Friday, August 2, 2013

Sticky Wicket: An Issue of Play Ownership

The question regarding the ownership of a dramatic work has been a sticky one since the rise of the director and the increased practice of publishing the play as a literary work.  Figures such as Shakespeare and Moliere were responsible not only for writing their plays, but for the staging and arranging of the entire theatrical event.  Coupled with the fact that, in Elizabethan England, plays were often written collaboratively with numerous company members, and the ownership of the play as an artistic work (intellectual property) was less of an issue than, say, keeping the script itself out of the hands of a rival company.

However, times have changed, and today the theatre must wrestle with the  prospect of who owns a particular show.  Making this situation even more muddy is the declining primacy of the text in a postmodern performance environment.  What is the role of the text?  Is it blueprint?  Is it sacrosanct?  All collaborators are equal, but are some collaborators more equal than others?

Against the backdrop of this confusion comes a conflict between the Perth (Australia) Theatre Company and playwright Lachlan Philpott over a production based off the playwright's script Alienation.  Based off of interviews with people who believed they had been abducted by aliens, artistic differences between the company and the playwright led the playwright to pull his name off the production as well as have a note placed on the seats during opening night that read:
“I would like to acknowledge the people who bravely shared their stories and the actors and creative artists who contributed to this work in good faith.  However, the outcome of this production does not reflect my original scripted or communicated intentions as the playwright."
Q Theatre in Sydney would cancel its 10 day run of the show in solidarity with the playwright.  Other theatres which were planning on hosting the show are waiting to see the outcome of the dispute.  Details of the precise nature of the alteration are sketchy, particularly the differences between the script and the final performance.  Suffice it to be said, he felt that it was no longer the script that he had written, and therefor he removed his name from the project.

Quite simply, things change in collaboration.  And often the playwright is considered a chief authority in the process, the rest being held as collaborators to realize the playwright's vision onstage.  However, this assumes that the playwright knows and can communicate their intentions effectively through the script.  Or that one is capable of knowing such an intention.  Lyn Gardner, writing on the subject for The Guardian, asks why we will readily cut from Shakespeare, Moliere, or Ibsen, but recoil from doing so to Miller, Williams, or Philpott.

We should stop here a moment to recognize that contemporary playwrights enjoy certain protections under copyright law that their older colleagues do not.  However, the question here seems to be much closer to that which is right and ethical as opposed to that which is necessarily legal.  A number of authors are so protective of their works, they will legally stipulate that not a word can be cut or changed ( Edward Albee), while others say "do what you will, please give me proper credit" (Charles Mee). 

Collaboration is a process that requires professional respect and understanding.  Anything less, and you see a situation like that on display in Perth.  Yet it seems the playwright in this case is trying to have things both ways.  I must ask Mr. Philpott, "If it is not your play, what is the purpose of the note?"  Such an event seems like grandstanding, not unlike resigning in protest.  Perhaps I should request the right to leave a note on the seats at my local regional theatre's new production of Clybourne Park.  After all, it isn't the play I wrote.


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