There's a great, intense, and spirited conversation online about a production of Brian Friel's Philadelphia, Here I Come! at Asolo Repertory Theatre. A small quote from an article to give the context:
But the creative process apparently went too far for 85-year-old Irish playwright Brian Friel, who has put a stop to the the theater’s production of his 1964 play “Philadelphia, Here I Come.”
Here's the link to the full article that is well worth a read.
Howard Sherman wrote a response entitled, "Who Thinks It’s OK To ‘Improve’ Playwrights’ Work?" Most of Sherman's argument focuses on copyright and the legality of Galati's decisions and actions:
"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."
Alexander Offord wrote a wonderful response called "We do not owe fealty to a playwright’s wishes (a response to Howard Sherman), which goes from copyright into the moral/ethical decision of making changes to texts and has links to some very interesting productions that have come from staging plays in different locations and making other various changes. Here are some of Offord's thoughts:
Of course, Sherman is 100% correct in his main contention – the Asolo Rep was in breach of their licensing contracts, & legally in the wrong. But to conclude therefore that the company was acting bad faith I think belies a bias that might have a little more to do with Sherman’s affiliation with Samuel French, Inc. than perhaps he is willing to admit. I can’t help but feel that his probity is better directed at the imperious dominion of copyright & estate law than at artists who, after all, are only trying to take some initiative & put on interesting productions. Since Sherman himself doesn’t quite make clear whether what irks him so much is this breach of law or some kind of moral transgression against a playwright’s wishes, I just want to make sure that you, my readers, understand that I am arguing against the latter, which may or may not be Mr. Sherman’s position (I don’t know him, so I can’t tell). On the legal point, Sherman is correct; but that’s a matter of quantity, not quality.
Please read the entire articles to get the full arguments from both Sherman and Offord; they are well worth the time.
Part of Offord's argument is that theatre is a collaborative medium and takes issue with Sherman's contention that "theatre is first and foremost an author’s medium." As a director and a playwright, (mostly playwright) I wanted to jump into the conversation. I posted a link to Offord's response to join the conversation on Twitter and wrote: "You can't call it 'collaboration' if the writer isn't involved in edits." Twitter, unfortunately, makes everything sound glib, so I wanted to expand my thoughts about the situation, particularly about making unapproved changes to a script as a director. To be fair, I'll throw myself under the bus and not implicate anyone else.
When I was getting my BA in directing (late 90's), I had a professor (who long retired) who would add and subtract to every play he directed. He always saw it as improving, and I "learned" that that's what a director did: if you have a better choice, then you make it. When I directed Peter Shaffer's Black Comedy, I was working with some great actors during a limited rehearsal period. Black Comedy takes place in London in the 60's. Because of the shortened rehearsal time, we wouldn't have time to get accents right. I didn't want bad accents to distract from the comedy of Shaffer's play, so I moved the play to NYC in the present. I changed British idioms to American ones, which actually wasn't very much. Did I damage the play! I don't believe I did. Did I lose track of Shaffer's intentions for the play? Again, I would say No. If I had been producing the play professionally and not merely as a directing project for school, would I have changed the play? No.
Now, let's say that it's the future: 2114 and I want to do a production of Black Comedy, but I want to set it in New New York in the present? Peter Shaffer would be long gone. I would have two choices: change the play (with no qualms) or write my own complete adaptation. Shakespeare and even the Greeks before him all riffed on works that came before. Adaptation is one thing (I love adaptations; I write adaptations), but that's not what this is about. It's about taking a finished work; making edits, additions, and various changes without the permission of the writer; and still calling it the writer's work. When I changed Black Comedy, we still put ."Black Comedy by Peter Shaffer" on the poster and the program. We said that what the audience was going to see was Peter Shaffer's work, but was it really? How much can you change a work before it no longer becomes the writer's intended play anymore?
I do believe in the collaborative nature of theatre, otherwise I wouldn't direct or even write for that matter, so I'm not going to call the theatre an "author's medium," but the author is a pretty important collaborator. Speaking now as Chris Leyva, playwright, I want to collaborate with people. I love rehearsal rooms, I love directors. I have a play that will have a staged reading this summer, and I fully intend to make changes to the play as I hear it being interpreted. If God is kind and I get a full production of the play somewhere, I would also fully intend to make changes in that situation as well. But if someone has an idea for a change that I don't want to make, as in any collaboration, the answer to a suggestion can be "No." That's all that Friel said. "No." Does that kill the collaborative nature of theatre? Does that mean that Galati’s artistic agency was taken away? No. We can cite copyright, we can cite ethics of authorship and argue "whose play is it really," but if we make this simply a discussion about collaboration, then Friel's "No" isn't out of line. I've said "No" before, my collaborators have said "No;" let's just respect the "No" from a collaborator. When the time comes for me to leave this grand, blue dot, you have the right to assume the answer to any question you ask about changes to one of my plays is "Yes." Until then, ask me. The answer might be "Yes," it might be "No," but that's how things work in a collaborative relationship. And if the answer is "No," respect my No and don't judge me too harshly.