There’s a very large tree that has been traveling around the Dallas-Fort Worth region in Texas. There’s no need to worry, as the tree hasn’t acquired independent mobility and become sentient, but rather, it has made major appearances in two theatrical productions in the area in a short span of time. Designed originally by Bob Lavallee for the Trinity Shakespeare Festival production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Texas Christian University, it just finished a run center stage in Camelot at Lyric Stage.
As Mark Lowry reported on his TheaterJones site, the tree would have been headed for the dumpster after the end of the run of Dream, had not Steven Jones, producer at the Lyric, asked if he could use it as part of the set for Camelot. Lavallee consented, provided he received credit. However, he declined to adapt his whole set for the Lyric production.
But as Lowry noted, other scenic pieces from Dream found their way into the production of Camelot as well, albeit with some new scenic painting and set dressing, with the overall set credited to Cornelius Parker. This suggests two problems. The first is whether Lyric had the right to use, or whether Trinity Shakespeare had any right to provide, anything but the tree in connection with Camelot. The second is the fact that Cornelius Parker doesn’t exist – the name is a pseudonym for Steven Jones.
There’s no mention made of a contract, only an agreement and a payment for use of the tree; Lavallee is not a member of United Scenic Artists, so he doesn’t have union backing to help work out the situation. But it seems that the appearance of additional scenic elements from Dream in Camelot goes beyond the agreement, regardless of how they were used or disguised in their second appearance. Unless Jones indulged himself in some unauthorized dumpster diving in arranging for the tree and the other elements to be transported to Lyric Stage, it appears that Lavallee has an issue with both Lyric Stage and Trinity Shakes, since the latter, in supervising the load out of the tree, presumably had some staff overseeing what went on the truck, and more was allowed to go than what was agreed to.
Jones’s use of a pseudonym to disguise his own role as the coordinator of scenic elements for the production – using the word designer may be ill-advised here depending upon how much of Lavallee’s work actually appeared – seems a deliberate attempt to disguise the provenance of the work, when only the tree itself was credited to Lavallee, by agreement. While Lowry reports that Jones has used the pseudonym once before, for a set he devised using pieces in the theatre’s stock (notably Funny Girl and The King and I), the obfuscation is troubling. While Jones chalks it up as, “I didn’t want to take credit for it,” it’s impossible not to wonder whether the genesis was less modesty than an understanding that he didn’t really design either show, but was deploying the designs of others. In any event, it’s misleading the audience and the press, who operate under the assumption that what appears in their programs is truthful.
As a corollary here, some might invoke authors who have written under pseudonyms (Stephen King writing as Richard Bachman, for example, or Joyce Carol Oates as Rosamond Smith). It’s important to recognize that those authors opted to put false names on their own work. In King’s case, the subterfuge didn’t last long, and was in part because his publishers were concerned about flooding the market with new works from the prolific novelist; for Oates, it was an effort to distinguish between the different modes, and even genres, in which she writes. When the Coen Brothers edit their films under the false name of Roderick Jaynes, again, it’s their choice for their own work, and their names already appear repeatedly in the credits of their film.
Going beyond the case of the Trinity Shakespeare/Lyric Stage tree and other scenic elements, this case points up a continuing challenge for designers regarding credit when their work is incorporated, especially when the use is partial but significant, into other productions. If a scenic designer creates distinctive scenic elements that are newly built for a given production, is that designer due credit and/or compensation when they are used – whether at the same theatre for a different show, or by another theatre and show entirely? If a costume designer creates, say, their own unique take on the Ascot scene in My Fair Lady, and then those costumes appear in the Prince’s ball scene in a production of Cinderella, what is the original designer due? How does copyright come into play?
Many theatres maintain costume and scenic stocks, so they are not constantly building new pieces Some theatres may operate rental houses or sell their costumes to independent costume rental houses. So when does the design recognition end? It’s a sticky wicket with no easy answers, but it’s particularly complicated when a design is credited to one person – real or fictitious – and it contains a noteworthy portion of designs that are actually the work of someone else.
This isn’t meant to say that the use of stock items should be abolished, because that’s truly wasteful and for some companies would make productions economically unfeasible. There are legitimate cases to be made for shows being drawn from stock, or collaging pieces from other productions in order to create what is essentially a new overall design. It’s just to say that perhaps there’s more credit (and perhaps royalty) due than is currently given, especially at the professional level.
As for Cornelius Parker, fictitious designer, hopefully his ignominious career is at an end. However Lyric Stage designs, devises or assembles its productions in the future, they should own up to the truth of it, and not pretend to more creativity than they may be putting on their stage.