Friday, April 13, 2012

Best Practice Notes

Playwrights working with Schools

Playwrights are increasingly forging links with schools and other community groups in their area, independently of theatre companies altogether. This kind of work might involve writing a play for young people to perform, teaching playwriting or coaching others in writing their own plays, curriculum-based support alongside teachers, or one-off workshops on dramatic structure or other aspects of the craft. At times it might even involve the writer project managing an entire production, for example a school’s show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

This is still a relatively new and uncharted area of work for living playwrights, so these are some general guidelines for writers (and schools) based on several years’ of my own experience writing with and for Mulberry School for Girls in East London. A truncated version of these notes will be published by the Writer’s Guild of Great Britain as part of their forthcoming Best Practice guidelines pamphlet, but space has necessarily restricted how much can they can include, so I reproduce the notes in full here.

I have focused mostly on writers writing new plays for students to perform. Hourly rates for things like running workshops are much more straightforward. Note also that these notes refer only to educational writing work that is paid. Some guiding principles can be extrapolated for voluntary work, but that is not the main focus.

Writing for schools generally takes place outside the formal framework of the usual industry contractual agreements, though where possible schools should be steered towards using the ITC/Writer’s Guild contract for play commissions. (Note that the rates in this linked contract are out of date, current rates can be found here.)

The precise nature of the agreement, and rates of pay, can differ hugely from school to school. It is largely at the writer’s discretion what they agree to, though there is often scope for directly shaping the nature of the employment and negotiating rates of pay – or shaping the length and scope of projects according to what the school say they can afford. Note that this often takes place between the writer and school directly, the writer’s agent does not always, or even usually, get involved. There is a gray area here around what is considered teaching, and what is considered writing, with a confusing mixture often emerging. To act in good faith, writers may want to let their agents know about this work, and to negotiate whether some aspects of it ought to go through the agency (for example if an ITC contract is issued). Agents have been known to waive commission on this type of work, though this is of course at each individual agent’s discretion. However, agents should not take commission on hourly or daily rates for teaching or workshops.

Prior to starting the project, writers should meet with the most senior person in school that they can, usually a Head of Drama or sometimes a Deputy Head. The precise nature of the project should be agreed. This might include: time scale, precise outcomes (e.g. a play of a certain length, on a certain theme, for a certain cast size), amount of sessions with students, rates for those sessions (separate to the play commission fee), how and by whom the writer will be supported in those classes, who is line managing the project, whether the project is part of an accredited module or course and if so who is responsible for that (it should not be the writer), draft delivery dates, whether and how the writer is expected to assist in the play’s production, if at all.

It is important for writers to recognise that writing a play for a school is different to writing a play for a theatre because the writer’s words and vision are not always so sacrosanct. A conversation with the school around this might help nip any problems in the bud. For example, the school may well have proscribed subjects or language which simply cannot be used with students. Most schools are fairly enlightened about this, and say that nothing is off-limits so long as there are the resources to support difficult subjects, for example workshops surrounding issues like self harm or sexual abuse. But sometimes there aren’t the resources to support the exploration of these themes within a self-contained project. It is important for writers to realise that this is about a school’s duty of care towards their students and is not usually born out of conservative or censorious instincts. Writers will have to work within the limits the school sets, and it can be very useful to agree these limits with the school prior to the project starting. Identifying who will make the final decision in the event of a dispute can also be useful.

All schools ought to run a Criminal Records Bureau check (CRB) on incoming artists, which they ought to pay for. It is at their discretion whether or not they still want to employ the writer in the event of this check throwing up any undisclosed criminal history. Minor offences can sometimes be waived, but honesty in advance is always the best policy, and the school’s decision will be final.

The writer should be offered a basic degree of child protection training, usually a chat with a member of staff trained in this. It covers things like dos and don’ts with students and what procedures to follow in the event of a student disclosing information about abuse or other matters of concern.

Both parties should agree who else is involved in the project, such as drama teachers or other artists (lots of actors and some directors engage in this work). A discussion with these colleagues about individual roles within the sessions, and indeed planning exercises and a scheme of work together is entirely normal. It may be for example that the drama teacher generates creative ideas with students through improvisations, while the writer leads more paper and pen-based exercises. The more planning you can do in this respect, the better.

Usually, writers are not expected to lead sessions alone unless they are highly experienced in this work. A co-tutor will normally join them, and ought to be responsible for in-class discipline. A full-time member of school staff should also be responsible for recruitment of students to the project and retention once it has started, including chasing up absentees. This is not the writer’s responsibility, but it is key to a successful project. Schools should treat it with the same seriousness as absentees from timetabled lessons.

