Directing, Creative Freedom, and Vandalism



Once upon a time I worked at a theatre that received two cease-and-desist orders in two seasons– one for copying dialogue from a Disney film word-for-word and performing it without permission, and one for rewriting the lyrics to Godspell. The artistic director of the company told me, “The New Testament is so boring! Stephen Schwartz would have LOVED what we did with it if he had seen it. Ours was SO MUCH BETTER.” She then proceeded to tell me that she had learned her lesson, and asked me to write a commission contract for a playwright that would give her “total artistic control” over what the playwright wrote. “It’s my idea to adapt [name of book she didn’t write nor for which she possessed the adaptation rights] into a musical, so I own it.” Instead of writing her contract, I quit.

Around this same time, Boxcar Theatre in San Francisco took an unrepentant stance regarding their contract violations and theft of material from Rocky Horror Picture Show in their production of Little Shop of Horrors. This added fuel to the fire of the longstanding national debate over what directors and producers can and cannot do with a playwright’s work, as opposed to what some believe they SHOULD be able to do with a playwright’s work.

These two things happened almost back-to-back, and I began to think long and hard about the relationships directors and producers have with playwrights.

A PR shot for Asolo Rep's Philadelphia, Here I Come. No photog credit was provided.

A PR shot for Asolo Rep’s Philadelphia, Here I Come from the press section of their website. No photographer credit was provided.

The latest controversy belongs to Asolo Rep in Sarasota, Florida. Director Frank Galati staged Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come with enormous restructuring, eliminating characters and cutting pages of dialogue, all in direct violation of contract. What’s more, it appears from the article I link to above that Asolo Rep makes a practice of this:

The theater has experimented with new approaches to older plays with some success in the past. Two years ago, for example, the theater played around with Leah Napolin’s play “Yentl,” keeping most of the script but adding in original songs by composer Jill Sobule, performed by actors doubling as musicians on stage.

Napolin had a “heads-up about what we were doing,” Edwards said. “But she didn’t know all of what we were doing. . . .  If director Gordon Greenberg had gone to Napolin with every idea for changes or additions that came up during rehearsals “it would have killed the creative process. It would have made it a two-year process,” Edwards said.

While the Yentl production differed because Napolin had a “heads-up,” and therefore had the opportunity from the start of the process to investigate and hold Asolo to the terms of their contract, the attitude is still evident. Involving a playwright in an adaptation of HER OWN WORK is something that would “kill the creative process” and drag the rehearsal period out to a “two-year process.” The playwright is seen as a hindrance; an unwelcome interloper in the director’s much more important “creative process.”

Frank Galati. Photographer: Joel Moorman.

Frank Galati. Photographer: Joel Moorman.

Friel wasn’t even given a “heads-up,” and one has to wonder if that had to do with a (well-founded) suspicion that he would have told them no. Many who have discussed this controversy have mentioned how surprised they were that a director as well-known and experienced as Galati would have willfully violated contract, but I’m not surprised at all. My guess (and it’s just a guess, as I don’t know Galati personally) is that either the producers told him he had permission, or he felt entitled to do precisely what he did.

I’m basing this latter guess on the vehement arguments of directors all over the country who are at this very moment taking to the internet to express these very thoughts. There’s an entire subset of directors and producers who see the playwright as a necessary evil; a hindrance to their more important creative process, and who see the contract as something that exists more as a formality between the producer and the playwright than a legally-binding document that applies to their work. Here’s what they say.

1. Playwrights should be open to collaboration, and participate in their work’s speedy irrelevancy by refusing to allow directors to change things. This is an argument I’ve heard repeatedly. In my many years of experience of working with playwrights, I’ve found them to be very open to collaboration. They are, however, much less open to willful contract violations. There’s an enormous difference between contacting a playwright with, “I have an idea . . .” and “Surprise! We violated the contract! If you don’t like it and agree to let us continue, you’re a jerk who refuses to collaborate and hates artistic freedom.”

It’s certainly debatable whether a director’s changes are better than the original play, just as it’s debatable whether those changes would make the play more relevant or just vandalize the narrative. The arbiter of that debate MUST BE the playwright, because the playwright OWNS the work.

2. Copyright hinders creative freedom. Directors are artists, and their creative freedom must be respected. But why would the creative freedom of the director be more important than the creative freedom of the playwright? Why is the playwright seen as a hindrance to YOUR creative process when your creative process involves interpreting THEIR work? And why would you sign a contract you have no intention of honoring?

I’d like to point out that this isn’t a discussion about whether or not we should have copyright law, or what should be changed about it. That’s an entirely different topic. This is a discussion from within existing law. If you don’t like the law, work to change it, but as it stands now, we are all bound by it.

I’m very aggressive when I direct Shakespeare, because I can be. But when I directed Cameron McNary’s Of Dice and Men, I texted him when I wanted to cut a single line. He said no. I pushed for it– and lost. That line stayed in the final production because it’s not my right– legal, ethical, or artistic– to produce work with Cameron’s name on it that I doctored without his approval.

Jonathon Brooks as Jason in Impact's production of "Of Dice and Men."

Jonathon Brooks as Jason in Impact’s production of “Of Dice and Men.”

The prevailing attitude directors and producers who violate contract to doctor work express is that they SHOULD be able to have that right, that they DO have that right as artists, that their doctoring makes the work BETTER, and that playwrights who do not approve are SPOILSPORTS who do not know what is best for their art.

One wonders how these directors would view this issue if, unbeknownst to them, the actors reblocked three scenes and the final moment, added seven costumes, and replaced all the sound cues with the Wilhelm, then continued to perform the show with the director’s name on it. One wonders how these directors would feel if their protestations were met with accusations of being against “artistic freedom” and “collaboration.” One wonders how long it would take these directors to invoke the terms of their contract with that theatre.

3. “The director’s job is interpretation, and this is my interpretation of the work.” The problem with this oft-repeated argument is that it’s only right to a point. The director’s ACTUAL job is to interpret the work within the confines of the given circumstances. If you’re not a director, you’d be amazed at how much of directing is finding artistic solutions to technical problems. Two examples from the Annals of Real Life: If your interpretation of the work includes flying something in, and the theatre has no fly space, that interpretation needs to be adjusted to the confines of the given circumstances within which you’re directing that play. If your interpretation of the play includes passing out shots of real tequila to your audience, and the producer tells you absolutely not for both legal and budgetary reasons, that interpretation needs to be adjusted to the confines of the given circumstances within which you’re directing that play.

Similarly, if your interpretation of Angels in America includes cutting five pages of dialogue and adding a scene from Titanic, and you have not obtained permission from both Tony Kushner and James Cameron, that interpretation needs to be adjusted to the confines of the given circumstances within which you’re directing that play: the terms of your contract and copyright law.

