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There’s No Such Thing as an Original Play

The way training often teaches young theatre artists to think about creativity is wrong. Most people think about creativity as either a mystical process that Elizabeth Gilbert called “big magic” or as a purely mechanistic one—as Steven Pressfield put it in The War of Art, “The most important thing about art is to work.” However, both prevailing understandings of creativity are almost entirely focused on individual artistic genius or personal work ethic as opposed to collaboration. This individualistic understanding of creativity is not only inaccurate, but in the United States it is firmly tied into a capitalist framework of art-making that is more about profit than actually creating good art.

The nature of the theatre debunks this individualistic idea of creativity. In the typical process of new play development, a play is shaped not just through formal discussions between the playwright and the dramaturg (though that is a major component of new script authorship), but also through artists being in a creative space together. Scenes change based on actors’ choices, new characters are created because of off-hand remarks from collaborators, and entire story beats change based on the reactions of people in the rehearsal room. In this way, the final version of a script has as many authors as there were voices in the room—and often several authors outside of the room.

So who, then, writes a play? Who is the author?

The idea for a script—the core creativity of it—is not born but evolved.

Playwright and theatre theorist Charles L. Mee once wrote that:

“There is no such thing as an original play. None of the classical Greek plays were original: they were all based on earlier plays or poems or myths. And none of Shakespeare's plays are original: they are all taken from earlier work… Sometimes playwrights steal stories and conversations and dreams and intimate revelations from their friends and lovers and call this original. And sometimes some of us write about our own innermost lives, believing that, then, we have written something truly original and unique. But, of course, the culture writes us first, and then we write our stories.”

To unpack that quote a little, formal education and informal cultural understandings both frame artists as singular creative forces, people who wake up one morning with a brilliant idea that, like Moses descending from the mountaintop, they provide to their audience in the form of paintings, poems, or completed playscripts. But that notion is ridiculous. When someone writes a script, any number of things can inspire them—their kids, their friends, their trauma, their political point of view, etc. So, then, the idea for a script—the core creativity of it—is not born but evolved. To put that another way, one person doesn’t sit down to write a play and immediately create a fully-formed artistic work; lots of factors interact to put that idea in the playwright’s head, and still more factors shape the “final” version of their script.

Under this expanded framework, everyone who works on a play—which is a live, performed thing that is different from just the script itself—authors it. Productions of plays are shaped by any number of things, including non-artistic elements like budget limitations, where the play is being performed, the demographic make-up of the artists involved, etc. Very few plays exist in reality in the way they were originally conceived. So, just like the process of writing a script, the process of realizing a play has many, many authors.

Several actors in a circle on the floor.

Photo of Frantic Assembly workshop. Photo by Joshua Cowie.

The Cost of Individual Notions of Creativity

Outside of broad, theoretical observations about the nature of creativity, this focus on the individual impacts theatre artists materially and economically. Theatre is a multi-billion-dollar industry, so why are most theatre artists in the United States constantly broke or close to broke? Because theatre artists don’t start making good money until they reach a certain level of mainstream success in their career, which typically means either working with an established nonprofit theatre company or joining the team of a big for-profit production (i.e. Broadway). Even if a theatre artist is lucky enough to get hired at a union job—the only artistic jobs in the professional theatre with reliable pay and benefits—most still are in precarious economic situations, as the COVID shutdown showed us. The theatre is also rife with income inequality, labor exploitation, and inadequate labor protections.

This exploitation has been accepted, in part, because arts workers are taught to think of ourselves as individual artists rather than members of a collective and collaborative workplace. One of the first things many theatre students were told upon entering theatre school is that “we are our own business.” Perhaps this is meant to inspire a sense of responsibility and accountability in young artists, but it actually teaches that every artist is alone, a singular individual creating in a silo. It encourages a capitalist way of thinking about art in which isolated artists are out for themselves or, in many cases, actively competing with other artists. This divides artists from their collaborators—who would be called “coworkers” in other industries. Rather than correctly viewing the other artists on a production as fellow workers in a workplace, theatre artists are trained to think of themselves primarily as individuals, which naturally discourages collective action or organizing within the workplace. If each artist is their own business, it is only natural for more successful theatre artists to hesitate to go out of their way and potentially jeopardize their own positions to support other artists professionally—after all, McDonald’s doesn’t help out Wendy’s. Conversely, theatre artists who are in less privileged positions often don’t advocate for themselves as strongly as they could both because they lack the capital—whether social or financial—to do so and because they feel lucky to be there at all.

Theatre is a multi-billion-dollar industry, so why are most theatre artists in the United States constantly broke or close to broke?

This individual approach to theatremaking naturally leads to a lack of pay equity. For example, Broadway assistant and resident directors—who are the people who actually keep the shows running day in and day out—just got guaranteed employer backing of healthcare this year, an important win as health insurance costs can eat away huge chunks of workers’ paychecks. Even in these higher-profile jobs, the compensation and benefits can vary greatly. While Bette Midler was making $150,000 a week in Hello Dolly!, most of her castmates were making $2,000 a week, the assistant designers probably made about $1,770 a week, and most of the orchestra probably made around $1,800 a week (though the musicians union has since renegotiated their contract). Despite the fact that Midler was doing quite literally the same job as her fellow actors, she made seventy-five times more money than her collaborators. I don’t want to take anything away from Midler, but she certainly did not give seventy-five times the performance of her fellow actors nor have seventy-five times the impact on the final production as any of the other creatives involved in the production. I maintain that her salary has less to do with her contribution to art-making process and more to do with how much she was able to negotiate individually. Yet her co-workers didn’t publicly revolt or demand more money. They, like the wider theatre community, accepted it as a natural fact of the theatre: stars get paid more because their “business” is more successful. Why has this been accepted? The answer, in my view, is that we still think of creativity as individual.

Toward a Collective Creativity

The lack of theatre artists thinking collectively and then acting collectively has made us all easier to exploit. It is imperative that to change the way we teach, think, and talk about creativity to decenter the individual artist. Instead, we must center the collaborative nature of creativity and authorship in the theatre to fight against the wide-spread acceptance of exploitation.

The lack of theatre artists thinking collectively and then acting collectively has made us all easier to exploit.

However, simply changing how we think about creativity isn’t enough. Artists must take steps to create a more collaborative theatre culture, one that does away with the unhelpful hierarchies of creativity that shut voices out of authorship and undervalue others. It is essential that artists must fight for pay equity. Those with the greatest responsibility to fight for this are the most successful artists. They have to openly, clearly credit their collaborators and publicly fight for them—and others in their position—to be paid and treated fairly. Additionally, union members should fight for more inclusive membership rules. For many, union membership (and therefore, the protections they provide) is inaccessible. This allows for an un-unionized class of theatre artists who can be more easily exploited and abused by unscrupulous producers who dangle the ability to join the union as a motivation to stay in unsafe and unethical work situations. Every worker should have the right to a union if they want one, and theatre workers shouldn’t be an exception.

There is no such thing as an original play. Every play that has ever been produced is the result of a collective and collaborative effort. The theatre industry is, fundamentally, a collaborative industry in which many people with differing talents and abilities come together to make something that is greater than the sum of its parts. This should be a beautiful and moving testament to the power of working together, but it has been perverted into something else. In the current moment, the theatre industry is a place where most people struggle and scrape to get by while a privileged few get rich. Every artist on a project is an author of that project and deserves to be recognized and compensated as such.

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