In-depth: Local director's call for plays leads to national theater debate
An argument of ethics takes the national stage following a call for plays by Rochester’s Words Players Theatre.
Words Players recently lost their venue in the Conley-Maass building downtown after it was bought for laboratory space. Since then, they’ve been rehearsing plays in parks and living rooms and making due with the time and resources their volunteers can give. The theater group is, essentially, homeless.
Despite this, they were determined to resume business as usual and continued planning for their 8th Annual Original Short Play Festival. This prompted the release of their controversial call for plays. Due to their budget and resource constraints, the call included some less-than-conventional stipulations for potential playwrights, a complete list of which can be found here.
Several prominent members of the theater community were outraged by these stipulations, including Doug Wright, president of the Dramatists Guild of America. In a letter published by Playbill, Wright confronted artistic director of Words Players Daved Driscoll about the director’s “shockingly errant” submission guidelines, particularly that:
- Words Players’ student directors are entitled to modify any detail of the script;
- They will “largely ignore considerations of age, race and gender in casting decisions;”
- Words Players will record the performances and will retain property of those recordings;
- And the theater will not pay for the scripts.
“Your festival requirements constitute an arrogant assault on playwrights, as well as the art and profession of playwriting itself,” writes Wright, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize. “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.”
Wright then accused Driscoll of taking advantage of the Words Player’s status as an amateur theater organization and asked if being “in a community so remote from centers of professional theatrical production” caused him to think no one would notice or care.
“You are in breach of the social contract that society has with its playwrights,” writes Wright, “in which writers are denied the likelihood of making a living in exchange for ownership and control of their words.”
Playwright Donna Hoke, too, was infuriated. She posted on her blog an article titled “Dissecting the Most Disgusting Call for Plays I’ve Ever Seen.”
“Suffice to say I did not send a submission,” she writes, “but a carefully and strongly worded email that alludes to all I’ve said [in the article].”
In a response posted on the Words Players Website, Driscoll writes that, “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.” He apologized for his “careless writing,” which he believes is the main issue at hand.
Due to the small and informal nature of the Words Players community, most of their past plays have been written, directed, and produced by those directly associated with the theater. Therefore, any changes made to scripts were made after discussion amongst the group as a whole; no formal meeting or permission was required. In his letter to Wright, Driscoll stated the activity within Words Players, “was and remains the exploratory work, mostly, of students.”
In the past couple years, however, their call for plays has reached an international audience. With more and more work pouring in from playwrights unaccustomed to the theater’s low-budget, informal process, the theater struggled with how to incorporate the plays without exceeding their budgetary means.
“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,” explained Driscoll. “Disrespect was not remotely intended.”
Furthermore, Driscoll argued Wright’s claim that the theater changes scripts without playwright permission.
“No author has ever felt disrespected. We take [the scripts] seriously. We talk about them more than we rehearse them,” he said in a phone interview with The Med City Beat. “If we can change Shakespeare without being disrespectful, surely we can change a 13-year-old girl’s play without being disrespectful.”
About Sydney Flottum: Sydney is a double major in graphic design and English literature at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. She enjoys being back in Rochester for the summer and spending time reading, drawing, and catching up with friends and family. Currently, she’s attempting to teach herself how to play the accordion but is overwhelmed by all the buttons.
(Cover photo: 2014 / Daved Driscoll / The Med City Beat)