please return so-and-so’s script.” That all seems so quaint now because everyone submits electronically at this point, digitally. There are no postage costs, there are no printing costs and there are a greater array of production opportunities because of that, which is all to the good. Also, when people do unauthorized or unlicensed productions, play publishers and agents and authors can find out about it. Google alerts or whatever will tell you when someone is publicizing a production that there is no license for, so that’s another plus. But there is a cost to all of these things. You’ve lowered the barriers not only to production, but to piracy, to illegal access, so how do you deal with that? Well, you can keep the script in your drawer. That will guarantee its safety. But, short of that, if you send it out into the world, as a playwright you have to be prepared for the fact that it could end up places it shouldn’t be. So you want to have your work registered for copyright so that it has protection. You want to maybe watermark your digital versions of your work so that you know where illegal downloads come from. The Guild has also taken an initiative on the sheet music issue. We have a piracy subcommittee. When you look on our website there’s a music video called “You’re Playing Our Song,” or something like that. It’s just to remind people that, when you download a song or sheet music or something illegally, there’s actually someone who wrote that song who’s not getting a royalty. And that’s not a big corporation. That’s somebody who’s depending on that royalty stream to make a living and, if you really like those artists, depriving them of making a living is self-defeating. They’re not going to make more of the stuff you like if they can’t make a living doing it. So there’s an educational component to what we’re doing to let people know that there’s an impact to that. There’s also an effort to try to make stuff more available legally. There are going to be websites and other places where unpublished work will become legally published and available, even if they’re not from big publishers. Individual playwrights can make their stuff available in a way that’s legal. There’s just a fundamental educational issue that we’re dealing with a generation to whom technology is second nature and to whom information wants to be free. But that’s just the mindset that devalues authorship and doesn’t give it value, so it’s dangerous for people who write things for a living. I don’t know if there’s anything specific that can be done about it except to continue with the educational effort to let people know that there’s an impact to that, there’s a cost to that, there’s a social cost to that, and the stuff you like could diminish and disappear if you don’t allow the people whose work you like to continue making that work by making a living doing it. If you look at the music business, like Spotify, a lot of the digitalization and the mass downloading and all of that stuff has gotten to the point where the guys who write the songs don’t really make much money from them anymore, so you actually have to perform the songs. And you tour your albums, you do concerts. You get paid as a performer, not as a writer. That means that when you’re 50 and 60 and 70 you still have to be on tour to make a living or, if you’re not the artist who performs it, why would you write the songs? You get hardly anything for them anymore. If you compare the royalties to what artists got 20 years ago to what they get now, especially when you adjust for inflation, it’s ridiculous. Why would anybody do that?

Ken: That’s why Air Supply is on the road still to this day.

Ralph: That’s right.

Ken: Okay, last question, Ralph. I want you to imagine that the genie from Aladdin, from one of those corporate producers, actually . . .

Ralph: Written by Guild members, Alan Menken and Glenn Slater.

Ken: Yes. The genie comes to your office and knocks on the door and says, “Ralph, you’ve been such a fierce advocate for playwrights for the past 20 years and you’re so passionate, protecting their interests. I want to thank you by granting you one wish.” I want you to think about the one thing that drives you so crazy about this business, the one thing that makes you so angry that keeps you up at night, that drives you nuts that you would wish this genie could change or eradicate in an instant, with the wave of his wand or the snap of his fingers. What would that one thing be?

