Who Thinks It’s OK To ‘Improve’ Playwrights’ Work?

January 22nd, 2014 § 48 comments

Philadelphia, Here I Come at Asolo Repertory Theatre

Philadelphia, Here I Come! at Asolo Repertory Theatre

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. 


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  • Chip Deffaa

    Very well said, Howard. I once watched a production of a play of mine (published and licensed by Samuel French) and was surprised to see how much new material (dialogue and songs) had been added by the director without my permission. He had acted in apparent innocence, not realizing how improper this was, and I didn’t see the point in making a fuss at that stage. But I’ve seen all too much of this. I watched one production of “West Side Story” where the director reassigned which characters sang certain songs, and changed the placement of certain songs. He gave me “justifications” for every change (which he believed “improved” “West Side Story”); he did not seem to realize you can’t make such changes without permission. (And I know permission would never have been given for the radical changes he made.)

  • paulkeogan

    I would tend to agree with you Howard – I shudder to think how the suggested ‘improvements’ would have affected Philadelphia. I think the basic message that needs to go out to directors who feel the need to save a playwright from themselves is to give them a pencil and a piece of paper and let them write it themselves……

  • cchr82

    “When cases come to light, they are largely because some astute audience member recognizes the manipulation . . . ” I would HOPE that the “astute audience member” would normally be us, the critic/reviewers reviewing the play. Surely that’s how the Beckett estate heard about the notorious A.R.T. “Godot.” That’s easiest with classics, long out of copyright, which we are most likely to know but where “adaptation” is legal — reporting on these changes should be normal in reviews. It’s hardest with new plays, which we may not know. For cases in between (well-known plays still in copyright, like the Friel), it all depends on the experience/education of the reviewer — just one more argument for paid, professional critics as opposed to blogging amateurs. But Howard, you don’t mention reviewers. — Chris Rawson

    • Howard Sherman

      You’re right, Chris. I erred in not including critics. I will amend the post.

    • Robert Neblett

      Do you mean the notorious ART “Endgame,” directed by JoAnne Akalaitis?

      • cchr82

        Yes, of course, thanks for the correction. . . . I think I erred because I was simultaneously thinking of a Pittsburgh Public Theater “Godot” set in an urban lot full of interesting debris (including a burned out VW, as I recall), all wrong for the play, as I said in my review. But the Beckett people didn’t notice and I didn’t (as I guess Howard suggests I should have) intervene further by sending them my review.

        • Leopold

          I remember that Godot production in Pittsburgh. It the first time I saw the play and it took years for me to erase it from my mind. I feel now it just desecrated the work. If such a big change is to be made, it should be stated in the program that this is not what the playwright originally envisioned. that would also honor the contract the theater has made with its audience, If I come to see Godot, I want to see Beckett’s intent, not a director’s without proper explanation.

  • ughughughugh

    Wildly prevalent. I was at one production where the AD told the audience during talkback that he had changed things because “the playwright wasn’t coming. That he did it was bad enough, that he announced in such a way as though it were perfectly acceptable made me see red.

  • Kathleen W.

    …nightmare fuel for a living playwright! thanks for posting this.

  • Allie

    Thank you so much for writing this because it is something that truly gets under my skin. In my mind, it is one thing to develop a new concept for a production, but it is another to alter the text and make changes to the structure in order to fit said concept. I see this happening so much at the university level with professors trying to make their mark on shows, but it’s an educational disservice to all students involved. There needs to be more accountability for people who make unauthorized changes to productions.

  • Darrah Cloud

    Howard, where does color-blind casting fit in all this? I’m not disagreeing with everything said here at all, but when you tilt in one direction, you upset the balance of the other side. Beckett kept a strong hold on his work too, and prevented some really fine interpretations of it.

    • Howard Sherman

      Darrah, as an avowed supporter of color-blind casting, I don’t see the issue as equivalent, since the race of an actor doesn’t necessarily alter the meaning of a text. But I do favor consultation if the meaning is altered by casting (witness Edward Albee’s steadfast refusal to approve all-male productions of VIRGINIA WOOLF, although obviously that’s gender, not race) and approval for any change in text. I noted the Beckett estate example in my essay, and while I agree with you about wonderful interpretations likely being quashed, I believe it’s their right to sustain the playwright’s wishes so long as the work remains under copyright.

