The Playgoer: Urinetown & The Case of the Creative Copyright

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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Urinetown & The Case of the Creative Copyright

The Urinetown story continues to have legs. Also, many interesting comments on the last post. Including Isaac's call for me to take more of a stance on the whole intellectual/creative copyright issue.

So here goes. Many of the advances achieved over time in basic rights (in both employment and renumeration) for artists have at first been met with skepticism. Back before the first Actors Equity strike in 1919, for instance, being an actor was just considered a risky profession. So if you didn't get paid for rehearsal or reimbursed for your costume, dem's de breaks was the prevailing wisdom. I'm sure many theatre pro's resisted the unionization, warning that no one will produce large-cast shows any more, or that it will cut down on rehearsal time, etc. I'm sure there were many good arguments.

Go back even further into the 19th century, and you don't find basic copyright protections for playwrights until the later decades. Hey, you were lucky to get your play on once, was the thinking. Don't expect to chase down royalties from every little stock theatre once it gets into print. The result was almost no one--even authors of the occasional hit--could make a living as a full time professional dramatist, thus weakening our dramatic literature in this country as a whole during that period.

Today, these two advances seem so essential to the functioning of the theatrical profession that we don't question them. That's because we see actors and writers as the most central contributors to the artform. So maybe that's why there's been more resistance to advancing the rights of designers and directors? Especially in the area of "copyright."

I suspect playwrights resist this because it implies co-authorship (or at least co-creation) of a work, and upsets the accepted hierarchy of the playwright writes the play and the directors & designers merely interpret it. The Chicago and Akron Urinetown productions are basically arguing for a very broad definition of "interpretation" to mean that two people can interpret a play very similarly without copying each other. But notice how you don't hear people usually argue that two writers can't write the same string of words without probably some copying going on.

The current practices privilege the written text as the "essential" work, and disputes like this one upset things by basically questioning that. Not in devaluing the script, but by elevating the non-written contributions of staging and design choices. I am sympathetic to guarding the playwright's work as unique and sacred. But I don't think that should prevent us from recognizing other contributions to a production as well. And by recognize I do mean legally and financially because...well look what kind of society we live in? If you can't get paid for it, or have it down in writing in a legal document, our civic-economic system doesn't really recognize it at all, does it?

It's easy in the Urinetown case to look at the individuals and circumstances and have sympathy for "the little guy." No, a struggling director may say, John Rando does not need more credit or more money. Yes, "Urinetown" is a simple plot told in a "rough theatre" style and, one could say, "designs itself." (A point I'm sure that could be cogently refuted by the original expert design team.) On the other hand, I see some details in the case particularly damning for the little guy. The fact that an actor from the original show is behind one of the productions shows this was not a case of two people coincidentally having the same thought in two different time zones. And I sincerely doubt that--as successful as John Rando and his designers are--they would fly out to the midwest and sit through two productions of a show they left behind long ago and go to court over some 3-4 figure renumeration if they did not feel major elements and substantial portions of their work was not being reproduced without any acknowledgment.

But leaving aside the particulars, let's think of the big picture. If Rando & co. "win" (whatever that means here), what are the conequences? Well it wouldn't be received as good news by regional theatres--or even anyone producing a "revival" for that matter. Of course, a multi-million dollar Broadway revival can more easily afford the complicated licensing fees involved in recreating something like A Chorus Line from the Michael Bennett template. (Even though even these producers stiffed the original dancers whose stories make up the piece, unlike Bennett, who gave them a cut.) But, sure, if I were a dinner theatre in Akron, OH or a small Chicago theatre, having to devote more of my budget to fees could be prohibitively expensive. Certainly, the result could possibly be a discouraging of productions of successful familiar shows and therefore a dip in business for all concerned, including the very theatre artists we all want to help.

