If you happen to be going to see the current production Stephen Adly Guirgis’s The Last Days of Judas Iscariot at the Shelton Theater in San Francisco the next ten days, you’ll find an insert in the program that declares, “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.” There’s a red, stencil-like image, similar to an old rubber stamp, declaring “WARNING” across the text.
You might think this is some sort of joke, some meta-theatrical twist, but it’s not. At least the message about copyright violations isn’t.
Director Richard Ciccarone, in a director’s note, talks about his rationale in approaching the play:
“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 a collaborators [sic] in the work.”
What this statement doesn’t admit is that he has done something more than approaching the play in a way that is something other than the author’s original vision, which may be open to certain interpretation. He has cut the text, taking a two hour play down to about 80 minutes. This was done without the author’s permission or the knowledge of the licensing house, Dramatists Play Service (DPS). It is a violation of the authors copyright, and Guirgis had every right to shut the show down.
Remarkably, he did not, showing the same desire to not be punitive to a small company and for actors to not lose work that prompted him to allow a production of The Motherfucker With The Hat to continue at Theatreworks in Hartford, Connecticut in 2011. In that case, key Latinx roles had been cast with white actors, with no auditions held for those roles.
Informed of the Shelton Theater situation by DPS, Guirgis sent a letter to Matt Shelton, the theatre’s founder, listed as Actor/Director/Producer on the company’s website, and Richard Ciccarone, about the situation. It read, in part:
“I do not wish to shut you down. And yet – it is not acceptable what you have done. You guys are not students. Matt, you have been producing theater for 25 years – and you know DAMN WELL cutting my script in half violates Federal copyright laws…”
He then asks them to create inserts with the language that appears in the first paragraph, closing with:
“Put in the inserts. Or close the play. Your choice. Either way – please send my love and thanks to the rest of the cast. And my thanks to both of you as well.
Hail Caesar, baby!”
As the situation became widely public on Facebook, Guirgis wrote more about it in a playwrights group there, and he is quoted here with permission:
“But now I see they put a stupid WARNING thing over the statement i asked them include — and it looks more like marketing (oh, warning! something “taboo”) — rather than an admission of fault on their part. THANK YOU for sharing this photo. I’ve written to them again. Te [sic] truth is the guy who runs the theater seems like an asshole. And he was unapologetic about doing what they did. I don’t like the idea of shutting down artists, but, if they don’t get rid of that stupid warning, then i will….
Lastly – people fuck with the words and alter our scripts all the time and it should never happen. And the excuse they gave me for cutting the script was NOT for creative reasons, but because of time & budget constraints, and that’s no excuse for either. Anyway, thank you for your attention to this matter. It sucks. For all of us.
Guirgis told Arts Integrity that the theatre has stopped responding to his calls, and he has resorted to sending them messages via Facebook, with no response. He also pointed out an image for the show that he found on Ciccarone’s Facebook, which may be fan art but includes dates and prices, but which failed to even credit him as the author.
He further wrote to Arts Integrity, when approving use of his Facebook statements, “You know, LAB was a small theatre (and is again). I got no heart to shut the SF people down, but if I have to, I will.”
“The fact is,” Guirgis continued, “this happens all the time. Lack of respect for the written word in plays starts in schools where teachers regularly ask students to cut monologues or scenes, or they direct plays with students in them and the cut at will. So we are taught that the actual text is not sacrosanct. And that’s fucked, ya know?”
This situation with the play has become known only a week and a half prior to the production’s closing, and it began performances in late June. So audiences who have seen the production prior to the program insert’s appearance may think they have seen Guirgis’s play, but they haven’t. They have seen a chopped up summary of the play, created according the whims of Richard Ciccarone, Matt Shelton and the Shelton Theatre. Those audiences have been lied to. Illegally.
As of now, if the “warning stamp,” that Guirgis sees as sarcasm in response to his instructions, isn’t quickly removed, it’s possible that the last days of Judas Iscariot at the Shelton may come even sooner than planned. The theatre’s lack of response to Guirgis – there has also been no response to Arts Integrity’s own e-mail inquiry, with the theatre’s voicemail message box full and not accepting messages – doesn’t bode well. Guirgis has offered the production a lifeline, but in their scofflaw arrogance, they are once again doing it their way, not according the author’s wishes. They may soon learn an expensive lesson, and it will be interesting to learn how quickly they’ll be able to license any plays in the future if this is how they choose to treat playwrights and texts.
