Thirsty Thursday: Dramatists Guild Scolds Insulting Call for Plays

In light of the controversy surrounding the submission process for Words Players Theater in Rochester, MN, the Dramatists Guild of America president, Doug Wright, wrote a response to the director Daved Driscoll.

Early last week, Donna Hoke, the Guild Regional Rep for Western New York, wrote a blog post lambasting the Words Players Theater for their egregious submission guidelines. specifically the guideline that states:

“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.”

Donna Hoke’s original blog post can be found here:

The Dramatists Guild and Doug Wright felt a response was warranted and sent the following text to Daved Driscoll and Kathryn Kuhlmann, Executive Director for the Words Players Theater:

“August 4, 2015

Daved Driscoll
Northland Words / Words Players Theatre
P.O. Box 1274
Rochester MN   55903

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 tack.  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.

Doug Wright, President
Dramatists Guild of America, Inc.

cc: Tammy Wetenkamp, Treasurer; Kathryn Kuhlmann, Executive Director, Northland Words”