I assume most people, either as a child heard, or as a parent deployed, the timeworn phrase, “If someone told you to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you do it?” My parents had a variant along the same lines: “Just because other people do it doesn’t make it right.”
I am reminded of this phrase as it seems every week lately I hear about another instance of a theatre director altering a script or overriding an author’s clear intent; the recent run of examples has been with college-affiliated productions. I wonder whether the people responsible have had others set the wrong example, and they felt they could just join in, or if they just started doing it and, since they were never challenged or caught, kept it up.
The most prominent incidents have been with Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop, at a community theatre affiliated with Kent State University’s Department of Pan-African Studies, and with Lloyd Suh’s Jesus in India at Clarion University. In both of those cases, the issue was the casting of roles written as characters of color.
In a markedly less fraught situation which didn’t generate any major headlines, a production of Rent at Eastern Tennessee State University, just before Thanksgiving, had to cancel one day of a five-day run because the show’s licensing house learned of a scene that had been cut without approval. The lost day was used to restore the scene in question, as reported by the campus newspaper, The East Tennessean.
In its coverage, the paper quoted Patrick Cronin, the production’s director and the Program Director of Communication and Performance at the school, as to what had taken place.
“I have directed hundreds of shows, and made many cuts before,” Cronin said. “So, I did the same with the street scenes [in ‘Rent’] because we did not have enough actors to make those scenes interesting.”
At the end of the article, Cronin was again quoted:
“I have a young cast who were able to add six pages of material in two days,” Cronin said. “I am just grateful that we got the show on and that we caught the mistake I had made.”
While the school paper didn’t draw attention to the inconsistency, it’s worth noting that Cronin said that what he did was a mistake, but earlier on he had said it was consistent with what he’d done numerous times before. Secondly, it’s not Cronin who caught the mistake, but someone at the school familiar enough with what had been taking place in the rehearsal room – and with copyright and licensing law – to contact Music Theatre International and give them a heads up about the unauthorized alteration. Finally, isn’t it interesting to note that a solution was found to the supposedly problematic scene, in almost no time at all.
Some might accuse me of conflating the first two examples, which turn on the issue of race in casting, with the third, which was the excision of a scene. But I’d argue that they’re all of a piece, because they involve directors either misinterpreting works or placing their own sensibility above that of the author, be it for practical, aesthetic or intellectual reasons. While I don’t have press reports I can bring forward, I can say that since I began writing on this topic, I have been told numerous anecdotes about shows in academic settings that have been altered for any number of reasons, all without approval.
So I have to wonder: are some theatre programs and theatrical groups at the college level advancing the belief that scripts can be altered at will, or elements ignored? Are schools teaching both the legal and ethical implications of artists’ rights and copyright law, not just to playwrights but to all of those who study theatre? Have bad practices begotten yet further bad practices? Are there professors and program directors who believe that anything produced on a campus falls under the fair use exemption for educational purposes under the copyright laws?
Lest anyone think I’m advocating for slavish recreations of original productions or less than fruitful collaborations on new works, I should state that I most assuredly am not. I want to see directors, whether students or faculty (and, for that matter, professionals as well), have the opportunity to undertake creative productions that will challenge the artists involved and the audiences they attract. I want to see works reinvented, but in ways which reveal something new that is supported by the text, rather than overriding it. That said, I am troubled by a sense that in some cases (I’m not saying that this applies to every production at every school) something approaching film’s auteur theory, in which the director of a movie is seen as its primary author, is filtering into theatre at the pre-professional level in a way which diminishes or disregards the importance and rights of authors.
I have a genuine desire to know the answers to some of the questions I’ve asked above. I’d be interested in those answers not only from faculty but from students both past and present. What is being taught about the relationship between playwright and director, regardless of whether the latter is present in rehearsals, available via computer or phone, otherwise engaged, or even dead but still protected by copyright? I ask because I think we all have a lot to learn. I’d like to hear from you, either on the record or confidentially; you can write to me here.
Oh, since I started with timeworn phrases, let me finish with one as well, which believe it or not I’ve heard more than a few times over my career: “Better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.” These are not, I hope you’ll agree, words to live by. Even if some seem to.
Howard Sherman is director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at The New School College of Performing Arts.