Call me an optimist, but I have faith, though, that there's a way to make this work, to both recognize non-written elements of a successful show in reproducing it and to keep the costs down. I sense that Rando & co. are not being totally irrational in their campaign, not seeking millions of dollars. A lot of this is really about the credit. Yes we want to sympathize with the small town director who happens to stage a show the same way Jerry Zaks did on B'way. But imagine yourself as the director of a successful original show--perhaps a script you helped nurture through rehearsal. How would you feel about a director somewhere else replicating your unique staging ideas and claiming them as his own? If you read the details of the Joe Mantello case, for instance (the landmark director copyright precedent case over Love Valour Compassion) they are very persuasive and I really do find myself sympathizing with him--insanely prosperous director that he is. In fact, I don't hold Mantello's success against him in that case because it is precisely because of his success, his clout, that he got the case heard. His victory truly helps other directors far less famous.

So here are some possible guidelines and areas of negotiation that could possibly satisfy directors (and designers) while not skyrocketing the costs of producing revivals and regional premieres of hit shows.

-The credit in the program. If the formality of acknowledging the influence of a previous director and/or designer can just become routine (and inexpensive) in the playbill, that could go a long way toward appeasing the original artists. Even now, mega-directors like Hal Prince are able to write themselves into the licensing contracts of every show they direct. (So that your even your Company program will have to say "Original Production Directed by Harold Prince," even if this production has nothing to do with his staging.) Very few directors have such clout now. Maybe SSDC (the directors union) can make at least that kind of recognition easier to attain.

-Renumeration can remain small. Obviously there have already been many isolated renumeration agreements with directors and designers. I wonder what the going rate is? I bet setting some standards (and setting them low, while they can) now would actually be better for small theatres than leaving them at the mercy of bigshot agents every time they want to negotiate the rights to the latest B'way hit.... Also, how about an expiry date? No one's saying you have to pay the George Abbott estate if your modeling your staging of Damn Yankees on his. How about paying nominal director/designer fees on all shows within five years of their B'way run, if you're basically using their work. After that, there's still credit in the program, but no fees.

-Defining the terms. As one commenter with a musical expterise posted, it is possible to define what constitutes plagarism or undue copying. A song, for instance, may be considered plagarized only if a pre-specified threshold of sequential notes are identical. You can't just argue the songs sound alike. Likewise, detailed stage managers' records of blocking and stage business can be documented and a threshold agreed upon. (So that even stealing an isolated "bit" might still be allowable in itself.) While the very thought of "copyrighting" directing may send shudders down the spines of directors and theatres everywhere, the details of what constitutes it may not be as scary as everyone thinks. Or at least they don't have to be. This is still unchartered territory.... Also, the precedents set by designers can be helpful. Now that lighting plots and stage design plans can be copyrighted, let's see what we've learned from that so far.

Perhaps the most persuasive point I can make in favor of "settling" this is... it's not going away. It's in the interests of artists everywhere (and small theatres in particular) to have something properly negotiated and spelled out now. Otherwise, individually powerful directors like Mantello and even Rando could push their claims much farther, as far as their dollars will let them. An agreed upon standard contract and licensing agreement could at least reign in the cases of the mega-directors. And let's face it, they're the one likely to be behind the shows most people want to copy!

In sum, now that we've legalized and rationed the playwright and actor's work, why leave the directors and designers out? Especially in an era--let's face it--where our theatre is more of a "director's theatre" than ever before. Before the last century, none of them had rights. We've come a long way since then, so why not be more inclusive.


Anonymous said...

Envy of the generative artist knows no bounds. Watch for more and more playwrights to simply direct their own work, as these narcissistic directors -- who make a living feeding off the hard work of playwrights -- demand more and more compensation for an amount and quality of work that, even under the most extraordinary achievement, is a pale shadow of what the playwright has done.

parabasis said...

Wow, Garrett, lots of good points. As you know, I favor loosening our intellectual property system in general, rather than making it even stricter, but I agree that if we're going to keep it strict, finding some way to recognize directors that's low key and not too intrusive is a good idea.

As for Anonymous: Antipathy between directors and writers can be a serious problem facing American Theatre, and negotiating the roles each plays in a process isn't easy. Comments like yours do nothing to further conversation. If you want to just pick a fight, please at least have the stones to do it under your real name.

I guess one question that can be asked off of all of this to try to actually further the conversation... why do we need to have a hierarchical understanding of people's roles in theater at all? Why does there have to be a primary artist? What possibilities open up under other understandings?

-- Isaac Butler

Anonymous said...

"Why does there have to be a primary artist?"

There doesn't have to be. There IS.

