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CENTER STAGE : On Playwright's Rights


I recently received two letters, both from playwrights, both of whom had their plays selected to be produced at Off-Off-Broadway theatres. Both playwrights were upset over the fact that their plays were taken over by the directors and turned into something other than what was intended.

The playwright of the first letter I received wrote that the director "wrote three vulgar sketches into my play without my approval. In fact, I never got to see my changed script! I felt betrayed as a playwright as well as a dramaturg. The tight structure of my play was diluted and derailed by the director's extra parts . the director kept me at arm's length from her 'territory' while she trampled all over my domain as a playwright."

The second letter that I received was from a playwright who seemed a lot angrier, not only at the director but at the entire system. I found out when I spoke to her earlier this week that instances such as the one she describes in her letter have happened to her--and her playwright friends--on more than one occasion.

She writes: "When I saw the production, [the director] had changed my script to such an extreme degree that the entire focus of the play was transposed. The entire last scene was rewritten, destroying my words and meaning completely."

Sure the writers are angry, and with just cause--but how do they let these situations arise in the first place? Written plays are copyrighted automatically. Don't directors know that tampering with a play can bring on charges of infringement of the copyright issue?

Some writers are so eager to have a production of their play that they don't mind if the play is changed around. And some writers don't even sign a contract with the theatre company or, if they do sign one, don't bother to make sure that some very important provisions are included.

I spoke to Christopher Wilson, acting executive director of the Dramatists Guild, who stated that the guild recommends that the contract the writer signs with the theatre should specify that no changes can be made to the script without the approval of the playwright. Furthermore, any changes that are approved by the playwright are also owned by him or her.

If the contract does not already note these clauses, it's up to the writer to make sure that the clauses are included. I don't know if the author of letter #1 had signed a contract with the theatre; letter #2 author did, but these clauses were not negotiated into it.

I also contacted Jeffrey Sweet to get his advice for fellow writers from his perspective as a working playwright and as a council member of the Dramatists Guild.

It wasn't so easy getting in touch with Jeff, since he's always traveling around. He called me from Chicago, where his play "Flyovers" is being produced at the Victory Gardens Theater. He flew back there from Normal, Ill., where another of his plays, "Falcon's Pitch," is in production at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival. From Chicago, he goes on to Iowa to teach a university course, but then has plans to return to Normal (no pun intended) to check on his show.

I'm mentioning all of this just to let you see how hands-on and accessible Jeff is as a playwright. "Being there and having meaningful input into the casting and rehearsal processes is part of the playwright's job, part of the playwright's responsibility," Jeff notes. "The job is only half done when you have a script worth producing. The rest of the playwright's job is a social function, working with others in seeing that script is properly produced."

I mentioned to Jeff that the playwrights, by not being part of the process (I'm not quite sure about playwright #1, but playwright #2 told me that, for personal reasons, she had to go out of town for the two-week casting/rehearsal process), may be just as guilty as the directors that they're accusing. But Jeff quickly pointed out that they're not guilty, only ignorant of what they're actually entitled to.

And what about the directors--are they also acting out of inexperience? Jeff states emphatically that writers' words--those who write for the theatre in contrast to movies and television--cannot be changed without the writer's permission. "Any director who does not observe this principle is simply not a professional director. Directors who want to mess around with text should either go into another medium or write their own texts."

So, asks Jeff, what do you do if you're in a production, and a director pulls this stuff? "One swell response," Jeff says, is "a sternly worded letter from a lawyer to the director saying that he or she is in violation of your copyright and to cease and desist, or be vulnerable to legal action."

Jeff reminds playwrights that are being maltreated, that they have the right to pull their scripts. "Now, some writers faint at the thought of walking away from a production," he notes. "But a production of your work that doesn't reflect your intentions isn't worth having. If it is well received, then it isn't your intentions that are getting the good comment. If it is poorly received, then the reputation of your work is being damaged. I see no point in continuing with a production under either circumstance. But you have to have the guts to say 'no' to a production. To say 'no' when it is appropriate is a sign of professionalism."

By the way, I got in touch with the director of playwright #2's play, and he presented his side of the story to me as well. I'm staying neutral, but I do hope that playwright and director will talk over the situation and end this dispute.

There are other provisions that can be negotiated into a playwright's contract concerning issues of arbitration, assignment, subsidiary rights, and compensation.

For the most up-to-date information concerning playwrights, and for easy access for advice, it's best to become a member of the Dramatists Guild. The annual dues is $75, and the only requirement is that you have written a play. You can contact the guild for membership application by dropping a note to 1501 Broadway, Suite 1701, New York, NY 10036, or call (212) 398-9366.

Jeff says that being a member of the Dramatists Guild is as necessary for your protection as shoes are for walking on city streets.


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