Even mediocre directors CAN and DO successfully work around various aspects of their interpretations hitting the cutting room floor almost every day. They do this willingly because they respect the reality of space contraints, budgetary constraints, and the like. What I don’t understand is why the reality of contractual restraints are so poorly respected so much of the time.

It all boils down to this: Respect the terms of the contracts you sign. Respect the enormous amount of work the playwright put into the play before you ever clapped eyes on it. Stop thinking of playwrights as unwelcome interlopers who are there to vandalize your work. You’re interpreting THEIR work. If your changes to their work violate the terms of your contract, you’re the one who’s doing the vandalizing.

If you don’t want to work with playwrights and you don’t want to honor the terms of the contracts you (or your producers) sign with them, you should not be producing or directing the work of living playwrights. There are plenty of works in the public domain from which to choose.

Jonah McClellan and Akemi Okamura in Impact's Troilus and Cressida. Photographer: Cheshire Isaacs.

Jonah McClellan and Akemi Okamura in Impact’s Troilus and Cressida. Photographer: Cheshire Isaacs.

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82 thoughts on “Directing, Creative Freedom, and Vandalism

  1. Well now. That makes me want to stop subbing my plays…sends a very cold shiver down my spine. I totally agree with you, the director (and I live with one) should always work within the confines of the play and the given circumstances.

    Mebbe I’ll just stick with writing novels…

  2. chasbelov says:

    Thank you, Melissa! There is no phrase that kills my interest in a theatre faster than “total artistic control.”

    When John Ferreira was directing the staged reading of my first play Rice Kugel, we had a steady stream of e-mails going back and forth, as well as discussions at rehearsal or over dinner. Perhaps about half of his suggestions resulted in me making revisions and the other half resulted in me giving him an explanation of what was going on in my mind. Now that’s collaboration.

    As my ability to write plays has (hopefully) improved, for my subsequent staged readings of other plays the number of suggestions has been getting smaller and smaller, but the ratio seems to stay about the same.

    As for “total artistic control,” I’d love to know how directors rationalize that as “collaboration.”

  3. chasbelov says:

    Oh, and may I mention that, even with all those e-mails, coffee, and dinner, the production happened on time.

  4. David Copelin says:

    Brava, Melissa. You get it. I have heard directors mutter, “The only good playwright is a dead playwright.” I can understand their frustration, but there’s no reason to condone their piracy. Incidentally, I suspect that director tinkering with scripts is more prevalent in community and academic theatres than in professional theatres. I have no stats on this, just a suspicion, and a little evidence.

  5. John B says:

    As always I love you!!! Respect the contract you have signed we would have liked to have more cut from our production of maltese Falcon to open next month. She made cuts and thats all we got so we must produce the work as we have been given it.
    If you want to re work something pick a dead playwrite. They have just as much right to protect their creative work as anyone else, if it doesnt suit you vision of the work choose another one.

  6. Paul Mullin says:

    Thank you! I have about a hundred reasons for retiring from playwriting, but shit like this going down on productions of my plays accounts for at least ten of them.

  7. Theatre is collaborative – between the writer, the director, the actors, the techs, and finally the audience. If you don’t play well with others, you’re in the wrong business. Speaking of which…

    Yes, it is a business. That’s what contracts are for. No matter how bold your artistic ambitions – which are always subject to critical baclash and scrutiny – violating business terms subjects you to LEGAL backlash and scrutiny. And that’s a point where you should just plum know better. (I’m reminded of that jerk who last year posted an actress’ hs/res on his theatre’s FB page because she flaked on an audition)

    No matter what you believe about your own press, it is NOT all about you. At least that’s the mindset that’s kept me a happy theatre collaborator.

  8. Lib Spry says:

    Am a director and a playwright and think this is a brilliant summing up both of what can happen and what should be done. Thank you.

  9. Groveling at your feet, Melissa. Thanks for this one.

  10. Too hot to post true name says:

    Why are we willing to let directors edit Shakespeare (great talent) and not “Bob” (mediocre talent)? The contract structure? Change it. Bob’s ego? So what? Bob is not in the room, but his ego is killing his play while preserving his text. Truth: none of this matters if the play is excellent. In today’s society, if Bob was THAT good he’d be writing for film/ television… so would the Bard

    • Shakespeare is edited primarily for length. No one feels guilty because he’s been dead for centuries.

      “Bob” is likely still forming his voice; a voice that matters as much as yours. If you have so little respect for “Bob”‘s work, why option it in the first place?

    • chasbelov says:

      If Bob’s play is so bad then why are you doing Bob’s play?

    • Also, there is a general knowledge of Shakespeare’s major works widely disseminated amongst English language theater goers, consequently, at least half the audience is going to recognize any significant deviation from the text

    • Vera Sloan says:

      Because if there’s one thing we know about the writing for film and television, it’s that it’s uniformly excellent.

      Seriously, though, if a living, 21st Century-aware William Shakespeare was available to collaborate on proposed cuts and changes to his work, that would be a great analogy (also, AMAZING). As is, it doesn’t really work.

    • Karen says:

      Truly great directors are just about as rare as Shakespeare.

      Unfortunately, there are many mediocre and poor directors out there who think they are God’s Gift to the Theatre but who really don’t have a clue and, in truth. should not be directing. They don’t know it and, it would seem, sadly, nobody else does, either.

      As both a playwright and a director, I’d say the single element that kills most plays is not the playwright’s inflexible ego, but rather the director’s (pick one or more or all) inept, arrogant, sophomoric, clueless, insensitive, ham-handed, rigid, misguided, misinterpretation/butchering of the playwright’s script.

      On those all too rare occasions when a production truly soars, it is because the director has done his or her job. And when it doesn’t work, it is because the director has failed to do so.

      • I disagree with you quite vehemently.

        Productions fail because of a lot of factors. Many of these factors are not in either the director or playwright’s control. The space, the timing, the available talent (both acting & production elements) all play a part in the magic coming together.

        The directors are not auteurs in theater and they shouldn’t shoulder the blame of an auteur.

    • Prevailing theory of Shakespeare’s plays is that Shakespeare wrote them to be cut. Andrew Gurr, Michael Hirrel, and Tiffany Stern, among others, have all written extensively on this topic.

    • an average director who loves gray plays says:

      Should actors then do the same and change lines as they choose? redo blocking when they think it is better? How about lighting techs? should they decide when they think the cue should run? If you can’t follow the game plan, make up your own game.

    • I did recently see a German production of “Macbeth” where they cut Lady M’s monologue and replaced it with a monologue that I think is from Beckett’s “Happy Days.” Not an improvement–and I wonder if they got the rights to the Beckett dialogue.

      • (or rather, Beckett “monologue,” since “dialogue” technically means something else!)