Directors do not generate, they interpret. These are not equal jobs. If directors want to compensated as creators, let them write their own plays. Let's see how that goes.

Next we will have actors suing to prevent understudies or actors from later productions from copying their intonations. Perhaps even the "intentions" the actors use will come under copyright, since no one thought of them before this actor. Etc etc. When does this madness end?

It never does -- because the envy of the creative artist by the interpretive artist is so often unquenchable.

A.C. Douglas said...

What Anonymous said.

I've little interest in legitimate theater, but I do have certain interests in opera, and for the past few decades we've had a perfectly analogous situation vis-a-vis the outrageous pretensions and vandalisms of the Eurotrash crowd: self-involved, self-important directors who imagine they're the equal, even the superior, of the composer; directors who imagine their "vision" of the work is the thing of importance, and who forget that their sole job — their sole purpose and raison d'ĂȘtre — is to make the vision of the composer — the creator — as vivid as possible on stage.

Somehow, some way, these out-of-control monsters must finally learn and be put in their proper place.


The Playgoer said...

Actually, the antipathy towards "Eurotrash"-style directors evident in these comments kind of makes the case, I would say, for granting them creative rights.

Look, when Peter Sellars or Robert Wilson directs an opera, for instance, they are definitely the "author" of that production. If they weren't, you wouldn't hate it so much! If you're saying they "hijack" the show away from the author, then aren't they effectively "re-writing" it?

So like them or not, these directors are redefining the director's "ownership" of a production.

And forget about Eurotrash, just think of Twyla Tharp's recent shows on Broadway--"Moving Out" and the unfortunate "Times They Are A Changin'". Are Billy Joel and Bob Dylan really the "authors" of those works?

The proliferation of "directors theatre" in its many forms has definitely changed the conversation about authorship in the theatre--both aesthetically and legally. You may not like their work. But as long as they DO continue to work, they have a case.... After all, we don't just grant copyright to work we like!

A.C. Douglas said...

Actually, the antipathy towards "Eurotrash"-style directors evident in these comments kind of makes the case, I would say, for granting them creative rights.

Oh, indeed it does. On that point you'll get no argument from me. In terms of staging, these Eurotrash opera productions are in every way "original works" as they have little or nothing to do with the composer's original vision. The directors of these productions, vandals that they are, simply hijack the (almost always dead) composer's in-the-public-domain music and words (or, in most cases, his librettist's words) for their own unique and original purpose.


Anonymous said...

Playgoer, your logic is flawed. There is the work that is created, and then there is the interpretation of that work. An interpretation is not a creation -- whether the interpretation comes from a director, a designer, or an actor. To think interpretations could be copyrighted the same way a concrete text or score is is truly, truly perverse -- it is equating two distinct things. It devalues the work of the creator and valorizes the important but not generative work of the interpreters.

Anonymous said...

Why not a theatrical version of the "creative commons" approach (somewhat akin to Playgoer's point about highlighting credit, but with a sophisticated framework.) These are hot issues in the music sphere, where there has been a lot of smart and helpful thinking in recent years. Maybe theater can learn from them:

PS: What about all those Samuel French edititions with stage plans and stage directions that sometimes are supplied by the playwright, but often are based on the first production. Or even just stage directions more generally. Is any two-level set for DEATH OF A SALESMAN a rip-off of Mielziner? I don't think anyone wants to go down that road.

Alison Croggon said...

I'm a writer. I go to lots of theatre. And I think that actors and directors (&c) are equally the artists that writers are; this hierachical attitude between "primary" and "secondary" artists is just bull. A brilliant performance is like making a poem on stage. Every night. I couldn't do it.

Writers who can't perceive the contributions that other artists make probably shouldn't be writing for the theatre, and quite likely won't be writing for it very well. Theatre can exist very well without writers. It can't, however, exist without an actor.

Anonymous said...

"Theatre can exist very well without writers." This is the most idiotic thing I have ever heard. Could you imagine? It's bad enough WITH writers.

David said...

