Black Magic Crosses Directing & Design Line in Connecticut

December 9th, 2015 § 8 comments

There’s been a great deal of discussion in the past couple of months about the rights of playwrights, the legal protections of copyright and licensing agreements, the prerogative of directors to freshly interpret a writer’s work and so on. But none of this should suggest that writers are the only theatre artists whose work is to be respected and protected. This holds true, variously on legal and ethical grounds, for all creative artists in theatre.

Bell Book & Candle at TheatreWorks New Milford

The cast of Bell Book & Candle at TheatreWorks New Milford (Photo by Richard Pettibone)

This is brought to the fore currently by a production of John van Druten’s supernatural comedy Bell, Book and Candle at the company TheatreWorks in New Milford, Connecticut, running into January. Theatreworks is a non-Equity company that pays its actors a stipend for appearing in productions; whether they are a community theatre, semi-professional or professional non-Equity is subject that could be debated, but that’s not where my focus is fixed.

Instead, I’m looking at photos of Bell, Book and Candle, and though I haven’t seen the production at TheatreWorks, the photos seem strangely familiar. Why? Because the set appears to be a fairly slavish recreation of a production of Bell Book and Candle that was co-produced by Long Wharf Theatre and Hartford Stage three years ago. That production was directed by Darko Tresnjak and designed by Alexander Dodge. Incidentally, it is 30 miles from New Milford to Long Wharf, and 40 miles from New Milford to Hartford Stage.

Mate MacCluggage in Bell, Book and Candle at Long Wharf Theatre (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Kate MacCluggage in Bell, Book and Candle at Long Wharf Theatre (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

The similarities are striking, and having discovered that I’m connected to many of the creative team and cast of the Long Wharf/Hartford Stage production on Facebook, I can say that they think so too. Indeed, while I don’t think it’s appropriate to publish people’s Facebook posts when I can’t be sure what’s private and what’s public, I will quote simply the first word of Tresnjak’s initial post on this subject: “Grrrrrr.”

There is no copyright protection for the work of directors (though the ethics of replication should be taken into account by all theatre artists), but designs can be copyrighted, and so the appropriation of Dodge’s work (created in collaboration with Tresnjak for his production) by TheatreWorks director and designer Joseph Russo without permission has crossed a line. While the costumes in the New Milford production are reminiscent of those designed by Fabio Toblini for the prior Connecticut production, they are not replicas. Anyone undertaking a Google search will also discover another set of similar photos from a Bell, Book and Candle at The Old Globe in San Diego in 2007, but that’s understandable: it was also directed by Tresnjak and designed by Dodge.

It is incumbent upon directors to produce a script according to the approved version by the playwright, yet it is also incumbent upon them to create their production anew, through their own conception, their cast and their design, to name but a few key elements. Now to be fair, there’s a blurry line when it comes to iconic shows, often musicals. Productions of A Chorus Line rarely stray far from the original, particularly Theoni V. Aldredge’s costumes, and as an avowed Sweeney Todd fan, every production I saw for years was in some way an homage to the Hal Prince directed original, and to Eugene Lee’s scenic design, until John Doyle broke the mold with his Watermill production that eventually came to Broadway.

But unless both Joe Russo and Alexander Dodge either have vivid personal memories of the original 1950 Broadway production of BB&C and/or they both lifted their ideas from photos of George Jenkins’s original Broadway designs (which likely were only photographed in black and white), it’s pretty safe to say that Russo took “his” design ideas from Dodge, without permission. That’s not an homage, that’s copying.

Given the online conversation over the past 11 hours, word of concern has reached Joseph Russo and Theatreworks. At 10:30 this morning, the following was posted to Theatreworks’ public Facebook page:

Dear friends of TheatreWorks: we’ve been receiving several comments on Facebook and in a recent review by OnStage Critics Circle, that our production design for “Bell, Book & Candle” was inspired by The Hartford Stage production of 2012. This is correct, and the oversight to credit director Darko Tresnjak and designer Alexander Dodge occurred in our rush to open the show last weekend. We are crediting both Mr. Dodge and Mr. Tresnjak in our program, on our website, and any other communications involving the production. We thank you for your kind attention to this, and we apologize for any misunderstanding. What’s more, we appreciate you raising this issue with us and for supporting TheatreWorks New Milford.