      • German theater practice is very very different from that in the United States. German directors are generally seen as having the right to cut dialogue, shift scenes around, and even insert other texts into the play in question. This certainly was part of Heiner Müller’s practice as both a director and playwright — though one should also keep in mind that in German theater, it’s also fairly common for a playwright to also be a director and a director to also be a playwright.

        This issue was covered in an interview I conducted regarding the inception of German play reading series a year-and-a-half ago:

      • @IanThal: I checked out your essay; thanks. That is news to me about the power of German directors, and explains quite a bit. I can’t say I agree with it, though. I don’t see why, just because a director might be a playwright, they get carte blanche to change other people’s writings. They should at least put “reimagined by” or something in the program. A director once chopped the ending of a show I wrote and replaced it with someone else’s script, without my knowledge, and it was appalling to think that anyone in the audience would believe I chose to write it that way.

      • I think that in the case of German theater that it’s how the culture differs from ours– but at the same time, playwrights are often salaried at the theater that premieres the play. So while German theater is a “director’s theater” the writer is better compensated than here in the U.S. where certain directors not only want a “director’s theater” but they want to work with the writers, let alone pay them better.

    • Seriously? And that means that all good directors would be directing in film/television? So you have mediocre directors interpreting mediocre work. Some view of the theater that you demonstrate here.

  11. Kathleen W. says:

    Damned living playwrights! Such troublemakers! If they were any good, they’d be writing for “Real Housewives.”

  12. As “interesting” as it might be to cut characters, change their genders, sexual orientation, or ethnicity, or rearrange or excise scenes– sometimes the spoken dialogue or narrative structure of the play does not jibe well with such re-imaginings, making whole scenes nonsensical, not just to the author, but to the actors, and more analytical audience members.

    It really takes a first-rate director to pull it off and as a life-long theater goer (as well as a theater artist) I know that very few of the directors who think they are good enough to so radically reimagine a classic (or contemporary work in the running for classic status) actually are.

  13. JPB says:

    What you’re saying right here? It was the basis for my entire doctoral dissertation. Yes, I filled a book! It’s incredible how devalued playwrights are by directors, by “talk-back-audiences” who believe they know how to write a play better, by actors who believe you don’t understand the characters you’ve created; very demoralizing. Thank you for this blog!

  14. Kevin Stevens says:

    The only change I make to a playwright’s work is when they try to hard to guide the actor’s interpretation with adverbs (“archly”, “sarcastically”, etc.). Other than that. I do it as is.

  15. kevdogster says:

    The only change I make to a work is when a playwright is trying to guide the actor’s interpretation of the words too strongly. The first thing I do at the first table session is have the actors cross out any adverbs before their lines, e.g. “sarcastically”, “sadly”, etc. That’s going too far. Other than that, I do it as is.

  16. This is a brilliant article and so, so needed. Seriously: if you are a director who thinks they need “complete artistic control,” please never ever ever direct the plays of living playwrights. The beauty of working on a living playwright’s work is figuring out what lives WITHIN the playwright’s words and structure, not outside of them. Even more beautiful is when you have a playwright in the room: a truly brilliant director learns to speak the playwright’s language and that collaboration helps BOTH PARTIES unfold what a play wants to become. [This open attitude and honest approach can and will lead a great playwright to brilliant rewrites that make you and your playwright happy]. But this CANNOT HAPPEN if you attack a play as if you have to wrestle into submission to fit your preconceived idea.

    If you, Theater Companies And Playwrights Reading This, have a director who is behaving in the manner this playwright is describing, HIRE ME INSTEAD. Not only do I speak playwright, I RESPECT playwrights, and you will end up with a much more successful production.

  17. Please also take a look at Howard Sherman’s excellent post about this. Because he’s a prince, he’s posting articles from both sides of the argument in his comments section as well.

  18. Cody says:

    I agree whole-heartedly with this argument with the exception that NOT ALL theater companies are structured the same, the expectations of playwrights and directors are drawn by the company that employs them, and power is assigned through the what bureaucracy dictates, what the mission of said company declares, and where the money goes. That being said, if a playwright is asked to write dialogue for an ensemble created work after the ensemble has been chosen, all of the above rules are out the window. This article makes great points but ignores the non-equity, grassroots theaters that might have a non-traditional more experimental structure. Ultimately I would say organization and staying true to any legally binding contract are crucial to your reputation, playing well with others, and keeping your company out of legal trouble and OPEN. Regular Production meetings where you communicate the roles and expectations usually clear up discrepancies.

    • If such a company is so determined to make productions a certain way, then they should never sign a contract licencing a copyrighted work. The rules do not “go out the window” just because someone wants them to; and copywright most certainly doesn’t.

    • However, this essay isn’t about those companies that do devised works and hire a playwright as a collaborator– it’s about companies that contract to use a previously written work and then proceed to both deliberately violate the terms of the contract as well as the moral rights of the playwright to have his or her work presented in an textually accurate and thematically coherent manner.

  19. It’s a matter of respect, for one’s collaborators and for the collaborative process.

    If you don’t want to do [Insert Name of Play Here], by all means, choose another work, or write your own, but if you *do* commit to a play, that’s the play you should direct.

  20. To Cody’s point — I am a longtime fan of Theater Oobleck in Chicago, which has never worked with a director. I don’t think their approach would work with most companies, but it’s interesting to read the “Manny-festo” to learn a bit about how they do it:

  21. akmediascope says:

    The playwright is GOD. End of story.

  22. mark says:

    A few examples I know if where a director thought they were “smarter” than an established theatrical masterpiece:

    1) At a professional summer theatre in New Jersey. The director of “West Side Story” decided to add a prologue to the existing prologue. A group of modern-day gangbangers are about to kill each other. An elderly Puerto Rican woman named “Maria” enters and admonishes them. She then begins a cautionary tale…and the actual script starts.

    2) A dinner theatre in Colorado: Production of “Evita.” The role of Eva Peron is split among four actresses who are billed in the program as Eva the Child, Eva the Actress, Eva the Politician and Eva the Saint.

    3) In the 80s, well before the radical Mendes reinterpretation (which was done in cooperation with the authors) a notorious university director decided to re-write “Cabaret.” This consisted of randomly dropping numbers from the stage score and adding numbers from the film score. Also, he inserted dialogue from the film.

    It’s bad enough when a director tries to overly-inflict themselves on a no-name playwright’s unknown work. But when they insist they a well-established classic needs their “interpretation” to resonate, they have a huge ego that could only be equaled by a private part of their anatomy.

    The flip side of this is that playwrights needs to be reasonable and flexible. If a high school production wants to change the gender of an ancillary character (usually because they have so many more girls than boys in the show) that is not the time to dig in your heels.

    But shame on Frank Galati…he should know better. SSD&C should sanction any director that so flagrantly disrespects a playwright’s copyright. If you are in SSD&C that means you are a PROFESSIONAL, so behave like one.

