I have a good actor/director friend who told me that, in college, she took a Playwrights Appreciation class. Can you imagine? And can you imagine how different the theater landscape might be if all theater majors were required to take this class? In my short career as a playwright, I’ve experienced and heard of enough instances where a playwright was made to feel like a nuisance that what should be a joke—“the best playwright is a dead playwright”—now has basis in experience.
I’ve personally had universities do student-directed plays without telling me—a sure sign that students aren’t being taught about the basic obligation to secure performance rights. I’ve had a theater demand world premiere rights for a six-run performance. I’ve been invited to a production out of town, only to find my play altered—text added and cut, the ending changed. And in each instance, when I inquired, I was told that it was an oversight. The students were told (though nobody followed up on this important obligation), the producer knew better (though not while typing in the names that he wanted associated with the play in perpetuity), an actress adlibbed, it was cut for time, it wasn’t really changed. And so on.
And those are just a few stories; I know you’ve all got many more. That these things are happening shouldn’t surprise me. After all, no less than Doug Wright, Amanda Green, Brian Friel, and David Mamet have recently experienced similar issues. If you’re not going to respect those guys, what chance do we lesser known playwrights have? And even for the oft-produced famous ones, beyond those bigger theaters, who’s keeping watch?
Melissa Hillman wrote an excellent piece on this very topic in the wake of the Brian Friel fiasco, but nothing has really been put forth on how to CORRECT this problem. I go back to the class my friend took and ask why more schools don’t offer similar intruction. Instead, in many schools, instead of being taught playwright appreciation and respect, students are seeing—often in contradiction to the lip service they’re hearing—teachers change lines, cut text, add text, and do whatever they feel “necessary” for their own staging. And doing it like it’s their right. (And I’ve heard this firsthand again and again and again.)
Those students go out and become actors in the professional world, where they see the same thing happen. Again, I’ve seen and heard about this too much. I actually sat in a theater at a talkback and listened to the Artistic Director inform the audience that changes has been made but that “it’s okay, because the playwright’s not here.” And the audience laughed. And I was outraged. Because an entire audience had just been told that it’s okay to do this, and were made complicit in this wrongdoing with a “joke” at the expense of that playwright. More recently, I heard the administrator of a youth theater camp say how he gets plays from a youth publisher, and then adds roles and changes them as “necessary,” and that these changes are popular.
When those students become directors, and something comes up in a script they don’t like, they might feel a slight twinge—if we’re lucky—before they take care of it in whatever way suits them. Why? Because they think it’s okay, and even if they know it’s not, they’ve seen enough by way of example to know they have a pretty good chance of getting away with it.
The takeaway on this?
- Always speak up. You might be the squeaky wheel, and it might mean that theater will never work with you again, but so what? If you do speak up, respectfully and calmly, you might get the defensive “We did nothing wrong” reaction, but you may also be surprised (see below).
- Instructors, no matter what you TELL your students, if they see you doing the opposite, that’s what they’ll remember. You’re teaching young minds how to be theater professionals; walk the walk, talk the talk. Ethics count. And consider that…
- Playwright Appreciation classes—or at least units in intro to theater or directing classes—need to proliferate. Offenses like these begin with ignorance. And then familiarity. And things that are familiar begin to feel like rights. And then arrogance sets in. Stop the cycle. Change will come only from within, when there is a sense of conscience instead of entitlement.
- Laud loudly those producing entities that show respect, as I’m going to do right here:
I received a contract from PATV Playwrights Project was very vague about the changes that might need to be made as my play transitions from stage to screen. I wrote back with my concerns, and received not only a phone call assuring me that they wanted me to be comfortable, but a brand new professional LOA that clearly indicated that producing entity had done some contract research.
Fancy Pants Theatre produced one of my short plays at a festival, directed by Laura Henderson of Queer Theatre Kalamazoo. Laura emailed me because she wanted to add ONE WORD to my script. One word. Hallelujah.
City Theatre’s Summer Shorts had nine playwrights in attendance who were thrilled with the amazing productions of their shows. Susan Westfall is a playwright’s playwright.
And to producing entities, PLEASE, if you like a play well enough to do it, like it well enough to do it AS IS. And if you don’t, ASK THE PLAYWRIGHT. For the most part, we’re an easygoing bunch. I have happily made changes to suit the needs of a theater when they asked. We WANT to work with you, but you have to give us a chance.