Words Players: So Many Questions for Playwrights

The image used by Words Players to promote its call for new plays.
The image used by Words Players to promote its call for new plays.
The image used by Words Players to promote its call for new plays.

Around this time, I would usually be doing a post about intersectionality for Crossroads and Intersections, but there’s something happening in the theatre world right now that demands my attention.

Recently, Words Players of Rochester, Minnesota put out a call for short plays. Some of us writers on The Offical Playwrights of Facebook found out and were…less than thrilled with what Words Players is doing.

Story continues below.

Among the gems Words Players bequeathed onto us playwrights:

  1. “Merely preserving ‘the way it was done’ is for mummies and pottery shards, not performance art.”
  2. “Our production of the play is our only ‘compensation’ for its use.”
  3. “While authors are welcome to confer with the directors, such conference is at the discretion of each director. Student directors will develop their autonomous interpretation and will maintain independent control of each production. They will in all probability modify settings and dialogue to fit our production situation and their own visions of the shows. Directors will, in particular, strive to make each play ‘entertaining’ to our audiences and may modify the scripts, accordingly.”
  4. “We largely ignore considerations of age, race and gender in our casting decisions. We may modify scripts, as necessary, in light of this consideration.”
  5. “We will record each production for possible online posting (with author credit), as well as for further promotional, artistic or other uses. These recordings will be the property of Words Players / Northland Words.”
  6. “We don’t pay for the scripts.”

You can understand why quite a few of us were a bit steamed.

Most of us agreed that:

  1. These guidelines, and the tone in which they were written, are contrary to the spirit of everything playwrights have organized and fought for when it comes to our work, as outlined in the Dramatists Bill of Rights.
  2. Though not illegal because playwrights who participate waive their rights, it is unethical to ignore best practices and irresponsible to teach youth who are pursuing theatre to ignore best practices.
  3. New or desperate playwrights who don’t know better could be misled into waiving their rights in this and future productions.
  4. If directors want to reinterpret existing scripts, there are tons of plays in the public domain.
  5. At the very least, pay for the scripts they want to license for production.

We emailed, we tweeted, and we posted on Words Players’ Facebook page, only to be ignored, blocked or given snide replies. This answered some lingering questions as to whether it was ignorance or apathy that prompted Words Players to create its guidelines. They clearly know better. For all I know, it could be a clever ruse. If there’s no such thing as bad publicity, this may actually be a smashing success for Words Players — -at least in the short term.

In no time at all, Howard Sherman got on it. Then Dramatists Guild President Doug Wright had some choice words to say about it, and now Words Players is on Playbill.com’s radar, and now the Internet is buzzing with discussion about best practices in theatrical collaboration. Those discussions are urgent and necessary.

However, I have a few questions of my own about the impact of Words Players actions and what it means to our efforts to create more diverse, inclusive, and equitable theatre:

  1. In what ways are practices like those promoted by Words Players detrimental to our efforts at a more diverse and equitable theatre?
  2. To what degree does calling out specific companies help or hinder our ability to make changes that create diversity and equity?
  3. When it seems that a company or organization is not responsive to attempts to reach out to them, what should we do? What can we do?

I don’t have any answers right now. I’m just asking questions. If you have questions and ideas of your own, please share them.