These days, it seems as if Beckett may be the most referenced playwright in any language. Yet one observation I have made, amidst the bevy of tributes, is that there is a certain unbridled relish in depicting Beckett as a control freak with regard to his work. After all, how dare an author specify that he wants his play set where he set it within his text. How dare he want a man play a man, a woman play a woman, a tree play a tree, and so on. I bring this up because, lately, I have had reason to wonder what playwrights, who are not Mr. Beckett, have to do to secure that their play be done according to their desires, aside from what is conveyed in the text?
The obvious answer would seem to be – communication. Yes, a lovely thought, so long as it were a commodity that was existent in all playwright/director relationships. When it is not, however, the question then becomes, “Does a playwright, regardless of being provided a formal contract by the producing theatre company, need to write up a disclaimer with every play that has been selected for production?” In other words, does a playwright need to specify that a director and/or producer must consult him/her regarding any alterations of character gender, age, time period, setting, etc? Of course, this answer is usually assumed by playwrights and, in that assumption, it would seem superfluous to make such a demand in writing. Yet, sometimes, especially when a playwright is unable to attend rehearsals, communication with the author may not be a priority to a director, particularly an inexperienced one.
In a few cases, I have actually had to seek out a director or, failing to have their contact info, have e-mailed the producer requesting that my assigned director contact me, kindly stating that I would so enjoy speaking with them about…my play! With regards to the latter, I have been given responses ranging from “Yes, he or she will be in touch with you soon” to the absurdly “Well, directors here are only told to contact playwrights if they have questions.” What the f&c%? Of course, my response to the latter –and very real- statement was one that ultimately resulted in a quick response from my director anyway. Still, a ridiculously needless exchange? Oh, yes. But the point is that my work is not done with an out-of-town theatre company merely electing to do my play. That is unless I’m simply hoping for the best. However, if I’m not, I still maintain a personal interest in the result of the production. Is this an obsessive playwright? I don’t think so. I feel it is simply my emphatic right to want to be involved. After all, we are playwrights and, as such, what atrocity have we committed other than provide a theatre company with another reason to exist?
In truth, I for one love working with directors and know when to get out of the way when necessary. However, I am here and, at least in the beginning, strongly encourage a line of communication with my director; making sure that we share a mutual understanding of the play, etc. And if they have questions, hey, guess what? Here I am. Ask me, please! I‘d LOVE to help. My play is not a Jeopardy question that you must answer alone. Theatre is, without question, a collaborative art and I am thrilled to be a part of the collaboration, even from afar.
That said, my sharing these feelings with my fellow playwrights in this article has been inspired by a recent incident with regards to a one act of mine which was not only offered a production, but was the recipient of a nice little award and cash prize from an out-of-town theatre company who, for this article, will remain nameless.
Well, first things first; yes, the check cleared. However, the incident in question was one of a certain liberty taken in the casting of a male actor in a distinctly female role. Not only that, but this information came to me in the first call I received from my director…when they were already a week into rehearsal! After receiving her voicemail message, I promptly called back and, as diplomatically as possible, conveyed my displeasure in no uncertain terms. I also stated that this was an egregious breech of trust, to which my director could only respond with repeated apologies, while also stressing to me that the choice was not one of the experimental nature, but was in the interest of the play. In essence, she stated that the “feminine male” cast was head and shoulders above the other actual women who had also read for the role. I kid you not.
Incidentally, the play consists solely of 4 women, and now was to be played by 3 women and 1 man (as a woman). I should also mention that this is a drawing room comedy set in 18th century England, so it was not quite as jarring as if this were, say, a woman in 21st Century New Jersey. When you take into account grander costumes and make-up, this can be masked fairly well. And it actually was, according to a video of rehearsals to which I was privy.
Still, I stated to both my director and to the company’s artistic director, who also besieged me with apologies, that if this were in New York (my home base), if this were a full-length of mine, or if this were being done for a considerable run and was likely to be reviewed, I would have legally denied them the rights. Yet, in the end, I did elect to have them go forward with the understanding that there would be no text changes and that it would not be done in a way that would impede the content of the play. They swore that the play would be produced faithfully.
Obviously, the situation did not have to get to this point. I didn’t need to feel this sense of betrayal, even if there was no malicious intent. It was simply a case of a theatre company feeling that their producing my work was all the communication that was necessary.
Since I raised this issue with just a few fellow playwrights, I quickly became informed of incidents where their plays, unbeknownst to them, had had whole scenes cut, characters omitted, lines rewritten--changes that would send many of us to the nearest cardiologist.
And in most cases, they discovered these changes when they came into town for a performance after being unable to attend rehearsals, or by friends or family members who had attended a performance in their stead.
It can certainly be argued that, even in the age of the internet, we do take a certain risk when sending our plays out of state and are not provided with a formal contract that protects us, especially if, due to fiscal concerns, we cannot attend most rehearsals or even catch a performance. But in no way does that mean that we are foregoing our right to have our plays performed as written. In no way is there an unwritten law that states that a theatre company can go hog wild with their interpretation of our new or somewhat new play. And, most importantly, in no way should a director or producer, regardless of contract, assume our trust. That is, of course, unless we have specifically signed away our right to be consulted.
So what’s the solution? Communication, mutual honesty and a collective desire to serve the play that we as playwrights have created.
I don’t think that’s asking too much.