To prevent disagreements or problems down the road, it's always best to have a contract, even if it's a school production and the contract merely spells out expectations.
Professional actors in the United States are generally members of Actors Equity Association (AEA), the actors’ union, which is the best place to start when considering contracts for your actors and your stage manager. There are over 40 different Equity contracts, ranging from the 99-seat theatres of Los Angeles to dinner theatres to TYA (theatre for young audiences) to off-Broadway. These set standards not only for actor pay, but also for the hours they can work, breaks required, days off, etc. Visit their website to read all of the details and find the contract that is right for you.
Not all professional actors are AEA members. Some are only members of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) or American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), and some may have worked professionally but have not accumulated enough points to quality for AEA membership (ones who are close are called AEA Membership Candidates). There are considerably fewer guidelines if you’re not working under an AEA contract (i.e. a professional non-Equity production) but at minimum, the AEA contract will be instructive in providing a fair and professional contract to non-members.
Professional stage managers are also members of AEA, and generally are a requirement in an Equity production.
Professional directors and choreographers in the United States are members of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society. They have a variety of contracts that range from university stages to Broadway. Read them here (or just go to the main page of their site and select Contracts from the pull-down menu). Even if your director or choreographer isn't an SDC member, the contracts on their site will provide you guidance in formulating a reasonable standard.
Professional designers in the United States working in the entertainment business are represented by United Scenic Artists Local USA 829. This would include designers of sets (also called scenic designers), costumes, lighting, sound and projection, as well as scenic artists. They have a variety of contracts that vary by the type of theatre and the region. Again, even if your designers aren't union (for example, in a paid but non-union production), these contracts can at least give you some idea of professional standards.
If you are working with a published play, the publisher will have its own agreement, but if you're working with an individual playwright, you'll need a contract. Keep in mind that playwrights are not employees, but rather you are licensing their work for a specified period of time.
The Dramatists Guild of America has a wide variety of boilerplate contracts available to its members. Typically, though, the member, not the producer, must obtain the contract.
The Alliance of Los Angeles Playwrights (ALAP), the service and support organization for playwrights in the greater Los Angeles area, makes a 99-seat theatre contract (which serves as the basis for the Guild's contract in this area) and a letter of agreement for readings available for free to all on its website. Click here to visit the ALAP Sample Contract page. These will serve as excellent starting points. In the future, we will also post a simplified version of a playwright's contract here.
Among the major elements of most playwright contracts:
1. Copyright and ownership remain in the name of the playwright at all times.
2. No additions, cuts or changes to the play are permitted without explicit prior permission. This means you cannot alter the dialogue, stage directions, character genders (etc) without first consulting the playwright (either directly or through the publisher).
3. In a professional production, the playwright will have approval over the choice of director, casting and designers, not to be unreasonably withheld. (In amateur productions, a playwright will rarely be this involved.)
4. The playwright is allowed to attend all rehearsals and performances free of charge.
5. The playwright's name should always immediately follow the title in posters, programs and other promotions of the play, and it should be in a type size at least 50% that of the title and as big or bigger than any other names billed.
For Canadian producers, look to the Playwrights Guild of Canada for contract guidance.
Often, directors, designers, playwrights and other staff (and sometimes actors) for a limited-run production are treated as independent contractors. This means that they are not legally considered employees, and they’re responsible for their own taxes. This does not mean, however, that you have no responsibilities. For each contractor making greater than $600, you are responsible for reporting that income to the federal government with a 1099 Form—you’ll need to obtain the necessary information from them to do so. That means having them fill out a W-9 form, typical for independent contractors, providing their name for tax purposes, address and Social Security number. Click here to download one from the IRS website.
Contracts are not just for professionals. They are useful tools for student cast and crew members as well, as they help to set clear expectations and establish a tone of professionalism for the production. When something is distributed in writing and students (and parents, in the case of middle and high school productions) are required to sign it, there will be no chance of confusion or claims of "I didn't know..."
As a teacher, when a student violates your contract, it’s important that there be consequences—otherwise, it’s meaningless. Depending on the severity of the violation, punishment could range from a warning (for a first offense) to expulsion from the show. Be sure to document all offenses, and for an offense of any severity, involve the parents right away. If a student also violates a school rule, then he/she will be subject to whatever punishment that may entail. For example, consider a student performer at a drama festival to perform in his school’s musical who is caught drinking. Not only is he expelled from the show, his parents notified and he’s sent home from the conference, but he’s also suspended from school (given that he’s on an official school trip) for three days for violating the school’s alcohol policy.
Of course, what do you do when that student is your lead? What if the show is only a few days away? If your school has understudies or has double-cast a show, you have a fairly workable solution. But what if you don’t? Ultimately, as a teacher, you have a greater responsibility to teach students and help them mature than to put up the very best show at any cost. Even if it means that a student will have to go onstage “on book,” it’s better for a student’s long-term development as a human being to learn that actions have consequences. It’s also better for the future of your drama program: students will see that your contract has value, and take it, you and the program more seriously as a result.
Coming soon will be a discussion of your recourses when this happens at the professional level.