  23. ye olde curmudgeon says:

    What of the other side of the equation? I refuse to direct any script where the playwright insists on directing from the page. I recently read ( or started to read) a play with an impressive premise but as many words given to stage directions as script.

    • Paul Mullin says:

      Well, refusing to direct a script is pretty much what everyone does at all times. Heck, my plays have been refused by some of the finest theatres in the country.

      But also, I don’t know a playwright who doesn’t understand our stage directions get ignored. I’m cool with that. But don’t add, delete, or change dialogue. That’s the Maginot line.

      • chasbelov says:

        The Dramatists Guild position is that stage directions are part of the script/contract. I do my best to pare my stage directions down to only those that are required by the plot, so I expect them to be followed. (I have been known to overdo the pauses, however.)

      • Kevin Stevens says:

        If you have “pause”, “sarcastically”, etc., in your script, I can guarantee you I will ignore these in directing the play. You absolutely are in charge of what they say, the director and actor are in charge of how they say it.

      • chasbelov says:

        Interesting that WordPress will only let you reply down to a certain level. This is actually @Kevin Stevens:

        Is there any particular reason you want to ignore my pauses out of hand without trying to understand why they might be there? Or as opposed to saying to me, “Hey, there seem to be a lot of pauses in your script. I’d like to experiment with seeing how few of them are actually needed.”

        You’ll be happy to know that as a result of feedback from a director (not the one who directed my play, but another), I took out all the pauses. I do expect a director and actors to put some back in. And a play without pauses could be exhausting to watch.

        I can guarantee you won’t find any adverbs as stage directions in my play. I might give a rare “lying” (assuming it’s not one of my plays where practically everything is a lie).

        But if I give you a parenthetical like:

        (Alas, it’s still a computer.)

        or a stage direction like:

        (HOTALKI-YAHOLA goes to open the door and speaks with the person outside the door in hushed tones. If seen, the visitor is a Caucasian female. Neither the audience nor JOCHI can make out what they are saying, but the chocolate-bearer is holding up most of the conversation. JOCHI goes to take the bracelet, thinks better of it, then takes out her phone and starts surreptitiously taking photos of the gold and silver objects starting with the bracelet. JOCHI puts the phone away quickly when the conversation stops. HOTALKI-YAHOLA re-enters with a tray containing two mugs of hot chocolate, spoons, and jars of honey and hot peppers. She offers the tray to JOCHI, and JOCHI takes one of the mugs.)


        (ORDA cannot continue. Whatever ORDA does at this moment – which might include violence against an inanimate object but not a person – or doesn’t do, it is to be clear to the end that she is not happy with the results of her machinations and will be reminded of this every day for a long time.)

        they are there for a reason and I expect you to follow them as well as they can be followed. (I’m aware the first and last ones are abstract but I presume a director and actor can work them out.) Fortunately, I don’t have many of these in my play.

      • kevdogster says:

        You are deliberately misunderstanding what I wrote. I didn’t say there would be no pauses. What I assume is that the context of the writing will make it apparent where the pauses should be. I also assume that the actors are good enough to find the beats and pauses in the text on their own.

  24. m says:

    Thank you for writing about this difficult topic, and for having the guts to quit in an untenable situation. Once upon a time, I was an employee of the theatre that received the cease-and-desist order regarding the re-written Godspell script/lyrics. I was disturbed enough about this contract violation to blow the whistle on them and notified Music Theatre International. One month later, I lost my job, for “staff reorganization” reasons. It is gratifying to know that intelligent and ethical people still exist in the theatre world, and are managing to produce good works while retaining the creative content of other artists.

  25. I’ve never understood why some people can’t differentiate between what we SHOULD be allowed to do and what we CAN do. Copyright laws are what they are, and they are the law of the land. The analogy I always use is the speed limit. Even if I think I SHOULD be allowed to go faster than 55 mph, the law says I can’t. And, sometimes I drive faster than 55 and don’t get caught. That does not change the law. And, were I to get pulled over and given a ticket, I would not have any luck arguing with the police officer about how my “artistic freedom” to drive 75 mph is being violated.

    I am a published playwright and my work is frequently done by schools and community theaters. When they ask for changes, I am open to their ideas and their needs. But, when I find out about a violation, I am much less flexible.

  26. Aaron says:

    As an actor, I once was involved with a production of “A Few Good Men” where several characters were cut, including one of the two defendants. This was clearly a logistical issue in casting that many male roles, but I remember thinking, if you can’t do the show as written, you shouldn’t do the show. I was also once part of a production where the director wanted to cut every reference my character made to his unseen wife because she felt it wasn’t pertinent, despite the fact that my character’s purpose was to council the lead character on his marriage. It taught me, as I’ve turned more toward directing, that usually when a director wants to make substantive changes to the script, it’s often because something about the script has stumped them. I make it a challenge to solve that problem within the confines of what’s written, not just because it’s legally required, but because of my respect for the playwright as an artist.

  27. kgb4free says:

    In the spirit of trying to figure out a way to facilitate more co-operation…and I have had some great times working with playwrights in years past (Beth Henley, Wendy MacLeod and Jim McLure come immediately to mind)…perhaps playwrights contact info could be included in the contract. It’s really easy to say “talk to the playwright” and really hard to track the playwright down or get them in a dialogue. Just a thought….

  28. Relevant and thought-provoking piece. Thank you.

  29. Guy Sanville says:

    Arthur Miller wrote a nove called Focus. Elia kazan was slowly shedding the theatre and writing novels. He asked Miller why he continued to wrote lays instead of novels. “So many people have their hands on your plays. When you write a novel, it’s all you.” Miller replied, “That is why I write plays. I’m interested in what my work inspires in others.” A healthy attitude for a playwright.

    • Paul Mullin says:

      Absolutely. That’s the attraction for me, certainly. Or was. But unless there’s some substance to respecting the work, then it’s about giving people scenarios for improv, which is somewhat LESS than inspiring.

  30. Alex Shafer says:

    I was in Boxcar’s LITTLE SHOP (I played Mushnick), and worked with Frank Galati in 1776 at ACT recently. So having worked with both directors, and direct knowledge of the LITTLE SHOP controversy, I thought I’d take this moment to share my experience. I hope you’ll all forgive the length of this response. I have a lot to say.

    As I was there, part of Nick Olivero’s LITTLE SHOP, that was closed down, I can talk about that with authority. First of all, Nick’s changes to the script were massive, much bigger than what they did at Osolo. He changed dialogue, entire scenes, scene order, fundamental plot lines, characters, songs, song lyrics and more. It would take too long to list all the changes, additions, subtractions he made, all without permission. That he inserted a song from ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, was perhaps one of the most blatant pieces of copyright infringement, but only one of many. He also used the finaly form the movie (Mean Green Mother From Outer Space) which was written for the movie, and is not in the stage version. Again, no permission for that.

