Artistic Freedom and the College Theatre Director: Implications of the Playwright-Director Debate for University Theatres

J.K. Curry
Drama and Speech
Montana State University-Northern

The published text of Samuel Beckett's 1957 play Endgame begins with the following description of the setting: "Bare interior. Grey light. Left and right back, high up, two small windows, curtains drawn. Front right a door"(1). When noted experimental theatre director JoAnne Akalaitis prepared a production of Endgame at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1984 she gave the sparse setting a specific identity. In her production, the use of an abandoned subway car as a backdrop, indicated that the setting was a deserted subway station. However, Akalaitis was almost prevented from sharing her staging of the script with an audience. Beckett threatened an injunction to stop the production because of the departure from his stage directions. A last minute compromise allowed the play to be performed as planned at the A.R.T., but with a disclaimer from Beckett attached to the program (Lacayo). This incident is significant in pointing to ongoing questions concerning the limits of a writer's control over his or her work in performance and the extent to which directors are entitled to freedom of artistic expression. Ongoing discussions and legal tests of these issues promise to have an impact, not just on the professional theatre, but also on theatrical production at colleges and universities. In fact, the implications may be greater for theatre in the academy, where the ideal of freedom of artistic expression is often restricted in practice. It is, perhaps, useful to explain at this point that artistic expression has generally been afforded first amendment protection. The issue is a bit murky as courts have given greater protection for works of art that express political or social messages, rather than "art for art's sake." Also, as the courts have determined that obscenity does not merit first amendment protection, sexually explicit art works usually must demonstrate "serious artistic value" and also pass the test of "prevailing community standards" (Poch 42-43). College theatre professors are also protected by the principles of academic freedom, which involve a professor's right to teach, research, and publish in his or her area of competence without undue restriction. The American Association of University Professors' Statement of Academic Freedom and Artistic Expression, endorsed in 1990, emphasizes that faculty in the visual and performing arts are entitled to the same protections of academic freedom as other faculty (Strohm 13). Artistic expression needs protection within the university as it is vulnerable to suppression, the public nature of performance or display making it a target for attacks. The college theatre director's freedom of artistic expression clearly can be threatened by local censorship efforts, for example, when the performance of a play is challenged through reference to community standards. Perhaps it is not so obvious that the director will also face limits on artistic expression if playwrights continue to challenge and legally restrict the creative input of the director during the production of a play. In some ways, the work of the director of a college theatre production is parallel to that of a professor in the classroom. The director helps students learn about the theatre production process and about a particular play by interpreting the play in performance. The director's work also parallels that of a researcher, as the director tests ideas and interpretation of a play through rehearsal and performance. If the playwright is able to dictate every production element down to the smallest detail, the director's ability to function as a teacher and artist is severely restricted. There are two historical forces that bring the role of director and playwright into conflict at this time. The first is the emergence, primarily in the twentieth century, of the idea of the director as the artist of the theatre. Theorists, such as Edward Gordon Craig, advanced the notion that the artistry of a single strong vision provided by a director, unifying all production elements, would surpass the usual stagecraft of the nineteenth-century. In practice, the model of a director-led rehearsal and design process has become standard. In our time, when plays from many periods and places are revived and no single standard style exists, the director chooses from among many available options to coordinate the design and acting style. The director has traditionally been expected to respect the intentions of the playwright to the extent that they can be known, but has been given freedom to make many creative decisions about design, blocking, acting style, etc., especially in revivals of the plays, when the playwright is generally not present for any of the rehearsal process. Beyond the regular role of the director, another type of director has gained prominence in the late 20th century. This is the "auteur" director, whose role as author of the performance text often takes on greater importance than that of the author of the playscript. Directors in this category have usually built their reputations on radical reworkings of classic texts, such as Shakespearean works or grand operas. JoAnne Akalaitis is just such a director, making her name for vivid new concepts for plays such as John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore and Buchner's Wozzeck. Tellingly, she's rarely produced the work of a living playwright. As the creative freedom taken by auteur directors of classic texts has become more or less widely accepted, many such liberties have been applied to more recent dramas as well. The increased importance of the director, however, appears to be in conflict with newer legal rights of playwrights. Historically, playwrights had not enjoyed the legal rights, especially in the form of dramatic copyright, that