Exclusive: MN Play Festival Artistic Director Opens Up About Dramatists Guild Dispute

News   Exclusive: MN Play Festival Artistic Director Opens Up About Dramatists Guild Dispute The artistic director of a Minnesota theatre group has responded to an Aug. 4 letter from Doug Wright, president of the Dramatists Guild, which used the words "arrogant" and "cowardly" to describe guidelines posted by the Words Players Theatre of Rochester, MN, for its planned 2015 Original Short Play Festival.
Doug Wright
Doug Wright

Daved Driscoll, artistic director of the Words Players Theatre of Rochester, MN, sent a letter of response the evening of Aug. 4 expressing "deep...regret" and offering to alter the Festival guidelines to meet DG requirements. Here are Driscoll's answers to questions about the issue posed by Playbill.com.

Read the original guidelines and the full text of Wright's letter here.

Does your letter [of response to Wright] address Mr. Wright’s concerns about altering the content of playscripts?
Yes. I have not, as yet, received a reply from Mr. Wright, so I don’t, of course, know whether my reply is satisfactory to him.
A summary of our response follows:
1) We deeply regret the misunderstanding which my wording of the submission guidelines has caused. We regret the perception that the guidelines intended disrespect to authors, to art or to author rights. No such disrespect was intended.
2) We acknowledge and enthusiastically support authorial ownership of all intellectual property. Our guidelines failed to make that clear.
3) We ask for permission from authors to make changes in their works.
4) Our small, budget-less, educational workshop is geared toward new, chiefly unpublished, playwrights. Its purpose is to afford them an opportunity, which they might not otherwise have, to see their plays performed and to thus better understand audience reaction to them.
5) There are a number of limitations inherent in our production, which we spell out. We spell out these limitations precisely so that playwrights considering submission will understand the nature of our production. Playwrights are encouraged to submit only scripts which they feel will work under these limitations.
These limitations are, chiefly:
-- We rehearse four or five times.
-- With rare exceptions, we will perform on a bare stage, in street clothes.
-- We have a limited pool of available actors. With a few exceptions, the actors and directors are twelve to twenty-two.
Modifications to scripts are made primarily to adapt them to these published limitations. Modifications are always made with respect for the playwright’s text.
6) We sent our call for scripts to a relativity small list of email subscribers who are aware of and understand the nature of the work, as well as the intent of the submission guidelines.
7) Well-meaning recipients of our email announcement shared our call for scripts in a variety of forums. It was forwarded, without our knowledge or consent, to a variety of forums which included experienced and professional playwrights who, lacking familiarity with our youth theatre and its educational and artistic goals, understandably perceived the guidelines as disdainful of writers and of appropriate relationships between writers and producers.
8) Our guidelines failed to make clear our endorsement of authorial rights precisely because we assumed that acknowledgement of those rights was so universal that we didn’t need to make our endorsement of them explicit. We were mistaken.
9) The submission guidelines failed miserably in their intent, which was chiefly to warn experienced playwrights that our Festival is an informal workshop aimed at developing new playwrights and allowing them to witness, first-hand, how directors, actors and audiences will perceive their words.

Do you think Mr. Wright's criticism is fair?
In my estimation, Mr. Wright’s criticism is not only fair, but eminently concerned for justice and decency, while at the same time gracious and open-minded. I am entirely at fault for what I believe to be a misunderstanding of our purposes, our practices and our attitudes—all of which I believe to be, when understood in the proper context, both fair and decent, in themselves.
I have assumed that Mr. Wright deplores and would distance himself from the numerous insulting and unfair ad hominem attacks on us which, I am confident, do not represent the genial atmosphere of artistic excellence and human decency the Dramatists Guild has long championed.

