Writing A Different Script About Respect for Playwrights

August 7th, 2015 § 17 comments

Call for submissions on Words Players TheatreIt would be hypocritical of me to speak out against precisely how people have expressed their feelings about, and to, Words Players Theatre in Rochester, Minnesota, because I spend so much of my time now speaking on behalf of the rights of artists to express themselves as they see fit. So as one of the first people to raise the issue of the play submission guidelines proffered by Words Players, I can only say that I’m disappointed in myself, for not engendering a more constructive dialogue.

I’m not reneging on any of the points I raised with the blog post I put up last Saturday – I still see the guidelines as written as very problematic, and I want to see Words Players bring their short play festival’s selection and production model into line with widely accepted practice. I want to know that the young people who participate in this program are learning about the ethics of art as well as the practice of it, because even if Words Players turns out to be their only foray on stage, they can carry appreciation and respect for the work of creative artists through their lives, and maybe even stand and defend such work at some point in the future. I want other programs and producers to learn from this example.

Since Monday, I have been in touch by phone, by e-mail, by Facebook messenger and by text both with playwrights as well as with staff and parents at Words Players. I have seen numerous public communications and had private ones shared with me, as well as some that were intended to be public but were excised from public forums. I am extremely dismayed by the extraordinary level of invective, attack and profanity that has been hurled in the direction of Minnesota, just as I was deeply troubled by the seeming intent and implications of the original submission request. But I‘m not calling anyone out, or even quoting anyone, because I’d like us all to move forward together.

I won’t share any specifics from my assorted personal conversations because none of them were on the record. While I am an advocate, not a journalist, I believe I can only advocate for change if people can trust that when they speak to me, they are not immediately speaking to anyone who follows me on social media or reads my blog. But just as I worried about the lessons that Words Players was teaching to the young people who participate in their program, I’m now worried about the lessons the creative community and its allies (in which I certainly include myself) have inadvertently taught them as well, even in service of a position I strongly support.

When I first began writing about incidents of censorship, which in those early days was solely in the academic sphere, I admit I allowed my outrage to boil over at times in print. It made for good reading, I suppose, and there’s something cathartic about writing that way. But I think if you were to read all that I’ve written on the subject of artists’ rights and censorship since 2011, you’ll find that I’ve tempered my tone, even in some of the most egregious cases – at least I hope I have. Mind you, my anger at certain people who tried to silence or shut down, or manipulate the text of, certain plays and musicals is ever-present.

Of course, I am not a teacher who has been overruled, reprimanded or fired for choosing to produce a play. I am not a playwright who has seen their work trivialized or vandalized by a theatre (or theatres) over the course of pursuing my career. I have not been invited into some of these debates, but rather inserted myself. I recognize that all too readily. But I have made my life in the theatre and I hope it’s apparent to anyone who knows or reads me that it’s my goal to perhaps in some way leave it a little better, a little stronger, than it was when I came into the field.

So I’m not about to tell anyone exactly what they should think or say, seven days into the contretemps over Words Players. But I hope that can I ask everyone involved that they consider the true goals here, which are – I believe – to insure that the words of playwrights, novice or veteran, are treated as central, essential and the absolute domain of each playwright, as well as to see the young people at Words Players and beyond have the best possible experience with theatre and the arts.

To quote Travis Bedard’s 2amtheater blog post from yesterday, “Northland Words Theatre isn’t the enemy, they are us. They are a scrappy theatre trying to make stuff they love on a wing and a prayer. They got something wrong. So we help them fix it and help them to understand why we’re so shocked at the call.”

I wish I’d said that when I first wrote about issue. I’m genuinely sorry that I didn’t. I didn’t realize that perhaps I had to. I’ll try to do better in the future.

So here’s what I believe: a script is not a mere starting point – it is the point. It provokes dialogue between creative artists as they build a production in service of that script, it creates dialogue between those artists and audiences.

There’s still more conversation to be had on this subject, with Words Players and with other companies too. I’ll have that conversation for as long as people are willing to talk about it with me. I’ll welcome every voice that wants to participate, in the hope of persuading people to share my perspective, which is consistent with that of the vast majority of the creative community.

Ultimately, everyone has the right to express themselves as they see fit. But I’d like to suggest that perhaps we can all have a better conversation.

Howard Sherman is director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at the New School for Drama.


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  • Heather Violanti

    Thank you so much for posting this call to better conversation about artist rights.

    • Tony

      Thank you, Howard. From the beginning I couldn’t help but feel this was a bit of overkill, not to mention social bullying. The theater’s guidelines were obviously offensive, no one argues that. But this wasn’t Lincoln Center. It wasn’t Goodspeed Opera. It was a tiny space in the Northwest most of us never heard of. I don’t have a problem with people bringing it to the public’s attention as you did worry about the kids who were working there and the naïve playwrights who might have submitted, but probably just bringing it to the Dramatists Guild’s attention might have achieved the same outcome without all the vitriol. At any rate, onward and upward.