they have in the late 20th century. Until the late 19th century, the usual practice for a playwright not otherwise attached to a theatre company was to make a one time sale of his or her play to a theatre manager or company. The playwright was often granted a benefit, generally the profits from the third performance of the work (Brockett 247). Sometimes, benefits were granted on every third night of consecutive performance--though such long runs were rare--but that was it. Any additional money earned by the drama enriched the company that performed the play. Sometimes a writer would also sell his or her play to a publisher for a one-time fee. Theatre companies, however, did their best to discourage publication of new plays in their repertoire. Publication made it too easy for other companies to get their hands on the plays and launch their own rival productions. A playwright's ability to earn money at the craft was also limited by lack of international regulation to prevent other writers from translating and adapting foreign plays and putting their own names on them. Specific copyright protection for performance rights of dramatic works were first made law in this country in 1856. A great deal of confusion surrounded this development and several legal contests arose (for example, actors attempted to copyright their stage performances) before the issue was sorted out. Dramatic copyright was the first step in guaranteeing that writers would continue to earn money from their work through the authorization of performances. International copyright conventions were established, beginning in 1886. Our current dramatic copyright law was more or less in place by 1909, with revision in 1976. Over time, with the strengthening of copyright, the authority of the script has grown absolute. While in an initial production (or series of productions leading to Broadway or other major venue) the playwright may be forced to make alterations at the insistence of the director, dramaturg, and especially the producer, the script is usually set by the time of publication. The process of granting performance rights for a published play, especially for amateur productions, has been standardized. Directors order the required number of copies of the script, pay royalties per performance, and are instructed that no changes may be made without the written consent of the playwright. In practice changes without permission are made all the time, usually minor adjustments, for example, when a character has a line about a blue sofa, but only a green sofa could be located for the production. Other adjustments might include changing references to current events, to an actor's physical characteristics, or to local references and jokes an audience in a different location would not understand. Legally, however, the playwright reserves the right to refuse any alterations. In fact, rights of playwrights appear to be increasing as writer's successfully sue to control items beyond the dialogue, such as setting or casting choices. An example is provided by Edward Albee, who successfully closed the Theatre Arlington production of his play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which cast the roles of two women and two heterosexual men with four gay men instead (Lacayo). While the all male production was clearly a departure from Albee's stated intentions, his fight to stop it not only interferes with the director's job of casting, but also opposes a long theatrical tradition of cross gender casting and a growing acceptance of non-traditional casting. After all, any director who casts a woman in a Shakespearean role is ignoring the "intentions" of the author and the original production circumstances that would have assigned a female role to a boy. Limiting casting choices to specified or assumed author's intentions would, of course, effectively end a tradition of women taking on the parts of male characters that ranges from a long list of well-known tragic actresses who attempted the role of Hamlet in the 19th century to the recent radical reworking of King Lear by the Mabou Mines company in which Ruth Maleczech played Lear as a southern matriarch (Smith 285). Playwright's limits on casting could also seriously undermine the move toward nontraditional casting which encourages directors and producers to avoid typecasting and to consider, for example, hiring actors of color for traditionally "white" roles. Writers' ability to selectively refuse to grant permission to perform their plays can have tremendous impact on the work of innovative or experimental directors and performers. Director Elizabeth LeCompte, head of the noted experimental theatre company, the Wooster Group, hit a roadblock to her theatre work when Arthur Miller refused to grant permission to use excerpts of his play The Crucible in their production entitled L.S.D ....Just the High Points (Savran). The working method of the Wooster Group is to build performances by juxtaposing found pieces of cultural material, including plays. Other Wooster Group pieces include excerpts from Thornton Wilder's Our Town, T.S. Elliot's The Cocktail Party, and Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape. LeCompte did not steal the material from Miller. She attempted to obtain permission and pay royalties, and even invited Miller to view L.S.D. in its initial public presentation. However, without permission from Miller the Wooster Group's piece could not be revived for public showing. The emerging struggle between playwrights and directors is over control of production elements and interpretation derived through performance. The protections of dramatic copyright, designed to insure that writers were compensated for the use of their work, are being stretched to cover all performance elements. While the desire of playwrights to control all aspects of every production and performance of their plays is an understandable impulse, it is, in fact, an impossible project. Producing a