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By Rote

August 29, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Teachable Moments

So Patrick said this:

There has been much discussion about the right of playwrights to demand adherence to every word and stage direction in their script. Some have gone so far as to claim that no-one has right of copyright on any aspect of production of their work except for the playwright. This growing movement of animosity against directors and designers should give one pause.

And Tony said this:

One clause that I can’t abide in a lot of non-licensing houses contracts is the one that states the playwright has authority to approve pretty much everyone working on a show. Because they are creative artists, the Dramatists Guild would have you think, they are the focal point of the creation of theatre. Everything onstage is their vision and everything is subservient to the writer.

But how creative is a playwright writing about–dare I say interpreting–their lives, current events, stories they’ve heard or come across? And how is this different from directors, actors, designers?

And Isaac said this:

There’s a number of separate issues this raises, and I think it conflates a couple that should be kept separate. The first one is simply the idea of gratitude and humility amongst collaborators. Couldn’t agree more. We are lucky to do this, and lucky to work with people who are also lucky to do this, …

To me, changing the text (and here I mean the spoken words, not the stage directions which is a separate and very muddy issue) of a play without the playwright’s permission is pretty near inexcusable. When we decide to do a script, we are agreeing to do the whole thing, and giving ourselves permission to change the text when we want to would open a whole Pandora’s Box that gets us very quickly down a slippery slope to censorship.

Now, it should be said that I work with Patrick, and indeed have collaborated with him on a project or two, so I’m sympathetic to what he’s saying here – I was there listening to the Horton Foote interview that inspired his post with him, and we compare notes a lot. So I understand his largely design and technical viewpoint and vocabulary and I have shared some common non-blogging experiences – including many times where a playwright has behaved in a way that damaged their own show. Or a director made choices that damaged a show. Or a designer made choices… well, you get the idea. I think we can all see these things coming, and sometimes the train wreck caused by ego or dogma is the only thing worth the price of admission. But it’s important to acknowledge that we all have blind sides to the ways that we can also be a hindrance to the process, and it’s often our professional dogma that creates those blinders.

Certainly a lot of the overreactive conversation that was generated from these posts – and which somehow both Patrick and Isaac tried to avoid – can be chalked up to the divisive mechanism that is blogging and commenting – it’s a rich topic with many facets and thus there was quite a bit of subject shift on to Horton Foote said this (he didn’t) or Copyright law dictates that. Blogs have agendas, and a lot of the conversation didn’t really gain traction.

What I saw here was a dawning understanding of how theater will be transforming during our generation. Playwrights are dissatisfied with the industry-standard process. Directors are dissatisfied. Designers and Technicians are dissatisfied. And dissatisfaction, as we all know, is a good thing to have in rehearsal for the real performance.

Tony followed up with a question that, I’ll be honest, bothered me a lot:

In the rhetorical battle for supreme dominance of theatre there are writers in one corner, directors in another, institutions in another, indy companies trying to hold down the fourth.

Where does that leave actors? Ya know, the only ones that actually are needed for theatre to happen?

Actors certainly have good reasons to be silent on this issue, since they like to work. I think that may ultimately speak to their foresight on the issue, which I’ll get to later. What bothers me about Tony’s question is that it continues the flawed assumption that the way to sustain the meagre power structure of theater is to separate playwrights, directors, performers, designers, and administrators into opposing camps that must check and balance with each other for artistic control. The underlying assumption that Patrick, Tony, and Isaac all seem to make for the convenience of making a point is that one can assume that any person filling a role such as playwright, director, designer, or actor, will be the primary or legitimate shepherd of the work. These guys don’t believe that those rules are absolute, I’m sure, and yet we seem to be separating the relationship of the playwright or the actor to their work to be fundamentally different from other artistic roles.

The person who should be allowed to shepherd the work is the person, collaborator, or team who is best able to understand and articulate the story through their craft, whatever it is. It can’t be assumed that the playwright will be that person, even if they wrote the words down. How often are the words in the way of telling the story? I have been in rooms where, objectively, the playwright is the one person who isn’t working to tell the same story as the rest of the team. And I understand how deflating that is, because I’ve been that person in the room as well. But in those cases the team is right to move the collective story forward. At least the playwright can license their work on to another theater and eventually see their vision realized. When my designs are ruthlessly cut – yes, sometimes without my knowledge or agreement – no one ever sees them and they cease to be. The work is lost. And if the work didn’t serve to tell that elusive story, it deserves to be lost.

Sometimes the story is best articulated by the audience. Batman & Robin remains one of my favorite yet still awful movies of all time, and it’s not because of the script, direction, acting, or those god awful costumes with latex nipples: It’s despite all that crap. It’s because I saw the movie in an empty theater with friends and we felt empowered to scream at the screen while the movie went on, creating a rich MST3K / Rocky Horror-esque performance to go along with the film.

And didn’t Brecht say something about that once?

I understand Isaac’s point that, well, free interpretation without notification is not how copyright works now. And that’s certainly a fair and accurate “best practices” point to make. But this was always a conversation about what should be, not what is today, so I feel like defying his impulse to quash this particular thread. This is a question of: What should be the policy that we fight for as we all journey together into uncharted waters of arts management in this nation’s history? When is the law or our personal dogma in the way of our work? I’d say: most of the time. I would like to work to make the law safe for artists to benefit from their work without being dogmatic about how a process is supposed to look or behave. One really promising area of exploration here is the emerging Creative Commons options for artistic licensing – a system that both protects the artistic intentions of artists while also allowing for financial protection and various levels of artistic freedom.

