Dramatists Guild Clashes With Minnesota Troupe Over Rules for New Play Fest

News   Dramatists Guild Clashes With Minnesota Troupe Over Rules for New Play Fest "Arrogant" and "cowardly" were words used by Doug Wright, president of the Dramatists Guild, to describe guidelines posted by the Words Players Theatre of Rochester, MN for its planned 2015 Original Short Play Festival.

In a letter to Daved Driscoll, artistic director of Words Players Theatre, Wright took issue with guidelines that said the theatre's directors and casts reserved the right to change submitted playscripts in any way they chose, while offering the playwrights no money for the use of their plays.

Here is the complete text of Wright's letter, followed by the published guidelines.

Mr. Driscoll,

I write to you today as President of the Dramatists Guild of America, the national association of playwrights, lyricists and composers, with over 7000 members around the world. We at the Guild were dismayed to read your call for submissions for the Words Players Theater's 8th Annual Original Short Play Festival, in which you announce shockingly errant guidelines for festival submissions. Among them:

- Student directors will be entitled to develop their "autonomous interpretation" of the play and will "maintain independent control of each production." This means they can "modify settings and dialogue to fit the production situation and their own visions of the shows. Directors will, in particular, strive to make each play 'entertaining' to our audiences and may modify the scripts, accordingly." - The Theater will "largely ignore considerations of age, race and gender in casting decisions, and may modify scripts, as necessary, in light of this consideration,"

- The Theater will record each production for possible online posting and these recordings will be the property of Words Players/Northland Words, and

- The Theater doesn't pay for scripts; "a production of the play is the author's only compensation."

You further opine that, when producing plays, "merely preserving 'the way it was done' is for mummies and pottery shards, not performance art."

We find it ironic that a theater company that calls itself "Words Players Theater," run by a group called "Northland Words," which appears so interested in "words," seems to have so little respect for their value or for the people who craft them into drama.

Your festival requirements constitute an arrogant assault on playwrights, as well as the art and profession of playwriting itself. Worse still, by issuing them you have failed to consider some key facts.

Playwrights in America own and control their work. They have sacrificed much for this privilege, including the right to unionize and collectively bargain for the terms of their employment. Dramatists have chosen, instead, to own their text, and to have approval over any changes in it. This is a right the Dramatists Guild has maintained for theater writers since 1926.

Fortunately, most professional theaters respect authorship and the standards of the theater industry by either asking for permission to make changes in a text or staging the work as written. They don't want to run afoul of licensing agents, nor bear the extra financial burden of having to stop performances and restage a production, or to endure the costs of litigation resulting from unauthorized changes. Nor, I imagine, do they want to earn the enmity of playwrights everywhere, who have made ownership and control of their work the core value of their professional lives for the last century or so.

Regrettably, the Words Players Theater of Rochester, Minnesota has chosen to take a different tact. Perhaps you're unaware of standard theater industry practice, or maybe you think that, because you're an amateur theater organization that features younger actors, your company is immune to such requirements. Or maybe it's because you're in a community so remote from centers of professional theatrical production that either no one will notice or no one will care. In the end, it doesn't much matter whether you've augmented your arrogance with ignorance or disdain; the result is the same. And so, on behalf of our membership and playwrights everywhere, we ask that you reconsider these guidelines and withdraw them immediately.

Here's why.

The Festival's guidelines allow student directors to change a playwright's work at their own discretion, in order to make it more "entertaining", or to better support the play's miscasting, or to simply execute "their own vision" of the play. But the Words Players Theater has 5,000 years of drama in the public domain from which to draw, if you want to encourage directors to rewrite a playwright's work. Directors do it to Shakespeare all the time. Instead, however, you are soliciting new and unproduced work, and by allowing, even urging student directors to change the text without authorial input or approval, you are in breach of the social contract that society has with its playwrights, in which writers are denied the likelihood of making a living in exchange for ownership and control of their words.

Furthermore, you state that the only compensation an author would earn from your festival is one or two minimally mounted performances of a production created by amateurs, with no authorial approvals or royalties, in exchange for a writer's first production rights and audio-visual rights. I can't imagine any theater ever asking for terms so outrageous. Even though a writer's compensation would undoubtedly be modest for the type of productions you are offering, a token payment would acknowledge the professional status of that writer, and to deny one is to deny the other. And why on earth would you think it appropriate to record a play and distribute it freely without any compensation, much less claim an ownership interest in the work? This is unprecedented.

Your call for submissions expresses a fundamental disrespect which goes beyond contempt for authorship; it condescends to the very idea of art itself when it states that "the emphasis of the festival is to give writers and directors first-hand experience of the vagaries of `marketability' as much as the more arcane goals of `art.' This doesn't mean we're necessarily looking for Neil Simon. Although we'll certainly consider his script, if he wants to submit one! Neil?" I can assure you, Mr. Driscoll, that Mr. Simon's manuscript is not on its way to the Words Players Theater.