A budget for the final production should be in place from the start. This will cover things like set, costumes, props, venue and hire and transport, if the play is performing off-site. It is in no-one’s interest to spend a month/term/year developing a play and then not be able to afford to perform it.

The play’s director should be identified early on – it may well be the co-tutor that has accompanied the writer throughout the sessions. It should be established in advance with the director how far he or she reserves the right to make changes to the script in rehearsal, and the writer’s role in this process. If using the ITC contract, there are very clear provisions surrounding the writer’s rights in this respect, and these should be pointed out. However writers should also recognise that a school’s rehearsal process can be a lot more chaotic than a professional process, and some flexibility is necessary, for example an emergency re-write to cover a student cast member dropping out at late notice. Writers should discuss these eventualities with the director in advance, and use their discretion as they go along in how rigidly to insist on the ITC guidelines.

Fees and credits
It is not unusual for schools to offer a flat fee for the entire project, without considering how this breaks down into session rates and commission fee. Writers should look at what is being offered and shape the project accordingly. How many hours of contact time are required with students? This ought to be budgeted for at the secondary school rate for visiting tutors of around £50 per hour. What is then left to be considered the fee for writing the play? If it is only a small amount, then the play will also have to be fairly short. Is the writer expected to take on any non-writing tasks, such as liaising with a venue, or other project management activities likely to generate admin? These should also be costed for.

Writers should encourage the school to use the ITC/Writer’s Guild contract for small scale theatre companies as a framework for the commission agreement. This sets out fees for plays of different lengths, a payment schedule as drafts emerge, and agreements over intellectual copyright. However, note that this contract does not allow for separate hourly rates for development workshops on the play with students, nor for admin or producing responsibilities. These should be budgeted for and contracted separately.

Sometimes a school will offer to put a writer on a part-time salary, and may ask them to sign the standard contract issued to teachers. However, it is usually preferable to remain a freelance and invoice the school as you go along. Most teachers’ contracts contain a clause asserting ownership of any written work undertaken as part of the job, which can cause problems for playwrights for obvious reasons. You should never give away the rights to your work.

It is not unusual for schools to feel that having commissioned a play from a writer they now ‘own’ that script, especially if the script contains ideas that have come directly from the students. Writers ought to have a conversation with the school in advance about the nature of this agreement. Legally, all intellectual ownership of the play remains with the writer, and schools have to negotiate a fee to use the play again in subsequent years. However in practice writers often let schools use the play again, royalty-free, for a set period, at their discretion. This is because schools can invest a lot in a play’s development due to the extra costs of the developmental time, and so the writer can end up being paid more than for a comparable play in the theatre industry. It is also because schools rarely charge for tickets and never make a profit on such productions. However, you could press them to commit to a nominal fee to use the play in future years.

Many teachers in other schools know each other well and may invite each other to see the writer’s work or even pass the script on. The school may also decide to publish the play themselves, in however basic a form. Usually this is as a student souvenir rather than for profit. Whilst it is great for the work to circulate beyond the commissioning school, writers should ensure they are kept informed of where their work is ending up, and to make clear that schools other than the commissioning school really should pay a fee to perform the play, even in part. If copies of the play are to be sold, writers could technically negotiate a cut, but usually the sums involved are so small, and the school’s overall costs so large, that it would seem churlish to do so.

There is a grey area surrounding the use of extracts of existing plays in timetabled classes. Some publishers say that technically an amateur performance licence should be licensed, but in practice they never are. In any case many such plays are unpublished so would not go through a publisher anyway. There is a widespread assumption among teachers that so long as the play is performed in school no royalties payment is necessary, even if it is performed as an assessed piece for examination. This assumption is wrong, but it is impossible to police such under-the-radar usage, and anyway to begin to do so would create ill will in the education sector, especially at a time when budgets are being squeezed. Such a move may also be counter-productive, and simply encourage schools to use plays out of copyright instead of new plays, which would be a shame. If the writer hears about their work being used in this way, by far the best approach is to see if they can gain some paid employment from it, for example by contacting the school and offering to come in and do a workshop with the students working on their piece.

These guidelines may seem complex, but are about protecting both parties as they enter into new territory together, often for the first time. Many writers find working with schools and young people immensely rewarding, with clear benefits for their mainstream writing. I ended up with a commercially published volume of plays for young people, which is now available in bookshops, so this work can often cross over into your professional mainstream portfolio in ways you did not anticipate when you took it on. And the kids themselves are just terrific – and a huge inspiration. With the right sort of preparation using the notes above, you will be free to enjoy your time together, and to come up with wonderful work, the joy of which is that neither of you could have written it alone.

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