Thursday, February 5, 2009

How Copyright Hurts Playwrights II: Architecting

Copyright breaks my heart sometimes.

I went to P.S. 122 to see a show from a company who I'd seen before. They blew my mind. Their work was up to a new caliber. The show was Architecting, and after glowing reviews from Ben Brantley at the New York Times and anyone else you could ever imagine, it was extended. I saw the wreath of light around it, the excitement, and I noted that the reviews were not merely saying "good show." They were predicting this to be the new wave of American theater.

They were not wrong. The show captured something that is so incredibly difficult to capture. The company is called "Theater of the Emerging American Moment," and I have to say, they did exactly that. They captured the new American Moment. The one of my generation. The George W. Bush world, but in a way that spoke overtly about the present but tied itself into the historical past and the universal future. It spoke specifically about Hurricane Katrina but it was about destruction and rebuilding, about memorials, about destroyed communities. The ravaged South, the Hurricane country, the post-Suburban world.

What a shame that the whole thing was illegal.

Yes! Illegal theater! Banned theater! Theater which, under the law, is not to be done! I was even afraid to name the company involved, afraid to name the theater that is housing them, for fear that the lawyers will swoop in and crush them before the end of their run (February 15th--catch it before then!).

Now, I know what you're thinking. I went to the Czech Republic to hear stories of actually banned theater--Vaclav Havel's plays, or Belarus Free Theater. And of course, the people who are doing this theater have no fear of arrest. They won't find themselves on a 1930s era blacklist.

But it doesn't change that what these people are doing is illegal.

They're pirates. Copyright infringers. The people who make the RIAA sad. Because their work, which taps into historical American moments. Including an iconic historical book. Gone with the Wind.

Woah slow down, man! Did they pay for that Gone With The Wind? Did they get the approval of the estate of the writer?

Well, would the estate of the writer have granted it, even if TEAM had the money to option the stage rights? (any rights on one of America's most iconic classics are an arm and a leg--after all, a Broadway producer might be able to create a full run on Broadway with a classic adaptation of the play) Probably not. It has some very specific and harsh criticisms of the author, the book, the movie. Nothing slanderous, but... well, unless you're a very openminded individual (and not an estate of a dead individual), you might think twice about risking people taking away very strong messages against you.

But whatever the reason, this theater was illegal. It won't go into the historic canon, because there's a very low chance that it'll get published. Plays that only live in performance only live in the minds of the people that saw it, and in reviews that no one reads. Shakespeare is the first great English Playwright partly because he's the first published English Playwright. We remember him today because we still have his words.

This is why copyright breaks my heart. It is unfair that a book written about seventy years ago should force the most amazing play I've seen in the last year to be illegal. It simply breaks my heart.

I am reminded of something that Lawrence Lessig, one of my heroes, says (he's not the only one, and probably not the first, but I got it from him): we've criminalized a generation of kids. At the time, I thought he meant a generation in which music and movie piracy was the norm. But no. He's talking about the future artist/creators, who are growing up in an age where all of the artistic influence is already owned, where an entire century of American Experience is difficult to reference.

To talk about the southern experience without discussing Gone With The Wind would be as difficult as discussing American Government without discussing the Constitution. It's necessary for the cultural dialogue. That's why copyright should only last 7 years, or 7+7 if it's still profitable after the first 7. But 95 years? 95 + life? That's an entire century.

And as I discussed in the previous post, it drives this generation to look further into the past, to try and renovate the old plays--like the illegal theaters of Eastern Europe performing works of Shakespeare because the Bard gave cover for rebellious theater (read Dogg's Hamlet/Cahout's Macbeth by Tom Stoppard to see what I mean). Or they simply break the law, like TEAM did, like I have done in my theater.

And, being illegal, they may vanish forever rather than be preserved. It breaks my heart.

No comments: