The Asolo Repertory Theatre is not the first theater to alter a playwright’s work and violate contractual agreements for production rights.
Playwrights and publishers say it happens all the time, but rarely with a professional theater of the caliber of Asolo Rep, which was forced to restore cuts made to Brian Friel’s 1964 Irish drama “Philadelphia, Here I Come.”
A few days after the play opened Jan. 10, the theater received a cease and desist order from Friel’s agent, the play publisher Samuel French. See story
Director Frank Galati had substantially altered the play by streamlining the storytelling to increase its impact on a modern audience. But the theater apparently didn’t get the permission required to make the changes from the playwright.
Asolo Rep officials say it’s the first time it has faced such problems with a playwright or publishing agency.
“In general, professional theaters are part of the culture of the theater, in which they recognize it’s a writer’s medium and the author owns the play and you can’t change the play without permission,” said Ralph Sevush, executive director of business affairs for the Dramatists Guild.
The much bigger problem, he said, is typically with schools, camps and amateur theater clubs “where they are often ignorant of the standards or thinking that no one will mind or care.”
But Asolo Rep has come under fire from a variety of theater observers and theater-related web sites for altering the work of a living playwright.
Among them is Wall Street Journal theater critic Terry Teachout, who had planned to attend the show before he was told, with no explanation, that the performance had been canceled.
“I was staggered when I heard what Asolo Rep had done — not because they did it, but because they didn’t clear it first with Mr. Friel,” Teachout wrote in a column published Friday. He considers “Philadelphia” to be “one of the best plays of the postwar era.”
He and others also were surprised that someone of Galati’s stature was involved, no matter what the motives behind the changes.
Galati, a longtime theater professor at Northwestern University, has staged plays and operas and directed the Broadway musical “Ragtime.” He also is a member of Steppenwolf Theatre, where he developed his stage adaptation of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” He won two Tony Awards when the play transferred to Broadway.
Asolo Rep immediately shut down the show and sent the cast and Galati back into rehearsal to restore scenes and characters and “do the script according to Brian Friel’s wishes,” said producing artistic director Michael Donald Edwards.
Asolo Rep officials are understandably reluctant to say more about the changes that will be unveiled when the show resumes Feb. 4. The production continues in the rotating repertory schedule through April 12.
In an interview before the opening, Galati praised the script, saying, “It’s a gorgeous play and it’s hilariously funny.”
He and Edwards said it fit perfectly with the theater’s five-year project to explore the American Character because the play deals with a young man leaving behind his small Irish village for a new life in America.
Galati’s original production excised two intermissions and three characters who are seen briefly and trimmed some dialogue. He also added some songs and a brief dance to suit the musicality of the script.
“There’s a lot of music implicit in the play and music is a kind of touchstone for memory,” he said.
Now a Sarasota resident and part of Asolo Rep’s American Character National Advisory Group, Galati did not address why the production is back in rehearsal during an Inside Asolo Rep discussion about the show Thursday, though he did say it is “one of the happiest experiences” he’s had in a rehearsal room.
“I have to assume that Frank Galati thought that this right was obtained,” said Bruce Lazarus, executive director and general counsel of Samuel French, said of the alterations. “He should know better. He’s an author himself. I’m sure he wouldn’t take too kindly to someone cutting a few characters out of ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’”
Sevush, of the Dramatists Guild, said standard licensing agreements between theaters and publishers state that “no changes can be made to the text, title or stage directions of the play without the express permission of the author.”
That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for interpretation, as in scenic or costume design or the way actors play a role.
“We love to see new interpretations,” said Lazarus. “There’s a beauty in interpretation but that comes from using the text as a basis for a performance.” He said Samuel French is on good terms with Asolo Rep, which he described as a “good customer of ours.”
Edwards has said he “probably should have been more involved” in the development of the production, and he was not “really aware” of all the changes being made. The theater asked for representatives to see the show, but they declined before the production was shut down.
Lazarus said a representative from his agency would likely see the revised production.
Samuel French represents thousands of plays and musicals and “gets requests all the time for changes,” from significant cuts to changing gender or race of characters,” Lazarus said. Some authors allow them, he said, while others refuse to consider even the slightest alteration in the published script.
Problems with altered productions happen frequently enough that Lazarus has a ready response when asked about them.
Humans, he says, have three fundamental drives in their lives.
“The first is a drive for food. The second is a drive for sex, and the third is the drive to rewrite somebody else’s play,” he said in a telephone interview.
He is joking of course, but Samuel French also employs people to keep track of the many productions staged each year.
“We are the writer’s agent. They entrust us with their play, knowing we are are going to enforce their copyright, collect their royalties and protect them from piracy and prevent people from stealing their work.” That work is easy since the advent of the Internet and a quick Google search.
In 2008, The Players Theatre received a cease and desist order near the end of its run of the musical “Hair” after a lengthy prelude was added, creating a sense of a reunion of past performers from the show. The musical was essentially restored to the original version for the final few performances, recalled Artistic Director Jeffery Kin.
He said it’s common for directors to look at plays to see how they can best be told and presented for today’s audience. “Sometimes they need a little help,” but he asks for permission for changes.
“I’m a playwright, too, and I’m the first one to say, ‘Hey, that’s not what I wrote.’”
Audiences who attend “Philadelphia” after it reopens Tuesday will see some extra scenes and characters that were missing on opening night in this play about Gareth O’Donnell’s last 12 hours in his small Irish town.
Lauryn Sasso, Asolo Rep’s literary manager, said the biggest change is the restoration of a scene in which the man’s visiting aunt and uncle invite him to join them in Philadelphia.
“The audience will really get a chance to see Gar come to the decision to leave for America and really get to witness more of his struggle over making that choice and what that means for him,” Sasso said.
A few other scenes and some trimmed dialogue also have been added, along with two intermissions, she said.
Joining the cast are three actors from the current Asolo Rep company. Anne-Marie Cusson plays Aunt Lizzy Sweeney; J. Kenneth Campbell plays her husband, Con, and Andrew Sellon, who already appeared as Canon O’Byrne, adds the role of the Sweeney’s friend, Ben Burton.
“This project has really brought the company even closer together,” Sasso said.
"Philadelphia, Here I Come" reopens Feb. 4 and continues in rotating repertory through April 12 at Asolo Repertory Theatre, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. For more information: 351-8000; asolorep.org