And so it’s ultimately it’s that gratefulness that Horton Foote has felt – the gratefulness that any of us get to collaborate with others who check our assumptions and push our work forward – that provides the richest environment for working. Gratefulness doesn’t mean complicity, and it doesn’t mean obedience, but it does mean respect. And when we are grateful for the presence of our collaborators, we drop the poisonous, clutching kinds of ownership and battle of ideas and the process gains a flow and a respect that serves the story. The process becomes less of a zero sum game and more like horticulture. Ideas grow in well-fertilized soil, and when shoots go off in the wrong direction, we don’t burn the plant with pesticide… we bend them back or trim them gently and let the damn thing continue to grow in a revised direction.

What I think Patrick was reacting to was that there are these emerging notions – or in some cases, entire schools – of self-righteousness in theater that make these odd claims along the lines of “where I stand is the center of the theatroverse.” There is this desire to create new paradigms for the theater, and those desires have begun spouting a whole bunch of inspiring but also scary-looking dogma. What I heard from Patrick was actually a call to reason – the fundamental idea that trust in collaboration – the most simple act of sharing ideas and impulses – and appreciation of that collaborative process will feed the work better than strict adherence to any given text, directorial theory, or design principle.

A while ago Isaac made the claim that the value of theater comes from collective imagination, and I have come to hold that as the fundamental principle behind effective theater – which I’ll define (poorly) as theater capable of changing a perspective. So: theater’s effectiveness isn’t generated by the words that the playwright selects for the play, or the way the actor says them, or the blocking and emotional beats that the director has arranged, or the music, scenery, lighting, costumes, puppets, projections or smells, or whether an audience member can sit without fidgeting for two hours. It is whether any of these people can for a moment create or spark an image in each others’ minds that makes the theater worth doing. And we should all find a way – and be permitted by a fair licensing scheme – to try to make those moments happen together.

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4 Comments to “By Rote”


  1. The most sensible kid on the block as usual, Nick.

    I was a little hesitant getting into this post; I thought it was going to a ‘pat everyone on the back’ place that I don’t feel is helpful.

    I was wrong. Some very good rhetoric and, I don’t know about anyone else involved in the fray, but I feel it very much addressed my complaints about the system while still challenging me on them.

    I may not seem it, probably because I don’t speak it as peaceably as you, but I, too, think that the best all worlds is respectful collaboration. It’s just that, to me, respectful collaboration comes with few out and out demands, from any side. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be over here exploring this Creative Commons thing…

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  2. “What bothers me about Tony’s question is that it continues the flawed assumption that the way to sustain the meagre power structure of theater is to separate playwrights, directors, performers, designers, and administrators into opposing camps that must check and balance with each other for artistic control.”

    Nick, all due respect. That’s a pretty huge misreading of what I wrote. I have never argued against collaboration. I have argued pretty strongly against separating collaborators into contractually opposing camps. Hence the reason I gristle at that bullet point in the Dramatists bill of rights.

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  3. nick keenan says:

    See, this is what i’m talking about with blogging sowing the seeds of disagreement, and i’m certainly not immune. you’re absolutely right tony, and I wish I waited until after 2 am to revise this post, because I don’t think I articulated that thought properly at your expense

    You, Patrick and Isaac are all proponents of collaboration. What I’m noticing is that framing the conversation as directors vs. Playwrights or actors vs. Everyone isn’t aiding the cause of collaboration. I’m just pointing out that there are two approaches to the problem, and I think we’ve all used both at one time or another.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the duality of thought within people and how interesting it is when one holds divergent beliefs in the same mind. So this is more about me challenging the frame of the conversation, not the valid points you made within that conversation

    This is all shit you don’t need to establish when you’re face to face.. We read the frame in the tone of voice. I think that’s why it’s so easy to devolve into argument and meta speak. But then again, we can all talk more this way, so I wouldn’t trade it.

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  4. A good friend (and fantastic director) once said to me that good artists borrow – great artists steal. Now, I am all about giving credit where it’s due, but I think that sometimes the artistic school of “that’s mine, this is yours” and the culture of fear that can create nowadays is the pesticide on that unruly plant. Goodness knows I am guilty of wanting to be the one that had “the idea” that made the concept/show/rehearsal/after hours party come together – and some faulty education has made me sometimes feel like it is my “job” to be the one that has that idea – and make sure that everyone knows it. But remember reading about a time when theatre was young and free and the ideas were there for the taking – and the improving upon? I am envious of the days when it was okay for everyone to stand on the shoulders of the giants that came before you and spend your energy reaching still further upwards. I think we’re still doing that, only now we’re getting to the point of being worried that Dramatists is gonna show up someday and shut us down because that stage direction said she crosses left 3 steps, not 2 steps, dammit (even though in this production the scene is stronger if she doesn’t cross. at all.). How is that anything but smothering that artistic baby that the playwright took so much time to breathe life into? Nevermind what it does to the work of everyone else in the room?

    Also, I feel like the minute it becomes a question of me as director truly AGAINST my actors, designers, playwright, producer, etc – rather than the temporary disparity being a stepping stone to greater collaboration and understanding – that’s the day I really do need to go be a high school English teacher. Or a nun. Or a professional wrestler. Anything but an artist.

    I don’t know where the balance is – but I agree with Nick that a storm’s a-brewin’ in our sphere. It’s an exciting and disconcerting and thrilling and terrifying time to be around, isn’t it?

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