ARROGANCE, IGNORANCE, AND #PLAYWRIGHT RESPECT

June 29th, 2015 donnahoke

 

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.

 

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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.

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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.

 

 

Please follow me on Twitter @donnahoke or like me on Facebook at Donna Hoke, Playwright.

Written by donnahoke

donnahoke

Dramatists Guild Council member and ensemble playwright-in-residence at Road Less Traveled Productions, Kilroys List and award-winning playwright Donna Hoke’s work has been seen in 40 states, and on five continents. Her full-length plays include THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR (Princess Grace semi-finalist, currently in its third year in rep in Romania), SEEDS (Artie award winner for Outstanding New Play), FLOWERS IN THE DESERT (AACT top 20 finalist), SAFE (winner of the Todd McNerney National Playwriting Contest, Naatak National Playwriting Contest, and the 2015 Great Gay Play and Musical Contest), and BRILLIANT WORKS OF ART (2016 Kilroys List, Winner HRC Showcase, Firehouse Festival of New American Plays, top ten Woodward/Newman finalist); she’s also authored more than two dozen short plays that have had hundreds of productions. Donna is also a New York Times-published crossword puzzle constructor; author of Neko and the Twiggets, a children’s book; and founder/co-curator of BUA Takes 10: GLBT Short Stories. For three consecutive years, she was named Buffalo’s Best Writer by Artvoice, the only woman to ever receive the designation.

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15 Comments on “ARROGANCE, IGNORANCE, AND #PLAYWRIGHT RESPECT”

  1. 1 Susan Westfall said at 11:07 am on June 29th, 2015:

    Thanks for the shout out, Donna. It’s in our mission to be a company that serves new work & respects playwrights. It doesn’t always work perfectly but I think this year’s SUMMER SHORTS Festival did satisfy the intentions of the authors in word and deed. Also the readings at CityWrights. I’m a playwright too, & even I have had work that was not done well by me (that director has not been invited back), so I understand.

  2. 2 Patrick Gabridge said at 11:30 am on June 29th, 2015:

    Thanks for putting this out there, Donna. So important that we educate our young theatre artists about this!

  3. 3 Mary Gannon said at 12:08 pm on June 29th, 2015:

    I applaud your pointing these incidents out and it is very disheartening. You are right stand up and deliver the message that it’s unacceptable especially to future generations of theater professionals.

  4. 4 W. Squier said at 1:15 pm on June 29th, 2015:

    It really amazes me that this sort of thing goes on in a day and age when it’s so easy to get in touch with the author to discuss and gain approval for a potential script change! Email, I-message, use your cell phone! There’s no excuse for not seeking approval — and the only explanation is that you don’t think it will be granted. And, if that’s the case, don’t be surprised when the author gets upset!

  5. 5 Scott Piehler said at 1:57 pm on July 2nd, 2015:

    I just finished a 3-year run as a drama director at a private Christian school. As you can imagine, content could be an issue, but I always did my level best to secure the legal rights to any changes that might need to be made. As a sometime playwright, I get it, in spades.

    In my position, the largest problem typically was language. I could get away with the odd damn or hell, but beyond that, forget it. In that setting, even “Oh my God” was out of the question.

    You’re right, playwrights tend to be an easy going bunch. From the educator’s perspective, we just hope folks understand the ridiculous pressures we face from all sides. It is never right to make unapproved changes. So we hope the publishing company or playwright isn’t married to that one f-bomb. Because the rest of the show is SO GOOD, and needs to be staged. But we know if we do it as is, parents, PTA, and administration will come down on us like a ton of bricks, despite the fact that every student in the school probably uses the same language.

    So, it’s a two way street. Educators and theater companies need to model the proper procedure. And playwrights should understand that it’s not because we’re being prudish. We’re just trying to keep our jobs.

  6. 6 donnahoke said at 6:12 pm on July 3rd, 2015:

    I don’t think many would be, and I know many playwrights who have allowed those concessions when asked. Just ask.

