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Give Us Our Rights

As I read Scott Proudfit's otherwise lovely article on summer play reading ("Summer Is for Play," BSW, 6/26/03), I felt a pang at his harping that some of these wonderful new plays have never been produced in L.A. (or in Laguna's case, what we lovingly call the L.A. area). Proudfit seems to place the responsibility on delinquent local producers and artistic directors. The implication that plays sit on the shelf like so many ceramic frogs waiting to be plucked by anyone with a shopping cart is naïve. The publication of a play is not necessarily evidence of its availability. While I confess that the Laguna Playhouse hasn't yet sought production rights to any of the plays mentioned, I can attest in general to the difficulties theatres face trying to obtain the rights to plays in this region.

In this era of "premiere-itis," when little but premieres seems to count for much to critics and funders, a worthy second production of an exciting recent play is rare in any region. Therefore when a play is fresh and hot (or even very warm) in another part of the world, the people who control the rights are very careful to release them according to a calibrated plan that ensures the best production exposure and the maximum income over a period of time. The exception might be if the writer has a close personal connection with someone at the local level, and if that relationship can override the hysterical pleas of agents and handlers. Otherwise, plays that are in demand are presented to the world gingerly, like special children.

While the small and mid-sized theatres may be begging for the local rights, they are obligated to wait in line for the film producers and larger theatres, one at a time, to reject or produce the play. Then, after the big theatres reject it, the agents offer the play to the mid-sized theatres. They continue to ignore the plaintive petitions of the smaller theatres, which are now even more eager to produce the play so they can boast that they snatched the rights from under the larger theatres' collective nose.

As it happens, interest wanes once a large theatre has done a play in the region, for premiere-itis is an insidious disease. The agents continue their descent down the budgetary ladder until they eventually get to the smaller professional theatres, community theatres, and university theatres, where royalties are usually based on a per-performance fee and not box-office percentage, rendering exclusivity a non-issue—the more productions the merrier.

The entire process could take years, with or without a major production in the area. The only viable alternative, aside from gathering genius playwrights as childhood best friends, is for theatre companies to commission plays, an approach fraught with its own financial perils.

There are other obstacles [to obtaining rights], as well. As mentioned, movie and television options tend to gum up the works—good plays can languish unproduced for years in some leased Lamborghini glove compartment waiting to be made into a film that never happens. In addition, some writers aren't anxious to have their work in certain regions for various personal or professional reasons; Charles Ludlam comes to mind.

Furthermore many established playwrights, burned in the past by overly creative production concepts and seeking to protect their legacies, are asking for cast and director approval. This additional condition makes it difficult enough for anyone wanting to produce the play, but it can be debilitating to a subscription-driven company, which may need to schedule up to a year in advance.

Still other playwrights limit their approval to only one director, who these days is sagely getting contractual strings attached from the get-go. This means waiting for that big-shot director's approval and availability, not to mention willingness to work for a theatre's typical fees.

I suggest that there is a good Back Stage West article here. As long as critics and funders espouse the provincial notion that only brand new is good, and as long as mid-sized houses are impossible to maintain in a terrain grown over with film and television redwoods and 99-Seat theatre kudzu, the Los Angeles area will struggle to build a permanent theatre industry that somehow rewards, consistently and financially, the best work that is being written. The agents aren't likely to become magnanimous, nor should they. I suggest Back Stage West talk to them and the writers, especially the ones in New York, to find out why L.A. theatre seems to get short shrift. That's an article I'd like to read.

Andrew Barnicle

Artistic Director, Laguna Playhouse

Writer's Response: I certainly did not mean to imply that expense was the only reason that rights had not been granted to a local theatre for the 10 great plays I reviewed in the article. I have a lot sympathy for such theatres as Laguna Playhouse, which has to contend with all the issues you enumerate when seeking rights. However, if all theatres with budgets comparable to Laguna put on seasons as diverse and interesting, we critics would have less to complain about.

And we'll certainly consider an article along the lines of the one you describe.

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