Ralph: I think it’s the things I’ve been talking about. I think it’s this notion of having enough respect for the sacrifice and risk that artists run by being artists so that the economic interests value their contribution and their risk in a way that’s equal to the value they give their own money. If those things were equated and understood to be equivalent, I think a lot of this tension would go away. If we could collectively bargain with producers in a way that didn’t endanger our existence, and we could sit down as rational people and look at the big picture of how the theater industry works and doesn’t work anymore, because economic models that were created a hundred years ago simply don’t apply anymore, that’s a conversation I’ve been dying to have for 20 years and nobody is interested in having it. Everybody wants to deal with the problem of their next show, and nobody is looking long term. Nobody is looking big picture. Nobody is looking beyond their own fiefdom and their own self-interest to look at what is the interest of this art form? It’s so infuriating. We talked about the digital impact . . . theater is in a rarefied position, unlike music, unlike film, unlike books. All of those experiences can be replicated through digitization. You can get an exact copy of a song that you loved on a record in your home in a single pirated download or whatever. The experience of listening to a song that’s been digitized and downloaded is exactly the same as the one you can get from buying it on iTunes or a CD. Eventually the pipes going into your home will allow movie downloads to be as quick and as easy as songs are and the experience, especially with these massive high-def televisions . . . I know many people would prefer to watch them in their home rather than sit in movie theaters with the kind of audiences that sit in movie theaters now. Theater is the rare experience where you can’t just digitize it. It’s a live experience. You have to be there. There’s no replication of it. Yes, you can make an illegal bootleg of it and put it up online, on YouTube or whatever, or through PirateBay, and sell a bad videotape of a production of Wicked, but that’s not the same thing. You’re not replicating the experience. Nobody who sees those things thinks they’ve seen the show, really, and the evidence of that is people who do see those things on TV or in film are more likely to go and see the show than if they didn’t see it. It acts as a big promotion for the live experience. So, in a lot of ways, the primitive technology of theater makes it immune to the problems of digitization and theft and piracy but, because of that, we’re not taking advantage of the fact that that unique niche is still available. Nobody is looking at what that market is. Nobody is looking at how to reach it. Younger audiences are not experiencing live theater as part of their daily lives. It’s too expensive, it’s too elitist, it’s too rarefied and there’s no vision, no eyesight, on the big picture. Where are the new playwrights being produced? Not in New York, that’s for sure. Maybe in the regional theaters, but they’re not reaching very many people. And there has to be a summit of all the interested parties to figure out a better way to do this so that we don’t lose generation after generation of potential theatergoers. We’ve always wanted to sit around the fire and tell the story of the hunt. The shaman has been doing that for 10,000-plus years. We need that. That experience is fundamental to our DNA. Tell us the story of the hunt so that way we can get up tomorrow and have the courage to go hunt again, so we know we can do it. It’s the religious role of theater, of storytelling, and younger generations are finding that in other places. But there’s still going to be a fundamental hunger for that if we can provide it in a way that meets them half way, that finds a way to make it available to them on terms they can understand and obtain and make it affordable, and in a way that becomes part of their life again. Arts education . . . make it a part of their lives again. Ticket discounting . . . make it part of their lives again. These are things that need to happen if we’re going to have a theater in the 21st century that means anything, that isn’t just opera and museum pieces recreated under glass for 1% of the population. Theater used to be at the center of conversation about public life, and it could be because of its unique nature and because of the hunger that we have as homo sapiens for that story to be told to us. But nobody’s looking down the road enough to feed that hunger, to satisfy that desire, to meet that need, and it’s going to be to the detriment of that culture and everybody who’s involved with it if there isn’t somebody doing that. So I guess that’s the big wish, is that we could get in a room together and figure it out.

Ken: Well I would certainly volunteer to be in a room with you and discuss it at any time. I want to thank you so much for not only being on the podcast, but for being such a fierce advocate for the playwright. I obviously know a lot of writers and, for all of them that I’ve talked to that are members here and for me, it’s nice to know that there is someone standing up for them. If you are a writer out there, we’re talked a lot of big names here . . . Aaron Sorkin and George Bernard Shaw. But the fact is, anyone can be a member of the Dramatists Guild, correct?

Ralph: That’s right. All you have to have done is written something.

Ken: So if you’re a playwright or composer or lyricist and are looking to get some representation or learn some more there is an incredible amount of resources on the Dramatists Guild website and from being a member. In fact I just stole four issues of their magazine from the coffee table. Don’t tell Ralph! Just go to DramatistsGuild.com. There’s a great deal of information and resources there for you. Thank you so much for listening and we’ll see you next time!

Ken: Thanks again for listening to this week’s podcast, guys . . . and don’t forget, if you want to know the secret Easter egg hidden in the Spring Awakening logo, check out SecretOfSpringAwakening.com.

Related Posts


Ken created one of the first Broadway podcasts, recording over 250 episodes over 7 years. It features interviews with A-listers in the theater about how they “made it”, including 2 Pulitzer Prize Winners, 7 Academy Award Winners and 76 Tony Award winners. Notable guests include Pasek & Paul, Kenny Leon, Lynn Ahrens and more.