I should say right up front that, until about two hours before I began writing, I didn’t know anything about the Words Players Theatre of Rochester, Minnesota or its parent organization, Northland Words. I only learned about them because the company had raised the online ire of people in the creative community. In particular, what caught my eye was a blog post by playwright Donna Hoke, “Dissecting The Most Disgusting Call For Plays I’ve Ever Seen,” in which she does exactly what she says she’s going to do in her title, line by line, word by word. I share her concern, but I’d like to take a macro view of the message that the company appears to be sending.
Throughout their call for plays for Words Players 2015 Original Short Play Festival, the company’s director Daved Driscoll says several things worthy of admiration: there’s a commitment to young performers, as well as a desire to find work which he feels will appeal to his local community. I don’t think anyone would argue with those goals.
But where his message gets into trouble is, first, in the margins, so to speak. “Our emphasis is perhaps less on the artist-centered goal of producing ‘great art’,” he writes; elsewhere he notes “our desire to give writers and directors first-hand experience of the vagaries of ‘marketability’ as much as the more arcane goals of ‘art’.” If Words Players’ primary goal is to sell tickets, that’s perfectly fine, but that intimates that their efforts are more commercial than not-for-profit, and Northland Words is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization. Yet plenty of not-for-profits are accused of chasing sales over creative pursuits, so they’re not alone, but it’s awfully dissonant to be asking for plays from artists while dissing art itself. Why not focus affirmatively on what’s sought, rather than what’s not wanted? Instead, Words Players notes, “We prefer most of all plays that are significant and interesting, without off-putting superciliousness.”
Secondly, Driscoll states that, “We largely ignore considerations of age, race and gender in our casting decisions.” While that would be jarring in a professional setting, it’s perhaps somewhat less troubling in a company that’s focused on youth. After all, Lin-Manuel Miranda has noted that he doesn’t mind when schools without Latino students perform In The Heights, because once kids hit college, they’re going to be typed and should have a certain freedom to play any role while very young, though he does ask that they give respect to the culture they portray, and neither paint their skin nor adopt bad accents in doing so. However, Miranda doesn’t condone willfully altering the characters themselves, let alone the story, and neither do I. That choice should be the playwright’s, not the director’s or the artistic director’s.
I’d also suggest that in pointing out his youth emphasis, Driscoll could do better than, “The audience invariably includes a large percentage of young people. We will prefer scripts that appeal to them as well as to old, non-young people.” I believe most old, non-young people like myself wouldn’t mind at all that the work is for and by the young, were our decrepit state not reinforced redundantly. Honestly, young people play adults all the time in school theatre and community theatre where casts are young, so it’s not really an issue.
But what moves beyond poor communications and into the realm of unacceptable is how Driscoll speaks of how the theatre will handle the work of the very writers he’s soliciting. “Our production of the play is our only ‘compensation’ for its use,” he writes, later emphasizing the point by saying, “We don’t pay for the scripts.” Now if there are youthful writers in the local community who are the peers of the performers, who wish to write and be part of the program, that seems fair, provided no one else is getting paid either. But in a call for submissions that has clearly reached beyond the confines of Words Players and even Rochester. Minnesota, the idea that playwrights should give the company their scripts gratis devalues the work of writers – and if the youthful acting company knows of this, it suggests to them that writers’ words have no value.
Compounding this perspective, Driscoll writes, “While authors are welcome to confer with the directors, such conference is at the discretion of each director. Student directors will develop their autonomous interpretation and will maintain independent control of each production. They will in all probability modify settings and dialogue to fit our production situation and their own visions of the shows. Directors will, in particular, strive to make each play ‘entertaining’ to our audiences and may modify the scripts, accordingly.” This is the behavior of Hollywood studios towards writers, and they pay huge piles of money for that right; in the theatre, while a work is under copyright, the playwright has the final say about what words are spoken, unless they’re inveigled into giving away that right.
Finally, there’s a mission statement at the bottom of the call for plays which reads, in part, as follows: “Merely preserving ‘the way it was done’ is for mummies and pottery shards, not performance art.” I agree, but there’s a difference between fresh interpretations and wholesale vandalism, especially when a play is new and in no way trapped in amber.
Every theatre can set its play selection guidelines as it sees fit, but Words Players seems to be emphasizing the players over the words, and insulting playwrights in the process. The guidelines bother me for the same reason it bothers me when school administrators and professional directors and many others mess with copyrighted texts without permission: because not only is it in most cases legally and always ethically wrong (at least in the U.S.), it’s setting such a disastrous example for the young people who witness this disregard, bordering on contempt, for the writer’s art.
It’s unclear how many plays will be in the Words Players festival, how many people will attend and what they might be charged. But when it comes to compensation, royalties for amateur productions of short works are often little more than the price of a couple of movie tickets and a bag of popcorn, so they’re hardly onerous for any company. But no payment gives a licensee the right to have its way unilaterally with the text in theatre, unless the playwright inexplicably chooses to grant it.
Online, people wrote that they saw this same call last year and spoke out about it, but that it’s unchanged – they were ignored. Facebook and Twitter posts suggest that Words Players response has been, essentially, “if you don’t like it, then don’t submit.” They’ve been removing dissent from their social media. They’re trying to hide the efforts of those that might inform their community of reasonable standards and guide them towards more appropriate behavior.
I’m not writing just on behalf the playwrights – I’m writing on behalf of every single kid in that program. If those kids admire theatre and the arts, then regardless of whether they become professional artists or simply audience members in the future, any adults giving them training need to distinguish between creative rights and wrongs for them now, because they are the path to our future and to the health of the theatre.
In the call for plays by Words Players, Mr. Driscoll is teaching bad lessons (Donna Hoke has made some strong points on that as well). Either he should choose the plays he wants and treat them with respect, or he should write them himself and let the directors and performers have at them if he likes. The latter choice is his right if he is the author. But no one should be asking for plays if they’re not going to produce them with professional conduct and ethical standards, even for only one or two performances with a cast of young people in Rochester, Minnesota. Every play has meaning, as does every production, and Words Players will best serve its community by altering its practices to set the right example.
Update, August 5, 3:30 pm: Yesterday, Doug Wright, president of The Dramatists Guild, sent a letter to Daved Driscoll of Words Players outlining the reasons why playwrights and the Guild were so troubled by the theatre’s play submission guidelines. This morning, Driscoll responded in writing to the Guild, and subsequently did an interview with Playbill discussing their desire to conform to professional and ethical standards. Conversations between those parties will be ongoing, and if welcome, I hope to participate in them as well.
Update, August 7, 2 pm: The conversations online and offline surrounding this topic have, in some cases, metastasized far beyond my intent and perhaps the intent of others who drew attention to this situation. I hope you’ll read my followup post as well, “Writing A Different Script About Respect for Playwrights.”
Note: an earlier version of this post contained two photos of prior productions in the Words Players Original Short Plays Festival. While the photos were made available for download without restriction on the company’s website, I have removed them at the suggestion of several commenters.
Howard Sherman is director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at The New School for Drama.