    He was actually guilty of 4 separate copyright abuses: he changed the stage version of the show, he lifted scenes verbatim from both the 1986 and the 1960 films and inserted them into his stage version, and he used a song from ROCKY HORROR, to accompany a scene he lifted from the 1960 film. All of this he did without permission, from MTI (the licensing company of the stage version), the 2 film companies who own LITTLE SHOP movies, and whoever owns the rights to ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW. Each carries a maximum penalty of $150,000 (plus legal fees) with possible criminal charges, depending on the seriousness and intent.

    When Nick heard that the MTI reps were coming to SF to see his show, his “plan” was to put on a fake show for the MTI reps using the original script. If that wasn’t enough, he wanted to create a fake electrical problem, and end that performance just before intermission, as there were too many changes in the script for the cast to completely relearn the show (while we were still doing Nick’s version, night after night, for all the other perfomances). Despite objections from some of the cast, both practical (you’ll never get away with it) and ethical (it’s wrong), Nick insisted. He wasn’t asking us, he was telling us.

    Some people went along with it because they felt they had no choice (including me) and others were totally “into it.” Their war cry was FUCK ALAN MENKEN, as if he had committed some crime against them for which he was getting is just rewards. For these people, it was like a kind of artistic revolution against THE MAN, THE SYSTEM, CORPORATE AMERICA, or against….something (I’m not sure what exactly).

    And if that wasn’t bad enough — being bullied into doing this fake show complete with a fake electrical failure, in the hopes the MTI reps were dumb enough to fall for it and just go back to NYC without any suspicion — we never even rehearsed the fake show. Dave Moeschler, the music director and Nick’s collaborator, called one rehearsal to go over the changes to the songs, and that was it. No rehearsal, to go over the huge changes to the dialogue, scene order, or how to incorporate Nick’s staging (outdoor scenes) into the original script. One of his Asst Directors was out of town, and the other resented being asked to do it.

    And if THAT wasn’t bad enough, Nick blew town, about a week and a half before the fake show, leaving his cast and crew to deal with the problem he had created, leaving us all in the lurch. He sent us the original script, a few vague suggestions, and the general message to figure it out on our own.

    Despite the increasing anxiety and desperation of the situation, we’d have gone through with it, but, the night before the fake show, I found out from the stage manager, who showed me the legal page of the MTI website, that it’s not just the director and company that are legally liable for copyright infringement and contract violations. It’s everyone involved in the productions, including the cast, crew, and even whoever owns the building. Everyone involved is liable. We the cast, were legally liable, for even being part of the production. Who knows what our liability would be to be part of a fraudulent ruse intended to trick the MTI reps. So, I called a meeting of the cast, after the Friday night performance, the day before the Saturday night fake show (which again, we never rehearsed). I just thought they, the cast, should know. I’m not surprised the cast was generally not that concerned about the possible legal liability, but what came out in that meeting was their ethical and practical concerns, and intense anxiety about having been bullied into this, and Nick’s having abandoned us with his problem. We called Nick in LA, and when he heard about our concerns, he went ballistic, lashing out at the cast for our last minute objections. The cast lashed out back at him, and a huge argument broke out, that lasted till about 2am. Nick unrelentingly continued to bully us into doing the fake show. We agreed to do the 1st 10-15 minutes of it, before going ahead with the fake electrical failure. Nick objected to this “compromise” because as he put it, “they’ll never believe it, if you only do that much!” The basic response from the cast was, “they won’t believe it anyway, and since you never bothered to rehearse your fake show, that’s all we are able to do.” We agree to meet at 5pm the next day for a “walk-thru” of the changes required for the 8pm fake show.

    When we arrived at 5pm, the next day, Nick was there. Apparently Moeschler got back on the phone and talked Nick into coming back from LA to face this with his cast, and out of doing the fake show. Nick talked to the MTI reps before the performance, explained that we had changed the show, would accept the consequences, and hoped for the best. Apparently they appreciated what they perceived as his “honesty.” We did Nick’s show, not the fake show. He received a “cease and desist” letter the next day, and the show closed. He lost some money, but was not sued or fined, nor were criminal charges pressed (a distinct possibility had we gone through the fake show, I have been told). He still has his company and a loyal, if somewhat cultish following.

    After the show closed we commiserated at the nearby pub, where Moeschler hailed me the “hero” of the story, for having saved the company. I reminded him it was he that talked Nick out of doing the fake show, but I guess Moeschler’s reasoning was that I did the right thing, which caused him to do the right thing, which caused Nick to do the right thing. Sadly, I found out later, Nick didn’t exactly feel that way. He has lashed out at me twice at parties that happened after the show closed. The second time, I told him, off, and have since been blackballed and ostracized both socially and artistically by Nick and his friends.

    Regardless of what he said in his phony letter to the community, he still feels he’d have gotten away with the fake show, if it weren’t for me. I am to blame for the failure of his plan, and therefore the closing of the show. I am his scapegoat.

    Incidentally, that night in the pub, after the show closed, I asked Nick why he didn’t write his own plays, since he likes to write. He told me, has written 7 plays, and tried to produce them at his company, and no one was interested, and no one came. I dropped it immediately, as it seemed obvious to me, that his failures as a writer were at the heart of all of this. He can’t write a play that anyone likes so he rewrites other people works to suit his taste, and then carries on like he is fighting for artistic freedom.

    This is not just a case of copyright infringement. It’s case of horrendous work place abuse. If you complain or try to stick up for yourself, your are scapegoated and blackballed in the artistic community. He is one of the most abusive people I have ever met, and to me, his copyright infringement a manifestation of his general lack of regard, for everyone.

    I’m sorry I called that meeting. I’m sorry I had anything to do, directly or indirectly with saving Boxcar Theatre from Nick Olivero’s abuse stupidity and lack of ethics. If it weren’t for me, calling that meeting, we’d have gone through with the fake show as planned, without any rehearsal, and the theatre community world would have found out just how abusive and immoral he really is. The fake show would have been a dismal failure, and the consequences would probably been a lot worse, and more fitting for what he did. As it turned out, he still has a company, and a lot of misguided people consider him a hero.

    So, for what it’s worth, and if anyone gives a crap, that is what happened at Boxcar. If anyone tells you different, they are lying to protect Nick Olivero.

    My friends have insisted that I did the right thing, calling that meeting, but I’m not so sure. Maybe, when you see a rat drowning in a sea of their own viciousness and stupidity, it’s best to just let it drown.

    There is more, a lot more abuses, to me, and others involved. I could write a book but this perhaps not the time or place. I expect I’ll get a lot of backlash for this. From what I’ve seen, the moment an actor complains, about anything, no matter how justified, they are labeled as “difficult.”

