By PAM HARBAUGH
You probably know those celebrated cases where theaters have changed a playwright’s script without permission. That’s a huge no-no and opens the door for a huge lawsuit, which is what happened to the Asolo Rep when its director took out chunks of Brian Friel’s “Philadelphia, Here I Come.” They got hit with a cease and desist order. (Click here to read Jay Handelman’s column in the Herald Tribune.)
There have been other cases, which all seemed to start piling onto one another.
But that’s just one shoe dropping. Another issue is gaining momentum — the copying of a designer’s work.
Most recently, Howard Sherman, a very VERY well respected name in American theater, wrote a blog about the issue. In it (click here), he criticizes a community theater for copying the production design created by a professional theater. Mr. Sherman, who is director of the new Arts Integrity Initiative at the New School for Drama, was executive director of the American Theatre Wing (read: The Tonys), therefore, yes, he has a lot of contacts.
The issue sounds like it began when Amanda Christine for OnStageBlog.com wrote about the similarities in her review. Enter social media, and before you could say “copyright infringement,” the production was halted.
The most celebrated case I can recall of a director suing a theater for using his work was nearly 20 years ago when Joe Montello filed a $250,000 lawsuit against the Caldwell Theatre in Boca Raton for using his blocking in a production of Terrence McNally’s “Love! Valour! Compassion!” Read Playbill’s story about it by click here. Yes, that was nearly 20 years ago, but with social media on everyone’s cell phone, it now would go viral in a heartbeat.
Look, there is nothing wrong with using other artists’ works, be they visual design, directing or choreography. Just get permission, pay a fee to the original artist and then credit them. It’s not only the right thing to do, but the sophisticated thing to do.
There is way too much direct lifting of scenic and costume design all around us. I’m not talking basic box sets with a couch and two chairs, or generic Victorian garb — I’m talking iconic designs where perhaps slight changes, or none at all, have been made to highly recognizable designs.
Take a look at Chris Peterson’s blog on OnstageBlog.com, click here, which has photos showing what seems to be — er, seems to have been — SOP (standard operating procedure) of a community theater copying work by a professional theater.
For sure, if playwright David Mamet states in his play “Race” that it is to be done on a highly raked floor, then, yes, you can design a highly raked floor. But if that deck was an iconic element only to Santo Loquasto’s original design for the Broadway production, then, no you cannot use it unless you credit him and pay him for use of his intellectual property.
If you’re producing “Cinderella,” and any version at that, and use that bit of fabulous magic spun by costume designer William Ivey Long, then…yeah…you must credit him and…yeah…you’ll probably have to pay him.
Of course, all this hinges on getting permission. But do it you must. Besides, it makes for better artists.