Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, Florida is back in rehearsal with their production of Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come!, to restore the script as the fine Irish dramatist wrote it. Their production, which should have been in performance now, had eliminated characters and removed intermissions, among other “improvements.” Frankly, they’re lucky to even have a second shot at it. They could have lost the rights to the show altogether.
Jay Handelman in the Herald Tribune reported on the situation and reading his article in full, it comes clear that this isn’t some isolated incident for the Asolo.
[Producing Artistic Director Michael Donald] Edwards said Friel’s agent heard about the changes and was most concerned about the removal of the intermissions. “We asked if they would come down and see what Frank had done, which we thought was beautiful, but they decided not to.”
The theater has experimented with new approaches to older plays with some success in the past. Two years ago, for example, the theater played around with Leah Napolin’s play “Yentl,” keeping most of the script but adding in original songs by composer Jill Sobule, performed by actors doubling as musicians on stage.
Napolin had a “heads-up about what we were doing,” Edwards said. “But she didn’t know all of what we were doing. We got her down here and she could have said I don’t like this, but fortunately she loved it. She told me, ‘You have rescued my play’.”
If director Gordon Greenberg had gone to Napolin with every idea for changes or additions that came up during rehearsals “it would have killed the creative process. It would have made it a two-year process,” Edwards said.
Mr. Edwards appears to have a fundamental lack of understanding of (or respect for) the rights of authors and their estates. Copyright law and the licensing agreements signed by his theatre prevent him or any director working at his theatre from performing surgery on texts to suit the company’s own needs or interpretations. Why, Mr. Edwards, do you portray their spurning of your invitation as vaguely obstinate, when you’ve broken your word and the law? While some authors may allow leeway, it’s their prerogative, not the theatre’s, to do so. The fact that Leah Napolin was happy with Asolo’s alterations on her Yentl was a lucky break, but to take it as affirmation or precedent for this practice isn’t only foolhardy, it’s just plain wrong. [Please see clarifying update on Yentl at the end of this post.] I must confess, in the Philadelphia situation, I’m surprised by the actions of veteran director Frank Galati as well, though I should allow for the possibility that he was told approval had been given. On a related note: Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout was to have reviewed the Friel play, but was informed that performances were canceled – the Asolo never explained why.
Some might shrug the practices of Asolo as the anomalous act of a single theatre, but it’s only the most prominent recent example of a practice that, for obvious reasons, tries to fly under the radar. Last month, in writing about the efforts of a Long Island high school to perform a sex change on the character of Angel in Rent, I received numerous comments and e-mails telling me that this sort of manipulation happens all the time at not only at high schools but at colleges as well. One correspondent, who teaches arts management at the university level, reported that the directing program at their school encourages directors to rework texts to make them their own, flouting licensing agreements for work that is given public performances. While this is kosher for classic works out of copyright, it’s stunning to me that educational institutions are actively advocating such actions on copyrighted work. As a classroom experiment, it’s acceptable for learning purposes, but as soon as an audience walks in, this approach must go right out the window. Students must be taught the difference.
I know of many people who feel that copyrights extend for too long, not just during creators’ lifetimes but long past them, believing works should become available for free revision and reinterpretation much sooner than currently allowed. While I am all for creative reinterpretations of texts, that’s a separate legal discussion. But so long as copyright stands, it is not a matter for selective adherence, and that’s not simply my opinion, it’s a legal compact. Theatre is not the movies, where authors do not own their work and it can be altered and reworked by any number of writers to suit the needs or whims of a studio, a director or a marketing team.
When a situation arises like the one at Southold High, it’s hard not to draw a direct line to the example at the Asolo – after all, if professionals alter scripts without approval, it must be OK, right? If the practice is being encouraged at the college level, why wouldn’t it be filtering into both professional and amateur work? Many resent the restrictive vigilance of estates such as Samuel Beckett’s, and as a manager I once had to counsel an artistic director to veto a Godot design which would have likely drawn the ire of the estate had they become aware of it. Yes, I would have loved to see that jettisoned concept as a theatregoer, but as a manager, I wouldn’t support violating an agreement I’d signed, in addition to taking the risk that we might be found out, putting the organization in financial extremes. “Oh, who will know?” is neither a legal nor ethical defense.
It’s quite impossible to know how prevalent this is, because the vast majority of theatre in the U.S. isn’t scrutinized by authors or their representatives. It is simply impossible to do. So when cases come to light, they are largely because some astute audience member recognizes the manipulation and takes the initiative to contact the appropriate representatives, if they know how. Another way these incidents are revealed are likely when some member of the production recognizes that alteration is under way, and they choose to inform the right people, forcing them to become “informers” on their own employers. And, of course, critics may notice discrepancies with work they’ve seen or read before, and their reportage may bring alterations to the attention of authors and their representatives.
I can’t understand why some artists feel they have the right to unilaterally alter dramatic texts, especially when so many superb reinventions are done with the full cooperation of authors and estates; that said, I fully expect some of those who advocate for this right to take issue with my position as stated here. Although I feel as if I’ve heard it over and over again for decades, it seems that for so many, a basic thesis of the theatre isn’t being said and understood enough: theatre is first and foremost an author’s medium. If you can’t respect that, write the play you want to see instead – or go make movies.
Note: I serve on the advisory committee of Samuel French Inc., the company which licenses the work of Brian Friel. I have not consulted with anyone at French about the situation at the Asolo or this essay at any time.
Update 2:45 pm 1/22: Because, as I often do, I wrote and posted in haste, I neglected to include critics as a resource for bringing unauthorized alterations to light. When this was pointed out in the comment section below, I added a sentence to the penultimate paragraph to recognize their essential role.
Update 9:45 am 1/23: Gordon Greenberg, director of the Asolo production of Yentl, has written to advise me that he and the theatre had the author’s approval to interpolate Jill Sobule’s songs and make minor text changes to accommodate them. Additionally, Greenberg’s revised production of Working was done in collaboration with Stephen Schwartz.
Update 5:45 pm 1/24: This post has prompted extensive response, in the comments here, as well as on my Facebook page and via Twitter. A number of people have taken exception to my statement that “theatre is first and foremost an author’s medium.” On reflection, the statement was too sweeping, and has apparently suggested to some a lack of respect on my part for directors, actors and the range of artists who collaborate to put a play on stage and are so essential in collectively exploring and realizing a playwright’s vision; that’s far from the truth. I also wrote from my experience, as I would hope is always evident in my writing, and respecting the author’s intent and rights is something I’ve been taught by theatre artists – not just authors – throughout my career and it is a point of view I embrace. That said, the majority of my theatergoing is American drama first and English writing second; the majority of productions I’ve seen were created in the U.S. regardless of authorship. I understand that in some countries and with some companies, a script may only be a framework that is elaborated upon in many different ways, and while that runs contrary to the majority of my theatergoing experiences, it was not my intention to denigrate it, provided the author is fully aware of the manner of production and agrees to it, according to their legal rights. For classical works where copyright has expired or never existed, I enthusiastically support artists’ free rein to rework and alter the text as they see fit. There are many ways to make theatre and my respect for every artist and their practice and tradition is unstinting. I regret my generalization, but in transparency, I leave it intact above, lest I be accused of rewriting myself surreptitiously.