    As for Frank Galati, he is one of the kindest, most intelligent, artistic human beings I have ever met. A great artist and a total sweetheart of a man. I can’t imagine him knowingly disrespecting anyone. I don’t know the details of that situation at Osolo, except what it says in the article I read. Galati is a highly regarded director and writer, having been nominated for two Tony awards and winning one for the direction of his own stage adaptation of “The Grapes of Wrath.” He has also been nominated for an academy award for his screen adaptation of “The Accidental Tourist,” a movie I loved. He has many other accolades and awards. If I wrote a play, and he was directing it, I’d be happy to hear about any changes he had in mind, before or after he made them. I would imagine a lot of writers would feel the same about Galati’s input. Well, clearly Friel didn’t feel that way, and so the company is redoing it, as written. They made a mistake, an error in judgement, thinking the author would not mind some changes, and so they are correcting that mistake. I’m not sure what else to say about it.

    From a strictly legal point of view, it’s really a black and white issue. One may not change ANYTHING in a script without permission from an author…period. End of story. End of discussion. But the practical reality of this problem I think has more grey area. Directors, I think, make changes to scripts often, without permission. It’s impossible for the authors or their licensing companies to police it. I suspect, the changes are often superficial, and the authors would probably not mind, but not always, and what constitutes “superficial” vs “substantive” changes is in itself subjective. And of course, some authors are very strict about protecting their works from any changes, and some authors are more easy going and ok with it. To me, the seriousness of the problem depends on the situation, the people involved, their intentions, and the changes that were made.

    Alex Shafer

    • Paul Mullin says:

      I’m so glad you shared your story, Alex. Thank you!

    • I remember the auditions for that show. Right on the audition notice Nick wrote the words I will never forget as long as I live: “First of all, I hate musicals. Secondly, I really hate Little Shop“. That was my first sign something was amiss.

      I had a couple of friends in the show. When the show closed a week before I was going to see it, I felt bad for my friends, but couldn’t help thinking I’d dodged a bulltet.

      • Alex Shafer says:

        I think you’re right, you did dodge a bullet. He put the cast in such a horrible position. It’s only natural for the actors to try to get behind whatever production they are in, and support the director, as well as the other actors. I tried my best to help, to “go along” for the sake of the show and the other actors. No one, regardless of how they felt about him, his copyright infringement, or his fake show plan, wanted the show to close. For me, this was a nightmare, even after the show ended. So many times I wanted to quit the show, and in retrospect, wish I had. But if an actor quits a show, for any reason, they run the risk of being blackballed in the community, not just by the director, but by the other actors. His copyright infringements, were for me, the least of it. For me, it was the relentless abuse, the bullying, poor leadership, and his drinking — he not only drank on set, and allowed the actors to do the same, he practically encouraged the cast to drink during rehearsals and performances, the result was that during many performances I was on stage with drunk actors. Fun for them perhaps, not fun for me. Clearly I’m too “square” for this crowd.” He even fired his first stage manager, a very capable, friendly woman, for suggesting he and the cast should not be drinking during rehearsals. “NO ONE TALKS TO ME THAT WAY!!!” he bragged to me when he told me that story. Having said all that, a lot of people hail him has a genius. I just don’t know what to say to that, other than that they should get out more. Apparently “genius” comes cheap here in SF. I’ve worked with a lot of directors who are so much smarter, better in every way, whose shows are better, and are, pleasant, considerate, intelligent. And I’ve seen plenty of shows in other productions that were a lot better this his LITTLE SHOP, and they didn’t have to change the script to do it. He talks a big game, and seems to impress certain people, but I found him a dimwit, a vicious little clown. I thought it was like being in a cult. I, like most people, liked his staging ideas — the outdoor scenes, the video cameras, gritty interpretation, but all of that could have been done without changing the script. He admitted this to me, in a private conversation. I think of him has one of the worst directors I’ve ever worked with. Perhaps the worst. I appreciate his imaginative staging, his “gimmicks,” but his fowl temperament, his shocking lack of ethics, his drinking, his lack of regard for others, even for the safety of his cast (the Boxcar motto — “safety comes third” would be funny, if it weren’t so true.), and his abusive, tyrannical behavior, completely overshadows anything good about him. The only way he helped me as an actor, was to provide an excellent model for my character. I based Mr. Mushnik, on Nick — an abusive, unethical, alcoholic business owner, who mistreats his employees, who rules by fear, and would do anything, no matter how heinous or immoral, if he thought it would help his business. I guess I can thank him for that. What others like about him, is, I guess, their business.

      • Karen says:

        Wow. Such public criticism never happens in the theatre world. For better or for worse, theatre artists aren’t usually so forthcoming. We usually slink quietly away to some dark place to lick our wounds, chock bad experiences up to lessons learned, and/or find some covert, below-the-radar way to get to the word out. Are you at all concerned about being named in a slander or libel lawsuit? I’m no attorney, but I wonder if there aren’t portions of your assessment that may possibly cross over some line in that regard.

      • Vera Sloan says:

        The root of any defamation case is that the content of the damning criticism be demonstrably false. Unless Alex is making up the facts of the situation, which I see no reason to assume, or unless someone wanted to take on the doomed task of building a case of empirical evidence against subjective opinion, he’s allowed to say what he likes. You’re certainly right that openness isn’t the norm in the community, but I’d be hard-pressed to make an argument that that’s always for the best.

      • kevdogster says:

        To show defamation, you also need to show actual harm done to you. “My feelings were hurt” doesn’t count.

      • Alex Shafer says:

        To both Vera and Karen. I appreciate both your comments. I have been in many theatre productions, and most of the directors I’ve worked with were fine, and the experiences were positive, or at least….. OK. There have been a few productions, where perhaps the director and I didn’t get along well, or disagreed significantly on some artistic issue. To that I say, so what, who cares, and big deal. It’s to be expected. Turns out, not everyone loves everyone, and not everyone agrees about everything. That’s life. I would NEVER defame those directors publically, just because I didn’t like them, they me, or because I disagreed about their “vision.” If it talk about it, I do so privately, as one generally should.

        But this is different. Nick Olivero’s copyright infringements were so much worse than most people know (so much worse than what happened at Osolo), and his treatment of his cast and crew, when he thought he might get caught, (and yes, of me in particular), was nothing short of abusive and bordering on criminal, and I think people in the Bay Area theatre scene, should know what really happened. Theatre people, actors in particular, are justifiably terrified to say anything negative about anyone. It’s not right, and not fair, and sometimes people need to be called out on their behavior. I take great pride in being part of this wonderful theatre community, and his behavior was a disgrace. It’s shameful, as regards the legal/ethical issues of copyright infringement, and way beyond. And having said that, there is still more to this story, I haven’t even talked about. My comments are already too long, and I suspect this one will be too.