This statement misses the point entirely. It’s not that Tresnjak and Dodge should have been credited – their work should never have been taken in the first place. That Russo acknowledges the debt his production owes to the Long Wharf/Hartford Stage original confirms exactly how he came by his directorial and design concept, but his statement neither excuses or resolves the issue. I suspect unions have already been contacted by the artists involved in the source production.

Chronicling this incident is not meant to demonize TheatreWorks, who are at least in the process of owning up to what they’ve done. They still must go farther than their statement, which glosses over the issue and ignores the essential problem. How Tresnjak and Dodge choose to settle this issue remains to be seen, and they deserve satisfaction for any claims that may be forthcoming; that their original work was done at major theatres, and the copying was at a small one, should be irrelevant to the conversation. TheatreWorks has hopefully learned an important lesson, and through them, perhaps others will as well.

This does provide an excellent example about respect for every creative element in every production, and while examples don’t often come to light, there has been litigation over the appropriation of key elements from Urinetown (the original Broadway production) by another company, to name a prominent precedent, demonstrating that this practice is not confined to small, quasi-professional companies, but to professional productions as well.

To those who have expressed to me in recent weeks their concern that in directing productions they don’t want to be hamstrung by excessive faithfulness to published scripts, and therefore original productions, this is a perfect example of why doing so isn’t in anyone’s best interests. Respecting an author’s intent is not the same as creating a Xerox copy – or a 19th generation copy – of the original or another notable production. It’s about how does every director and their team at every level – academic, amateur and professional – imagine a play anew without subverting the playwright’s wishes (unless permission is granted to do so), making their own discoveries along the way.

TheatreWorks Facebook postUpdate, December 9, 2:30 pm: The Facebook post from TheatreWorks referred to above was online as of 11:30 am as this post was being prepared, but was subsequently removed. However, the same post still appears, for the time being, in the comments section of a review of the production on the Facebook page of the online On Stage magazine.

Update, December 9, 8 pm: Earlier today, several hours after this piece was first posted, I spoke briefly with Darko Tresnjak, who I know casually. He spoke of being “freaked out” at discovering the remarkable similarities between his production of Bell, Book and Candle and the nearby production in New Milford. Tresnjak noted that it had come on the heels of discovering that a Swedish production of A Gentleman’s Guide To Love And Murder (Tresnjak won a Tony for directing the Broadway production) had copied Linda Cho’s costume designs, noting they replicated specifics which were in no way indicated in the text and must have been gleaned from photos and videos online. He also described to me particular choices he had made with his designers on BB&C, which were quite distinct from the show’s original Broadway production and in no way indicated in the printed script.

“I don’t want to be petty, but I’m upset,” said Tresnjak. He said he was speaking out because, “It’s just not right. If you let it happen, it will happen.”

Update, December 10, 9 am: TheatreWorks has canceled performances of Bell, Book and Candle until further notice. It was announced on their Facebook page at midnight.

TheatreWorks Facebook notice

Update, December 17, 4 pm: Bell, Book and Candle is now scheduled to resume performance tomorrow night at TheatreWorks, according to the following letter which appears on the company’s website:

Dear Patrons and Friends of TheatreWorks,

We want to express our sincere apologies for the cancellation of some of the performances of Bell, Book & Candle.

As most of you know, TheatreWorks New Milford is almost 50 years old. We are a small, not-for-profit, non-professional theatre and our mission is not to make a profit, but to provide a service to the community of New Milford and surrounding areas. Our Board of Directors are all volunteers. We therefore must place a good deal of trust in our directors and designers to provide the best possible productions.

Joseph Russo, the director of this production, has directed a number of productions at TheatreWorks in recent years. He indicated that he saw the production of Bell, Book & Candle at Hartford Stage in 2012, which inspired him to stage it at TheatreWorks.

In his zeal to mount this production, Joe designed and built a set which contained major elements that were extremely similar to those used at Long Wharf/Hartford Stage. He was unaware that these actions constituted an infringement. Those of us at TheatreWorks who are responsible for the artistic decisions were unaware of these similarities until we received notification from Long Wharf Theatre and Hartford Stage.

