Making Contracts Part of Our Process
By Melanie Hamilton (2014)
Contracts can be regarded as unnecessary or too complicated for small-scale projects, especially when people aren’t getting paid. This is understandable. It’s not compulsory to use contracts when no one is getting paid, and with limited resources it can seem logical to put energy into the show first and avoid extra tasks that take up valuable time. Making a new show is hard work at any stage of your career, but it’s especially challenging at the beginning when you’re learning as you go.
The flaw with avoiding contracts till ‘later’ is that it’s actually a missed opportunity to upskill and prepare for the future. Considering contracts at the outset provides an opportunity to:
- Acknowledge that you are in a professional environment, no matter what the pay rate
- Equip yourself with skills that will be essential when negotiating contracts in the future
- Learn how to negotiate in a safe environment.
Contracts also help a company/collective/group making a show to:
- Define the nature of the work environment they wish to create
- Share and articulate the goals and expectations of the project
- Clarify each person’s role within the project
- Set expectations openly and have a way of measuring if they are being met.
Contracts are encouraged because they offer protection and accountability. At the most basic level they represent an exchange: I will do this for you if you do this for me. Contracts come about after a lot communication between a lot of people. Often this communication happens anyway on a project, so including it in written form is simply another step towards defining how the project will progress.
Contracts are also beneficial for other reasons - proof of them can be needed by outside organisations. For example, if you are injured and request ACC support then ACC could ask to see a copy of your contract to confirm what you were working on at the time. For this reason alone, it is good practice to have contracts in place when starting a new project.
Contracts as a way to encourage professional behaviour
No matter what the financial situation, we do our best work when we are respected, listened to and encouraged to achieve; when our work environment is busy, happy and challenging.
Of course, a contract will not ensure this, but it is one of the avenues through which you can articulate your ideal working conditions. Getting together to discuss a contract will contribute to how your group communicates. By doing so you will need to agree upon what is important to your project, which will help your project to succeed. You can put whatever you all agree upon into your contract (as long as it’s legal). A contract can be as specific as the project requires. It is worth remembering that the process of creating a contract can help your project - it’s another communication tool you have at your disposal to make your project as good as it can be.
Everyone is involved
Encouraging professional behaviour encompasses all people on a project. There are many excellent resources available to learn more about contracts, and most are there to assist whoever is writing the contracts. This is because the person writing the contract is usually the person taking the financial risk, therefore, they need to learn how to protect themselves financially and legally.
However, when learning about contracts it is important to remember that a contract is an opportunity for the producer/company/group to outline their obligations to the performers as well. This is just as important as outlining performers’ obligations to the production and to the producer. Ideally, a contract can transparently meet everyone’s needs using clear language that can be easily understood. A professional contract is not necessarily a difficult contract.
A written document should never be seen as the end of communication, it is simply another stage in the process - no matter how rushed a project might be.
Sometimes projects need to happen quickly after securing a venue or funding. There can be a lot of planning before this, but sometimes a project is suddenly ‘all on’ due to external circumstances. When this happens people can feel too busy to worry about contracts.
To avoid this, a contract can be prepared in advance and be made available to be considered even before the project has been confirmed. Drafting a contract can be an open process and part of the overall communication. As the project progresses, what to include in the contract can be openly discussed between parties. DANZ’s Contract Checklist for Dancers offers a guide for this.
No matter what the timeframes are, it is fair to expect adequate time to consider a contract before signing. This includes having time to show it to other people, to seek legal advice and to request changes. A few days to sign a contract is definitely less than ideal. For this reason it is encouraged that the contract writing process is as transparent as possible and that people be offered opportunities to consider draft forms in advance.
Some examples of basic contracts can be downloaded below, and you may wish to modify for your own project. Or, there might be clauses you wish to ask to have included in another contract. And, just to confirm the basics:
Parties in the contract
Most contracts are between two parties, e.g. a freelance dancer and the company hiring the dancer. In the case of a collective, it can be a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that all people in the collective sign.
Contract and Contract Schedule(s)
Contracts often have two parts. The body of the contract with the terms of conditions for both parties, then schedules at the end that detail specifics such as rehearsal dates, fee amounts and payment dates. Often people working on a project will have the same contract body but with different schedules attached, depending on individual circumstances.
Remember that no matter what the financial situation or experience of people, it’s never too soon to act professionally and to encourage others to do so as well.
Disclaimer: These three sample contracts are guides only. They are intended to offer examples of contracts that could be helpful for people to consider as they start to make their own work. They are based on Contract for Services, i.e. contracting people for a limited period of time for a particular project. They are not sample employment contracts. Any use this documentation should be taken in consultation with legal advice.
Download the full resource Making Contracts Part of Our Process
Watch DANZ Intellectual Property, Contracts and Copyright Seminar
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