Unkind Cuts

Schere_Gr_99In December of last year I learned, via an important article in Howard Sherman’s invaluable blog, about a production of Jonathan Larson’s Rent at East Tennessee State University (ETSU).  Its opening had been delayed by Music Theatre International (MTI, the licensing agent for the amateur performance rights to the show), which objected to the cutting of some scenes.  The director, Patrick Cronin, had excised the scenes because he thought his cast was too small to make the stage look “interesting,” according to an article by Heath Owens in the school newspaper, The East Tennessean.  It stated that “Cronin apologized for the mistake” and he and his company quickly restored the scenes, but it seems that the director may have been surprised by MTI’s intervention, because he noted that “I have directed hundreds of shows, and made many cuts before.”

Legally the case is unambiguous: ETSU had a contract with MTI that specified that the script must be performed as written, which is the standard arrangement.  Theatrically it’s also an especially egregious violation; it’s unusual, I think–I hope!–for any director to cut an entire scene, let alone multiple scenes, without permission.  And whether we’re talking about a scene or a sentence, it’s the principle of the thing: writers (and their heirs) own their work and deserve our respect and deference when it comes to their plays

Still, when I read Prof. Cronin’s response (“I have…made many cuts before”), I had to think, with a cringe, “Me too.”  Perhaps part of the problem is that I’ve directed quite a bit of classical theatre.  I’ve actually boasted about how much of a Shakespeare play I had cut while keeping the storyline and tone and much of the glorious detail intact.  There seems to be a different standard for Shakespeare.  I have relatively little experience with new-play development and, although at least two of my closest friends (as well as my co-author, the late Louis E. Catron) are playwrights, I have worked closely in production with only one living playwright (that would be another close friend, the wonderful Barbara Lebow).  Whether it’s the result of a blind spot or my personal hubris or my sense of what was routine and widely accepted practice earlier in my career, I have to admit that I, too, have made cuts in plays that I was directing.

I was interested to learn a little more about Prof. Cronin.  He is a full professor of theatre at ETSU as well as a deeply experienced professional character actor (readers of a certain age may remember him, as I do, as Syd Farkus, the “bra guy” on television’s Seinfeld).  I take him at his word that he is also a seasoned director, and I suspect that his experience has mirrored mine in working with many directors that made cuts, always in pursuit of the best possible production (according to the director’s taste and judgement), and emulating that behavior in his own work as a director.  He doesn’t seem to be simply a dilettante that’s spent his career isolated at a little school in the middle of nowhere; I’m guessing that he was doing what he thought was not only routine but right, based on quite a bit of experience.

I don’t mean to defend Prof. Cronin’s decision, or my own past choices to make cuts.  I just think that times have changed–for the better.  It’s easier than ever for playwrights and their representatives to know what’s going on with their work and for directors to contact playwrights with ideas and requests for permission.  Playwrights are standing up for their rights.  And that’s a good thing.

Still, I found myself wondering if there is a threshold even today for making small cuts without the author’s consent.  What if limited production resources cause a line or sentence or even just a word to make no sense in a particular production?  What if a tiny textual tweak would clearly make a particular production better?  Do all playwrights want to get permission requests for all cuts, no matter how slight?  I asked a few of them for their thoughts.

Jack Heifner, author of the record-setting 1976 Off-Broadway hit comedy Vanities and the Broadway play Patio/Porch, among other works (he is also an extremely valued and trusted colleague at the university where I work), wrote back to me at length to say: No means no.  “A director does not have the right to change anything without permission,” he wrote.  “Playwrights do not put words on the page in an haphazard way. We often work on something for years.  If a director cannot figure out why a writer has written something, then the fault is usually with the director. I have closed productions when they have changed or cut things in my scripts. If a director contacts me and asks if they can cut something, then sometimes I will agree. Most of the time I will try to explain why the scene is there or what my intent is. Sometimes I agree with the director and I will let them try the production with their suggested changes. The point is that when someone asks, then I am much more inclined to discuss changes with them. If they do not ask, then they are in violation of the licensing agreement.”

Mr. Heifner elaborated to clarify the writer/director relationship in the new-play development process: “When working on new plays, directors always have much more input. The process involves more collaboration. However, they still are not allowed to cut  or change something without the writer’s permission. In the professional theatre, the director always turns to the writer and says, ‘Would it be okay with you if we try that scene without those lines?’ Never are directors or actors allowed to change anything without consulting the author, even if it’s an ‘if, and or but.’ It is the director and actors responsibility to interpret and say the lines as written and not change anything.  I am always shocked that actors paraphrase something with the author in the audience. It’s insulting to the writer.”  He elaborated on the topic of unacceptable changes (I’ll post his reply in full as a note at the end of this post) and cited the Dramatists Guild “Bill of Rights,” then concluded: “Playwrights own their own works and we work hard to protect our rights. The bottom line for me is that if a director has an idea they want to run by me, then fine. I will listen to them and consider their change. However, I have the right as owner of the work to say ‘no.’ And my decision is final.”