play is not like printing a new edition of a book. The nature of theatrical performance and the process of realizing a script on the stage do not lend themselves to exact duplication of a master performance text. While it is possible to train multiple replacement actors for a long-running Broadway show, and even to assemble several more or less identical touring companies of a big hit, it would be highly unusual for two directors working independently on productions of the same script to develop identical performance texts. As for college productions, even if a director wishes to imitate a Broadway or other "standard" production of a play, differences in available actors, size and shape of auditorium, stage size, available stage equipment, and budget will affect the ultimate appearance of the play in performance. Of course, simply giving a derivative performance is usually not the goal of directors, designers, and performers. A tremendous stifling of creativity would occur if only playwrights were allowed freedom of artistic expression. Even audiences would, undoubtedly, be bored with the result. In fact, the freedom exercised by most directors, and also by designers and performers, is within the bounds logically indicated by the play and demonstrates respect for the playwright's vision and work. And playwrights generally recognize that, when they are not directing their own work, decisions about staging are out of their hands. Most playwrights who responded to my recent Internet queries on this topic accepted the usual arrangement of relinquishing control of a play in the interests of performance (1). They reported experiences of watching productions of their works that they thought were just terrible, but also reported that some directors made choices they had not foreseen that worked well, even bringing out nuances in the plays that the writers themselves had not previously noticed. Playwrights should, of course, be allowed to direct their own works if they have the interest. Their own productions may have particular insights into the drama. They might participate in rehearsals for a premiere, work on revisions, work with directors on revivals of their work, even publish essays clarifying their intentions for their works. However, it is in the best interest of the theatre and artistic freedom if playwrights limit their interference with other people's stagings of their plays and do not excessively restrict other directors in pursuing their own interpretations and stagings of published play scripts. The fact is that after any production, the text remains. Whether the director made outlandish, ridiculous staging decisions, or tried to be absolutely faithful to the author's intentions but had only third rate actors available for the attempt, or if everything worked perfectly for a production that would delight the playwright, the ephemeral theatre event ends and the play on paper remains unchanged. For this reason, it is not appropriate for the playwright to unduly limit the artistic freedom of directors and other theatre artists. Of course, of more immediate concern for college theatre directors are local threats to artistic freedom in the form of direct attempts to block particular productions or more subtle pressure not to put a controversial play into their seasons in the first place. When play selection is limited or productions are threatened by protesters, artistic expression is restricted not only for the director, but also for the writer whose work is not seen and heard by members of a given community. The common interest of playwrights and directors becomes clear. In practice, in most university and other amateur settings it is the director on the front lines defending artistic freedom for both herself and the writer. Even in the professional theatre, directors, producers, and theatre companies find themselves in the position of needing to assert the writer's right to artistic expression. Just last month, in North Carolina, protesters attempted to close the Charlotte Repertory Theatre's production of Angels in America, the Pulitzer Prize winning play by Tony Kushner (Sack). Protesters attempted to have an actor arrested on a charge of indecent exposure because the play required him to appear nude for a few seconds as he played the part of an AIDS patient during a medical exam. The theatre's managing director, in refusing to alter the staging of the scene, made reference to their licensing agreement with the playwright. Kushner defended the scene, explaining that it was intended to show "how dehumanizing and humiliating that experience can be." Kushner explained that he expected individual directors to decide how to stage the scene (and presumably variables might include how close the actor was to the audience, how brightly the stage is lit, and whether the actor faces the audience), but he would not change the scene to a clothed scene in response to what he called "homophobic bigotry" (Drukman 47). The theatre was successful in obtaining an injunction that allowed the play to be performed as written and rehearsed. This is a good example of how the interest of writer and director can be united in protecting freedom of artistic expression. The arts tend to be an easy target for those who would restrict free speech. With plenty of outside forces eager to restrict artistic expression, it is in the long term interest of playwrights to support directors' freedom of artistic expression in performance and production. Furthermore, it is in the interest of any member of a college community interested in academic freedom to support freedom of expression in the vulnerable areas of the visual and performing arts.

Note (1) Queries on topics related to this paper were posted on the American Society for Theatre Research discussion list <>, the Association for Theatre in Higher Education discussion list <>, and the Women and Theatre discussion list <>.


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