  • J. Kelly Nestruck

    This summer, I saw a well-known play by a well-known playwright in a production that eliminated characters and removed intermissions – and it went on without any controversy whatsoever. Of course, that was Shakespeare – and such changes to his plays are commonplace. Nothing avant-garde or outrageous about it all, though of course he has no agent to object.

    Saying that Philadelphia, Here I Come! – now 50 years old – could probably stand up to similar reinterpretations as Macbeth is not an insult to Mr Friel; it’s a compliment. Frank Galati’s production sounds original and worth a trip to Sarasota to check out, while a production of the play where the artistic choices have been dictated by the playwright’s agent rather than decided by the artistic team on the ground sounds deadly.

    Your post is very sensible. In fact, aside from the line about “theatre being first and foremost an author’s medium”), it’s unarguable – if you sign a contract, you must stick to the terms and ignore where your imagination or the process takes you.

    But if I were Mr Friel or his agent, I’d absolutely let a significant artist like Mr Galati go ahead and try something new with his play; indeed, I’d be excited about it. The exact words in the published playtext aren’t going anywhere – and some director duller than Galati will surely mount it “as written” again soon.

    • RT

      It could be that Mr. Galati could have an interesting take on the material, but the fact that they changed it without permission is what is reprehensible. It is still Mr. Friel’s play, to be changed at his discretion alone. I’m sure he would be open to the discussion, but if he doesn’t want to change it, it should not be changed.

      Theatres get into trouble when they adopt a “Whatever, we’ll do what we want” attitude towards copyrighted material when, surprise, they should have asked first.

    • Neil Bergman

      Let me ask how you would feel if Mr. Sherman held each reply to his blog until he approved of it? What if, without your permission, he re-wrote your comment, significantly changing your opinion before anyone else saw it AND put your name on it? Would you be annoyed just for him asking to make the changes to your well thought out post?

      This is exactly the case when an “artist” alters a published work without permission. No author should have their name associated with a re-write of their script. I cringe for Stephen King and others whenever a movie studio changes his books for the worse when turning them into movies. But in those cases, Mr. King and other authors have sold their right to control the work on film. No such contract is in place for the plays discussed here. Until copyright runs out you are bound by the terms set forth by authors and their agents if you wish to stage a production of their play.

    • JP

      Mr. Friel’s 50 year old play is a work of art. Why don’t we just paint a mustache on the Mona Lisa? Oh, I’m being told someone already tried to do that. If some other company does another boring production of it it’s not the playwrights fault. He’s at the mercy of the licensing theatre and it’s director, actors, etc. When the play is produced by a competent company it’s still as charming and wonderful as it was when it was first produced. As a long time Asolo supporter I’ll look forward to seeing the original version when it opens because I have faith in them, and hopefully Mr. Galati, to do a good job with what they legally have to work with.

  • Keith Glover

    Sadly, its a very common practice. I remember working as an actor with a director who shall remain nameless. (He’s since deceased) on an August Wilson piece and the director was performing wholesale surgery on the text. This after he had spent a very long period in the wilderness after August refused to allow him to do his work after hearing about the surgery. Years after August relented and allowed him to direct his work again. The director went right back to his illegal cutting.The Artistic Director was aware of it and presumably okay with it. I refused to go along with the cuts. The cast went along with them. They just maneuvered around me.

  • SCB

    There seems to be a common practice about removing bad language from plays altogether as well. I know of theaters that have been doing this for 30 years and have never been caught. There is a well established theater that will keep the swearing in until opening night, and then force all the actors to remove them for all the remaining performances. The critics see it on opening so they are none the wiser. And I mean not just removing a few words – I mean removing ALL the cursing from AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY…. They continue to get away with defacing playwrights work… but as you aptly described above it’s harder than one would think to catch these folks…

    • Robert Caisley

      One only has to change the medium to understand the audacity of theatre
      managers and directors that make these “improvements” in plays scripts
      — for that if indeed the message they are sending, whether they try to
      couch it in terms of “a new take on a classic.” They’re basically
      demonstrating a kind of artistic arrogance by suggesting they understand
      the original better than the author who created it, and are by
      extension a greater artist than the original author who obviously didn’t
      have the wherewithal to make these changes themselves. So here’s the
      litmus test for me: we cannot conceive of the management of the Louvre
      Museum deciding to re-attach the arms of the Venus de Milo, can we? Or
      removing the arms on the Statue of David, so it looks more “ancient.”
      Or how about finishing off one of those unfinished pieces by Leonardo da
      Vinci? And the claim of amateur producers that they “didn’t know any
      better” is b.s. They do know better.

