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A Playwright’s Words

Last Rights? thatswhatshesaid Offers a Challenging Conversation.

Plagiarism: like most everything else in their college careers, I feel like my students take it for granted. Meaning, they know they’re not supposed to do it, but they barely know why. It would be easy to just tell them threateningly to not do it. Instead, we talk about it. I pose a question: which is worse? To steal a $100 bill, or someone’s original idea? They always pick the money. At first. But slowly, I break down the cost of an idea: the value of information, the sweat equity, the investment of tuition and research grants. Then, we go over what’s at stake for the authors: peer and social respect, awards and honors, and opportunity. All to devise new theories, inventions, and hypotheses, to add to human achievement and betterment.

That’s not enough, though. What I really want them to understand is that higher education is its own culture with its own system of ethics, and to partake in it is to accept a process of learning that is not always easy or straightforward. So, I push them towards a conclusion I hope they actually get: that taking someone’s work, besides devaluing that work and person, communicates to me that they don’t care about education at all. I realize this is almost unreasonable, a hasty generalization of one person’s values and morals. But I want them to think about who they are, and what they’ve chosen to participate in. My ultimate goal is actually value. I want them to value their own education, and the people who make it possible for them to engage in such a complex and human process. It’s just a beginning, but I want them to come to their own understanding that it’s important to protect others’ ideas in a collective situation; to further the conversation in that particular culture, and eventually culture at large.

an actor on stage
Erin Pike in thatswhatshesaid. Photo by Tim Summers.

The theatre experience is a collective, too, with its own rules and expectations, and part of the process is respecting that creation. This was made clear recently when Patti LuPone stopped her performance of Shows for Days and confiscated a distracted audience member’s cell phone. That would never work in my classroom—violence most likely would erupt. But the theatre is not a classroom. And the cell-phone-using theatregoer was breaching the ethics of the culture of theatre—an experience not to be interrupted by individual audience members’ desires. Yes, the audience inherently matters to the process—but the artists involved deserve attention, and to be experienced collectively too.

There is also the reality that it is difficult and expensive to create theatre. Sometimes the greatest costs aren’t production expenses or getting butts in seats: there are problems with productions and groups that fail in their intent to respect all artists involved, like the recent Kent State production of Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop with its white Martin Luther King, Jr., or the doomed call for plays by Words Players Theatre, or Samuel Beckett’s objections to a production of Endgame at American Repertory Theatre. Many playwrights experience finding their work significantly altered by a production, without any permission. Of course, the play itself isn’t necessarily the center of a production’s life. However, the manhandling of a playwright’s text can feel particularly violent. Because playwriting is lonely. And difficult. And writing a play doesn’t guarantee any kind of opportunity or production. New plays are a high-stakes, low-yield gamble.

Which is why playwright/creators Erin Pike, Courtney Meaker, and Hatlo’s recent project of creating a play, thatswhatshesaid, from all the female lines from the top eleven most-produced plays of 2015 presents a puzzle. They produced it in the small venue Gay City Arts, a nonprofit; then, play publisher and licensing company Samuel French issued a cease-and-desist order for using lines from Bad Jews, a play in their catalogue. The creators disobeyed for a short time, due to the notice being too close to a sold-out show, and instead used the cease-and-desist to emphasize in performance part of their message, which draws attention to the representation of women in contemporary theatre work, both in dialogue and stage directions (and the fact that nine out of the eleven most-produced plays were written by men). It’s a stunning and daunting concept, taking the disparate words of different authors to create a new narrative, and it took the artists two years to create their piece. However, in response to French’s legal objections, which were joined by other cease-and-desist letters on behalf of other playwrights whose material was used in the show, the artists felt they should close down the production. It seems that Pike, Meaker, and Hatlo have thwarted using copyrighted source material and using another writer’s words without compensation, or permission. It sounds uncomfortably like plagiarism.

Plagiarism isn’t the only form of unethical use of another’s work. Which is a better tactical choice in an argument: to throw someone’s words back in their face? Or craft original reasoning and language to make a point? My students prefer the latter, even if the former sounds enticing. It’s better rhetoric, and a stronger argument, to avoid using someone’s words against themselves, or taken out of context to support a point. It damages credibility, and in that way it damages reasoning, because fair-minded, intelligent individuals prefer to make up their own minds. Heavy bias doesn’t really belong in the classroom; instead, fairness, neutrality, and well-conveyed ideas. Students have to work harder for those, but then they value them more. Which makes them value plagiarism even less. Because what do we own if we don’t own our ideas? Isn’t that part of what makes our contexts and cultures what they are—being able to define and delineate our personhood, our spaces? In the US, the right to own property is as old as the country, as is our freedom to express essential ideas of truth and meaning.

