Playwrights Code of Ethics

You may be familiar with a 1945 code of ethics for theater workers that’s floated around from time to time. It’s basically a list of standards that actors informally swear to uphold. It’s pretty neat.

It seems to me that we playwrights ought to have our own code of ethics. What do you think of the following ten items eleven items as a starting place?

  1. I swear to enter into every production with a spirit of genuine openness and collaboration.
  2. I swear to listen to and consider any generously- and respectfully-offered feedback about my work.
  3. I swear to determine whether the work I am submitting to a theater, development program, or contest is indeed resonant with the mission, aesthetic, and selection criteria of the organizations to which I am submitting it.
  4. I swear to avoid “bulk submissions” of my work.
  5. I swear to participate avidly and sincerely in any development opportunity for which I am selected.
  6. I swear to maintain professional standards in the preparation of clear, readable scripts using appropriate formatting.
  7. I swear to withhold unreasonable public criticisms of productions of my work in speaking with other members of the theater community, theatergoers, or members of the press.
  8. I swear to deliver reasonable public criticisms of productions of my work in thoughtful and (to whatever extent possible) respectful ways.
  9. I swear to contribute meaningfully and earnestly to discussions about artistic decisions over which I do not have final say.
  10. I swear to make genuine contributions to the marketing and promotion of any productions of my plays.
  11. I swear to give appropriate compensation and credit for any materials I incorporate into my work.
Do you so swear? If you do, add your name to the comments. And if you have other items to suggest… feel free.

34 thoughts on “Playwrights Code of Ethics”

  1. How about, on the creative side:

    11. I swear to only tell stories of honest voice [of the character(s)] and honest intent (of the playwright).
    12. I swear to never waste an actor, director or audience’s time for the gratification of my ego.

    1. I like those — I appreciate the more creative impulses. I’m particularly partial to the second.

      With regard to the first… maybe a different word than “honest” would make it more spot-on for me. “Authentic” voice, perhaps, and “positive” or “selfless” intent. (Not sure about the latter…)

      1. To be frank, “honest” wasn’t the right word for me either… just wanted to get it out before forgetting the idea… “authentic” rings nicely… but there’s still something a bit off to me… Will think more.

  2. How about this? “I swear to be true to the play, and I swear not to give my play away to people who ask for changes without understanding what the play is actually about.”

    1. Interesting. I totally agree that we should do that, for sure… but is that an ethical statement or, you know, a personal goal? Unless we have an ethical duty to the play itself, which would be an interesting way to look at it…

  3. Hmmn. I kind-of like the way you qualify almost everything by hedging your bets about the people with whom you may be working, but you could make it easier on everyone if you begin each with “To the best of my ability I will…”, rather than “I swear…”. Also, if it’s going to be a formal code of ethics, you may want to rephrase #3 to correct the grammar.

    1. Good catch on the grammar. That is very clumsily-worded.

      What I like about the “I swear” formulation is that it’s assertive: a commitment. I wonder whether others would like the list to be a bit more… hedged.

  4. I swear to stand up for playwrights as the sole authors and owners of their work and not cave into pressure from development teams, directors or dramaturgs to demand a slice of their copyright. And I swear to demand that actors speak the words as written unless specifically permitted by the playwright. If you want to invent dialogue, write your own play.

      1. I 100% agree with Matt Mayerchak. I change dialogue constantly based on suggestions from directors and actors, but it has to be me that makes and okays the change. 

        1. Hi, Mac. Really great to see you here. I followed SlowLearner (quietly) for a long time and enjoyed it a great deal.

          Perhaps I didn’t state my concerns with Matt’s comment clearly enough. I completely agree with the assertion that it has to be the playwright who makes and okays the change. What I’m troubled by, more than anything, is the tone of what he says. I read it as standoffish and authoritarian.

          Furthermore… the thing he’s asking for (that the words be performed as written, in essence) isn’t something we can DO, per se, but something we want others to do as our collaborators. With that in mind, I think it may be something that belongs on what I think of as the companion to this blog post: The Playwrights Wish List.

          In other words, I sympathize, but I don’t think this concern belongs in what’s intended to be a positive assertion of the duties we owe others.

          1. I also frequently incorporate creative suggestions from actors and directors into my scripts, and I love the fact that theatre is a collaborative art form; but I turn to actors and directors and designers to do the part that I can’t do, not the part I can. BECAUSE it is a collaborative art, others often abuse that aspect of it and trample the rights of the author. I’m hardly dictating adherence to stage directions a la the Beckett estate; but I have seen productions of my own work that were unrecognizable because the actors took it upon themselves to ad lib.

            I posted my comments in this thread because I find the very notion that playwrights need a formalized code of ethics laughable. We are among the least respected and worst paid members of the artistic/entertainment world. I have seen musicals where the drummer made more money each night than the playwright did for the whole project. Every 5 years I receive a royalty check for 58 cents. The world does not need to be protected from the excesses of rogue playwrights. What we need are more people with unfettered imaginations who don’t self-censor because they’re afraid of offending someone. 

          2. Matt —

            If you are, by any chance, implying that I self-censor because I’m afraid of offending someone, you clearly do not know my work.