      • Pat

        Full disclosure: I am a working union actor, stage manager and director who fully believes in and deliberately subscribes to non-traditional and creative casting choices.

        Theater is, indeed, a living breathing thing. But – as we always see in long-running plays – there is a big difference between different-BETTER and different-for the sake of being different.

        On the one hand, I have seen changes make an ok play better: one director slightly rearranged the order of songs (but not who sang them) for a prodn of Smokey Joe’s, which created a story arc that held the audience thru the end of the show instead of just being a jukebox “and then I wrote” musical that loses focus by midway in Act 2, when so many random solos are performed. And I have worked extensively with deaf actors in sign language theater; a prodn of Streetcar got permission to adjust accordingly, because there were things that didn’t work in deaf culture (for example, no deaf soldiers served in that time period). It was a brilliant re-interpretation that gave new meaning to the relationships between Blanche (who was played hearing/barely signing) and Stella/Stanley (who were both deaf), and between Blanche and the real and imagined world around her. But again, permission had been granted.

        I do think it silly that Albee and his estate have casting refusal for his productions (and wish they didn’t insist the silent son in Three Tall Women be cast young and pretty). And even as a musician and supporter of the AFofM, I strongly disagree w the Kurt Weill estate’s requirement of EITHER a full 11-piece (or more) band OR solo piano for his work, with no middle ground, especially for small theaters where that expense (and space) is prohibitive and a clever musical director can create brilliant options.

        Being open to investigation is very different from altering whole cloth – even in Shakespeare. And the key is permission.

  • Tim_N

    Making changes without permission or discussion isn’t collaboration. It’s vandalism.

    • JP

      It isn’t just about what the playwright or the estate want in there; it’s what Samuel French and the Dramatist guild consider to be the rights of the playwright and insist on in their standard agreement. And this isn’t just about a violation of trust, it’s a violation of a legal and binding agreement.

  • StarrHrdgr

    Play as written is my motto, but then again, I live in Oklahoma: Land of the Sharpie. Every curse word or suggestive situation is axed from a play in order to “protect” the audience and even allow people to perform the play. And this doesn’t just extend to drama. Would have liked to have read my anatomy book as written in high school without the black magic marker over the reproductive chapter. Thanks for the article.

  • Howard Sherman

    The second sustained response to this piece comes from Chris Leyva, “Saying ‘No’.”

    • GM52246

      I am good friends with Chris Leyva (he edited an episode of the webseries that is my logo to the left). Thrilled to see him make the big time!

  • Howard Sherman

    In the interest of sharing all of the conversation engendered by this piece, I’ll be post responses that I see. The first comes from Alexander Offord, “We Do Not Owe Fealty To A Playwright’s Wishes.”

    • Since the definition of “fealty” is the fidelity of a vassal or feudal tenant to his lord and/or the legal obligation of that fidelity, then–because this involved a contractual obligation not to revise the work–in this case, they did owe fealty to the playwright’s words as written.

  • Howard Sherman

    Another view, this time from Andrew Haydon in the UK, who says of my post, “Don’t bother reading it unless you want to be really annoyed.” http://postcardsgods.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/properly-revisited.html

    • “I don’t want to engage at all closely with the initial argument.”

      Then I don’t need to take your post seriously, sir, because you’re more interested in straw men.

      I’m amused by his assertions about “the more enlightened” playwrights & the short shelf life of playwrights who don’t allow changes, like, say, Mamet or Beckett or Stoppard or pretty much anyone making a living at this.

  • Howard Sherman

    From the US, Melissa Hillman writes, “There’s an entire subset of directors and producers who see the playwright as a necessary evil; a hindrance to their more important creative process, and who see the contract as something that exists more as a formality between the producer and the playwright than a legally-binding document that applies to their work.” http://bittergertrude.com/2014/01/26/directing-creative-freedom-and-vandalism/

  • Nathan

    There are multiple issues with this circumstance. I find it interesting that so many folks appear to begin and end their consideration of the issue with “it’s the law.” There are unjust laws as there are unjust humans. And one doesn’t need to be a legal scholar to know that our current copyright law in the U.S.A. has problems in that branch of policy and jurisprudence.