A couple of comments:

re: Samuel French editions -- If memory serves, this WAS actually taken to court, and Samuel French no longer publishes groundplans of the original production in their acting edition. I can't remember what the actual case was, though I want to say it was tied up somehow with the Love! Valour! Compassion! case mentioned in the original post. Whether or not it was that show, I'm almost certain that there was a case where a set designer sued over copyright infringement, and the theatre being sued said, "But we just did what was in the back of the script!?!" And that somehow got negotiated into S.F. ceasing with the publication of groundplans.

Does this sound familiar to anyone else?

re: generative vs. interpretive artists -- I'm going to stay away from Anon's blatant flamebaiting here, but there is a key point being glossed over by his/her self-righteousness: the issue of director and designer copyright has nothing to do with the playwright's copyright, or ownership of the work.

It doesn't matter who is generative and who is interpretive; it's not a zero-sum game here -- giving the other artists their due will not in some way infringe on the playwright's fair due. (I would guess that some of Anon's frustration has to do with the sense that the director of a production is higher on the totem pole than the playwright, given more respect, and given more credit for a production than the writer. This is a very complicated issue, obviously, but really has nothing to do with copyright, since the copyright issue is ONLY about the work that everyone agrees falls under a specific artist's purview -- the script for the playwright, the score for the composer, the set for the scenic designer, etc etc.)

If a future production wants to use the previous design (or direction, choreography, etc) they need to pay licensing fees to those artists in addition to what they pay for licensing the show in general. The theatre company is under no obligation to pay licensing fees to the designers et al; but if they don't they need to come up with their own idea for how to stage and design the show.


Anonymous said...

David's comment shows how averse interpretive artists are to understanding that the generative artist is on a different plane than even the most brilliant interpretive artist.

The basic point is this: a staging may grow out of a text, and no matter who directs the text, the text's demands limit how it may be staged; further, there may be an "ideal" way for the play to be staged. The moment subsequent directors have to worry that they are not allowed to "copy" what a previous director does is the moment the GENERATIVE ARTIST LOSES CONTROL OVER HIS TEXT. A PLAYWRIGHT CREATES A TEXT IN ORDER FOR IT TO LIVE THREE DIMENSIONALLY IN A CERTAIN WAY. THE DIRECTOR FULFILLS HIS OR HER VISION. THAT IS THEIR JOB.

If a playwright goes to his regional gig afraid to tell the director about specific requests for the set, for a style of playing, for a kind of costuming, etc, becuse he's afraid the PRODUCTION WILL GET SHUT DOWN WHEN THE ORIGINAL DIRECTOR SCREAMS, "MEEEE! MEEEEE! MEEEEEEEEEE!" and the new production has to distinguish itself from the original production in ways the playwright does not agree with, then HIS TEXT HIS AFFECTED

The text he wrote to be staged.

The text he wrote to live three dimensionally. The text without which there would be no director.

And for those of you who don't think this will happen, who don't think directors will be out there screaming "copyright infringement!!!!" then you haven't met many of these megalomaniacs.

Contrapositive said...

I don't want to associate myself with all of the comments from Anonymous, but as a playwright, here's where I agree:

Right now, when I walk into rehearsals with a new script, the presumption is that I have carte blanche to make changes/additions, based on the suggestions/input of collaborators, without in any way undermining my ownership of that script, and the right to exploit the script however I want in the future.

(We can argue about whether or not that's fair to the other collaborators, but it does have the virtue of the kind of clarity that PG is looking for.)

But if the default position were different--if it were assumed, at the outset, that the director would ultimately have a property claim on his contributions to the production (and that's what we're talking about with a director's copyright) I'd have to approach the production differently, and more defensively.

Because in that new situation, I now have to wonder which staging elements the director may ultimately claim ownership of, and whether those claims will lead future producers, when considering the play, to worry about running afoul of the director's copyright.

That's bound to make for a more contentious, less collaborative process.

The URINETOWN case is a bad test case for playwrights, because it seems like it at least might be an instance of wholesale copying, and I'm certainly sympathetic to the director's complaint that he's been in effect plagiarized.

But if a director's copyright goes forward, few cases are likely to be that clearcut. A chilling effect among risk-averse producers is likely to develop, and theatre will be worse off for it.

David said...


Let me ask some clarifying questions, because I don't want to put words or ideas in your mouth that you didn't intend. I'll also frame these questions in terms of scenic design (because I'm a scenic designer) but I think the basic principles can be applied to all of the interpretive artists working on a playwright's show.