Does Erin Pike have the right to take a playwright’s hard-earned success and find a way to draw attention to her agenda, weaving it, without permission, into her own craft? My work in the classroom seems to say no. Is Samuel French providing an essential service in protecting its playwright and its catalogue? Again, from the classroom—an easy yes. But is theatre a classroom?

But some ideas and words need to be used to create other new ideas without the time or resources to give due diligence to what ownership toes, so to speak, might be stepped on. According to Samuel French, this is a problem. Intellectual property is fiercely protected in the US, from the “Happy Birthday” song to the use of Marvin Gaye’s musical legacy in Pharrell’s “Blurred Lines.” It is also protected in academia, and the larger cultural realm: plagiarizing authors, journalists, and others, often fall into disgrace. And those who would choose to take an author’s ideas out of their intentional context get berated as well, such as in the aforementioned cases with The Mountaintop, Beckett, and such. So, thatswhatshesaid has not only violated the essential definition of plagiarism, but also rhetorical ethics, as well? The authors have removed the words from their context, and used them in subversive ways—to relay messages not necessarily in keeping with the original texts. Does Erin Pike have the right to take a playwright’s hard-earned success and find a way to draw attention to her agenda, weaving it, without permission, into her own craft? My work in the classroom seems to say a resounding no. And is Samuel French providing an essential service in protecting its playwright and its catalogue? Again, from the classroom—an easy yes. But… but. Is… is theatre a classroom?

The past of theatre-making, might provide clues, though history can be stuffy stuff, full of dead white males, wars, an overabundance of dates, and bad memories of required general courses that can’t be fully enlivened by the most gifted, interesting teacher. Theatre history might even drive a young actor or director to chuck course responsibilities to go rehearse, and then copy-and-paste some Wikipedia blurb about the Passion Play of Oberammergau or Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim the night before the big paper is due. Why? Because theatre is immediate; theatre is expressive. Theatre is community—theatre is now. What could be found in the subtext of expensive survey textbooks? It is a story, itself, of an art form conversant with its time. The Greek tragedians and comedians exploring the intricacies and intimacies of personal and communal politics. The ancient Indian Kathakali, engaging with spiritual being and tradition through dance and drama. Morality plays, bridging more than the gap to heaven or hell, and enlivening the days of illiterate masses cut off from their own religious texts. French restoration comedy pricking the hypocrisy and corruption mixed with low insight from people in power. Ibsen portraying how shocking it is for a woman to have needs that trump biological and traditional imperatives. Shakespeare and his original mash-ups of entertainment and sublime insight into the human heart and mind. Brecht, Artaud, Grotowski: those European provocateurs searching for ways to find meaning from the destruction of meaning in a postwar world, the product of unfathomable acts of mass destruction?

Everyone is dead in history, but history isn’t itself dead. As much as we would sometimes like to think it’s irrelevant—or as we sometimes forget about it entirely—the history of our craft tells us the story of ourselves, the deep needs of our beings, played out against, within, and without the cultures that create and constrain us. And theatre has a long history of taking and giving. Shakespeare’s dramaturgy, absolutely. But also the artists of Bloolips’s Belle Reprieve, a feminist re-envisioning of A Streetcar Named Desire. Granted, this was 1991… and before that, the sixteenth century. Perhaps the times made it more acceptable for these theatre-makers to nab the characters, themes, and plotlines of another’s work, and make it their own. Still, the past is an education.

I’ve read that most people don’t like to formally learn, but they like to solve problems, even difficult puzzles, if they look at least possible to solve. While there’s always somebody prophesying theatre’s doom, small theatres and artists have solved some contemporary theatre problems, springing up as little brush fire experiences that demand to be remembered, causing a conversation in a person’s soul. Theatre is most definitely a classroom. It is one of the public places in our world where commerce, though waging a strong battle, has never trumped all. It is wonderful to be paid, but it is more wonderful to try to change something that needs changing, through the love for the elliptical enlightenment that is story. This is how theatre artists present the puzzle of being human—but also allow their “readers,” their audience, who is very smart, to make up their own minds.

If ideas only exist to belong to us, then no one can really have a conversation.

The creators of thatswhatshesaid—did they breach the ethics of theatre? Do my instructional methods apply, here? Only if the context were the same, but it’s not. To partake in theatre is to accept the challenge of thoughtfulness, of craft, of deliberate awareness of self and the world. To not clutch a play or production to our chests as if it were about to be confiscated, like a cell phone, or used passively to reach a singular end. In other words, if ideas only exist to belong to us, then no one can really have a conversation. And that is not theatre artistry. At least, not the theatre artistry of near and far history.