Have you ever had complaints about the Festival’s policy before? If so, how have you dealt with them?
After our guidelines were inexplicably communicated to an audience outside our educational enterprise, I received a handful of email complaints from people who described themselves as published, experienced playwrights and who indicated a similar misperception of our intents. Three or four, as I recall. I responded to most or all of them, chiefly to explain the nature of what we were doing. As I mention in my letter to Mr. Wright, I indicated in my responses to these few complaints that our Festival is designed for largely inexperienced, unpublished playwrights seeking the opportunity to see their plays performed under very specific conditions. If those criteria and those conditions don’t apply or are unacceptable to a given writer, it seemed and still seems both fair and obvious to say that this Festival is not an appropriate venue for the production of his or her scripts.
We were surprised by the criticism, as we are this year, because what we meant by our description of what we do was so obvious to all of us actually involved in the project. As I recall, I reread the guidelines and even thought that I could see how someone could thus misunderstand them. I thought that I ought to try to clarify our intentions, but, to my increasingly horrified embarrassment, my overworked brain set that thought aside and didn’t think about it again, when the time came to send the guidelines out.
I was not, however, alarmed by the receipt of something like three or four complaints, in the light of more than two hundred other submissions, many of whom were established, experienced or professional playwrights. I assumed, incorrectly it turns out, that our intentions were largely clear.
Strangely, as I mention in my letter to Mr. Wright, I have been given to understand that one of the more detailed criticisms of our guidelines was posted by a playwright who herself submitted plays to us, last year, under the exact same guidelines. I remain unclear about how guidelines that were acceptable a year ago have become deplorable in the interim. Have you followed stories about the recent production of Hands on a Hardbody and the authors’ reactions? What did you think of them?
I am only aware in a general [way] about the issues involved in this production. This seems to me, from what I know of the circumstances, a cut-and-dried situation: If the Texas production did not have approval to make changes, Mr. Wright and his collaborators have the clear legal right to prohibit those changes.
The distinction, in our case, is that we ask authors up front for permission to modify their scripts, if necessary, to conform with the limitations of our production situation.

Are you planning to alter the Festival submission policy in response to the DG concerns?
Absolutely. As I have said, I deeply regret the misperception we have caused and will do what I can to clarify what we do.

What has been the reaction (if any) among the others who run the Festival?
Frankly, people have mostly wondered how our little Festival in outstate Minnesota could possibly be so misunderstood. They know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that their work is exactly the sort of undertaking that the Dramatist Guild and the arts community in general would encourage, support, celebrate, if they understood what we were doing. They know that what we do affirms artists, it doesn’t denigrate them. They know that we strive heroically, without anything like adequate resources, to nurture creativity, to foster innovation, to engage every interested individual, to empower them, to undertake with every fiber of our being to enable people to enact their creative visions with energy, beauty and dignity. To be honest, they know that, despite my verbal failings in these deplorable six hundred words, I have devoted decades to fostering and encouraging artistic freedom and energy, creativity. That I daily enable the shy, the reticent, the uncomfortable as well as the bold to engage their imaginations in the salutary, life-giving pursuit of both individual and communal creation.
Needless to say, they’re confused by the numerous insults, threats, condescension and dismissal that have been aimed at them, rather than at me.

How has this affected you personally?
I am mostly saddened that I have let down the young people I mention above by a miscommunication so egregious as to raise the ire [of] the Dramatist Guild of America. I remain hopeful that, when properly understood, the generous, fair-minded arts community will forgive, without condescension, poorly written guidelines and will embrace, instead, the wonderful opportunity we afford people of all ages.

*

Here is the full text of Driscoll's letter to President Wright:

