What I love about theatre (among many, many things, of course) is the fact that on stage, literally anything can happen. I’m talking about mishaps and flubbed lines, but also the repercussions of emotional investment—when an actor completely gives in to the circumstances of the scene and fully embody their character, there’s never really any predicting of what will happen next, no matter how many times the production has been rehearsed or sharpened. As a type-A personality, this could drive me crazy, but as a self-titled artiste, it’s that moment when the play leaves the page and the work and becomes its own living thing that I live for and work towards. I fully believe that when theatre is most fully realized, there is no more control over what is happening or what might happen next.
This idea of control (artistically-speaking) has been on my mind for the past few weeks. I was recently presented with the prospect of joining The Dramatists Guild of America through their student membership opportunity. The Dramatists Guild, as quoted from their website,
was established over eighty years ago, and is the only professional association which advances the interests of playwrights, composers, lyricists and librettists writing for the living stage. The Guild has over 6,000 members nationwide, from beginning writers to the most prominent authors represented on Broadway, Off-Broadway and in regional theaters.
Their list of members, both present and past, is impressive, including personal heroes of mine such as Tony Kushner and Stephen Sondheim. The prospect of somehow being in the same artistic community as those luminaries is certainly something that I find exciting.
However, when reading the stated purpose of the Guild, I had to pause for a second.
The Dramatists Guild of America was established for the purpose of aiding dramatists in protecting both the artistic and economic integrity of their work. The Guild believes that a vibrant, vital and provocative theater is an essential element of the ongoing cultural debate which informs the citizens of a free society. The Guild believes that if such a theater is to survive, the unique, idiosyncratic voices of both men and women who write for it must be cultivated and protected.
It is this idea of “protecting” that I find to be of a particular personal interest. I began writing on my own by way of acting and directing, therefore I consider myself more of a “director who writes” rather than simply a “playwright” (though the term I am most fond of is “theatre artist,” because I would like to someday be more of a jack-of-all-trades, but that is a discussion for another time). Because of this, I have much greater experience as an “interpreter” of a playwright’s work rather than as a writer specifically. So of course, my first question upon reading this statement of purpose was, “protecting from whom? The director? The actor?”
I understand that by bringing this question into debate, I’m stepping into a very messy area. Playwrights, more often than not, want their work to be seen as they initially envisioned it, which I think is certainly a valuable perspective. But, I can’t help but wonder if this need to “protect” the piece ultimately ends up limiting its potential of reaching additional artistic possibilities. I have seen productions of plays that are, as far as I can tell, the fully-realized version that the playwright wanted. If I wanted to direct that play, would I have to stage it the exact same way? Should directors be limited to by-the-book understandings of the play? As a director, I say “oh hell no,” but as a writer, well, I must admit that I’m a bit hesitant of someone taking my story and my characters, that I dedicated my time to cultivating, and turning them into something else altogether. But then my inner director voice says, “but that’s what’s so exciting about it!” After all, I can’t have it both ways—if I want the freedom to re-imagine someone else’s writing, someone else should certainly have the freedom to re-imagine mine.
The idea of “artistic ownership” is one that has certainly been called into question over and over again, often yielding interesting discussion but futile results. Plus, thanks to the internet, anyone can see a bootleg video of a production and copy it for themselves if they wanted to. We are no longer only stuck with the text; we can see the scenery, costumes, and choreography as well. The balance of trust (on behalf of the playwrights) and respect (on behalf of the directors and actors) is one that to me is tested with every project. It is a responsibility that we all share, as theatre-makers, to be sure that every voice is honored. I certainly believe that there is room for us all, but I also know that finding the balance is more often easier said than done.
I am going to end this by encouraging playwrights to think of Shakespeare. On the one hand, we should all envy him because his plays are more widely produced than any other writer’s works have been produced…ever. On the other hand, the poor man can’t catch a break! His works are constantly being fussed over, adapted, reinterpreted, trimmed, edited, and messed with. The World Shakespeare Festival that is about to open in London includes productions from companies all over the world, and I’m willing to place a bet that very few are going to be staging them in the original style. In fact, as an audience, we have become so used to seeing his plays reconceived that any “traditional” production cannot help but feel like an old Masterpiece Classic special. True, we can get away with this because a) he’s long been dead and b) there is no great “Shakespeare Estate” to protect his works, like there is with other playwrights. I don’t know whether or not Shakespeare would enjoy seeing his creations mangled on a regular basis, but I also wholeheartedly believe that any director who brings innovation to Shakespeare does so out of strong love and admiration for his writing. Through this, we are able to constantly rediscover and (for me, at least) fall in love all over again with his plays. I would hope that this need to “protect” will eventually subside; after all, there is a whole new generation of theatre-makers coming who would probably like their own opportunities to discover these pieces. I believe we owe them those opportunities.
Please feel free to join the discussion: have we gone crazy with this need to protect? Am I completely insulting the integrity of a playwright here? Who truly “owns” the work?
By James Kennedy