Update, August 5, 2017, 11 am: Matt Shelton responded, via Facebook, to Stephen Adly Guirgis at approximately 2 am eastern time (11 pm San Francisco time) regarding the nature of how the program insert has been handled and other questions that have been raised by so many about the Shelton Theater production. It reads:
“Please understand that I’m not on Facebook and don’t have a feed only phone and such. I’m just now getting wind of all this. I did apologize sincerely to your agent and to our Dramatists Play Service representative. I really appreciated your letter and felt it was as sincere as I was. The insert was changed appropriately. I’m not sure why everyone has their pitch forks out. But I did apologize for adapting your Play and am sincerely regretful that it has hurt you and others and I am sorry for this. Please contact me via e-mail and/or phone. I am happy to fly out and discuss this with you as gentleman [sic].”
Guirgis also shared one of Shelton’s original e-mail communications to Dramatists Play Service, after questions were raised about the production, which read, in total:
We actually couldn’t open until the 29th of June. We’ve done 15 shows. We hope to close August 12th for a total of 21 shows. This produciton [sic] though low attendance has been very well received. We have been producing theater for 25 years as a small independent theater and took liberties with the play for the reasons stated in the directors attached letter. No harm was intended to anyone or any community. We continue to try to bring beauty to the world and appreciate your efforts in allowing us this opportunity.
Additionally, Guirgis shared Richard Ciccarone’s letter to him, which over three pages detailed every change and edit. The introductory portion of the letter read, in part:
I am writing today first to apologize for any harm I may have committed in the production of your work The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, and second, to explain my reasons as requested in your letter….
As far as my methods to bring this work to light, I am guilty of reducing the script so that, for economic reasons only, we could present it to our audience. We are a small theater, seating 74 people, which often depends on programming two shows an evening in order to break even. We also did not have the resources to fully cast this production within our budget. These were the foremost reasons that I had to make the cuts that I did, as difficult as that was….
The decisions that I made were not the result of artistic solipsism, but so that our theater could present a work of true genius within our limitations. I hope and beg that you let us present the balance of our run with the understanding that we will never do anything like this again.
Shelton Theater has, as of this update, still not responded to Arts Integrity’s request for an interview.
Update, August 5, 8:30 pm: Stephen Adly Guirgis has informed Arts Integrity that, on the advice of multiple counselors, he has authorized Dramatists Play Service to send a cease and desist letter to the Shelton Theater requiring them to suspend any further performances by the company of their production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, as a result of their violation of copyright law and the licensing agreement. The company has already removed all mention of the show from their Facebook page and website.
Update, August 5, 9:30 pm: Stephen Adly Guirgis posted the following message to Facebook at 9:10 pm: “We are shutting down the Shelton Theater production of Judas. They’ve been served a Cease & Desist order. I really wish it didn’t have to be this way. But they did it to themselves. Don’t violate federal copyright law. And if you get caught — don’t be glib. There are no winners here. My apologies to the actors. And THANK YOU to all for the support.”
Update, August 5, 11:30 pm: Stephen Adly Guirgis has made one final Facebook post on this situation. It reads:
LAST JUDAS UPDATE: Matt Shelton & I have corresponded. I have no hard feelings. Neither does he. The show has been closed & we move forward with respect. No enemies. No bad guys. Shit happens. We are all theater people here. Many freaks — but one tribe. Room to grow. Room to learn. Room to forgive. If you’re in San Fran — support the Shelton Theater. The fight’s over — so no need to choose sides. Forgive them. Forgive me. THANK YOU.
Update, August 22, 7 pm: In response to an editorial, offered as a report, by John Wilkins on KQED, Dramatists Guild executive director for business affairs Ralph Sevush wrote an extended response regarding copyright. It read, in part:
“You describe all the wonderful ways theater companies have, or might have, reinterpreted the work of Arthur Miller, Albee and Guirgis, and have decided they are necessary to “loosen things up.” And that “fidelity is a wan virtue.” Again, you offer assumptions and opinions dressed up as facts. Regardless of your metaphysical views on the nature of fidelity, the fact is that many authors do agree that their work should be freely reinterpreted and they give theaters great latitude in revising their work. I’ve seen recent productions of Mr. Miller’s plays on Broadway that would probably set Arthur’s hair on fire, but the estate does give latitude to new interpretations. On the other hand, some authors and estates do not. Are they wrong for keeping their works “musty”? Perhaps, but they are allowed to be “wrong and foolish”… or is that a right you only reserve to producers and directors? In any event, authors do not get to hold the reigns tightly forever… just ask Bill Shakespeare.”
Sevush’s entire letter can be read here.
Graphic design for “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” via the Shelton Theatre website and photo from the production via the company Facebook page.
This post will be updated as circumstances warrant.