Licensing company reprimands theatre department

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Following the College’s March production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ play “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” the theatre department received a reprimand via email from Dramatists Play Service for breaking copyright law and breaching its licensing agreement. 

These accusations stemmed from decisions made during the production process to cut lines actors found to be offensive, as well as the inclusion of a dance number in the performance. Dramatists, one of the three main companies that sell play licenses, emailed the department after being tipped off by a letter from community member Ralph Hammann, a local teacher and director, who wrote a letter to the editor for this issue of the Record. Chair and Associate Professor of Theatre David Gürçay-Morris ’96, who received emails from both Dramatists and Guirgis, explained that “the changes were very limited,” consisting of altered gender pronouns to match the actors and the removal of a homophobic slur in an attempt to improve the production environment for students as actors. 

“It was not a hack-and-slash rewrite of the script in any way,” Gürçay-Morris said. “Instead, the focus was on actively soliciting student perspectives about their characters and dialogue.”

Hammann and Dramatists learned about the decision to alter the play from the Record article “Student input, new leadership help ‘Judas Iscariot’ impress” (March 13, 2019). The article highlighted the collaborative process that went into the show, including many long table reads in which a few lines were removed. 

Peter Hagan, Dramatists’ president, and Craig Pospisil, Dramatists’ director of nonprofessional rights, took issue with the removal of lines and the inclusion of a dance number. “You’re not allowed to cut or alter anything in the text of a copyrighted work; you’re also not allowed to add something,” they said. Had Dramatists found out about the changes during the show’s run, the company would have withdrawn permission and shut the performances down, Hagan and Pospisil explained.

“Part of the lesson to be learned here is [to] ask,” Hagan and Pospisil said. “Some authors will be very open to allowing changes. Some may be more rigid.” Gürçay-Morris pointed to instances of contemporary alterations to original works, ranging from a current Broadway production of “Oklahoma!” to a high school adaptation of the movie “Alien.”

In the future, Hagan and Pospisil noted that it would be “exceedingly unlikely” for Dramatists to refuse a license to a group due to a copyright violation. “We’re not going to stop licensing to Williams or anything like that, but we’ll certainly keep a closer eye on it,” they said. 

Gürçay-Morris explained how the department has been working with the licensing company to move forward. “I respect DPS’ [Dramatists Play Service’s] concerns, and we’ve responded in an effort to open a dialogue with them about how this can be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction,” he said. “We will certainly be paying close attention to the terms of our performance licenses, and how decisions are made during the development and rehearsal process.”

The department is also using this incident as a teaching moment, with Gürçay-Morris reading the email from Dramatists to students last Friday at the weekly pizza lunch hosted by the department. “We engaged in a frank discussion of these issues – both in the context of Williams College but also more broadly how these same issues play out constantly during the course of a professional career in theater,” he said. “This is not something that one only wrestles with in ivory towers; it is a constant reality in the life of professional artists, and particularly in a collaborative medium like theatre where we have to engage with copyright from both sides: as copyright users of the work of others, and copyright holders of our own work.”

Gürçay-Morris emphasized that department productions will continue to work to provide the best possible production environment for students. “What this will not do is cause us to move backwards in our ongoing exploration of how to make work collaboratively and share it with our audiences in a way that arises from, and best speaks to, the current concerns of our community surrounding inclusivity, whose stories get told, how they are told and by whom,” he explained. “We have, for the last year and a half, been very actively interrogating long-standing traditions and assumptions about who makes work, who that work is for and what purpose it serves. These questions are far from answered, and it is an ongoing struggle we are all engaged in. The recent production of ‘The Last Days of Judas Iscariot’ represented a different approach to ensemble work, decision-making and creative process which we are very proud of and feel has been, for us, a good step forward – the first of many more.”

At the time of publication, director Shadi Ghaheri and dramaturg Catherine María Rodríguez had not responded to the Record’s request for comment.