        Yes, I am very concerned about possible backlash from my remarks, and for the possible damage it may do to me as an actor. Of course I am. The reason I feel so compelled to talk so openly about this, is that I have already suffered plenty at the hands of Nick and his friends, for having stood up to him, so perhaps I feel I have little to lose. Also, I have been sitting on this for several years, since it happened, choking on it, to be more accurate. It’s been eating at me for a long time. When I read Melissa’s blog, it all came up again. I wasn’t sure if this was the right venue to talk about it, but I found it very hard to stop once I started. Melissa gave me the OK, so I proceeded. I didn’t intend to write so much or to be so personal, but there it was, both my initial comments, and my response to a sympathetic response (and now this). I know a lot of people like Nick, and think he’s brilliant and all that. They liked the show, and their concerns end there. I know a lot of people, have enjoyed working with him, and admire his “renegade” status. But I also know there are a lot of people who have been horribly mistreated by him, and are afraid to say anything. I always regretted not speaking up when all this came out a couple of years ago. I was too frightened to talk to about it publically.

        As for Nick taking legal action against me, maybe I should be worried, but I’m not. Everyone involved, regardless of how they feel about him, knows what happened, and that every word I have said is true. It’s not slander if it’s true. If anyone has been slandered, it’s me. I also have copies of both the original script and Nick’s script if this were to go to court. And so if Nick wishes to sue me for slander, he is welcome to do so. Then his friends will have to perjure themselves in court to defend him.

        My point is, regardless of whether saying all this helps me, hurts me, has no affect at all, is secondary. I needed to talk about it, and I think it’s a story that needs to be told. Perhaps this is not the most appropriate place to do so, but the opportunity presented itself and so I did. I have gotten way off topic and for that I apologize, but there are people all over the world, who are the victims of terrible work place abuse, and they really have little recourse. So, I am speaking for myself because I just need to, for others who are victims of Nick Olivero’s abuse, and for people in the local theatre community who are thinking of working for him.

      • Karen says:

        Vera, I’d go as far as to say the impulse to let sleeping dogs lie is probably never for the best.

        On the other hand, even if a defamation case is totally frivolous, I’d be concerned about having to deal with the distraction and expense.

    • DMR says:

      This definitely could have been taken to Equity, assuming it was an Equity production/contract. Stage Management and the Deputy should have spoken loud and stong.

  31. Walter Plinge says:

    So, if I’m following the logic of this blog, it’s OK to be “very aggressive” with Shakespeare (cutting, changing periods, removing characters….basically doing whatever one wants to do in the name of “creativity”), but not a living playwright. And the reason is that the director is under a legal obligation to the living playwright, but since Shakespeare (or Ibsen or Sheridan or Shaw) is dead, there is no ethical or practical or creative imperative to respect that playwright’s work, or special responsibility to help realize and bring to the stage what that dead playwright’s vision might have been (you know, learning a little bit about the dead guy, the times he lived in, and what some of the factors might have been driving him to write this specific text. Of course not, because that would be about him, and not about you and your “vision”). Am I the only one who thinks this whole argument is about ego? The real problem here is that a director is a modern invention….he or she is the person in the middle. Their work isn’t truly necessary to the playwright’s work, and no matter what you tell yourselves, it isn’t necessary to the actor’s work either….a working definition for what it means to become a professional actor has less to do with unions and salaries and everything to do with learning how to become director-proof, how to protect you, your character, the scene work, and ultimately the play from yet another idiot director with a “vision” for the play. How about we just tell the story that the playwright wrote? Now there’s a radical notion….maybe it should be included in the next contract.

    • I have a PhD in Dramatic Art and extensive experience in, and knowledge of, the theatre of Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Aggressive approaches to 400-year-old texts can in fact preserve the author’s intent as understood as impact on the audience if you know what you’re doing, and I do. Everything we know about the theatre of that era suggests that none of those playwrights would consider it a sound artistic (or commercial) decision to perform centuries-old texts without significant rewrites, since that’s precisely what they did, repeatedly and consistently. I’m much more conservative than that in that I preserve the language, but my aggressive take on those texts is far, FAR more in line with the author’s intent than preserving a 400-year-old text as written.

      Much of Shaw is still protected by copyright. Almost all of Ibsen in English is as well, because the translator holds the copyright. I’ve never directed Sheridan. That period can be wickedly difficult to stage because of the particular cultural context of the humor involved. I have an enormous historical interest in his work, and I don’t rule out slotting one of his plays one day.

      Since you know so little about me (or Renaissance England or copyright law), my guess is that your argument is not with me or with the issue of contract violations, but with other directors you have known. I absolutely understand how much easier it is to lash out at me, a faceless Internet Person, than speak directly to the people with whom you disagree, but you might want to consider taking a breath, or at least doing a second of research, before doing so in the future.

    • RAB says:

      I agree with you, Walter. I have, I admit, thinned a couple of great plays (Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, most substantially), but I have not made substantial CHANGES in them, and I made the thins so that I could mount the shows in 3 hours or less, not so I could carry out a personal “vision.” Like melissahillman, I am degreed in Elizabethan and Jacobean literature and have solid experience in directing plays from those periods and into the 18th century. Interestingly, Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights were more or less still in the process of defining drama at all; “plagiarism” as we understand it was not a concept; and they were not staging old material under its original titles, but consciously remaking it. So I don’t think their composing practices as playwrights are a legitimate guide to directors in the 21st century.

    • DMR says:

      If you think for one minute that a production of, say, Angels in America would simply stage itself? Then go for it. Try and put on most any play without a director and you’ll have ego driven actors stumbling all over themselves convinced they should live DSC.

  32. This is really wonderful and needed discussion. My positive and negative experiences with directors/playwrights/American & German professional theaters are fully reflected by so many people here. Melissa, you are right to point out early on that copyright itself under United States Federal law is a separate issue from how it is interpreted, applied, or actually broken. As a writer/producer who’s worked in many different fields internationally, I’m more concerned overall about how copyright as it stands is destructing and limiting culture and freedom of expression, not protecting and encouraging it. I’d like to hear your thoughts about that…might write up something myself.

  33. JLawson says:

    As a playwright, I always learn from my collaborators–directors, actors, audience-members, etc. I don’t have a problem with making changes in my scripts to suit the circumstances, the needs of the community, and the inspirations of the professionals I work with. That said, I also think our copyright law should go more in the direction apparently in force in Germany: I think theater professionals should be able to mash up a variety of texts so long as: 1) they acknowledge their sources and 2) they clearly inform theatergoers in advance about the nature of the production.

  34. w.g.allen says:

    What a wonderful discussion. I, too, have seen some shows carelessly butchered because a director thought they needed ‘more’ of something…usually not specified. I believe the shows – and the actors – suffered greatly.