August 4, 2015
Dear Mr. Wright:
Despite the inauspicious circumstances of our correspondence, I am honored to hear from as distinguished a playwright as you are. Even considering the circumstances, I am happy to see, firsthand, your commitment in particular, and the Guild’s commitment in general, to issues of fairness.
Let me make clear, first, how deeply I regret that my words have caused such consternation. I am deeply saddened and intensely chagrined by the perception that Words Players or I have intended in any way disrespect for authors or disregard for the appropriate relationship between authors and those who produce their work. The impetus for creating our Short Play Festival in the first place was to afford playwrights opportunities for considering their works live, on stage. It was for playwrights that we were first and foremost concerned.
I hope that my estimation is correct: that my careless writing is the cause of this profound misunderstanding. Since you have already invested the time to understand something of our situation, I hope you will be patient enough to consider the context in which these guidelines were written. I am not going to posit that circumstances mitigate our need to be fair and respectful. Only that the context may give you some idea of my intentions, which are at least partly what are at issue in this discussion.
The idea of presenting original plays came from a handful of young people that we worked with on a regular basis. They wrote plays. We worked with them on those plays. We had workshops, suggested ideas, etc. And then we said, “We ought to just act them, to see what they’re like.”
We had no money for sets, props or costumes, so we spent none. If the actors or the director really wanted a particular prop or costume piece or set element, he or she paid for it out of pocket.
We had a dozen or so high school actors, who were also the directors, though most of them had never directed before. Most of the participants were fourteen to eighteen. A few were older. A few were younger. All wanted simply the opportunity to see what their plays might look like acted out.
We necessarily did the plays, despite the initial intentions of their authors, with these limitations in mind. Since the writers of the plays were working alongside the actors and directors, themselves directing and acting in someone else’s plays, the changes we made in all these plays were an organic part of a workshop process that was collaborative and creative and invigorating. We were never so formal as to request specific “permission” for alterations, because no such formal request seemed necessary in the very informal setting in which we labored. Most of the writers, in fact, used the opportunity chiefly to better understand how audiences might react to their work. They heard dialogue that they had liked when they wrote it, but which sounded stilted or unnatural when performed. Jokes fell flat. Explanations were unclear. All of this, naturally, can just as well be the “fault” of directors or actors, but discovering “fault” was not a consideration for any of us. We were all, more or less equally, exploring together as regards the elements of communicating well with an audience the stories that were in our collective imaginations.
We had no money for these plays. We still don’t. Some years we charge $5 or so for tickets and some years we take a freewill offering. Our record audience is 121. Our average audience is about 75. We usually have two performances. We make enough, usually, to pay for printing posters and programs—because a volunteer does the graphic design—and because the directors and actors and box office and marketing people all volunteer their time. We sometimes come close to breaking even. But we never do.
Almost all of the people involved were also in rehearsal or working on technical aspects of two or three other productions at the same time. The high school directors would find an hour here or a half hour there, between rehearsals for other shows (sometimes during them) in which to catch a few minutes rehearsal. On average, the plays were rehearsed four or five times, plus a “dress” rehearsal (not usually at the same venue as the performance). We didn’t always even have the lines memorized. Not out of sloth or indolence, but simply because we lacked the necessary time to do so and because the productions themselves worked well in spite of this informal setting.
We worked collaboratively. Directors, actors and writers were all involved in a variety of ways in developing (in four rehearsals) what the performance looked like. The second performance was always different than the first.
Then, two years ago, instead of the dozen or twenty scripts we usually received from Olmsted County, Minnesota, we received more than two hundred from all over the world. We had no idea why this was the case until one playwright mentioned having seen the notice on a website. It turns out that the notice had been copied to several dozen websites. We hadn’t known anything about this and scrambled as best we could to read and evaluate a volume of scripts we had absolutely no resources for dealing with.
Bear in mind, while we have been happy to include a variety of plays from all over the world, it was never remotely our intention to promote this as though it was the presentation of new work by professional playwrights. It was and remains the exploratory work, mostly, of students.
Some of our plays, that year, were from this onrush of scripts which we hadn’t, strictly speaking, called for. Nonetheless, we contacted the authors, tried our best to explain the process and be sure that this was okay with them. In particular, we knew we’d have to make a number of changes and wanted to be sure that they were okay with us making them.