The Board of Directors of TheatreWorks takes full responsibility for this oversight, and we have taken the following actions:

1) Our production has been completely re-staged and re-designed, under the direction of actor/director Matt Austin and will reopen on Friday, December 18th for an 8PM performance.
2) Mr. Russo has voluntarily resigned from the Board, and has sent an apology to Hartford Stage, Long Wharf Theatre, Alexander Dodge and Darko Tresnjak, the latter two being the respective designer and director of The Hartford Stage/Long Wharf production of Bell, Book & Candle.
3) TheatreWorks has also personally apologized to all of the aforementioned injured parties.
4) We are putting in place a new policy to review all of the design elements and staging of every future production before the production begins rehearsals.

The Board would like to extend a special thanks to our cast of Bell, Book & Candle, who were integral in the re-mounting of this production. In addition, we would like to thank Mr. Dodge, Mr. Tresnjak, Michael Stotts, General Manager of Hartford Stage, and Joshua Borenstein, General Manager of Long Wharf Theatre for their graciousness, understanding and forgiveness throughout this situation.

Again, we are very sorry for this incident. It has been a hard lesson for us, yet we are very grateful for having learned it. We are also grateful for all of your patience, support and kindness throughout.

Thank you again, and we hope you can join us as we re-open Bell, Book & Candle on December 18th as a humbler and wiser organization.

The Board of Directors of TheatreWorks New Milford

Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified the designer of the original production of Sweeney Todd. It now appears correctly in the text.

Howard Sherman is director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at The New School College of Performing Arts.


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  • Noodle94

    While you may be right that there are no legal protections for the work of directors, I seem to remember that the SDC got some financial remuneration for Joe Mantello when a Florida theatre stole his work in “Love! Valor! Compassion!”…

  • Bethany Ford

    Eugene Lee was the scenic designer for Hal Prince’s production of Sweeney Todd.

    • You are absolutely right and I’ve corrected the post. In my haste to write, I mixed up two of the key figures from the early years of Trinity Rep, Adrian Hall and Eugene Lee. Thanks for setting me right.

  • Travis George

    to be fair it’s a pretty abysmal copy,isn’t that it’s own kind of punishment.
    “There is nothing more dreadful than imagination without taste.”
    Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

    hell they didn’t even have the imagination part down.

  • Adam Zahler

    This presents an interesting test of intellectual property rights. While it may be true that there is no copyright available for a director’s work, there is ample legal precedent. SDC has successfully sued for infringement on behalf of directors. (There were two suits of productions of Urinetown, for instance.) Whether this extends to design, I’m not sure. I don’t know if United Theatre Arts has established precedent here or not. Where is that particular line when it comes to directors? Certainly, if a director copies staging of another along with design, the infringement has occurred. Was that the case here? What Tresnjak and his team want to do, of course, is up to them.

  • JulsTheYank

    This isn’t the first time I’ve seen direct lifts from the Hartford Stage. I attended a performance of THE LEARNED LADIES at Shakespeare Theater of NJ and my jaw hit the ground when I saw the set. Then, once the actors appeared in costume I was squirming in my seat. Other than a change in color and time period, it was a direct rip off of the set and costumes from THE TEMPEST at Hartford Stage. I wondered if anyone else had made the connection! You’d think it would be an embarrassment to these companies to not have an imagination of their own.

  • Richard Finkelstein

    It is simply not true that the Director’s work is not copyrightable. While indeed a “concept” is not copyrightable, the blocking IS not just copyrightable, but is deemed copyrighted from the moment of creation. (though punitive judgements would require formal registration which is possible). This traces back to the first copyright of choreographic movement issued to Hanya Holm for her dances in Kiss me Kate (Ann Hutchinson was the notator of the movement). The stage design is not directly copyrightable and neither is the costume design as these have utilitarian function. Clothing and architecture fit this category. HOWEVER the DRAWINGS of both the set as well as costumes ARE copyrightable and some very high profile shows and architecture too go the route of trademark protection. The design area that shows the biggest theft callousness is in the arena of Sound Design where rationalizations abound. NO, a blanket ASCAP license at schools and studios does NOT apply to music used in shows. Some claim that precook postshow and intermission music could be under ASCAP but the court fees for a test could be costly. You CAN however now sing Happy Birthday on stage without worry! Yippee!

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