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Think a Play Needs Updating? Ask the Author First or Do Something Else

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The words "cease-and-desist" have seeped into the theater world in the past few weeks, and I feel compelled to chime in not as a blogger but as a playwright.

The first legal action was filed against the Alchemist Theatre in Milwaukee over some gender bending. Alchemist was presenting David Mamet's play about power struggle among the sexes, Oleanna, but rather than casting the female lead as a she, the company cast a male to play a transgender woman.

Mamet, who is notoriously rigid with his writing, had his management company order the theater to close the doors on this production as they had not previously discussed the casting change. In fact, the whole thing appeared to be kept rather hush-hush, perhaps for dramatic effect or to utilize the "it's easier to beg for forgiveness than ask permission" mantra. That method doesn't always fly.

Almost simultaneously, Houston's own TUTS Underground, the smaller/less mainstream arm of Theatre Under the Stars, was also slapped with a cease-and-desist when they presented a disfigured version of the Tony-nominated musical Hands on a Hardbody.

According to Broadway World's interview with Hands on a Hardbody creator Amanda Green, who attended the opening night of the show: "They started the opening number and I noticed that some people were singing solos other than what we'd assigned. As we neared the middle of the opening number, I thought, 'What happened to the middle section?'" She continued: "I thought, 'So we did put this number second after all' before realizing that we hadn't done that. I kept waiting for 'If I Had a Truck' and it didn't come."

TUTS was also forced to shut down the production and issue refunds to its ticket holders.

As I am someone who is part of the Houston theater community, you can imagine that my social media lit up like a smoke break at an AA meeting. What I found rather interesting was that there was a significant amount of disagreement over whether these practices were justified, with a number of people saying that they thought it was okay.

Let's put this out there so there is no arguing: Changing copyrighted material is illegal. That's it. There's no bending the laws on this. Not being able to alter original source material is one of the reasons copyright laws exist. But let's for a minute pretend that they don't. Humor me for a minute.

Much of the argument in favor of the changes made to Hands on a Hardbody was that it was made better. I haven't seen the original, nor did I see TUTS Underground's production, so I cannot weigh in on this specifically, but I can tell you this: Everything can be made better. The Mona Lisa could be made better. The David... well maybe not The David, but certainly other works of Michelangelo could be made better. There is nothing in this world that couldn't use some improvement. This very reason is why restaurants don't allow substitutions and print that boldly on their menus. They are very aware that their sandwiches could lose a tomato or add some bacon, but they have already pre-sliced all the ingredients and that is a lot of work.

That being said, it's important to remember that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and art, specifically, is admired on an individual level. Art and sandwiches. I am sure that TUTS and the Alchemist Theatre thought that what they were doing was helping the plays to be better, be bolder, be... "fill in the blank." But if they thought these productions needed improvement, then maybe they shouldn't have done them in the first place?

Or maybe they should have made their suggested changes to the writers? I wonder how the authors would have responded if they had been presented with sound reasoning for the updates? There is never any harm in asking artists to update their work; you just have to be prepared for the response.

I understand very well from a writer's perspective that we do not want our words messed with. We love our words. They are our favorite things in the whole world. If we could marry them and have little baby words, we probably would. I've written sentences that I thought were so amazing that I questioned my own sanity (Am I that good?). Guess what? I'm not. And neither was that brilliant phrase that I just wrote about something silly like pie.

Some writers are so meticulous with their words that they spend hours picking and choosing individual phonemes. F. Scott Fitzgerald allegedly spent days poring over each word, writing and then rewriting until he felt he had achieved the perfect sentence.

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Do you think Fitzgerald would have appreciated the literary license director Baz Luhrmann took with The Great Gatsby in the recent rendition of the film? Oh, hell-to-the-are-you-effin'-kidding-me no. But Fitzgerald is not alive to defend his prose. Amanda Green and David Mamet are.

Now is the time for shameless, yet unavoidable self-promotion: I have a new play opening up in a few weeks being mounted by Horse Head Theatre called Spaghetti Code. I like it; I think it's pretty good. When the current artistic director of Horse Head read it for the first time, she enthusiastically told me she loved it. She also handed it back to me covered in red lines. As a writer desperately in love with every little beat in the play (yeah, I am that annoying that I write the beats in my plays), I could have told her to go screw. But I am also a writer who wants to see the best iteration of my work done and I know that I am not the pre-eminent judge of my own writing. So I went through her proposed changes, as well as some made by friends and family members, and I changed. The play has hit its fifth revision and that's not including various minor updates.

I think it's at its best stage yet. But I was given the opportunity to change what I wanted. No one just up and did it for me. And you can bet there were numerous things that we didn't agree on; ultimately the decision to alter them or not was mine. That is called collaboration, not revision by cloak and dagger. There is a huge difference.

Maybe Mamet wouldn't have been open to the gender changes proposed, but at the very least, if asked, he would have been given the opportunity. Now, he just has to act resolute. As well, Green, rather than given the justification of why TUTS Underground felt it best to move around songs and the actors who sing them in her play, was embarrassed and made to feel as if her play wasn't good enough. And, hell, it very well might not have been -- but that's not the point.

The point is that, just like a sandwich that you really wished had avocado instead of havarti cheese, it is what it is. If you don't like the sandwich, or the play, then do something else.

Abby's new play "Spaghetti Code" runs July 12-28. For more information, visit horseheadtheatre.org

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