Saturday, February 18, 2012

"It’s the playwright being tyrannical"

The New York Times recently posted a story about Paula Vogel's "playwriting boot camp." I am not sufficiently familiar with Vogel's work to have an informed opinion on either her playwriting or pedagogy; what stuck me most were the opinions expressed by one of the participants:

[Vogel] encouraged her writers, in their scripts, to consider leaving half a page blank to underscore the importance of wordlessness to directors and actors.

Such a heavy authorial hand drew heated complaints, however, from Nicholas Gray, a young theater director who had been invited by an associate. Mr. Gray railed against lengthy stage directions, saying he crossed them out in scripts before he would begin rehearsals with his actors.

“It’s the playwright being tyrannical over all of the other artists who will ever work on the play,” Mr. Gray said, adding that even “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” would not escape his pen.

His conviction drew out Ms. Vogel’s steely side for a moment — “that idea causes me a great deal of pain,” she said of his editing — before she regained her professorial posture
This passage, which was brought to my attention by Art Hennessey (who notes that both Vogel and Gray misunderstand Eugene O'Neil's authorial intent) was particularly striking-- in particular, Nicholas Gray's notion that he could so cavalierly edit a playwright's work simply because he feels that the script is "tyrannical."

The standard Dramatists' Guild contract prevents a producing company from altering the script without explicit written permission from the playwright or, if deceased, the playwright's estate (public domain works are treated differently.) However, alongside issues of copyright and contracts there is also the matter of artistic integrity and the moral rights of artists over their own work: assuming that the playwright has sufficiently mastered the craft that one sees the script as worthy of production, one should also assume that the playwright wrote those stage directions for a good reason. If the script specifies costumes, props, manipulations, specific actions, offers background information, it is to add to the story. They may relate, in an unspoken manner, to the causal relations that bring the narrative to its end. They might symbolically relate to the themes of the play. They may signify the relationships amongst the characters. They may provide some meaningful context that could prove useful to an inquisitive cast or production staff member.

There is a dramaturgical fashion to say that today's theatre is about "collaboration" (when has it not been?) and that playwrights who incorporate detailed stage directions or notes on settings are working against collaboration. Certainly there can sometimes be a temptation to contain more specificity than the story demands, meaning that the playwright is directing from the written page. However, can one argue that Tennessee Williams was "being tyrannical" he specified props or even the music and sound design for A Streetcar Named Desire? Would Not I be as powerful a play had directors exercised the freedom to ignore Samuel Beckett's stage directions?
Where Gray sees tyranny, a stronger, more confident director sees a challenge. Earlier this season, I saw Whistler in the Dark's production of Tom Stoppard's Dogg's Hamlet/Cahoot's Macbeth. During an exchange following Thomas Garvey's review. Stoppard's stage directions are copiously detailed and are a necessary part of the action of the play. However, since Whistler has such a distinctive style and it had been years since I read the script, I mistakenly thought the physical actions of the final minutes had been crafted by director Meg Taintor as opposed to the her staging of Stoppard's directions because once staged it looked like her work. Similarly, when I saw Imaginary Beasts' production of Eugene Ionesco's Macbett the production was in the company's distinctive style, despite Director Matthew Wood mentioning in conversation after the show that his contract with the Ionosco estate strictly forbade him from making cuts to the text. Imagine that: being true to one's own artistic voice while following the script to the letter!

When directors do exercise the freedom to cut, reshuffle, or rearrange plays that are in the public domain (and thus no longer protected by the Guild contract or a playwright or playwright's estate) the play in question is sufficiently familiar that audience members are able to judge for themselves whether the production honored the authorial intent or whether it even matters. For instance, while visiting Washington, D.C. I caught Washington Shakespeare Company Avant Bard's The Mistorical Hystery of Henry (I)V. This production not only compressed Henry IV, Part 1 & 2 into a single two hour and thirty-five minute show (bookended with short excerpts from Richard II and Henry V but staged the scenes of political intrigue and battle as a burlesque show performed by the harlots at Mistress Quickly's Boar's Head Inn. The concept was fairly radical in that it explored the relationship between power and power's parodists in an era where political satire could get the satirists killed once those in power are no longer amused by their caricatures. Director Tom Malin's adaptation was not a reaction against "the playwright being tyrannical" but a reimagining that both stood on its own and gained additional levels of meaning because much of the audience was familiar with the more conventional stagings of the play and so recognized the figures being lampooned by the harlots of Eastcheap. It was easy to imagine that the goings on of the Mistorical Hystery were occuring in the same world as the events in a straight reading of Henry IV 1 & 2. The point is that while Malin had no legal obstacles preventing him from making radical cuts to the original, he also had a strong enough concept to make something new, and the intellectual honesty to not pretend that this adaptation was the same play first performed in the late sixteenth century.

In short, if Mr. Gray feels that he is, as a director, under the yoke of tyrannical playwrights he has a few options:

1.) Stick to plays in the public domain or recent work by playwrights who are not willing to defend the artistic integrity of their scripts should they be notified of alterations.

2.) Find a playwright who has a strong voice yet also has philosophical reasons to allow others to radically rework his or her plays, as is the case with Charles Mee.

3.) Write and direct his own plays.

4.) Switch to film, where directors usually get to decide upon the final cut.

5.) Simply find a playwright who is easily bullied by a director. After all no playwright who cares about the integrity of their work is going to let Nicholas Gray direct their plays after reading his comments in the New York Times.

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