    That being said, along with legal reform, we theatre folk should keep in mind that our art form differs in interesting ways from other art-forms. It’s easy to look at Galati’s work on the Friel play and note the major deviations from Friel’s text. But outside of major deviations, in what way is the text the pretext for performance? How much of the performance is the creation of any of the team — writer,actor,director? And, as an aging actor myself, what if the actor drops a paragraph in performance — are they butchering the text? The stories of Ralph Richardson’s word mix-ups late in his career are both legendary and charming. Is accident necessarily more forgivable?

    Just a thought or two . . . .

    • GM52246

      Nathan: This is pretty simple. When you license a playwright’s work to perform it for the public and sell tickets for it, you make a deal with the playwright that you won’t change *anything* in the play without his/her prior approval–and most playwrights are perfectly willing to accept adjustments *as long as the creative team asks in advance of the first performance.* As a writer, director, and actor, nothing in that strikes me in any way unjust–and if you find it unjust, you can choose *not* to license the play.

      An actor *accidentally* dropping a line or paragraph is obviously unintentional; no playwright in history, that i know of, has ever attempted to revoke rights due to that circumstance, and there’s reason to believe they wouldn’t get very far. This is a blog entry about specific, deliberate alterations without the playwright’s permission, or without him or her even being notified. Like I said, not that hard.

  • Rhh

    No, Mr. Sherman. Theatre is the actors medium. Remove the directors, designers, critics, and playwrights, etc.; you’d still have theatre with an actor and an audience.

    • Michael M

      What does the actor perform for the audience? The actor becomes a playwright.

  • Kerry Reid

    I wonder, as Melissa Hillman points out, if most directors would be happy with actors and designers who don’t feel they owe “fealty” to a director’s choices and change blocking, cues, etc. without asking once the show has opened. Or who might decide to restore lines that have been cut in order to “save” the director from him/herself.

  • Blanka

    I’m sharing another point of view: http://www.dispositio.net/archives/1829

  • Jerry Sciarrio

    It has been said the theater is the playwright’s medium, the movies are the director’s medium, and TV is the actor’s medium. I think this is an accurate statement. It takes nothing away from any of the others involved, but it highlights the primary force in each presentation.

  • Howard Sherman

    From Terry Teachout, writing in The Wall Street Journal: http://on.wsj.com/LtCad7

  • David Darrow

    This article is sort of amazing to me – I’m an actor, I work at regional theaters around the country, and in ever single production I have done in my professional life, there have been changes to the script. Without exception. Happily, as an actor, I just get to do what I’m told. But line cuts, added music – these changes are part of the vocabulary of rehearsals, whether the playwright is in the room or not. Maybe this is what needs to change? But I was reading the incident at the Asolo thinking: “What’s the big deal?” That happens in every rehearsal room.

    Thinking about my experience in rehearsals, with directors who are trying to tell the story in the best way possible, it is hard for me to imagine a process where any change to the script is forbidden. In such a collaborative art form, it seems to strange to assume that the words are unchangeable. To a point, don’t directors need some leeway? Not to arrogantly “improve” on work – but to treat it as a collaborator that is able to bend?

    • Howard Sherman

      If the playwright is not in the room, or not consulted, it’s a one-sided collaboration.

    • RT

      Leeway is fine, and almost every production has “some” changes. But not consulting the playwright? That’s out of bounds.

      I also like the contention that it would take two years to mount a production when consulting with a playwright. Maybe in Oscar Wilde’s time when mail was a crawl, but not in our era of cyberspace. They just didn’t want to bother.

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  • Howard Sherman

    A follow-up report from Jay Handelman at the Herald Tribune, whose original story prompted this post:

  • Rutegar

    There is a certain Artistic Director in Australia who is notorious for this sort of thing ! Arthur Miller amongst his victims

  • Rutegar

    Hmm … I’m not sure what the kerfuffle is about. My reading of Alexander’s position is perfectly clear …



    Sherman is 100% correct in his main contention – the Asolo Rep was in breach of their licensing contracts, & legally in the wrong.

    We do not necessarily think, read, or interpret the world the way people did when these plays were written. They must be made to function in ways that are Renaissance fair & meaningful theatre.

    Plays are symbol systems; each thing on stage is a sign, & they mean something..


    Or has Alexander’s words been mangled from the author’s original intent without his permission …

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