Thursday, December 19, 2013

Ready to Rumble? The Fear of the Fearless.

 That sounds like angry bees is not an unseasonable swarm approaching from the south.  It is the perennial. the perpetual, argument over the ownership of text in the theatre.  This is something we here at the Friendly Neighborhood Dramaturg have touched on in the past, and even been embroiled (albeit unwillingly) in as a part of various production activities.  And it usually gets nasty.  Apropos of a question, I've been told how I have no respect for playwrights and people like me were what is wrong with the American theatre today.  So it goes.

This time, the "cow that kicked the lantern" was a teacher from a Maryland college inquiring about the ethics and legalities of college students deconstructing elements from Tennessee Williams' "Suddenly Last Summer."  Within two days, those who veer towards the playwriting end of the discussion were screaming "piracy" while those with a directorial auteur bent lambasted them for being servile and promoting "censorship."  They fired appeals back and forth, calling upon the law, and upon the sacred nature of art, and of collegial respect, and the dissident/outlaw mythos.

I have to jump in here: "Such censoring is the result some legal construct same as copyright is."  Yes, in a sense only fully embraced by the rankest of sophists - all law is a construct.  But worse, you're attempting to morally equate fraud prevention with Apartheid, fascism, and other onerous censorship regimes.

As a consumer, I have the right to know if the stuff in the box marked "Neil Simon's The Odd Couple" is in fact made of 94% pure Odd Couple flakes, or in fact is some copyright or trademark theft.  I am paying for the experience offered by the playwright.  If you want to "experiment" with the text, fair use offers you considerable leeway to experiment with the work - use it if you must, but if you're going to steal in the name of art, you're not an artist - you're something else, and if I tell you what you are, then some government may try to ban me.

Do what thou wilt, indeed.  Fooey. (A)*

As a delinquent, my friends and I would go joyriding.  Fast and furious until the vehicle ran out of gas.  

If we got caught, the charge would be Grand Theft Auto.  

But that court was of a different world, so even if we were arrested there, we never accepted the stigma of "thief" they tried jail us within.  We stayed in our world of joyriding; perfecting our art form.  We made our own laws and established our own jury of peers.  

No one can touch us now.  We travel freely across all borders, inventing new contracts and allegiances on the fly.  We are no longer delinquent.  We are the new law.  We are fast and furious until this vehicle runs out of gas. (B)*
From there, pedantic stories began to blossom like mushrooms after a rain.   The exchange, running to 75 emails as of this writing, would be fascinating reading if it could be collated cleanly and disseminated.  But I have to wonder, what is the root of this rancor?

Let us take a second and dispose of legality.  If a work is under copyright, then changes must be approved by the author or his/her estate.  Period.  To do otherwise is illegal and you can find yourself holding the bag for serious damage claims.  Though some nations are more flexible on their copyright laws (Poland, for example, seems to allow any sort of directorial vision if it is placed under the heading of satire) it is generally as inescapable as death and taxes.  The community theatre down the street from my house makes regular use of plays that they have no license to perform and generally do not seem to pay royalties.  Their actions are illegal, questions of right and wrong do not really enter into it.

Lets us now, independent of legality, turn to the question of right and wrong, the question of ethics.  Is it right or wrong to "use" an author's text to realize your own, possibly contradictory) vision as a director?  Or as a performance ensemble?  Are the "deliquents" above truly doing something wrong in their joyriding?  Or is copyright protection merely a form of censorship?  These are your own questions to answer, and many will gladly go to the mattress to stick up for what they feel is right.

And we still haven't even touched the issue of whether such regimes are sustainable or not (though Ira Gamerman has been through this on Howlround).  There's another can of worms as well.

What has always shocked me about this debate (which is a perennial one, coming around every year or so) is the sheer level of rancor that it is capable of generating.  Playwrights will howl that major changes "disrespect the playwright" and directors will screech that they are being "held down."  And, the issue of royalties aside, each side of the debate will do their best to ascend themselves to martyrdom over the issue of "respect."  One, after all, cannot let a diss go unanswered.

Which is where I am really going with this.  Are we as artists so brittle that we must engage in rancorous email exchanges with ourselves?  Must we always fight for "respect" with one another?  I have read new plays from playwrights that were barely worth the paper on which they were printed.  They said nothing and sought to please the widest possible audience.  There was no joy, there was no pathos.  There was no conflict to speak of.  Similarly, I have seen directors direct uninspired, listless pieces that also say nothing and, in one memorably dull evening,  took a firebomb of a play and reduced it to a wet squib.  But later, in discussion and debate, I have seen those same two artists transform into rhetorical firebrands, passionately fighting for "respect."

At the end of the day, the American theatre is fighting for its relevancy.  Our audience is shrinking and theatre without an audience is masturbation.  We are speaking to a narrower and narrower cross-section of the well-fed while trading our professionalism and insight for the privilege to do so.  We fight for this "respect" amongst ourselves beneath the shadows of mount doom.  We are afraid and, at times, that makes us turn on ourselves to make sure we're not the first branch pruned.  This is survivalist thinking.

I cannot say I know the answer, but I feel, deep down, that our readiness to rumble is rooted in fear. Art made from fear doesn't work well.

 *Please note that I have withheld full attribution due to these messages being posted on a semi-closed forum.  If the authors would rather I give full credit, please let me know.

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