We are especially concerned that you are producing a festival which targets young writers, performers and audiences. Under your tutelage, they will learn woefully unprofessional practice, antipathy toward playwrights, an unethical examination of new literary texts, and censure from the larger theater community. That is a brutal legacy for a self-professed arts institution.

In response to the numerous protests you have already received, you've responded by telling writers that if they don't like it, then don't submit their plays to the festival. Then, in an act of cowardice, you delete certain of their posted protests from your online pages. This response is wholly inadequate but consistent with your tone throughout. So we have little hope this letter will bring you to an epiphany and cause you to mend your ways. But we will be making this letter public and we will stay apprised of your theater's activities and report them to our membership, their representatives, and the public as well.

Sincerely,
Doug Wright, President
Dramatists Guild of America, Inc.

Contacted by Playbill.com, Driscoll said he is reserving media comment until after he responds officially to Wright's letter.

Click here to read a complete list of Driscoll's rules for submission.

Here are the complete guidelines as they appeared on the website Aug. 3.

CALL FOR PLAYS
2015 ORIGINAL SHORT PLAY FESTIVAL
WORDS PLAYERS THEATRE
ROCHESTER, MINNESOTA

Words Players Theatre, Rochester, Minnesota, is calling for one act plays for our 8th Annual Original Short Play Festival. The Festival will accept the submission of any script which has not been previously published or produced.
We intend to evaluate and select scripts by mid-September and will notify you then as to whether we have selected your script for production.
Rehearsals for the plays will begin in September.
Original, creative work is at the core of what we do here at Northland Words. Whether it's each of our original Shakespeare in the Park productions, our annual Thornton Wilder Short Play Festival or our "Original Short Play Festival," we celebrate the reality that all performance art is original. Merely preserving "the way it was done" is for mummies and pottery shards, not performance art.
The deadline for submission to this year's Festival is August 15. Plays may be sent by email to shortplays@wordsplayers.org.
PLEASE KNOW:
➢ Our production of the play is our only "compensation" for its use.
➢ There will be two performances of most plays, October 23 & 24, 2015. It is possible that some plays will perform only once.
➢ The plays will be produced with minimal or no costumes, props or sets.
➢ The plays will be directed by student directors (mostly high school- and college-age) under the mentorship of our Artistic Director.
➢ While authors are welcome to confer with the directors, such conference is at the discretion of each director. Student directors will develop their autonomous interpretation and will maintain independent control of each production. They will in all probability modify settings and dialogue to fit our production situation and their own visions of the shows. Directors will, in particular, strive to make each play "entertaining" to our audiences and may modify the scripts, accordingly.
➢ Our casts are comprised of amateur community actors of all ages. A large percentage of them are quite young (high school- and college-aged).<br>
➢ We largely ignore considerations of age, race and gender in our casting decisions. We may modify scripts, as necessary, in light of this consideration.<br>
➢ We will record each production for possible online posting (with author credit), as well as for further promotional, artistic or other uses. These recordings will be the property of Words Players / Northland Words.
➢ We don't pay for the scripts.

SUBMISSION GUIDELINES:
➢ Although there are no hard and fast rules for submission, by and large we will give preference to those plays which, in our judgment, appeal to the broadest audience. A lot of great art, of course, does not do so. But our emphasis is perhaps less on the artist-centered goal of producing "great art" (whatever that is) than on the more community-centered goal of producing art that communicates well with its audience. In our case, the audience invariably includes a large percentage of young people. We will prefer scripts that appeal to them as well as to old non-young people.
Part of this emphasis is our desire to give writers and directors first-hand experience of the vagaries of "marketability" as much as the more arcane goals of "art." (This doesn't mean we're necessarily looking for Neil Simon. Although we'll certainly consider his script, if he wants to submit one! Neil? Only that we will strive to make each play both understandable and interesting to our audiences. And again: an important consideration of marketability is an understanding of each particular audience.)
➢ That being said, we also encourage fresh and original approaches to theatre. We prefer most of all plays that are significant and interesting, without off-putting superciliousness.
➢ We will also give preference to younger and newer authors. Again, we don't have inflexible rules about what ages constitute "youth;" this is only a general consideration.
➢ We will also prefer, of course, those scripts which will work well with the minimal and specific production standards outlined above. A play with a cast of fifty, necessarily set in pre-Revolution Versailles, may well be a fantastic play but will probably be unworkable in our particular situation.
➢ We have performed Festival plays as long as 30 minutes but prefer those under 15.

Plays may be sent by email to shortplays@wordsplayers.org and should include name, address and telephone number. The deadline for submission is August 15.

If you have any questions about any of this, please don't hesitate to talk to us. We're very excited about the prospect of presenting these original plays. –
Daved Driscoll, Director

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The story was first reported by playwright and journalist Donna Hoke in her personal blog. Hoke is also the Dramatists Guild Regional Rep for Western New York. It was subsequently discussed by Howard Sherman, director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at The New School for Drama, on his blog.

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