It sounds like you're saying that a set designer has no intellectual property right to his or her work, because the seeds of every possible set design for that particular show are contained within the script written by the playwright. Is this really what you meant to say?

If so, do you feel that the set designer makes no substantive creative contribution to the production? I suspect your answer to this is no, that they DO make a creative contribution, but their creativity is trumped by the original creativity of the playwright. If that's the case, can you offer an example from some other area (artistic, scientific, whatever) where a parallel situation exists, and where the "rightness" of the situation is not in dispute?


David said...

Contrapositive, thank you for a clear, intelligent post.

Let me ask you – and any other playwrights reading this – a question (I'm apparently in Socratic mode, today.) Have you ever been in a situation, or could you imagine yourself being in a situation, where the contributions of the director, during the development of the original production, were so significant that you would consider officially granting that person some permanent credit?

"Credit" could mean a lot of things -- co-authorship, where both of your names fill the blank in "by _____"; some sort of parallel author ship, as in "By [Playwright], Conceived/Created by [Playwright] & [Director]"; and/or financial remuneration (a split of royalties, that sort of thing.)

I'm curious.


carnieboy said...

Anon wrote,
"Theatre can exist very well without writers." This is the most idiotic thing I have ever heard. Could you imagine? It's bad enough WITH writers.

So by your logic, anon, music couldn't exist without composers? Because I'm pretty sure that some of the jazz musicians I've heard might argue with that. I'm pretty sure when I saw Branford Marsalis get into a battle with his DJ several years ago, that their exchange hadn't been composed by anyone, but was made up by them on the fly.

Theatre can exist without writers: it's called improvisation. And it has been responsible for some of the most riveting, compelling theatre I've ever seen. I'm referring to genuinely improvised theatre, like Keith Johnstone's Loose Moose Theatre Company in Calgary, not the warmed-over sketch comedy that passes for it in most major cities.

As an actor, I grant that writers are extremely important. And I grant that there's a difference between 'interpretive' and 'generative' artists. But I don't think the difference is as robust as it needs to be for the arguments you're making, anon. Because I think you'll find, if you start unpacking the concepts of interpretation and generation, that they're very hard to distinguish. Read Plutarch's Lives, then read Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. He generated very little in that story that was new, and instead 'merely' re-interpreted it in a new way. Ditto (to varying degrees of invention/reinterpreting) Othello, ditto Romeo & Juliet, ditto Hamlet.

I think what's needed is some humility from all artists, recognizing that regardless of who's name is on the page or on the marquee, they all serve the story. Because it's the story that I go to see, as an audience member. And if the writer has screwed up that story by writing shitty dialogue or unnecessary scenes, if the director's screwed it up by blocking the actors in bizarre fashion, or if the actors screw it up by bullshitting their way through it or merely phoning it in, then I'm going to be disappointed.

Anonymous said...


Here is a clear example. Scientists regularly carry out experiments based on knowledge that they neither discovered nor existed of its own accord. Rather, the knowledge they base their own experiments on is the direct result of concrete work done by individuals that brought knowledge into the world that had not been there before.

The scientists who did the initial experiments which led to knowledge that new scientists exploit with THEIR experiments derive no compensation from whatever discoveries the new scientists make.

People use earlier work all the time... it is simply part of life. Only in narcissistic America would people try to "own" what is ineffable -- artistic inspiration based on a concrete text created by a writer.

Right now in England writers are having to rush to the defense of Ian McEwan, who is being accused of plagiarism for using research of another writer in his novel. Nevermind that he acknowledges this writer in the book itself... once again, the narcissism of our age is such that no one is allowed to use anyone else's work, it is all supposedly from the head of Zeus. These directors want to be compensated like they are God, when actually they are more like disciples. The playwright, in the theatre, is God. The director is only God in the rehearsal room.

Carnieboy: No one is denying that "improv" theatre can be good. But to try to use Shakespeare as an example of a writer not being integral to the theatre is simply laughable.

David said...


