So as most of you probably know, playwrights do not make a lot of money living off of their creative words. And as most of you probably know, artists don't enter the artistic field in pursuit of money. There are various reasons, but most people enter their artistic field because it is what they do. What they can't stop doing. You paint because you must paint. You write because you must write. You create because you must create. It's what we do.
It is no mindless task. It is an important one, it takes intelligence, creativity, talent, time and effort and it has value.
So, respectable theatres, publishers and organizations try to protect the value these artists produce by placing monetary value, rights, and restrictions on that work. Hence, playwrights can get paid. And even when they are not paid, they are given respect, their writing is protected, and they are supposed to be shown value. But, of course, playwrights are not the only ones who are not making a substantial living doing their craft. Actors, directors, designers, tech directors, etc. are mostly all also doing it for the love of theatre and they have considerations when choosing pieces to perform, as well.
So why is the Words Player Theatre in Rochester, MN getting so much flack about their call for submissions for their Short Play Festival? There is a detailed blog post by Donna Hoke, the Dramatists Guild's Western New York State Representative (although note that she is posting as an individual, not as a spokesperson for the Guild), which you can read here. Basically, the way the call for submission is laid out makes it sound as though 1) the script may be changed and the playwright would not know about this 2) the director will interpret the piece how s/he wants, without consideration of the playwright's intention 3) the cast and setting may be changed to fit the director's vision 4) there will be no payment and the theatre can release videos etc. and retain full ownership.
The concerns here are obvious. Under typical copyright, these issues would not even come up. When you perform a piece, you can't change anything about the play, unless it's under public domain. That means even if you want to omit one line, or change a male role to a female role, you cannot do this without permission. Now, I directed a version of Taming of the Shrew once, set in a toy store, with Baptista appearing like he was in the toy store mafia, and our leading ladies resembled Snow White and Wonder Woman dolls. But that's public domain. That's not a brand new piece of theatre. Why you would even want to do the very first production of a play in a new setting? And why would you want to take away the literary rights a playwright has, and in such a public way (they're being upfront though--I'll give them that. Many other theatres and people might do this and no one would ever know)? It's no wonder Ms. Hoke posted as she did, and it's no wonder the Dramatists Guild's president wrote a grave letter to the Artistic Director of Words Players Theatre, standing up for the value of playwrights everywhere. More people posted on facebook and twitter, completely surprised and appalled by this public admission of disregard for I believe Ms. Hoke's and Mr. Wright's intentions were 1) to shed light on this problem 2) educate the theatre on playwrights' rights and 3) to get the theatre to change the way they produce new work.
I'm not sure if their letters and protests have done all of that just yet, but it certainly has stirred up debate and attention surrounding this issue. And, as always, there are two sides to every coin--but are those sides equal? Let's see...
On Ms. Hoke's blog post, a woman, Michelle, from Words Players, brought up this issue. I thought she spoke in a very respectful way, bringing up, not so much a response to the actual issues, but urging the playwright community to be patient with them, to remember there are humans on the other side of this. She wrote, "I assure you, Daved and the rest of us in Words Players are watching carefully and learning through this situation. It’s just too bad it has to cause such heartache for everyone involved."
When she wrote "heartache," it did really hit me. But, you know, I get into every character I create--good or bad. I have always had the benefit/problem of seeing the other side of things and empathizing with most people. I believe that usually, if two people (or parties of people) have genuinely good intentions, most things can be worked out with open dialogue. That open dialogue includes listening, thinking, sharing emotions on how you feel, and through this, I have found that people usually do not want to make others feel bad (even if they don't want to do the right thing). Things can be mended. People can learn. I don't wish ill on this theatre company at all.
What does Daved Driscoll, the AD of Words Player Theatre have to say about this? Did he change their submission guidelines?
You can read his complete letter and submission guidelines here, but in short, he 1) apologizes for the misunderstanding his words provoked and reinforces their support of playwrights 2) explains that due to their cast, monetary, and staging restrictions, they sometimes must be forced to change things in a play but that they do so in a respectful way and ask permission before changing a play 3) explains that the call for submissions was not meant to be a public call, but rather it was sent to a small private group, but somehow got leaked.
Below his letter, he posts the submission guidelines, and, in skimming them, I don't really see that he's changed anything (at least noticeable).
So...what do we take from this experience?
Share your thoughts: Are the theatre practices for new works okay, now that he has laid out these reasons? Or do you think the explanation doesn't justify the actions? Do you think he should have changed his guidelines this year? Do you think he should change them for next year? Do you think he should keep them as they are in order to be forthright in his intentions? What does this say to you about the value of theatre, playwriting, and producing new works?