There is one more lesson that I try to impart to my students, which they are strangely quite clueless about: when trying to communicate, it is not the author, finally, who matters the most. It is the context, first, but finally, the audience, who must be taken into primary consideration. So, as theatre artists, if we put our artistic vision in an exclusive place, where none can converse with it, we are no better than plagiarists—we do not understand our very own context, which is to change the world, just like higher education. Pike, Meaker, and Hatlo have upheld the ethics of theatre by conversing with its context, and bravely putting a new work before an audience. People will remember the struggle, the puzzle. They’re far less likely to remember the publisher, or even the authors. Not that they don’t matter, but do they matter the most? Property matters— but the most? I’ll let you decide. But I think it’s better to consider what’s bigger. And what matters more.

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In the mid-90's I had to prove to my 7-year-old daughter that "Killing Me Softly" was a Roberta Flack hit before Lauren Hill and the Fugees ramped it up. It was right at the time that vinyl records were being replaced by cd's, but I still had a turntable. It had made it way from L.A. to VA, but without a needle. Finally, when she heard the original version she was like, "Okay, the Fugees totally sampled that song." Exactly, Grasshopper, and and all that needs to happen is that the Fugees credit the original artist and pay royalty fees. Fast forward three years later and this same daughter is now a mix-cd master. In my day, a 90 minute mix-cassette tape was a major declaration of great emotion and took a lot of time. A 120 minute mix-cd took less than 30 minutes to pull and burn and now it was a lucrative cottage industry. She took orders from folks like my brother who loved 70's R & B groups like Blue Magic and the Stylistics. Now mind you, this was during the time that the music industry was threatening to put people in jail for stealing music. I'm worried sick that my child is going to end up in jail, but It all worked out. Today she's a high school math teacher, plays steel pan drums, raps under the stage name Ms. Drumz and she copyrights all her tunes.


Interestingly, I've been fiddling with this issue myself (and recently pitched the idea to Howlround), particularly looking at Doug Wright's letter from the Dramatists' Guild on casting consultation. One of the things that struck me most forcefully in the thatswhatshesaid situation was the cease and desist letter they received regarding "Whipping Man," which contains no female characters and therefor no actual lines from the play. Is this not a form of legal control seeking to stifle fair criticism?

Agreed. Analyzing this through the lens of plagiarism is wrongheaded. On the other topic of a white actor playing the role of MLK that sounds like a presenter not truly believing in the play or non-tradition casting, but because the play is acclaimed they put it in their season. But Dr. King is too well remembered by today's audiences, and the playwright, to accept that switch. Give it another 20 years and audiences will do what they always do -- enjoy a good story told well. My play "Abolitionists' Museum" features the following: Harriet Tubman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sojourner Truth, John Brown, Frederick Douglass, David Walker, Nat Turner and Abraham Lincoln. These 8 are wax figures in a museum where the curator has recently hung a Confederate flag and they debate whether or not to burn it. Lincoln has been played by an Black female and a Hispanic teen boy because once you put a stovepipe hat and a beard on anyone -- you get Honest Abe. White abolitionist John Brown has been played by a Black man in white face. Frederick Douglass, most recently, was played by an 11-year-old boy in full costume including beard and wig. During a 2009 performance a woman from the audience interrupted a performance with this missive directed towards the "actor" playing the role of Nat Turner, "Nat Turner killed my family!" 70-year-old Rose Nichols was a descendant of one of the victims of the 1831 Nat Turner Insurrection and over 180 years later she was still carrying a lot of hurt and anger. An important component of the play is the post-show discussion with the audience because the play's success is totally vested in the audience sharing, without shame or blame, how they would vote. People leave enlightened and that's the goal

My understanding is that the quotes were for purposes of critical review, and therefore fair use. The issue of course being that it can be expensive to establish this legally if the owner wishes to dispute this.

I think analyzing this through the lens of plagiarism is wrongheaded... plagiarism means taking the words or ideas of someone else and passing them off as your own. The artists involved here are not pretending they wrote texts from which they are quoting, nor are they engaged in an act of deception by hiding their sources - they seem to be quite clear and upfront about the source material they are drawing from, and their reasons for doing so. They may be in violation of copyright, but they are not plagiarists - whether you look at their work from an academic standpoint or a theatrical one. This case more resembles hip-hop sampling than plagiarism - which of course has copyright implications. Certainly a case could be made that they violated copyright law, (though copyright law, as another poster noted, leaves room for "fair use") but plagiarists they are not. I also think they may be on to something rather interesting: when you think about how hip-hop artists created an entire new genre of music and culture by creatively lifting from the cultural artifacts that preceded their work (a creative evolution over 40 years in which "taking the disparate words of different authors to create a new narrative" in neither a "stunning" or "daunting concept" but rather a legitimate and often groundbreaking performance vocabulary), Sam French and others who demanded these artists to cease and desist may have done more damage than good in advancing the form.

I admire your conclusion, but by spending so much time describing plagiarism without a single mention of fair use leaves a derogatory impression of the work and the research of the creators. In fact, fair use in copyright law exists precisely to carve out space in culture for transformative work like this play.