            Frankly, though, I think we all ought to think about the ethics to which we subscribe far more carefully than we do. (I myself am as guilty of failing to do that as the next person, for what it’s worth.) I’m thinking here not only of our artistic ethics, but our human ethics. We live in a culture that has, to my view, collapsed under the immense weight of people looking out for themselves (without looking out for others). But that’s a cultural argument, one that might be had for quite a long time without reaching resolution, and I’m not particularly interested in pursuing it.

            I will ask you, though, to consider the context in which I drafted this code, which (as — I’m guessing — a first-time reader of my blog) I don’t expect you to be familiar with. This is the culmination of a series of posts that began with a crowd-sourced list of “playwright demands.” They were phrased as wishes, but they relied on the sort of strident language you’ve been employing: “Give us this, give us that, stop doing this other thing, etc.” We (those who read and comment and Facebook and tweeted about it) came to the collective realization that we’re making theater in a time of unprecedented openness: that the portcullises (can’t believe spell-check didn’t call me out on that) in many of the country’s theatrical castles were at least half-way up: artistic directors were listening. In other words, it wasn’t the right time to issue demands. Demands are for revolutions; we have an evolution under way.

            That led to a reprise of the wish list, which still asserted what many of us felt we want and need as playwrights… and also to a long discussion, on Twitter, about how if we were going to be responsible partners, we also have to address some of the concerns we’ve been hearing about our own actions as artists as well. In other words, we realized that the artist-arts leader relationship is a two-way street, and if we wanted to get a little, we had to self-examine and be willing to give a little, too. Thus this post.

            Now, you may still not like it, and that’s fine. There are 10,000 of us writing so many different plays in so many different voices and with so many different perspectives — of course we ain’t going to agree. But perhaps it will help you know that we aren’t kow-towing to power here (I’ll have NONE of that). We are operating from a perceived place of strength and openness, rather than defensiveness and fear.

  5. I think the overall tone of this is “I swear not to be a douche.” More like a code of conduct. Ethics to me means “I swear not to plagiarize…” – I’d love to see a list that addresses unethical behavior. 

      1. wow, I step away and miss the comments! Yes, a “What Not To Do” list would be fab! I think the tone should be stuff that you really shouldn’t do – bad habits, that kind of thing – rather than “Let someone make me feel less than great about my work.” Y’know? Like, instructive rather than inspirational. 

        I guess my first thoughts would be:

        1. Plagiarize
        2. Defend yourself/your work when getting feedback (i.e., just keep your mouth shut and listen, cuz you never know when something might be valuable.)
        3. Assume your publisher will promote your play
        4. Skip spellcheck
        5. Send your only hardcopy.

        Hmmm still thinking, but those are the things that pop into my head…

        Good job on these lists, btw 🙂

    1. I think the not plagiarizing one is pretty important. Not that I think there’s a plagiarism epidemic in theatre communities, but it’s definitely worth putting on there.

      I also think that there needs to be something about getting permission and giving credit and/or money to sources when you use real life material in your play that you didn’t write yourself. I don’t mean a song playing in the background (unless it has to be a specific song), but things like recorded interviews, recorded video, etc.

      1. You know, those are really good. And I think they can somehow be combined into one. I’m not well-versed enough in the sort of copyright issues that are involved (Charles Mee-type stuff), but maybe you (or someone else) might take a stab? Something like:

        I swear to give appropriate compensation and credit for any materials I incorporate into my work.


        1. I think that works.

          Even if there is no legal precedent, the ethics of fair use of another’s work, materials, etc. in our work is a worthy thing to include.

          1. I like how you rolled those two together. As a writer who has adapted a ton of material, I always credit the source, and am amazed when I see playwrights who don’t…It doesn’t happen often, thankfully!

    1. Thanks. The discussion is really what I wanted to inspire. No blog post is going to accurately capture *everyone’s* self of ethics precisely. These are mine, though many are gathered from conversations with fellow playwrights. (And they are evolving through my participation in this discussion.) If all this blog post does is inspire others to think about their own ethics? Great.

  6. What do yo mean by “bulk submissions?”  Do you mean “I swear to send out only one copy to only one theater at a time and promise to wait nine months (or longer) till the form rejection letter comes?” If ever? Then perhaps we should re-word it to read: “I swear to live long enough to give everyone their exclusive opportunity to read or not to read, and hope I’m still around when I find out about it.” Seriously, why should the playwright operate under such a constraint when we all know that finding the one brave soul willing to take a chance on a new play is tantamount to a crap shoot?  What is the offense in bulk submissions, if indeed my understanding of your number four is correct?

    1. Gwydion Suilebhan

      What I mean is this: blindly sending out a play to many, many companies in hope of landing it somewhere simply through brute force. We should be carefully deciding where to send work. We should have some idea that our work is really and truly “right,” as best we can tell, for the theaters we send it to. But of course that does NOT mean one at a time. What it means is, well, not 137 at a time.

  7. Just thought of something else for this, which I should have considered before.

    1. I swear to follow instructions about when, where, how, and to whom I send manuscripts in consideration for readings and/or productions.
    2. I swear to limit sending unsolicited manuscripts only to entities that explicitly accept them.

    If we, as playwrights, would like to be able to expect timely, thoughtful responses from those we send our work to, I believe it is on us to make that process as easy as possible by not making it harder for people to do that.

  8. Pingback: Gwydion Suilebhan: the “Everyman” of Playwriting…Or maybe just everything | City Theatre: In Our Own Words

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top