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.

1 comment:

BrassRingWriting said...

HOW COPYRIGHT HURTS PLAYWRIGHTS is not an effective title for your argument. The copyright is what allows the integrity of a writer's creation to thrive. More importantly, it allows playwrights to receive royalties for their work which in turn allows them to write for a living instead of hold down multiple jobs and write on the side. The reason America's theatrical tradition is so lacking prior to 1875 is because there was no copyright protection to allow writers to turn to drama.

In the late 1800s there were no fewer than 12 unsanctioned versions of Uncle Tom's Cabin touring the country. There were so many versions because it was cheaper to write your own than pay for an existing version. Harriet Beecher Stowe received no royalties from any of these derivative adaptations. Copyright allows an author to retain creative control of an entity that they spent untold hours nursing.

It's important to remember that whether it be a play in the public domain or of a modern playwright - productions viewed by anyone not familiar with the play will reflect the abilities of the playwright. The reason that the Beckett estate is so stringent on his plays is because their nature lends to interpretations beyond the intentions of the playwright. These plays have been through the developmental process and have been constructed in a way that the playwright's intended message has been ordered and perfected to his or her satisfaction. I have seen productions where monologues are given to other characters or rearranged solely because a producer/director didn't have a clear grasp on the material and thought it 'improved; the piece instead of bastardizing it.

The role of the director is to apply their own design concept while remaining truthful to the source. Doing an all-male version of a play is not a design concept... Setting Shakespeare in the 1930s is not a design concept.

Also, Ibsen wrote in Norwegian, Chekhov in Russian and the Greeks in... Greek. If you are watching these plays on an American stage then a translator and adapter are receiving royalties - they are not Public Domain productions and their producers/directors/actors are just as responsible on these productions as on other productions to be faithful. Hedda Gabler, currently on Broadway, is being panned by all of the critics because of the lazy, infringing decisions of the uninspired director and design team.

The most control a director can hope to have comes in the form of new theatre and a collaborating experience with a living playwright and new work. This kind of production gives the most creative freedom to actors, directors and playwrights and limits the amount of regurgitated plays that we see.