I'm confused, now -- are you saying that the scientist who makes a discovery based on the work of those who came before has no right to his own, new discovery because he "stood on the shoulders of giants"? It seems to me that that would be an argument for the dissolution of ALL concepts of copyright or intellectual property, not an argument for the playwright's sole right to ownership (because after all, isn't the playwright standing on the shoulders of those who came before him, as well?)

The same applies to your story about McEwan – isn't the director more similar to McEwan in this case? An artist who creates work that is validly his own, which is based upon the work of another who has come before, with the appropriate credit given?

I should also say, for clarification purposes, that I'm assuming a very traditional theatre model for the purposes of this discussion. I myself work mostly in downtown experimental theatre, where many of the ideas that this discussion is based upon do not apply. I'm assuming we're talking about what, in the States at least, we would refer to as a "standard regional theatre model" -- i.e., the playwright writes a script, a director is hired, the director hires the rest of the creative team (designers etc) and casts the show, often with the input of the playwright on all of those decisions (but sometimes not.) I'm also assuming that we are not dealing with a "Rent"-type situation, where a non-playwright member of the creative team (dramaturg, director, whomever) is trying to assert direct ownership over some part of the original, generative work (script, score, what-have-you.) If I understand you correctly, Anon, you are saying that even by asserting ownership over the specific domain of the direction or design, those interpretive artists are affecting the playwright's ownership of the original work -- is that a fair synopsis?


David said...

I'm waiting for video to compile, so I'll jot down some other thoughts.

I actually think that it's really hard to find an analogous situation to the generative artist/interpretive artist relationship we have in the theatre. There are many examples of one generative creator (artist or scientist or philosopher, etc) who builds upon the work of another generative creator. There are also many situations where you have a relationship between a generative creator and (for lack of a better term) a craftsman -- the scenic artist who paints the set, the lab technician who conducts the experiments, the research assistant who compiles data.

But in theatre (at least in the contemporary traditional model) we have a situation of 2+ creative artists, bringing their creativity to the same work, but where one group of them do their work within the confines of what another group of them have previously set out, and with the purpose of best serving that initial creation.

It also should be admitted that the relationship between the generative artists and the interpretive artists on a show is very much a two-way street. While it is true that a play can stand on it's own as a work of art without the contributions of the other artists, at that point it ceases to be a work of theatrical art, and becomes a work of literary art. In order for a play to be theatre, it needs those other creative elements.

This does NOT however, mean that it needs the specialized artists associated with those other elements. You don't need a set designer to have a performance exist in space, but you need need it to exist in space. You need light to be able to see the performers, but that doesn't require a lighting designer. In both of those situations, however, I do think that it's fair to say that there exists and set design and lighting design, even without the "designers" – you may choose to perform in an empty warehouse with just the overhead fluorescents as illumination, but you have still made design choices.

I'm also not trying to use the "two-way street" observation as a sneaky way of asserting the creative right of the interpretive artists to their work – though I think that the fact that there is a debate about this issue is due directly to the fact that the relationship goes both ways, and the question has to do with the exact nature of the relationships, both from interpretive artist to generative artist, and vice versa.


Mark said...

My understanding is that any elements contributed by the original cast or director can be, as per the Dramatists Guild, appropriated into the written text and then owned by the playwright. If McNally had written in a bunch of the staging things that Mantello did in the original production, Mantello would have had no case. But he didn't - he left the text open to interpretation and when Mantello's interpretation was copied wholesale, McNally supported his suit.

There must be a published version of Urinetown that is distributed to people that buy the rights. The extent that document incorporates Rando and Carrafa's work will be important.

My thoughts on the McDonnell stunner are here.

Anonymous said...


The analogy is this: a director claiming ownership for his staging would be like a scientist claiming that discoveries that could not have been made without his discoveries should legally own part of the profits of the latter discoveries.

The scientists whose work inspired the later scientists are not owed money from those later discoveries; and the directors whose "creations" (discoveries) may or may not have inspired future directors (who, like scientists, are working from the basic "stuff" of reality -- scientific knowledge and truth in one case, a concrete literary text in another) also are not owed money from those later directors' "creations."

Contrapositive said...


I've worked with some wonderful directors, but I've never been in a situation where a director had a legitimate moral claim to a property stake in my play. And, just because of the way I work (and because of the structure of the developmental process in American theatre right now) I don't anticipate having a co-authorship relationship with a director any time in the near future.

