Sprucing up your Contracts

Person wearing a black hoody and red headphones works at a laptop with lots of arty stickers

By Jared

with input from Abbee, Eric, Erin, Mary, Paul, and Sadie

Published October 2020

Time and money always seem to be scarce on a project no matter how big the budget is or the length of time between the first design meeting and opening. Rather than assuming things will be peachy and then unexpectedly spending a week of fourteen-hour days at the theater doing more than originally anticipated, here are thoughts to consider while negotiating and signing your contracts. This is not legal advice as I am very much not a lawyer – if you are interested in legal assistance for artists, check out Springboard for the Arts’ Legal Assistance options.

Negotiate!

A contract offer does not need to be the end of the discussion between worker and employer about expectations. Instead, it can be the beginning of the conversation once both parties have confirmed interest in working together. The contract is there to confirm to the organization that the work will get done and to protect the employee doing the work. It’s a matter of respect to have a signed contract in place before work begins. If you have the backing of a union behind you and the theater offers the union minimum rates, it’s just that – only the minimum! Regardless of union status, you can always ask for additional compensation. If you are not a union member, still check out the comparable union contracts (AEA, IATSE, USA) to get a sense of the language used (and borrow any language that you’d like to have in your own contracts)!

Roles and Responsibilities

Every single theater operates differently. Who do you report to? Is it the General Manager? Production Manager? Artistic Director? Producer? Figure out who does what, who can ask you to do what, and who you can ask things of. When do you need to start working to complete the job? That’s the first day of contracted work, not necessarily the first day of rehearsal/first production meeting. While we work in an incredibly collaborative art form, the language “other duties as assigned” can be nebulous and lead to misunderstandings over assumptions made. Work towards clarity and specificity in the contract, especially when working for a new employer. If roles and responsibilities are not clearly laid out, have a conversation with the producer/contract issuer before signing to clarify most of the main responsibilities in bullet points along with their associated timelines.

Materials and Budgeting

Is there a budget that you must stay within? Confirm all numbers in writing rather than “within budget,” especially if you will be held to that number. Is there money for any additional labor? Is that a separate line item in the budget, or are materials and labor combined? Are all materials provided, or will you need to supply tools/gear? If so, can the theater provide a secure area to lock up rather than schlepping in and out of the space each day? Who purchases materials – is it the theater or is the designer expected to purchase and submit receipts for reimbursement? What is the timeline for reimbursement? Many theaters operate with tax-exempt status – if that’s the case, ask for that information in the contract as well as documentation needed to make purchases. If there is travel that is needed, consider asking for mileage reimbursement. For gigs on the road, are you expected to provide your own lodging? Part of the negotiation process can include asking for housing and per diem while working out of town.

Safety

Typically, designs belong to the designer whether you’re an employee or independent contractor. However, the responsibility for safety should be on the employer. This may be an assumption we all make, but is worth naming in the contract to have it in writing as well. Your design covers the look or sound of the show, not the theatre’s implementation of it.  If something you design can’t be done safely, that’s your responsibility, but otherwise the theatre should assume liability for any costs and claims against you. As we all (designers, techs, stage managers, etc.) think about resuming work while still experiencing the effects of the pandemic, what protections are in place for workers to feel safe/minimize risk? It is the responsibility of the employer to provide a safe workplace environment. Many of the arts and entertainment industry unions are requiring that all workplaces have regular testing for COVID-19 before contracts will be issued and only time will tell how long those protections are needed. You don’t need a union to ask for a safe workplace!

Contract Termination

Sometimes the contract needs to be ended. While negotiating, make sure that there is an exit clause and clarity for how changes to the contract can be made. If there isn’t language stated for how to terminate the contract by either party, it can make for a headache when the working relationship could already be tense. Another definition to include is how payment will be handled if work has begun before terminating the contract. Is it a percentage of the whole fee that corresponds with the percentage of work completed (if quantifiable)? Figure that out before you need to so you’re not out the money you’re due for work already completed.

Your Work and $$$

Many designer contracts trigger payment via installments on a timeline of work completed/specific dates in the production process. If your work will be complete at opening, ask for your final payment to be no later than opening/the last day of work. Do the work, then get paid! Occasionally there can be instances where additional work is needed after opening. Are maintenance and any needed repairs the responsibility of the designer or the theatre after opening? Rather than feeling obligated to do work that is beyond the scope of the original contract, negotiate a day rate for any additional work. Extra duties come with extra fees!

As an AEA member that stage manages, I ask upfront if there are any additional duties beyond what is laid out in the AEA contract and what fee the producer will provide beyond the regular salary. This can often be something like running the light board – language that I have used in contracts has been “outside the duties of stage management as described and permitted by AEA, the undersigned agrees to run the light board during performances at the rate of $X/week or $X/show.” It can be difficult to determine the amount to ask for when there isn’t clear guidance from the union, but that’s what the negotiation process is for.

What if the show extends or is remounted? It’s your work that would be shown, so fight for your compensation before the job even exists! If it’s an extension, one possibility is to ask for additional weekly compensation in the contract if the show were to extend. Even if there is only a very slim possibility of a remount, ask for the right of first refusal in the original contract to make sure you receive the first offer for the job if it ever were to happen.

To the many future contracts!

There are so many different workers that make a creative project happen, and each worker can have their own individual contract with an employer. Even in that situation, contracts don’t need to be scary or secretive. I’m of the mindset that we should be open about contracts similar to the push for wage transparency. If you are unsure how to begin negotiation conversations instead of accepting the initial offer or would appreciate thoughts from other workers – ask. I am constantly asking other stage managers how they have negotiated with theaters when I receive an offer and have used that information to ask for rates or compensation above the initial offer. It doesn’t always shake out in the worker’s favor, but it can’t be included in the contract if it isn’t asked for. Clearly lay out all the information you think you could need in a contract and let that create a productive work space free of lingering doubts or assumptions about how the work will be created. 


Thanks to the designers and technicians that contributed thoughts to gain a wider perspective from workers in our community – Erin Belpedio, Lighting Designer and Master Electrician; Paul Epton, Lighting Designer; Eric Kiekhaefer, Technical Director and Scenic Designer; Mary Shabatura, Lighting Designer; Sadie Ward, Stage Manager and Set Designer; Abbee Warmboe, Props Designer; Jared Zeigler, AEA Stage Manager.

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