The playwrights indicated pleasure at having been selected and were particularly happy, since they couldn’t get here from Israel or Ohio or California, that they could watch a taped reference recording online, to see how it had turned out. The following year, solely in the interest of dissuading playwrights who might expect some sort of professional theatre production from submitting plays, only to find out, later, the limitations of our project, we tried to make clear what we were doing. The result is the six hundred words at issue in the discussion. We have never invited anyone outside of our email subscription list to submit plays. We are nonetheless happy to have them join us and have labored and failed to explain what we do.
Our intention was almost the opposite of what it has been perceived to be. It was out of our respect for playwrights that we wanted to be clear about what we were and were not undertaking. Obviously, that attempt at clarity was a dismal and embarrassing failure.
Disrespect was not remotely intended.
Nor did we intend disdain for intellectual property. It has seemed perfectly appropriate that authors should be able to and often are willing to allow any number of changes to scripts. Some have afforded blanket “approvals-before-the-fact” of whole categories of aspects of their plays.
It seems to me that this discussion hinges on whether “asking for permission” can be done, as we have done it, in a general, blanket permission, rather than line by line. We have intended these guidelines as implicit request for such permission.
As an example, Stephen Schwartz, your predecessor as President of the Dramatist Guild of America, has indicated in a variety of places a genial willingness to afford considerable latitude to directors and actors. He indicates in “Notes to Directors” of Godspell that, “a creative director is free to alter the specifics” and outlines a number of ways this might apply in his “Notes to Performers.” Elsewhere, he has happily assented to making a show appropriate to the age level of the cast or audience, to changing the gender of a lead character, to modifying or cutting music because performers lack specific musical skills, to changing the setting of a play. He has explicitly deferred to the judgments of high school directors regarding such changes. And while he explicitly says that such approval “ought to” come before the fact, he has indicated a gentle understanding and after-the-fact approval of those who have made such changes without prior approval as choices that “of course” ought to have been made. I certainly don’t bring Mr. Schwartz up to enjoin his unwitting opinions in a debate or to excuse breaches of contractual obligation. I bring up his comments only to demonstrate that a person of good intentions can, in good faith, think that an author may be willing to waive rights to control over a script for any number of reasons. Furthermore, that an author may grant such approval before the fact, leaving decisions of varying breadth to the discretion of the director or the actor.
What we intended our guidelines to suggest was simply that this was pretty much an educational endeavor over in the corner of Minnesota, where we explore artistic vision and script analysis and the directorial process. The “autonomous control” the directors must exert has entirely to do with the vagaries of the limited resources available to us and our hope that some authors might have scripts that fit this process and might enjoy the exploration. We make any number of modifications in casting and setting because they are necessary, given the parameters of the production.
In every case of which I am aware, playwrights have understood our choices. In a few instances, they have been disappointed by certain decisions. E.g., we used actors instead of manikins for one play because we couldn’t find manikins to borrow. In many cases, such as this, we shared the disappointment. In other cases, initial reluctance to having teenagers portray widows dealing explicitly and movingly with their losses gave way to the recognition that this was one of our most moving short plays, ever. Although everyone watching the play could of course tell the difference between two teenagers and two middle aged widows, people were very moved by the words of the script. Such an experience has seemed to foster, not discourage, a high regard for the text.
There is nothing we particularly do to encourage changing a text (and I reiterate: none of it is done without prior approval). If a playwright, having read in our guidelines that plays will be done mostly without sets nonetheless submits a play which details an elaborate set, surely the mere fact of submission is suggesting that author believes the play can be done without a set without substantially altering the content of a play. If an author submits a play about middle aged people to a Festival which proclaims its actors are college age at the oldest, surely the author, by the act of submission, is indicating that he or she is willing to accept the play cast with young actors.
Like, “most professional theatres,” we, “respect authorship and the standards of the theater industry.” Which is why we requested permission, albeit clumsily and inarticulately, up front.
Your suggestion that we adapt Shakespeare instead of contemporary playwrights seems to support rather than nullify the idea that one can modify texts respectfully, artfully, in keeping with an appropriate aesthetic vision. (Unless you intended irony and I missed it.)
We reserve the rights to recordings so that we have the opportunity to use short clips in grant applications and so forth. So far, we have not done so. But we have reserved that right. We certainly have no intention of using these recordings as though they were works of art in their own rights.