I readily admit that the kind of collaborator co-creator arrangement you outline is possible, and that it happens all the time--particularly with ensemble-driven and experimental work.

But at least in the professional American theatre, those are still a small minority of overall collaborations. And special contractual arrangements can and should be made in those situations.

The question is, should the basic arrangement, where the writer has unfettered ownership of his or her work, continue to be the default position? Or should that arrangement be upended because special situations arise?

It's hard for me to understand why a playwright who works for 2 years, alone, on a script should forfeit even a small bit of control over his or her work just because there's some ensemble out there where someone wearing a "director" hat and someone wearing a "writer" hat collaborate from day one.

At a more fundamental level, I guess, I believe that playwrights should get paid for productions of their plays, and that directors should get paid for mounting productions. There's a lot that's wrong with the American theatre, but I don't think that framework is part of the problem.

David said...


Ok, I understand what you're saying. I think that the analogy is flawed, however. If director #2 sees director #1's production, and from that thinks, "gosh, there's some great insight here, I really understand the play better now!" and then goes off to direct his own show, which doesn't specifically *look* like director #1's production, but may be ideologically influenced by it, then I think the scientist analogy holds. Dir #2 is building upon the work of Dir #1, but creating his own work.

If, however, Dir #2 see the first show, says, "gosh that's great, I'm going to do exactly that in my own production, and put my own name on it!" then wouldn't that be equivalent to Scientist #2 reading a paper by Scientist #1, copying it almost verbatim, and publishing it as his own, sui generis discovery?


I think that the breakdown in points of view happening here has to do with the idea of what, exactly, the playwright can lay claim to as his or her work. And again, let me frame this by assuming we are working in a standard model of production, not experimental or ensemble collaboration.

The thing that I don't understand is this idea (and if this isn't what you, or Anon, is saying, please correct me) that the playwright can assume ownership of creative ideas that did not come from him, but instead came from the minds of his creators.

Let's say that I read a play, and the playwright has written stage directions that say the play takes place in a room with a window. That is all that the playwright has written regarding the setting, prior to my involvement as set designer.

Then I go and I talk with the playwright, and the director, and the other designers, and we start imagining what this particular production will look like. And maybe I see something in the play (or hear something in the way the playwright describes his work) that makes me think about religious architecture. So I design a very specific room, a monk's cell maybe, with a high clerestory window. And outside the window I put a giant painting of a late medieval Blessed Virgin Mary, looking in thru the window. In this case, it is still, as the playwright said, a room with a window, but very specific choices have been made about what kind of room, placement of the window, and a whole new element (the BVM) has been added.

The show goes up, and the playwright (crazy weird guy that he is) LOVES the design -- he thinks it is the only way that the play should be done, the whole monk's-cell-and-BVM-watching-thing. Are you (or Anon) saying that you feel that the playwright has the right to claim that very specific design as his own work for all future productions? Even though all he wrote was "a room with a window" and all of the other specifics arose from my weird, religiously obsessed, mind?

(BTW, I'm totally cribbing the BVM from a production of DOLL'S HOUSE I saw. Just to give props where they're due...)

Let me be clear: the set designer is not making any claims on the script itself, not asking for royalties everytime the play being done. He has no Right of First Refusal clause in his contract, so the playwright is free and clear to hire any designer in the world that he wants to for any future productions. The question is, can the playwright hire some other designer (meaning the original designer isn't getting paid anything for the second production) but instruct that designer to replicate the first designer's work because the playwright feels that that is the ideal way to design the set for his play?


Anonymous said...

The designer should be paid - -and paid well -- for that sensitive and brilliant design. Once it's out there, though, others might copy the basic idea, and them's the breaks. Unless every theater artist wants to join the overly litigious crazyness of Ameican culture. As stated by someone above (but not picked up by anyone) the music scene is way ahead on this and songwriters and arrangers are finding ways to make their work available to be sampled and built upon by others without stepping on their credit -- because it enriches the world of music. Would be nice to see some of that spirit in this conversation.

David said...


If I see your play, love it, and go home and write my own play using 80% of your work (I mean literally YOUR WORK – not inspired by it, or general concepts like overall plot; I mean your words, directly transcribed), and then market it as my own, to whatever profits I may receive, is that still okay because "it's out there, and them's the breaks?"

