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Stop Treating Playwrights Like Their Work Doesn't Matter (even Shakespeare) (Sept. 19, 2017)

In the past month or so, my Facebook browsing has unearthed two Playbill articles that addressed the same topic: changing a play or musical in production without permission from whomever you licensed it from. Specifically, I’m talking about: “Stephen Adly Guirgis Speaks Out After Shutting Down Theatre for Unauthorized Cuts to Judas Iscariot” and “How a Young Director’s Modern Take on The Music Man Was Shut Down—Nearly For Good”. One addresses a production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Last Days of Judas Iscariot at the Shelton Theater in San Francisco, and the other a production of Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man at Sharon Playhouse in the Berkshires.


Let’s review the specifics of each case. Sharon Playhouse’s production of The Music Man was an attempt by the director, Morgan Green, to update the material and make it relevant to America in 2017. This included the incorporation of modern elements like Amazon boxes, projection and video design in the style of Kanye West music videos, and the elimination of two songs, “The Sadder but Wiser Girl” and “My White Knight”. In general, it bears little resemblance to the production of The Music Man I worked on when I was in high school (although that specifically isn’t a bad thing at all). The production was met with outrage – one particularly scathing review by Dan Dwyer regards the production as “a crying shame”, stating: “There’s nothing wrong with modernizing or freshly interpreting a well-known work, but it assumes a basic skill set for competent staging, technical craft, and fundamental character development.” Other reviews praised Green’s fresh approach to such familiar work, but ultimately, a complaint to Music Theatre International forced Green to reincorporate the songs that had been cut, although she made no changes to the design and staging that took the musical from 1912 to 2017 despite being asked to by MTI.


Shelton Theater’s production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot faced similar criticism for cutting the play down from 2 hours to about 80 minutes. While the director of the show, Richard Ciccarone, claimed that these cuts had to do with finances as much as artistic vision, the inclusion of the following statement in his director’s note leads me to think otherwise:

“For me, a play is a living document that should transform from production to production. It is something the author bestows upon the public as a gift to be shared and theatre remains the greatest interpretive art the human race has developed. I say this because it is my fervent belief that as a director, an actor, a designer, a producer, a stage manager, a board operator, and an audience member, we are all taking the work of one artist and reinterpreting it into our own separate experiences. The play may not be what the author intended in his original vision, but as a work of art. I believe it is our duty to interpret and not simply repeat, to participate, not just transmit, and by doing so become collaborators in the work.”


This is a noble idea, certainly, but one that caused a lot of problems with Stephen Adly Guirgis and the play’s licensing house, Dramatists Play Service. Out of respect for the company and in the hopes of supporting a small theater, Guirgis requested that Ciccarone include a note in the program stating that “The play you are seeing tonight has been improperly and extensively cut & edited. These edits were made without permission, against the wishes of the playwright, and in violation of Federal Copyright Law.” Ciccarone’s response, however, appeared to be more of an act of malicious compliance than a genuine attempt to work with Guirgis. He included the warnings in the program, but added a big red “warning” sign beneath the text, which looked more like a marketing twist than a genuine warning to the audience. Ultimately, Guirgis had the production shut down.


Many people responded to each article damning the producers for cutting the source material and violating copyright laws, but the thing I struggled with most was my own response. When I first read Howard Sherman’s comprehensive overview of the controversy surrounding Shelton’s Judas Iscariot, my gut reaction was that of course we should condemn Ciccarone and the Shelton for disrespecting the playwright’s intention for the play by cutting material they had no right to cut; in doing so, they were choosing to present something other than The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. Playwrights deserve to be treated like their work matters and their artistic vision should be honored.


For some reason, however, this was not my initial response to reading about Morgan Green’s The Music Man. Instead, I sort of shrugged it off – the material is old enough that it’s about time someone tried to approach it with a fresh eye, right? I struggled with this for a long time, because in theory these should merit the same response: condemnation of the actions of the producing team. Sure, one work is contemporary and the other is far older. One work has been produced far more than the other: everyone is familiar with The Music Man from high school or community theatre, but the same certainly isn’t true for The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. Recently, though, I realized that the difference between these two situations, for me, lay in the difference between each director’s original artistic intent.


