Dramatists Guild President Doug Wright Releases Statement Regarding Recent Casting Controversies
In response to recent controversies regarding the casting of a white actor as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a Kent State University Production of Katori Hall's THE MOUNTAINTOP, the casting of white actors as Indian characters in Clarion University's now-cancelled production of Lloyd Suh's JESUS IN INDIA and a 2011 case where TheaterWorks in Hartford, CT. cast white actors as Puerto Ricans in Stephen Adly Guirgis' THE MOTHERFUCKER WITH THE HAT, Dramatist Guild of America President Doug Wright has released the following statement:
November 18, 2015
Recently, issues of casting and race have arisen in our national conversation about theater. While the Dramatists Guild applauds these necessary, rigorous and heartfelt conversations, it seems to us that there is a simpler principle at stake here: the right of authors to safeguard their work.
Playwrights own our material. We are protected by copyright; in fact, we have sacrificed a great deal for the privilege of authorial ownership, most notably the right to unionize. We have foregone equitable compensation, health and pension benefits, and the right to collectively bargain. But in doing so, we have retained the hard-won right to protect the integrity of our work. This includes approval of all creative elements, including the cast.
Play licenses clearly state that "no changes to the play, including text, title and stage directions are permitted without the approval of the author" or words to that effect. Casting is an implicit part of the stage directions; to pretend otherwise is disingenuous.
Directors who wish to dramatically reimagine material can choose from work in the public domain. But when a play is still under copyright, directors must seek permission if they are going to make changes to the play, including casting a character outside his or her obvious race, gender or implicit characteristics. To do so without meaningful consultation with the writer is both a moral and a legal breach. Most writers welcome these conversations, because they further the spirit of collaboration, illuminate or clarify the author's intent, and prevent unfortunate situations like the recent occurrences at Clarion University, Kent State University and the Hartford-based company TheaterWorks.
One may agree or disagree with the views of a particular writer, but not with his or her autonomy over the play. Nor should writers be vilified or demonized for exercising it. This is entirely within well-established theatrical tradition; what's more, it is what the law requires and basic professional courtesy demands.
The Dramatists Guild of America
The Dramatists Guild of America was established over eighty years ago, and is the only professional association which advances the interests of playwrights, composers, lyricists and librettists writing for the living stage. The Guild has over 6,000 members nationwide, from beginning writers to the most prominent authors represented on Broadway, Off-Broadway and in regional theaters.
The Guild is governed by a Council elected from its membership, and which currently includes such writers as Stephen Sondheim (West Side Story, Gypsy, Into the Woods), Edward Albee (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, A Delicate Balance), Marsha Norman ('night, mother), Tony Kushner (Angels In America), John Patrick Shanley (Doubt), John Guare (Six Degrees of Separation), Lynn Nottage (Intimate Apparel) and Rebecca Gilman (Spinning Into Butter). The current president of the Guild is Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Pippin, Godspell). Past presidents have included Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, Moss Hart, Alan Jay Lerner, Robert Sherwood, Robert Anderson, Frank Gilroy, and Peter Stone. Past Guild members have included Eugene O'Neill, George S. Kaufman, Arthur Miller, Lillian Hellman, Frank Loesser, Frederick Loewe, and Tennessee Williams.
The Dramatists Guild of America was established for the purpose of aiding dramatists in protecting both the artistic and economic integrity of their work. The Guild believes that a vibrant, vital and provocative theater is an essential element of the ongoing cultural debate which informs the citizens of a free society. The Guild believes that if such a theater is to survive, the unique, idiosyncratic voices of both men and women who write for it must be cultivated and protected.
Doug Wright is the author of the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning I AM MY OWN WIFE. His plays include QUILLS, DINOSAURS and the books for the musicals GREY GARDENS and HANDS ON A HARDBODY.