My “opining,” was not, strictly, part of the call, but rather a statement of Words Players’ general philosophical stance on performance art. I had thought it was possibly more mundane than radical.
I am not sure, to be honest, what is objectionable in a stated commitment to innovation. We’re firmly rooted in the conviction that “all performance art is original.” No two performances are the same. I frankly don’t understand the objection to this philosophy.
Let me be clear that none of the hypothetical motivations you suggest accrue in our situation. We don’t want an “excuse for not asking permission.” Nor do we suppose that our circumstances should make us immune from such requirements. We understood that the terms of our guidelines were in fact asking permission.
I don’t know where you have come to understand that I have responded to numerous protests as you suggest. This letter to you is our only response, to date, to any such issue. In these past couple of years, I have responded to three or four other emails. In at least one, maybe in all, I have, in fact, indicated that our Festival is probably not the right venue for the works of established, professional playwrights uninterested in our workshop approach. Again, I would have thought that was obvious. It is now abundantly clear that it was not obvious. There was certainly nothing dismissive or cavalier, however, in any of the responses I made.
I have been made aware, since reading your letter, that some Facebook posts that were deemed egregiously hateful, and irrelevant to the post to which they were appended, and have been removed. I don’t know what the rules are about such posts. One post suggested that our kids be dropped into ISIS-controlled territory. “And I’ve promised them it will get worse if they don’t capitulate immediately.” I don’t know any details, at the moment. Perhaps it’s cowardice. If so, I’m sorry for that. I assume, at any rate, that the Dramatists Guild deplores the barrage of insults that are being leveled against us.
The fact that we are a little amateur youth theatre, “remote from centers of professional theatrical production,” has certainly made us wonder why anyone in those centers would care so violently as to level against us spurious and injurious ad hominem attacks.
My own response has been delayed by time. I have mostly been in rehearsal or meetings most of my waking hours since I first was made aware there had been any criticism. Such criticism as I then saw, in a brief survey of such comments, was so outrageously insulting and hateful, I didn’t know whether it was best to respond at all, rather than letting such hate speech pass. Such insults, threats, condescension and rancor could not have represented a respected part of the theatre community. One of the lengthiest protests was made by a playwright who had cheerfully submitted plays, under the same guidelines, last year, but whose scripts had not been accepted. I couldn’t imagine why she would have objected, this year, to the same guidelines she submitted to, last year.
We have supposed it was obvious to all concerned that playwrights own and control their work. Nor do we brush aside the noble history of the Dramatist Guild’s commitment to champion the rights of playwrights.
Certainly, Mr. Wright, were I to ask you to submit a play to us on the terms that we suggest, it would indeed be outrageous. But our Festival was never intended for playwrights of your caliber. It is not intended for professional playwrights, at all. Most of the submissions to our Festival, until our call for plays was itself “pirated” a couple of years ago and posted who knows where, were high school or middle school students. Our plays are a workshop of sorts affording unpublished playwrights an opportunity to see what their plays might look on stage. We obviously don’t make that clear.
We don’t pay anyone associated with these plays, so I haven’t quite understood how this is an issue. We are an entirely amateur theatre. People contribute artwork for free all the time. To literary magazines. To local galleries. To school publications. I have never heard of theatres like ours paying authors, directors or actors for decidedly amateur production.
I will assure you, beyond the slightest fear of contradiction, that ten minutes conversation with any of the young people under my tutelage would demonstrate to you their profound respect, their deep abiding reverence for texts, for words, for the process of creating new art and for those who do so. There is nothing inherently disrespectful or disdainful in our day-to-day approach in most of our other projects which are almost without exception intensely collaborative, ensemble works of creativity and innovation.
I don’t know whether your letter has caused an epiphany, but I am certainly very willing to “mend my ways” in any way which is fitting. Far from wanting to enjoin controversy or abrogate my responsibility to the creative community which you represent, I am humbly eager to make clear to you in any way I can that our tiny attempt to explore creativity has no targets, no criticism of anyone else, no disdain.
I would be delighted to talk with you further, to take your advice about the revision of our call for plays, or of the Festival, itself. I would be happy to talk on the phone, via email, to visit New York or to host your visit, here. We would love you or any representative of the Dramatist Guild to visit us during the Festival in October. We would love you to see how the appearance I have inadvertently given is completely unlike the reality of these creative young people, bent only on exploring art vigorously and fully. Thank you for your patience in enduring this long correspondence. Please let me know what you think.
Sincerely,
Daved Driscoll
Artistic Director
Words Players Theatre
19554 County Road 2
Chatfield, Minnesota 55923


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