  7. 7 Garry Kluger said at 2:12 pm on August 1st, 2015:

    Donna –

    Thanks for a wonderful piece. Like you, I’ve had many plays done here and internationally and have run into similar situations. However, for me, one of the most disrespectful practices I run into is when I’m contacted to send a play and asked for “10 pages to evaluate.” I won’t do that anymore. It’s not an ego thing, but if one is truly interested in my play – READ IT. When I questioned a director about this practice he said, “I have SO many plays to read, I just don’t have the time.” My response was to ask him how he would feel if he was putting a production up and a reviewer said that because he has SO many plays to see that he drop by and watch 10 minutes of the production then review the play? The answer was, “That’s a different situation.” I told him it wasn’t. He wanted to judge my whole work on a small, arbitrary piece and he wouldn’t allow the same to happen to him. Long story short, he said send him 10 pages so I sent the title page, and pages 5, 18, 22, 37, 44, 53, 71, 82, and 105. Surprisingly, I never heard from him again. I know many playwrights will send a “sample,” but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with refusing to be shortchanged like that.

  8. 8 donnahoke said at 2:13 pm on August 1st, 2015:

    Garry — That’s a whole different issue than wholesale changing of a script to make it more “entertaining.” But it’s all about #playwrightrespect Thanks for reading!

  9. 9 Elana Gartner said at 10:29 am on August 4th, 2015:

    Thanks for this, Donna! I’ve had some startling personal experiences with this, even when I was the producer but simply not in the rehearsal room! But then I have had other experiences with very respectful editors who did need to change curse words or with a great New Zealand company who specifically requested that I work with them to make some changes so that it was set in NZ. But it was in the contract that we would work on the changes together. That said, this issue shockingly pervasive. As a young stage manager, our first rehearsal was often cutting lines from the script before a read-through.

  10. 10 donnahoke said at 10:32 am on August 4th, 2015:

    Elana — I know of an instance where a playwright was there working, and when he left, the AD pulled out the red pen with the cast. It’s awful.

  11. 11 Lisa said at 10:05 am on August 5th, 2015:

    I so appreciate this. I am an actress and teaching artist. I find it a true privilege to be able to work on a play with the playwright present. I know good playwrights choose their words carefully and in memorization I do my best to be sure I’m using the exact words on the page. I recently had an experience when the playwright gave us freedom to use different words here and there (like changing “issue” to “problem”) if they felt right – but not to change whole lines or improvise scenes. He was part of the process from start to finish. I can’t imagine playing with words without him there.

  12. 12 donnahoke said at 10:07 am on August 5th, 2015:

    Thank you; that really is the whole thing. I can’t really remember an instance where somebody asked me for a change and I didn’t grant it. We really don’t want to be difficult; directors and actors are great collaborators, and we just want to be part of the process.

  13. 13 Stephen Brackenridge said at 4:46 pm on August 6th, 2015:

    I’m a new writer and an actor from my first play agreed to direct my second play. It was a complete nightmare. I said I would be at the first two rehearsals in case anyone had any questions and whenever an actor directly asked me a question she would butt in before I could say anything. She also complained that I wouldn’t let her change any of the script despite the fact that her desired changes were clumsy or made no sense. There was one part of the script that i wasn’t sure about but I thought I’d not say anything and see if she or any of the actors would say anything when it got to that part during the rehearsal. It was and I agreed with the actor and director what I would change the line to and that I would bring everyone in a new page next week. The next week she freaked out when I produced the new line saying she didn’t like the way I was changing everything despite the fact we had all agreed to it! I was producing too and had to change a rehearsal venue for two weeks as it was just after the new year and she pulled me up in front of the whole cast about it. That’s not even the whole story. I was made to feel like a nuisance. I ended up directing and I’m glad to say it went well. it myself.

  14. 14 C J Martin said at 6:05 pm on August 9th, 2015:

    As a high school drama coach, I contacted Playscripts, Inc. to request the playwrights permission to change a line, that it would not affect the content of the play in any way, and my reason for wanting the change. I received a letter from Playscripts Inc, giving me the playwrights permission and stating they had never had a playwright do that before.
    BTW, opening night I received an email from the playwright stating “break a leg”.

  15. 15 donnahoke said at 10:11 pm on August 9th, 2015:

    Exactly. I have allowed a community center to use my plays for the past couple seasons; this year, they asked to make sure about a typo. That’s excellence.


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