All Artists Matter

You may have heard or read about the brouhaha that’s arisen around a small, amateur theatre group down in Rochester (MN) that put out a call for play submissions for their short play festival. The posting (you can read it here) indicated clearly that they are an amateur group, with youth performers, limited budget requiring little or no set, and with no monetary compensation. They emphasized that their aim was, in part, “to give writers and [the amateur] directors first-hand experience of the vagaries of ‘marketability’ as much as the more arcane goals of ‘art.’” and they “will strive to make each play both understandable and interesting to [their] audiences.”

I find nothing disturbing about this premise (other than the bar may not be very hight) and, in fact, am heartened to see an organization (in a place not known for its arts, but instead its sciences) to be working with young people on a creative endeavor. Working with youth in a manner such as this can be rewarding and productive and a great development tool for the kids on many levels.

But…the professional responses and criticisms of this posting (which has been blogged about most prominently here) are right to be bothered.

What’s wrong with Words Players Theatre’s approach is that it’s disrespectful and dismissive of the writer’s work, and is about as far from a lesson in the creation of theatre or in directing (or acting for that matter) as one can get.

Take for instance these portions of the post:

“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.” This makes a little sense, and is generally a fair description of the way a play’s production sometimes works. But it’s immediately followed by this statement:

“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.”

Um…I’m sorry…you’re going to rewrite the play to fit not only your ideas (“visions”) but also the resources at your disposal (“production situation”)  and then decide how to alter it to make it “entertaining”?! That’s not a director’s job. The great challenge in directing is finding the truths and core of script and its story, and finding ways to bring that to light through the production for the benefit of an audience. The great challenge—and reward—of making theatre is the collaboration!

Another portion of the call for scripts reads:

“We largely ignore considerations of age, race and gender in our casting decisions.” Well…ok…fair enough, I guess, given you’re a youth group. Plus, color-blind and gender-blind casting are often done, without detriment to the script or production. But you follow it up with,  “We may modify scripts, as necessary, in light of this consideration.” What’s this word you use, “modify”? Are you altering all characters to be between ages 12 and 17?

And their name is Words Players Theatre….oh, I’m not even going to touch that one.

Now some, with an eye toward leniency, have defended the actions of the “Words” Players Theatre, and offers the viewpoint that there’s a difference between a professional production or company and the work of this youth-oriented, education, workshop, production. I think that’s a fair assessment—yes there’s an important difference and there perhaps should be different standards— but this leaves out the education part as it relates to working with writers, or respecting the work of others, or of collaboration. So, I guess, perhaps not a fair assessment after all.

This “Words” Players’ posting eventually caught the attention of the Dramatist Guild, whose president, Doug Wright, wrote a sharply worded, public letter.  The leader of the theatre, Daved Driscoll, responded in a lengthy diatribe, attempting to defend himself and his organization’s intent.  He explained in great detail the route they’ve traveled to get to this point, how it’s primarily an educational endeavor, and that’s it’s developed organically from when the kids wrote the plays too, and worked with kid directors, etc., in putting on these small productions.

That sounds great! It’s collaborative and the writer is directly involved. Why not do that some more? If you’d kept to that format, no one would raise an eyebrow.

Of course, in the letter I’m a bit put off by the tone of  “gee, we’re just a little group down here where we weren’t trying to hurt anyone and we’re being honest about it all” attitude, until by around page 4 or 5 when he moves on to truly defending his guidelines.

And truthfully—he has a point in his defense. He lays out in the submission guidelines the expectations with transparency, and makes the point that if a writer were to submit something having read the guidelines there’s an implicit agreement to those guidelines.

The fact that the guidelines are ridiculous and insulting to writers is beside the point, to him anyway.

Near the end of the letter to Wright, Driscoll states,  “I will assure you, beyond the slightest fear of contradiction, that ten minutes conversation with any of the young people under my tutelage would demonstrate to you their profound respect, their deep abiding reverence for texts, for words, for the process of creating new art and for those who do so.”

The fact that the experience these young people likely have had would’ve included ignoring elements of the scripts, changing dialogue, and rewriting a playwright’s story, leads me to believe that the respect for words which they may demonstrate, if in fact they’ve developed any at all, would be due to a misdirected reverence for their own creativity. It would certainly not be reverence for writers, or for the collaborative and unique endeavor of making theatre.

But Mr. Driscoll, I’ll give you that last phrase about their reverence for “creating new art” since that’s just what they might be doing—even if on the backs of another writer.

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