Sunday, February 1, 2009

How Copyright Hurts Playwrights

I noticed, of late, that it seemed that the Greek playwrights (Sophocles and Euripedes mostly) were making a comeback. I know several friends who now love the Greeks and make it their area of focus. I wondered about that--why in this moment, when we have more writers than ever before, people are looking at plays that are increasingly dated for inspiration. Now, don't get me wrong--they're just as relevant and applicable, and there's no reason why they can't be the right choice--but I wondered why it feels like there's more and more.

I noticed, of late, that it seemed like Ibsen was making a comeback. Hedda Gabbler and Doll's House feel like they're everywhere. Again--no reason why not, but I wondered. Why Hedda Gabler. Why Doll's House.

And then I noticed it about Chekov. There's a high-profile Cherry Orchard and a high-profile Uncle Vanya.

I don't have a lot of statistics in front of me. I wish I could look up and see whether it's true that there's more Chekov, more Ibsen, and more Greek playwrights. More Shakespeare. Maybe even more Gertrude Stein.

Because if so, there's a very simple reason why this would be. Those playwrights are free--they're in the Public Domain.

It's not just about the fees, the royalties, the tracking down of estates. It's also the artistic direction that is becoming more and more a part of running an estate.

A few friends of mine attempted to put on a production of a big musical in which all the characters would be male. The playwright found out, and threatened to sue our school, and was only mollified with a letter of apology. Another playwright was in a similar situation, but no letter of apology would mollify him: only an instant pledge not to produce the play. Students find playwrights like Albee, Beckett, Sondheim, etc. off-limits, unless they can assure the playwrights that the production will be exact.

I go to the Experimental Theater Wing. Our job is to experiment. But for playwrights like Albee, Beckett, Sondheim, and others, there is no room for experimentation. If I want to take an established play and, well, play around with it, I have to go to the classics.

Eventually, many student directors and ensembles realize that it's simply not worth it. The struggle of getting a play that's in copyright onto the stage, fighting with the playwright's intentions, fighting to be able to play around with a text, is not worth it. And why should we, when we can do whatever we want with with Ibsen, Shakespeare, or Gertrude Stein?

There are some playwrights out there who aren't as fanatical as Albee, Beckett, or Sondheim about controlling the artistic production of their plays--who see the responsibility of the production being good as being of the people producing the play--but they wind up being hurt as well. Because we stop looking to fight with them.

It's a pity. But I think the director/ensemble needs leeway to try crazy things, to experiment with a play. Perhaps it's different for a first production, but when you have a play that's already out there? Why control the way the director interprets it? Interpretations reflect on the director, not on the playwright.