Contracts – the minefield…

We know what a minefield this can be, especially for fledgling performers who may worry about signing away their life for a show, but with the right knowledge, contracts can protect you and your rights. If you are a producer, they can also protect you too… Here’s a quick low-down…

What the hell is a contract?

A contract is a basic legal agreement that person a is going to provide person b with something. And person b will promises something in return. It’s basically a ‘legal promise’ and can be acted upon if one of the parties don’t fulfill their obligation. It offers peace of mind and is more serious than a casual agreement. For instance, we enter into basic contracts with people around us every day – if we go into the hairdressers, we enter into a mutual contract – the hairdresser will cut our hair for us and we will promise to pay for that service. If we buy something on ebay, we pay for the item and the seller agrees to send it to us. Even if we borrow a fiver off a friend, we enter into a basic mutual contract – we borrow and make a promise to pay it back by a given date. Basically a mutual promise and obligation; a supply of something and a promise to deliver something that has been agreed in return.

In Show Terms – The Performer

If we look at this agreement in show terms,  the performer promises to do a show. In return the producer will agree with the performer in advance of the performance what the payment will be for the performance. This can be money. This can be film footage/photos/anything else agreed with the performer in lieu of payment. Both sides must agree in advance and both sides are legally obligated to deliver their promises on the given date. Once agreed, there can be no change to the contract unless both sides mutually change the deal and a new contract is made. There could be any number of reasons a contract could be changed after it has been negotiated, eg, you the performer fall ill, so are unable to provide your side of the agreement to perform, or the date might have changed due to unforeseen circumstances. In these cases, both sides must agree on the new terms – or must agree to cancel the contract. A contract cannot be changed by one party deciding to change the agreement without first consulting the other party. Unfortunately, as a performer, you cannot change your mind on the night and ask for more than what you previously agreed – and likewise, the promoter cannot give you less than you expected – or something else entirely. You cannot break the terms by simply not turning up. You have made a legal agreement and you must stick to it.

In Show Terms – The Producer

A producer will agree a contract with every performer they book and each contract should be tailored to the individual performer and performance. It’s in your best interests to agree with the performer the acts you want (especially if you have a specific show theme and they have an act which fits perfectly – you need to lock this in) and the payment they will be getting for this. There are other details which we will go into in more detail below, but in basic terms you agree with the performer what you want from them and you agree with the performer what you legally promise to provide in return. In rare occasions where the producer also performs, payment might be a show swap situation – where it is mutually agreed a performs at your show and you perform at theirs in return. In such cases, it’s advisable to have a solid date when you will be performing in return.

Get It On ‘Paper’

In legal terms, while a spoken contract can still be valid, it’s a lot harder to prove in a UK court. Basically, if a broke the contract by not turning up, therefore ruining b‘s show, and it went to court (which is rare, most things can be sorted out amicably) then b has to prove an agreement from a existed. Very difficult if there is only one person’s word against another. If there are follow-up conversations via text, etc, the judge can treat this as evidence of an agreement but will have to decide if it’s more likely than not that there was such an agreement in place. However, getting a contract written down is the most sensible way forward. Sometimes, with the best will in the world, details might be forgotten in a verbal agreement. Important details. Writing all the details of an agreement and the outcome for both parties will ensure that everyone is happy and in agreement. Acceptable forms of ‘contract’ can be over email (in the body of an email) where there is a reply agreeing to the terms outlined by the sender. It can also be in a formal, drawn out contract that both parties sign either physically or via electronic signature and it can also be a simple handwritten note where both parties sign to state an agreement has been made. In all cases, both sides must have a copy of the agreement.

Performer’s Contracts…

If you are a member of Equity in the UK, you can download a basic contract from the members’ resource area which will go in depth re pay, backstage provisions, on stage practice and your agreed expectations from the producer. If your needs are basic, you can even draw out your own, but ensure you have the basic agreement, what will be expected in return by a given date and space for both parties to sign and date. Here’s a basic contract that you can use – just change everything highlighted to your own name and agreement :

CONTRACT OF ENGAGEMENT template

In basic terms, the contract is protecting you from the producer changing or ignoring the agreement and/or changing what they will pay (in legal terms this is being ‘in breach of their obligations’). A contract looks more professional and as a performer you will feel more protected if both parties have signed an agreement and it also serves as a reminder of the details.

Producer’s Contracts… 

A producer needs to guarantee they have cast a show and a contract with performers will be that guarantee. A producer will already have entered into a number of contracts  -firstly with a venue – whatever the terms of the show are, whether a theatre have bought it in or the producer has hired, the venue will have entered into a legal agreement with the producer to use the venue (you can read more about this in our Producing a show guide). The producer will have also entered into mutual contracts with the audience – who in paying for a ticket are expecting a show in return. So the producer will ask the performer to sign a contract because they also have a lot riding on the performer hitting the stage. The producer’s contract is likely to look the same as the performer’s contract, but may have in it additional clauses such as how the performer will pay their NI and Tax, how the performer will be paid and a date which this will be achieved. You can download a basic producer contract here: CONTRACT OF ENGAGEMENT Template but remember to fill in all your own details. Remember your contract has to include the agreement of what you will give in return for the service of the performer – even if they are performing for ‘free’ there will always be something that will be beneficial to the performer in lieu of payment – eg, if they are performing at a festival, festival entrance might be the payment in return for their ‘services’, you might be offering professional footage of their act, photos of the show, etc. Whatever you are offering, they must agree to and you must provide on completion of their service within a given time.

What If The Contract Contains Things I Don’t Understand Or Have Not Agreed To? 

You must read through a contract carefully as occasionally there might be a clause that you’ve not agreed to, the conditions might have changed or there might be additional clauses that were not part of the initial agreement. Do not panic – it could be that whoever issued the contract hadn’t tailored it to the individual agreement and it was a general contract. It’s unlikely that there is any sinister motive, but occasionally someone might be trying to squeeze in extras. Raise your concerns with whoever issued the contract immediately and do not sign until both parties are happy, which might mean a new, ‘clean’ contract is now issued with the offending extras removed. If the issuer refuses to change the contract, remember, you are under no obligation to sign it and perform your part of the agreement.

Crucial Points to Remember on Contracts:

  1. Both parties must have agreed on all the details
  2.  A written contract is more provable in law than an oral contract
  3. Contracts should contain reasonable promises and expectations
  4. Contracts should be followed by both parties
  5. A contract is a legally enforceable document
  6. A contract offers protection and peace of mind

With the above in mind, always check over a contract in detail before signing it to ensure no extras have entered the agreement and to ensure nothing has been left out. You need to be sure what has been mutually agreed to be provided on both sides and this should be clear. There should also be a date on which this beneficial agreement will take place and both sides need to have signed to prove agreement. If you are drawing up your own document, it might be worth seeing a solicitor to have it checked over –  most solicitors in the UK offer a free half hour advice service.

Ooh, and one last point – always agree your contracts, and set a deadline for the signed return. If either the producer or performer has not returned a signed contract within the stated deadline, then the contract will be voided and either the performer will not be obliged to perform (if it’s the producer who has not returned the contract) or the performer might be replaced (if it’s the performer who has not returned their contract).

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