News came out recently about a lawsuit against a youth theater in Northern Virginia. The suit was brought by Music Theatre International or MTI for short. It seems that the theater allegedly produced upwards of a dozen shows licensed through MTI without paying for the rights. Not paying for production rights is nothing new nor terribly uncommon. What is uncommon in this case is the number of productions that were produced by this youth theater. Because more opportunities to create theater are better, let’s take a brief look at how to properly attain production rights for shows.

It’s important to understand the way rights work and why they’re important in the first place. In order to perform almost any play or musical written after 1900, rights are required. Essentially, rights are permission from the writers to the producer to put their work on stage. This permission usually comes with some production requirements and limitations. Productions are granted certain dates for their performances and are allowed to charge certain prices in return for a specified payment to the rights holder. These rights do several things. Most importantly, the author(s) are paid for their work, which too often is not the case. 

It also helps manage the number of productions within a given area. It might be one thing if several schools in a region tried to do the same show around the same time, but if those productions overlapped with local, regional, and national productions in the same area, the audiences would cannibalize each other and the show title would suffer more than any individual production.

In the cases of the most popular plays and musicals, those rights are usually licensed through one of several companies. The majority of popular plays are managed by Samuel French, by Dramatists Play Service, or by Broadway Play Publishing. These companies also publish the scripts of the plays they license for purchase in a bookstore or online, but purchasing the book is not the same as purchasing performance rights.

Musicals are predominantly controlled by Music Theatre International, Tams-Witmark, and the Rodgers and Hammerstein Library. Musical licensing companies do not tend to publish their catalogs for reading the way that play publishers do. Musicals tend to be less “readable” than their non-musical cousins, for one, and they also tend to more often be targets for performance without proper authorization.

The granting of rights usually comes with some pretty heavy strictures as well. Many people don’t realize, but generally producers aren’t allowed to change one note or line in a piece unless they have specific permission. This certainly presents challenges in some schools, communities, and religious groups, but is essential for maintaining the artistic integrity of the work. 

Rights can be expensive, especially for musicals, which often require rental of scripts, scores, and instrumental parts on top of the rights. Popular titles can cost hundreds of dollars per evening for amateur or educational production. Plays tend to be more affordable overall.

Of course, if paying for rights isn’t in the cards due to budgets, many of the classic plays, including Shakespeare, are available for production without procuring rights. There are also playwrights who will allow groups to purchase their scripts and produce their plays “rights-free.” Classic plays from around the world might also be available for free, but the translation might be protected, so it’s important to check before producing. Paying for rights and following the author(s) wishes is very important for successful productions.