AND IF SO, THEN HOW DO WE GET IT?
Wow, it’s been a whirlwind couple of days. I know I promised to launch my new blog series soon—and it’s still in the works and getting better, and I will—but this whole #playwrightrespect storm took me by surprise. I posted to Facebook about a laughable “opportunity” from Words Players in Rochester, Minnesota, was encouraged to blog about it, did blog about it, and holy cow—in our little theater sphere, Twitter exploded. As of this writing, that post has been liked on Facebook 813 times, retweeted 174 times, shared 35 times, and gotten more than 5,000 views—in less than three days’ time. I could never have imagined any such thing. (And neither could Words Players; more on that below.)
Because everybody is on board with #playwrightrespect—to a point. Perhaps what has gotten people so riled about this is that we have a name—Words Players—a company doing something reprehensible: teaching children that a play is nothing more than something for them to mold into whatever they find most entertaining, that their “autonomous vision” supersedes the playwright’s vision, text, casting, etc. And yet, when playwrights talk publicly about theaters that have done us bad, we don’t mention names for fear of poisoning ourselves, labeling ourselves as “difficult,” and, at the end of the day, costing ourselves productions. And to the argument that these abusive theaters are not entities with which we’d want to work in the future, I agree, but everybody’s watching when a theater gets called out, even rightly. And that’s why you don’t see it done by anyone below the biggest names.
A theater produced my show and added and deleted text liberally, and also changed the ending so as to completely reverse intent. I did share my concerns with the director, and some efforts were made to revise the situation, but it still wasn’t the play I wrote. Several people near the situation advised me to shut it down, but I ultimately chose not to because a) I was out there at the theater’s expense 2) it was super awkward and 3) I wasn’t entirely sure the AD was involved (interestingly, all of this may have opened up that conversation) and 4) I was afraid of retribution in a small theater world. I admit this. I’m not proud of it, but I admit it. And it felt awful.
The thing is, I know I’m not alone in this (but of course I can’t even share names of those who won’t share names—see how fragile it all becomes?). Unless you are a playwright of clout—and again, I recall the recent Mamet, Friel, and Wright/Green examples that I linked in Ignorance, Arrogance, and Respect for Playwrights, the piece that started it all—it’s a very tough call. We can share our disappointment and dismay, but with playwright “careers” precarious and built on relationships, nobody wants to burn any bridges. And so, I have not named this theater—or others—though they are all aware of my feelings. I can only hope it makes a difference next time, but there’s a good chance it won’t because here’s another hard truth: even when a theater is named, for any reason, it doesn’t matter; there are always more plays and more playwrights. Asolo Rep is still going strong.
Which brings us back to Words Players. In this company, we have an easy target, because of the proprietary blatancy of their post yes, but more because of their leader’s unwillingness to address reasonable emails and concerns, and, most of all, because they are perpetuating bad practices with students. I’m sure there are people who work with this company who truly have never heard about the Dramatists Guild Bill of Rights, who perhaps were students of teachers who changed dialogue and characters to suit their purposes and visions, who are only doing it the way it’s always been done, or who just don’t know period. (That doesn’t mean they aren’t still wrong, because they are. As wrong as when I wrote DISSECTING, maybe more because they refuse to even consider what we’re saying, and instead uphold their mantra: then don’t submit.)
But with this company, we have a chance to talk about precedent, which could help prevent similar circumstances, even change the future, and we’ve gotten on board en masse. It is unfortunate that Words Players have become the face of this #playwrightrespect campaign, but our retaliation is coming from a deep, deep place of playwright frustration—soooo many stories of playwright disrespect and abuse have come out of it. So many of us have been burned. We are angry. We want action. And now, we have motivation.
What we still don’t have are more names, and so Words Players bears the brunt because it allows us to be the bad guys without fear of repercussion. And I don’t know that we’ll get more names as long as we feel at risk, which is another large part of this thorny, complicated issue. I’ve even gotten communications regarding my DISSECTING post, and how it’s going to identify me as an agitator, and hurt my chances with theaters. Because all I’ve ever tried to do is advocate for playwrights, I sincerely hope that isn’t true, but if it is, then I hope some good comes of all of this, because it’s clear that we’ve hit a tender spot–and hopefully a tipping point. It hurts to be the victim of these practices, but it’s worse to see them perpetuated by the very people who should be setting examples for the next generation of theater artists.
[updated information since original post] While this company has finally responded to intervention from the Dramatists Guild, and while we hope their response is sincere and conveys an actual understanding of the issues, getting one company to change isn’t really the point, is it? More, it’s how can we continue this momentum?
1) Report any bad practices to the Dramatists Guild. They’re fearless.
2) Do not submit to places that make it clear your work will not be respected and READ THE FINE PRINT!!! (Full and embarrassing disclosure: a look at my records shows I dashed off plays to this group last year. I have no way of knowing if the guidelines were exactly the same as this year; if they were, I have no other excuse but negligence and lack of due diligence. Or, possibly, I just was a more naive playwright. I really don’t know. Fortunately, they weren’t “produced.” Take this as a warning.)
3) Continue to laud loudly and often any theaters that do it right. And credit them publicly with #playwrightrespect
4) Confront theaters who do it wrong, calmly, and explain that what they’ve done is in violation of your contract and the Dramatists Guild Bill of Rights. Assume ignorance, until arrogance is displayed. It’s uncomfortable—man, I know it’s uncomfortable—but good outcomes are possible.
5) Ask to speak to drama departments at your local schools—and this include colleges, even camps (probably especially camps)—on this subject. There are so many teachers who really don’t know what they shouldn’t be doing, or, if they do know, they’re not convinced that it’s important to pass that knowledge on, to have oversight with student directors, to secure rights, etc. And they might jump at the chance to have a real live playwright speak to classes about copyright, the nature of collaboration in theater, etc. Remember, this is about education and #playwrightrespect.
6) Get to rehearsal, by Skype or Face Time if necessary; so much could be prevented if we could be in the room even once.
7) Don’t just sign contracts; discuss them.
8) If you go to any theater-related conferences, advocate for panels on this topic. Everybody in theater needs to be educated. This needs to become matter of fact. More people need to be calling out offenses. A lone playwright can’t be the only voice of dissent.
9) Remember that the goal is to make good things happen. Keep #playwrightrespect alive. Continue to spread the message. Tell the good stories. Be outspoken.
We are not the bad guys. Fortunately for us, there are plenty of good guys who know that.
UPDATE: Here is the result of all the discussion, a “clarification” at Words Players, which is a far cry from the guidelines the Dramatists Guild supplied to replace the originals. And here is a very misinformed column still denouncing any attempts by playwrights or the Dramatists Guild to make ourselves understood.