Scott C. Sickles, a close friend, award-winning television writer, and published playwright that has been produced at theatres throughout the U.S. and internationally, also responded with considerable vehemence (and wit): “To give you a little hint on where I stand on this in general, I will tell the actors (or have the director tell the actors) that if I didn’t put a pause in the script, don’t take one. Unscripted pauses are an unauthorized adjustment to the text.  …’a period is the end of a sentence, not the end of the world.’  This is not just control freakishness. I write very much with rhythm and pace in mind. The actors can explore and discover all they want, and if they find a pause is needed where I haven’t written it or if it’s in the way where I’ve put it, I want them to tell me.”

Mr. Sickles’ response was not quite so fervent throughout, however: “That said… it’s all about permission, communication and respect.  As most of my productions have been first or second developmental productions where I’ve been present, a lot of this is not a problem. But I’m also not at every rehearsal, so when I’m working with a director I trust, I’m fine with them making cuts and adjustments and asking my permission later. As long as they understand I have final approval over the text, that’s fine. And I’m not married to the way I wrote it; I want it to be the best play it can be and if that means losing and changing stuff, fine.  But I don’t want to be blindsided.”

He’s very much a realist, and a man of the theatre: “There’s also the fact that sometimes we don’t notice if you’ve changed a little thing.  But if there are changes, no matter how small, I want the director to discuss them with me before they’re finalized. (My directors tend to only worry about words, so the silences are up to me to suss out and be bothered by.)  I also realize that sometimes there’s nothing you can do and the actor will pause or say the line the wrong way every time and there are some battles not worth fighting.”

“If it’s a production I’m never going to see, I rely on the integrity of the theater,” he continued.  Then he surprised me by going further with this distinction between productions he will see and those he will not: “I don’t know if the productions in Indonesia or Lebanon were even in English.  Pauses, minor word changes, little adjustments in productions I’m not going to see… Do whatever you want to do; tell me if it works.  As long as the integrity of the play, the scene, and the moment are intact, I’m probably going to be okay with it.

“But sometimes there will be a line like ‘oh’ and someone will want to cut it — and that ‘oh’ is the moment where, say, the protagonist makes a huge realization and the course of the play changes on that one syllable exclamation.  If you’ve got a living playwright who you can reach, I think it’s important to at least reach out,” he wrote.

Mr. Sickles, who has been developing new plays since 1992, most recently as dramaturg (2002-2009) and artistic director (2009-2014) of the WorkShop Theater Company, concludes with a colorful comment on the hypersensitivity of a few of his fellow dramatists: “There are a lot of writers who are so much more precious about their words than I am. You know the ones: you suggest cutting half a page that’s grinding the story to a halt and then you get tears and a forty minute explanation of why it’s there and what it means and how it’s so important and even if no one knows that they do…. Shoot me now. Fuck that, shoot them and make the changes posthumously.”  He notes that no playwrights were actually shot during his time at the WorkShop.

I also chatted about this with Richard Strahle, another close friend; his top credit is a produced screenplay but he is also a produced playwright.  Mr. Strahle was considerably more open to the idea of cuts in service of an improved production.  He asks that directors communicate with him when it’s convenient, but he is open to learning about cuts later if he is not present for the rehearsals or performances.  He said that he has found actors in particular to be helpful “editors,” and that his main concerns are the best possible outcome for the production and the availability of all the best suggestions for potential improvement of the script.  He agreed, however, that it is too psychically painful for him personally to hear his work altered without permission if he is present.

Clearly the consensus favors communication: reach out (via the licensing agency or literary agent if you do not have direct contact information for the playwright) if you want to make a cut.  And yet still, I wondered: Do the busiest playwrights really want to hear from every director that wants (or thinks she needs) to cut a phrase, a word, a syllable?

Thanks to Jack Heifner’s Festival of New American Plays, a few months ago I found myself getting a bite to eat with Mr. Heifner and two additional New York playwrights.  One of them was John Cariani.  Not only is he the author of the most-produced American play of recent years, Almost, Maine, he stays even busier as one of the stars of the hit Broadway musical Something Rotten!  I told him about, ahem, a friend that recently directed a play by another busy and widely-produced playwright.  The director had worked to help a particular young actor make himself understood consistently in the production, but in dress rehearsals the actor was still unable to say a particular adjective-noun phrase clearly, so the director cut the adjective (without permission).  I asked Mr. Cariani if he thought the playwright really wanted to hear from every director in such a situation.  I saw him starting to shake his head “no,” when the other guest playwright spoke up from the far end of the table. Chiori Miyagawa, a leading figure in the Off-Broadway experimental theatre scene, said that she doesn’t know of any playwrights who think it’s acceptable for directors to edit their plays without permission (she later clarified for me that she was talking about premieres and regional productions mostly and that she could understand a playwright feeling somewhat differently about, say, a 25th college production).  Mr. Cariani did not contradict her.

In retrospect my ahem-friend suspects that his production would not have been materially hurt by leaving the adjective in and adhering to the letter of the contract that licensed performance rights for the play.  And, although he does not think his cut materially hurt the playwright or her play, he does regret modeling bad directorial behavior with his cast and staff.

