Dramatists Guild Exec Pens Open Letter Following Article on Shelton Theater 'JUDAS' Controversy

Dramatists Guild Exec Pens Open Letter Following Article on Shelton Theater 'JUDAS' ControversyDramatists Guild's Executive Director of Business Affairs Ralph Sevush just sent an open letter to KQED Arts and John Wilkins after the publication of an article on the recent controversy surrounding San Francisco's Shelton Theater.

The incident under debate involved Shelton cutting part of Stephen Adly Guirgis's THE LAST DAYS OF JUDAS ISCARIOT without the dramatist's permission and eventually being shut down.

Read more about the Shelton production here, and read Sevush's statement in full below:

On August 9, you published John Wilkins' article, "Shelton Theater Dust-Up is Minor, But The Conflict it Reveals is Not." In response, I offer this open letter to Mr. Wilkins:

Hi John,

Your article claims that the controversy reveals assumptions about how we view theater, and I couldn't agree more. So, let's look at your assumptions.

You dismiss the distinction between works in the public domain and those still owned by their authors as a mere "legal technicality." That's like saying, "aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?" Because, no, the distinction is not just a technicality... it's the entire basis for any system that imbues authors with the right to control their work for a limited time. Our Constitution, and the laws enacted to serve it, have created a copyright system in order to provide an incentive for the creation of new works so that, when their copyrights expire, such creative works will become the property of the people... i.e., the public domain.

That is the social contract (not just the legal one) that society has chosen to make with its artists. Artists control their work for a limited, finite period of time so they can benefit from it (economically, artistically, spiritually), and then everybody gets to have it, no strings attached, for the rest of eternity. You call this deal a "dubious one" because it doesn't give everybody free reign to do with a play whatever they want, whenever they want to, without any obligation to ask the author first. But all you are doing is prioritizing the vision of a theater company over that of the author... how is that less dubious?

Theater artists are entitled to be part of labor unions that provide them with collective bargaining and its perks (health insurance, pension and welfare benefits, increasing levels of compensation, etc.) -- directors, choreographers, designers, actors, musicians -- the backstage crews, the front of house staff, the ushers, the janitors -- everybody. Everybody, except the author. The author has no union, no collective bargaining, no health insurance, no vacation pay or 401K. And, unlike the theater companies, writers have to pay taxes...taxes that go to subsidize non-profits like Shelton. Sometimes, in fact, a playwright's business expense deductions are disallowed because the IRS occasionally decides that a working professional playwright is just a "hobbyist." At the end of the day, all playwrights have are their names on the plays that they own and control, and even then only for a while. And now you advocate that they shouldn't even have that.

You claim it's only in "more recent playwriting history" that authors have gained "inordinate" control of their work. But the Statute of Anne was passed by the British parliament in 1710, so your definition of "recent" is not credible. And your notion that the copyright laws since then are giving authors "inordinate control" is a description that assumes the truth of its own conclusion. Who says their control is "inordinate"? Yes, I know... you do. That doesn't make it so. Perhaps it's entirely "ordinate," and necessary, in order to allow creators whatever meager benefits they can squeeze out of their work, in a society that otherwise doesn't offer them anything.

Your suggestion that plays be treated like songs and operate under a "compulsory licensing" system ignores some basic distinctions. First of all, you assume songwriters are happy with the compulsory licensing system or that it serves us well. But that system was put in place in 1909 to prevent the emergence of a monopoly in licensing songs to the player-piano business. It had nothing to do with what the authors wanted, and there are many who think it's a system that has long outlived its purpose. And if you ever listened to the Pat Boone covers of 50s R & B songs, or, in fact, any of the music from that period in the early 60s, when mediocre, squeaky-clean white pop singers covered the work of great black artists because radio stations wouldn't play "race music," one could certainly muse about how that time of racism and cultural appropriation might have been different if the songwriters could have prohibited such bastardizations of their work...and don't get me started on how much better elevator music would be if there had never been "Muzak."

But the most important distinction between plays and musical recordings is that, unlike songs, the author's definitive production of a play does not have permanent fixation. Songs are recorded and can be heard forever after, even when there are later versions available. But the performance of a play is ephemeral, by definition. A writer can't point to her shelf, or to an Amazon link, to find the definitive version of her play. All she has is a script and the prerogative to require future productions present it as she wrote it, as well as the prerogative to allow infinite experimentation. All she requires is that you ask first. Why is that such a difficult thing to do? Because sometimes the answer is no, and you just don't want to hear that.

You describe all the wonderful ways theater companies have, or might have, reinterpreted the work of Arthur Miller, Albee and Guirgis, and have decided they are necessary to "loosen things up." And that "fidelity is a wan virtue." Again, you offer assumptions and opinions dressed up as facts. Regardless of your metaphysical views on the nature of fidelity, the fact is that many authors do agree that their work should be freely reinterpreted and they give theaters great latitude in revising their work. I've seen recent productions of Mr. Miller's plays on Broadway that would probably set Arthur's hair on fire, but the estate does give latitude to new interpretations. On the other hand, some authors and estates do not. Are they wrong for keeping their works "musty"? Perhaps, but they are allowed to be "wrong and foolish"... or is that a right you only reserve to producers and directors? In any event, authors do not get to hold the reigns tightly forever... just ask Bill Shakespeare.

Mr. Wilkins, you have thousands of years of dramatic works in the public domain to do with what you will; have at it. All dramatists want is for you to respect the little sliver of work still under copyright and ask them before you decide to change their plays into something to which they object. Or at least pay their health insurance when you do that to them. And give them a pension. And higher royalties. And vacation time, don't forget vacation time. Or better yet, write your own damn play. It'll say just what you want it to, and I'll defend your right to insist that it continue to do so, for your lifetime plus seventy years.

Sincerely,

Ralph Sevush

Executive Director of Business Affairs

The Dramatists Guild of America

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