    I am, as are many of you, a playwright. The words are there for a reason. If you don’t like the story, then don’t do the play…or write your own. But spare me, please, from your ‘improvements.’

    • I’d go even farther. If you don’t like the style in which the playwright meant the work to be performed, the odds are that the style you choose will be fighting with the text.

  35. Tlaloc Rivas says:

    Wow. So much hostility towards the director here (in the comments, not the article). But, I’m not going to defend the practices outlined in this excellent post by Melissa – they are pretty straightforward – and shame on the artists who practice in deceptive alteration of playwrights work.

    However, some perspective: over the past decade, the power of the playwright and their advocates have clearly made it a priority to make it ‘legally’ impossible to foster development of their work. If it is true that a play truly benefits from multiple productions and/or opportunities for the creative team to make a play better, then why the sudden ‘pre-nups’ of: a. a playwright must final approval of a director. b. a playwright must have final approval of a design team. c. a playwright must have final approval of casting. dramaturg. tea selection etc. etc. etc. in contract after contract, year after year.

    It begs the question: Are playwrights the ‘producers’ of the play? It certainly sounds like they are based on the contracts, ‘bills’ of rights, blog posts in HowlRound, articles in American Theatre, etc. The narrative has been changed from the supposed weakness of the playwright to their strength and virtues. It has been changed by the playwrights because they are damn good at it. I think its been good, for the most part. But what hasn’t changed is the vitriol against the director – the arrogance, the auteurship, the power we wield. Yeah, some bad apples have spoiled the barrel; these are exceptions, not the rule.

    I worry that articles like these continue to alienate the very champions of new work because of the increasing demands of adhering to every dotted i and crossed t. And newer playwrights feel a sense of entitlement (much like millennials) when they arrive on the professional scene. It is no wonder, that many A.D.’s would rather produce dead writers than deal with a living one. I don’t agree with this at all, but these lines we continue to draw isn’t helping anyone nor nurturing how we can collaborate in the best ways possible.

    • Of course there must be room for compromise and collaboration, but at the end, there’s a difference between fostering a playwright’s work and perverting it…and the playwright is the one who gets to decide where that line is drawn. An author who draws the line too close will suffer for his/her work’s not living up to its potential, but that, too, is the playwright’s option.

      Is it OK to have the actor X SR when the stage directions call for her to X SL? Probably. Usually.

      Is it OK to rewrite the words? Probably not. Almost never.

    • I’ve long since regarded directing new work as creative leadership. It’s functionally more of a secretarial chore.

      The playwright presents you with as project to do and lists of things to accomplish. You report to him/her about your progress and receive feedback. Pretty much one is executing someone else’s story as that person would like.

      That’s what I do everyday as an admin. It’s not a creative job, it’s frustrating and unfulfilling. I found original work to be so as well in some circumstances, so I moved on unless the writer and I established enough trust to genuinely collaborate.

      Whenever I read these discussion, it hits me how palpable the fear is for both playwrights and directors. One thing I’m sure of: boundaries are great unless they prevent you from risking trust in your relationships, especially woirking relationships, if you’re a creative.

      Not everyone is our to screw you.

      Just Tim in Sales, for sure.

  36. I’ve said this elsewhere in similar discussions, but the most important word in the playwright’s vocabulary is: no. The second-most is: yes.

    That said, the first thing my favorite director does when she works on one of my plays is to cross out all but the most essential stage directions. I’m cool with that because I know her and I figure stage directions are there to inform my understanding of the text. (I know–and respect–that other writers feel differently.) With time, I’ve come to enjoy writing loose to leave room for the director, cast, a designers. But if you want to change the words, we have to talk, and certain cards are trump.

    Great article.

    • After a few months doing improv, I’d say you have that backwards, “yes” is the most important and “no” the second.

      If you need to say no more than yes, you’re collaborating with the wrong folks.

      • I absolutely agree: if you have to say no more than yes, you are working with the wrong folks. I’ve had to say no very, very seldom–maybe because I’ve been lucky, maybe because the artists I’ve been fortunate enough to work with believed in the play as written (other than the usual improvements you find when rehearsing), and probably because, from the beginning, we communicated openly. When I say no is important, it’s not because you have to use it–it’s because you know you can use it. And it’s a rock on which to stand if the weather gets stormy. People who force you say no all the time are not collaborating.

      • You’re absolutely right: if you have to say no all the time, you are working with the wrong people. Saying no isn’t more important than saying yes: knowing you can say no is as important as saying yes. I’ve been lucky and said no very seldom, but the folks I worked with believed in the play as written, and we talked about the interpretation from the very beginning. (And also they’ve been way cool.) If you have to say no more than yes, then the people you’re working with aren’t collaborating with you.

  37. The problem that I have is not with respecting a playwright’s vision, but due to the boilerplate copyright contracts and disclaimers that the Rights Holders posess, especially on dead playwrights who have given the theatre troupe the go ahead to mess with things. Let’s take for example two plays that I have come across that have these problems:

    First, is “Inherit the Wind”. In the foreword written by the authors, they state that the play shouldn’t necessarily be played in the 1920’s in Tennesee (or wherever in the south), and that the play is mutable in its staging from “yesterday” to “tomorrow” (essentially saying that if updating the time and place gets the message across, then that’s what they prefer). But the Dramatists Play Inc license contract states that “No changes shall be made in location or time period”. This is something which I’m sure the theatre could request an exception, but what if the rep from Dramatists disagrees and denies the request? Here you have the playwrights stating “SET IT ANYWHERE IT MAKES SENSE TO” and then you have Dramatists saying, “NOPE.” Who do you believe? And is it worth getting into legal trouble over?

    Same thing occurs with “Anne of the Thousand Days” by Maxwell Anderson. In the forward to the play it states: “This is a play of memory, it is set in no specific time or place” (even though it deals with Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn). But the contract, again from Dramatists, says the same thing, “No change in location or time period”.

    So my question is if you have a unique idea for a staging which makes sense to the spirit of the play, and the playwrights have given you the latitude to play with that staging, but the rights holder denies your request to do it in that way, who’s in the right in that circumstance? You could use the argument “Well, the playwright said I could in the front of the script…”, but they could also fire back, “Nu-uh, you signed a contract. We’ll pull your license.”

    It’s a tetchy argument, and I don’t think there’s a right answer, but it bothers me that rights holders sometimes tromp on the wishes of past authors like that.

    • Ian Thal says:

      It seems to me that in the examples you cite, “Inherit the Wind” and “Anne of the Thousand Days” the authors have given written permission to make certain changes in location and time period — this would likely hold up in court if it came to that, but the simplest thing would be to contact Dramatists Play Inc. and ask for clarification.

  38. Reblogged this on Kimberly Sparkle Stewart and commented:
    I love to reinterpret writers work, but there’s a line that ought not to be crossed.

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