The Playbill article about Green’s The Music Man quotes her: “It’s one thing to take the material and manipulate or change it…I was trying to do The Music Man and respond to the material there … I understand that MTI was trying to protect the intention of Meredith Wilson. But I was trying to see those intentions and bring them to a modern audience.” While her approach may not have worked the way she originally intended (I have not seen the production so I don’t know for sure), at least it was rooted in respect for the playwright’s original intention and an impulse to connect modern audiences to the material. I don’t agree with cutting material in any instance, but at least Green’s intentions were good – she was playing upon themes and ideas in the text and trying to amplify them.


I take issue with Ciccarone’s approach far more. I want to draw attention to the beginning of his director’s note: “For me, a play is a living document that should transform from production to production. It is something the author bestows upon the public as a gift to be shared and theatre remains the greatest interpretive art the human race has developed.” Sure, plays are living documents up until the point at which they are published, but playwrights are the ones responsible for the life of that document. A play is not a group project where every artist involved has equal right to participate in text of the final product – plays are certainly “to be shared”, but ultimately the playwright should have ownership of the work at all times. There are many ways to become a collaborator in the work without disrespecting the message the playwright is trying to send.


The rest of his program note reads, “I say this because it is my fervent belief that as a director, an actor, a designer, a producer, a stage manager, a board operator, and an audience member, we are all taking the work of one artist and reinterpreting it into our own separate experiences. The play may not be what the author intended in his original vision, but as a work of art. I believe it is our duty to interpret and not simply repeat, to participate, not just transmit, and by doing so become collaborators in the work.”


The problem I see here is that, because every artist involved in a production and every audience member who sees it interprets that play and production in a completely unique and individual way, there is no danger of simply “repeating” or “transmitting”. Copyright issues aside, I firmly believe that it isn’t necessary to change the text as written unless the play itself is still in development. Three different productions of the same play will by nature be different because of the spaces they’re in, the vision of the company producing them, and the unique group of people working on them (look at the National New Play Network’s Rolling World Premieres program for proof). There is no need to try to be different from other productions of the same play – by producing the play at all, we are participating, and by producing it based on our genuine understanding of the work, we are not simply repeating.


In a scathing response to Guirgis’ shutting down the Shelton production of Judas Iscariot, John Wilkins wrote, “Great plays should be able to handle the same types of changes. Some experiments work and others don’t. But a freewheeling sense of giving it a go is crucial for a truly vibrant culture.” And this attitude is fantastic – for new play development. In workshops and processes intended to explore the possibilities of a new script, experimentation is vital! But once a playwright has concluded that a given play tells the story they want to tell with whatever stipulations they feel are necessary to telling that story, it is up to us as artists to respect that and attempt to represent that story as honestly as possible, regardless of when the play was written.


Many of the responses to both productions referenced productions of classic plays, particularly Shakespeare’s plays, that take liberties with cutting text, changing settings, and imposing modern themes on the original story (for example, a Black Lives Matter Othello). Wilkins also said the following: “The issue is not this particular production, but rather the beliefs behind the conflict. The Shelton Theater violated Guirgis’ legal rights, but those legal rights are artistically limiting. And when you compare the production of classical plays by dead writers without living estates with those of most contemporary plays, you can begin to see the cracks in a rather unpromising system.”


I have seen plenty of “concept” Shakespeare productions that went off the rails because the setting or themes adopted by the director and design team did not work with the original play, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. Productions of classics like Shakespeare aren’t exempt from needing to honor the spirit of the play. If they don’t, they won’t get a letter from his estate, certainly, but the production itself won’t be as successful in its representation of the original play. The other issue to consider when making this comparison is the style and conventions of plays written before theatre traditionally had a lot of visual elements. Shakespeare’s stage directions don’t offer very many nods to where we are or what the space looks like because the text itself is meant to provide a rich description of our surroundings, and that makes it way easier to reinterpret and reimagine the play. The circumstances and conventions of producing classics are different than with contemporary playwrights.


In general, I think this whole issue comes down to what it means to respect the intention and vision of a playwright, which is something I don’t think you become exempt from if the playwright whose play you’re producing is dead. Plays are meant to be produced as they are written, and there are so many plays that exist in the world that it should be no problem to find one that aligns with your vision and tells a story you find valuable. I am all for experimentation and artistic vision as long as it supports the spirit of the playwright’s work – trying to be different or experimenting for the sake of experimenting are dangerous. It doesn’t matter how old the play you’re working on is: it’s about honoring that play above all else.

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