For the record, I'm actually all for the major rethinking of copyright that is going on, as exemplified by Creative Commons, etc. I've been positioning this argument within the framework of current copyright law (to the limited extent I understand it) because it did, originally start with the whole URINETOWN question.

What's interesting is that in your "them's the breaks" example, you're denying to this theoretical set design even the most basic level of protection available under CC licenses, which is that of attribution.

And actually, now that I've written that, that is also at the heart of part of my response to the notion of the playwright somehow owning the works of the rest of the creative team as if it were his or her own -- that, too, denies even that basic acknowledgment of attribution.

Gotta run, preview tonight.


carnieboy said...

Anon, I completely agree with you, that to try to use Shakespeare as an example of a writer not being integral to the theatre is simply laughable.

However, that's not what I was trying to do. I was using Shakespeare as an example of an artist (who, I'm assuming would count as a 'generative' artist by your definition, perhaps the generative artist par excellence) AND YET who undoubtedly interpreted older, pre-existing stories. If you look at Julius Caesar, there's very little in it that's new, that was created by Shakespeare. The story is old, the characters were well-known, and most everyone what happened. All Shakespeare did was put it into an incredible form and structure. This can be said for a good many of his plays.

So my question to you is this: would you consider Shakespeare to be a generative or an interpretive artist? If interpretive, then it seems to me you're going to have a hard time arguing that any other dramatist should be considered a generative artist; and if generative, then I'm going to ask why it's okay for Shakespeare to take someone else's story, re-fashion it, and be considered a generative artist, but not for a director/actor to take a playwright's story, bring it off the page and into present action, and not be considered a generative artist.

To recap my earlier point: you're using these two terms, 'generative' and 'interpretive' to carry a lot of your argument. And I just don't think they stand up to such scrutiny - I don't think the two concepts are well-defined enough or different enough or point to a significant enough distinction that they'll support your argument.

I'll be even simpler: if the difference is simply that an interpretive artist takes what's already given and re-interprets it, whereas a generative artist creates ideas out of nothing, then I'll simply argue that there's no such thing as a generative artist, because nobody can make anything out of nothing. Language is always already given, myth is always already given, community and context are always already given, and it is out of those building blocks that artists manage to frame and draw attention to something of lasting value.

This is their true value - not that they create out of nothing, but that they draw our attention to what has always been there but that we never noticed before.

Anonymous said...

Yes, you're right. I was exaggerating. CC makes attribution all-important and I agree with that. That can be covered in programs and published playscripts that give info about original productions. But I think the professional embarrassment that could be heaped upon a designer who copies another designer's work (and a reluctance of directors to hire her/him thereafter) would be more effective (and less of a nuisance for everyone involved) than a lawsuit.

David said...


Look, we talked and talked and managed to get to point where we agree with one another! Mirabile dictu!

I agree with you completely, the approbation and scorn of one's artistic peers is a much more effective deterrent than the threat of lawsuit. And, I would say, despite the amount of noise that is generated when someone does in fact bring suit over copyright infringement, I think that is the exception not the norm. Most of the time we as designers (or whatever) are vigilant about self-policing on this issue. In fact, I remember when I was in grad school, some of our professors would strongly dissuade us from looking at pictures of previous productions of some show we were designing as a paper project, lest we be influenced. So that concern does exist in the community.


I get where you're coming from, and I agree that there is no such thing as a new idea. But I think that there is a difference between the way that Shakespeare created new work based on the previous histories by Plutarch or Holinshed, and the way that a designer makes new work based on a playwright's script. A designer seeks to make a design that helps to create the best possible production of the work, and I think that this idea of "serving the play" is the source of the difference. "Serving the play" does not, however, necessarily mean doing what the playwright says to do, as the playwright may not know what the best solution might be. (If anyone feels the need to slam me for that statement, give me the opportunity to expand upon it first. I'm not doing so here in the hope of avoiding a manifesto-length comment.)

So I think that there can be a difference between "generative" and "interpretive" artists -- though I don't think that there has to be one, as is repeatedly shown by experimental ensembles who question the received manner in which new performative work is developed.