He speculates that Prof. Cronin may also have learned something about the way that directors work with writers and scripts in the theatre of today.


Here in full, as promised, is Jack Heifner’s reply to my question about unauthorized cuts:

I am always surprised when directors know nothing about the writer of the play they are directing. Sometimes they don’t even know the writer’s name. I have always said to my students, if you want to know more about a play then find out about the writer. You will most likely discover why they wrote what they did and you’ll have a better understanding of the playwright’s intent.
A director does not have the right to change anything without permission. Playwrights do not put words on the page in an haphazard way. We often work on something for years.  If a director cannot figure out why a writer has written something, then the fault is usually with the director. I have closed productions when they have changed or cut things in my scripts. If a director contacts me and asks if they can cut something, then sometimes I will agree. Most of the time I will try to explain why the scene is there or what my intent is. Sometimes I agree with the director and I will let them try the production with their suggested changes. The point is that when someone asks, then I am much more inclined to discuss changes with them. If they do not ask, then they are in violation of the licensing agreement.
This has nothing to do with the design of the play. I have enjoyed many productions of my plays where I saw inventive sets, costumes and staging that brought new understanding to the work. What these directors did not do was change my intent or my lines. When working on new plays, directors always have much more input. The process involves more collaboration. However, they still are not allowed to cut  or change something without the writer’s permission. In the professional theatre, the director always turns to the writer and says, “Would it be okay with you if we try that scene without those lines?” Never are directors or actors allowed to change anything without consulting the author, even if it’s an “if, and or but.” It is the director and actors responsibility to interpret and say the lines as written and not change anything.  I am always shocked that actors paraphrase something with the author in the audience. It’s insulting to the writer.
Some directors think because they are in charge of a production that they are allowed to change or reshape a play it in any manner they please without asking permission.  In those cases, I think the director should go write their own play since they show very little respect for the author’s intent. I know of a writer who went to see his show and was horrified to find an extra character had been added to the play without his permission. Dialogue from others had been reassigned to the character. The show was closed. I closed a production of VANITIES when I found out they had decided to set all the scenes in bedrooms, which is clearly not what I intended. I have had directors call me and say they wanted to cut a scene because it did not work. I always tell them that the play has had other productions and has already gone through rewrites. I have no intention of cutting something that has worked in the past just because a director is not capable of making the scene work. I think the most glaring example of a director being out of bounds was the entire HANDS ON A HARDBODY experience for Amanda Green in Houston.
http://www.americantheatre.org/2014/09/17/hands-on-a-hardbody-creative-team-blindsided-after-unwarrented-changes-made-to-songs-dialogue/
I stand by the Dramatist Guild on all of this and I quote:
1. ARTISTIC INTEGRITY.
No one (e.g., directors, actors, dramaturgs) can make changes, alterations, and/or omissions to your script – including the text, title, and stage directions – without your consent. This is called “script approval.”
2. APPROVAL OF PRODUCTION ELEMENTS.
You have the right to approve the cast, director, and designers (and, for a musical, the choreographer, orchestrator, arranger, and musical director, as well), including their replacements. This is called “artistic approval.”
3. RIGHT TO BE PRESENT.
You always have the right to attend casting, rehearsals, previews and performances.
Playwrights own their own works and we work hard to protect our rights. The bottom line for me is that if a director has an idea they want to run by me, then fine. I will listen to them and consider their change. However, I have the right as owner of the work to say “no.” And my decision is final.

3 thoughts on “Unkind Cuts

  1. As a director myself, I think that authorial intentions are primary. If one chooses to direct a play, then make damn sure there are the resources to produce what the writer intends. If you can’t stage a helicopter landing then don’t choose “Miss Saigon” unless the author/rights holder says you may. New play development is the time to argue (for dramaturgical reasons) for edits or changes, but once the play has been produced one must seek permission from the writer. Once a play is in the public domain of course there is no-one to stop you from “de-constructive” work on the text, or re-purposing a text to be part of one’s own creation based on the text….and that is not a bad expression to use: “based on Shakespeare’s ……etc”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My friend Prof. Missy Thibodeaux-Thompson left this comment on Facebook: “Have contacted playwrights via agents in recent years for 2 productions I was directing to ask about minor edits: 1 was regarding the specific age of a character–the age was specifically said in the script, though our actor looked much older–the playwright thought it was a very respectful edit (simply eliminating a specific number) and allowed the change; the other was about adding “scene announcements” to 2 scenes (the “scene announcements” were present in almost all of the other scenes)…the playwright explained (via agent) why the scene announcements were absent in those 2 scenes, which suddenly made perfect sense to me. I’ve used both of these instances as teaching/learning examples for all of my students, to explain and reinforce the ethical and legal obligation we, as theatre artists, have to the playwright and his/her work/words. In both of these cases, the agent got back to me within a few days of my initial query, thanks to email. I think it’s important that we continue to talk about this issue, and especially educate our students about the importance of respecting the work of the playwright. p.s. At the same time, I agree w/ the Shakespeare caveat.” Thanks Missy!

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