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Bowdlerization for Fun and Profit
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
There was a terrifically entertaining theatre "controversy" in Houston, Texas this past summer, a lively brouhaha precipitated by the actions of an egomaniac artistic director who decided to change the script of the current musical he was directing without telling any of the authors. The musical, Hands on a Hardbody, debuted on Broadway in 2013, and though it did manage to snag a few Tony nominations, it enjoyed only a modest run and closed after 28 performances. Houston was the second city to mount a regional production of the play, which was adapted from a well-reviewed documentary about a real-life "endurance contest" that took place in Texas in the 90s. (Twenty-four contestants tried to win a pick-up truck by keeping their hands on it the longest — hence the provocative, soft-core sounding title.)
Anyway, the director of the Houston show decided to "improve" the narrative of the musical by moving songs around, reassigning vocalists, cutting sections out of songs, adding incidental music, etc. The lyricist for the show attended the opening night performance — for some inexplicable, insane reason, the artistic director had invited her to the show (what, did he think she was going to be pleased??) — and after watching the wholesale "improvements" made to her work, the lyricist, predictably, went apeshit crazy over what she had witnessed. Phone calls were made, an investigation was initiated, Dramatists' Guild and Samuel French were contacted, and after some heated discussions a "cease-and-desist" order was sent to the Houston theatre and the company was forced to cancel the second (and final) weekend of performances.
The episode struck a chord with many theatre professionals and working writers across the country who were horrified that such an egregious attack on the sovereignty of the protected work could have taken place. This, clearly, was an abominable act: you simply do not change a word of a script that you are contracted to perform. It's not just an "unwritten rule" about ethics in the professional theatre world, it's actually a written rule, there, in black and white, in every single contract signed by every professional theatre company who gets licensing approval.
In the aftermath of the Hands on a Hardbody incident, there was almost universal condemnation about the absolute disregard that the director showed in changing the script to fit his "vision." Righteous letters about the ego and arrogance of the director filled message boards and theatre websites and there were calls for the artistic director to be fired, immediately and without equivocation. Almost everybody, in their collective, indignant fervor, echoed the same thought: Who would do such a thing?
Who indeed. As a writer, I must say, that I'm appalled by what happened in Houston; I would hate it if some wunderkind director took it upon himself to "improve" my work, I would be outraged and offended and I'd probably react just like the lyricist did. I'd think about the hours of toil and struggle that I endured, the million little changes, the raw and exhausting work that dominated my life for weeks months, and to have somebody--without permission--blithely dismiss my vision and mess with the structure? I'd be out for blood.
But as a director. . . um, well, as a director I probably should admit (loosens tie, clears throat, lowers voice) that, well, as a director I've changed absolutely every single script that I've ever worked on, without fail, that I did with full knowledge that it was unethical and wrong and that it would probably provoke some sort of punitive action if I ever got caught. (Thank God that I've worked for "little fish" theatres, far from the watchful eyes of the publishing agents.) Some of the changes in the scripts were relatively cosmetic and unnoticeable, but some of them, boy oh boy. . . Put it this way: if you've been tabbed to direct a 70-year old murder mystery that's three hours long and contains arcane, obsolete language and features pages of static exposition and also an endless 25-minute scene whose sole purpose is to determine if Colonel Trafalgar really concealed a bodkin in his smoking jacket while mixing a hot toddy for Lady Marmaduke. . . well, as a director you might wonder if there wasn't a way to, you know, move things along a bit. And if that means doing a little creative cut-and-pasting, well, it's a tough old world, isn't it? Because as a director your greatest fear is that by 10:45 the audience won't just be asleep as the fifth act begins, no, you're afraid that they're dead, that they simply collectively decided to expire rather than wait for the "Mysterious Affair of Zzzzzzzzzzz" to resolve itself before midnight.
Not that I want to unleash any of the dark secrets of the theatre profession onto the general public here, but I'm willing to bet that every director in town working today has done a little "improving" of their own, at some point, and not just on some public-domain, unlicensed production. In fact, unless a theatre is sponsoring a "public appearance" by a known playwright of their current play, I'm pretty sure that every play you'll see in Fort Wayne this year will feature a modified version of the original script. And as much as that may make the purists howl, I just don't see it changing any time soon. It's simply the way of the world. I know it, the directors know it, and now, you know it, too. Just don't tell Samuel French.