  • Amy Stoller

    As someone who jumped on the outrage bandwagon, I am glad to have this chance to take a breath and do better myself. Thanks!

  • ughughughugh

    Well said. I posted in a similar vein, offering suggestion as to why this hit such a nerve, two days after this all went berserk: http://blog.donnahoke.com/are-we-afraid-to-demand-playwrightrespect/ and I’d also like to reiterate the post that came before the now viral DISSECTING post, because it was the precursor: http://blog.donnahoke.com/lack-of-playwright-appreciation-arrogance-or-ignorance/
    Awareness has been raised, and there are indeed better ways to move forward.

    • Jeannine Engle Buntrock

      While I believe Howard has behaved honourably throughout, I am not able to say the same of you, Ms Hoke, based on what I observed of you on the Official Playwrights and on our FB page. I believe that much of what was incited against us was done at your bidding and encouragement.

      • Jeanine: I’ve asked that we move forward together in a better tone. Donna has said that she agrees there are better ways to move forward, so can we agree to accept that, please, regardless of what’s come before? Let’s not start another cycle of accusation and blame.

        • Michele Nyman

          I would add to this that I’m grateful for calmer waters, and attempts to bring peaceful discussion. Thank you, Howard and Donna for helping us move in this direction.

        • Jeannine Engle Buntrock

          I need to heed my own advice – be patient and give the benefit of doubt – don’t I? 🙂

  • Jeannine Engle Buntrock

    Words Players parent, here. Thank you for this, Howard.

    When people shoot first and ask questions later, it is so hard for those who have already run in and thrust their swords to accept the answers, even when those answers are accompanied by apologies, clarifications and a situation owned by the appropriate parties. I saw that a lot on the Playwrights of FB page (I was drawn there because Words Players was often tagged), Those who had already piled on top of us were less apt to accept what we had to say. I think that was the most distressing part for me – because at that point. people were making a choice to disbelieve a group of people of whom they (and the other people venting with them) had no personal knowledge. It seemed they didn’t want to believe us as we explained or intent at that point (it was much more gratifying, I’d imagine, to believe that we were a detestable beast they were about to slay).

    I wonder if people would be more apt to accept a genuine apology and clarifications over intent if they have not already rushed in. In this day and age of social media, when an answer is not produced within minutes or an hour, it is considered delinquent. I understand that people are pretty jaded by feeling, from experience, that they are NEVER heard. But time needs to be permitted for the framing of a thoughtful response. Ganging up on someone and nailing their backs to the wall is sheer bullying. Social media is an excellent vehicle to get this kind of tsunami building – for better in some cases, and yet far too often, for worse.

    So anyway, definitely a good lesson for us all. THANK YOU for setting such a wonderful example. Thanks to you and some other playwrights with whom I have engaged, I will smile again (with respect, admiration and affection) as I always have when I consider about the playwright profession in general.

  • Jill Pearson

    Thank you for reaching out to both sides, publicly and privately, in an effort to understand the dynamic. You made me personally feel heard and respected. Now, I hope, we are on the SAME side, making good, collaborative art that honors everyone involved. -Jill, the theatre mom

  • Adam Zahler

    Words Players Theatre has responded to the Dramatist Guild.

  • Christine Evans

    Thanks for this, Howard. I think part of what happens here is the force-multiplier of social media–we start acting like a swarm rather than as individuals in dialogue.

    But I wonder too, if some of the invective and outrage is because Words Players are a small, easy target for a LOT of displaced and redirected bitterness and rage out there from playwrights- the kind tabulated in Outrageous Fortune where theaters generally are perceived as having locked the gate. These theaters are not the Words Players of the world, but the regionals who leave the “slush pile” to a 21 year old intern to read and reject, then add “submitting” playwrights to their mailing lists to solicit donations and promote their season.

    The relationship between playwrights and theaters is an open wound, not for everyone, but for many playwrights and would-be playwrights, and there is also a huge over-supply of writers to production opportunities. I think these conditions may have fed the flame that got turned on Word Players.

  • jeffreysweet

    What is needed: for playwrights to be regularly part of the administration of theatres. Mostly we come in, are given the desk of the person who happens to be on vacation at the moment, fed nicely, given a T-shirt and wished well after the opening. Very few writers have had the luxury I once had–to feel intimately involved in and responsible (with other artists) for a company. As long as theatre companies are organized around administrators rather than artists, these kind of misunderstandings will continue.

    • I would love to be that person, but are you hiring people to do your copywriting and social media marketing?

      • jeffreysweet

        I think most playwrights could handle copywriting and could take on some of the functions at a company. Maybe, if they felt they were resident artists and got salaries, they would be pleased to. I wouldn’t mind being connected in such a way with a company in the New York area.

        • Me either, which is a shame because I actually do have experience with web copywriting, and I have plays I want to write and produce.

  • John Bray

    Thank you for this post. Thank you.

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