Should a Script Be Changed for Its Audience? Not Without Permission

Recently, Tom Grisamore made national theater news. He isn’t an actor, director, designer or theater artist of any kind. He’s an administrator—and a parks department administrator at that.

Grisamore, the Park District Executive Director in Wilmette, Illinois, recently canceled an outdoor community production of the musical Ragtime because he learned—several weeks into rehearsals and just two weeks before opening—that the musical contained “the n word” and other derogatory ethnic slurs. The lyrics of Ragtime were written by Lynn Ahrens, and the music was composed by Stephen Flaherty. The book, based on the novel by E.L Doctorow, was written by Terrence McNally. Ragtime won 1998 Tony Awards for the score and book as well as a couple of others. The point of this background is to show that Ragtime isn’t an obscure musical written by a couple of hatemongers. The story in fact explores and criticizes the effects of racial and ethnic injustice in turn-of-the-twentieth-century America.

I’ll assume that most of this blog’s readers fall on the same side of the freedom of speech issue. If not, feel free to speak up. (See how that works?) The Wilmette story was reported in arts news around the country, and many bloggers criticized Grisamore as well. Following the publicity of the cancellation, the production was picked up for performance as a concert version by the Wilmette Theatre. More recently, it was reported that the Park Department will allow the production indoors in a Community Recreation Center. According to Grisamore, “We have maintained from the start that we back the performance of this show. Our problem has been with the venue because we believe it is a show for more mature audiences and better suited to indoor theater.”

Whether you agree with Grisamore’s initial decision or not, one thing is certain—as Ragtime “producer,” in some sense of that word, Grisamore should have been familiar with the story, subject matter, and actual language of the musical long before rehearsals began. His admitted ignorance of these things until after rehearsals had started was a major error.

That said, Grisamore did do one thing right in this fiasco—he requested permission from the authors’ licensing agent before producing the musical with a changed script. In the Wilmette case, the authors, or licensing agent MTI, might have learned of the controversy and the changes. Each word change would have reportedly subjected the town to fines up to $150,000. Even in lower profile cases, however, agents can often learn about changes to a show’s book or lyrics. I know of one community theater that once had to hold the curtain and rehearse on a performance night when agents learned of script changes and demanded that the production be canceled or the script be performed as written immediately. But fear of being caught shouldn’t be the only reason to respect an author’s work, right?

So, keep the script changes, additions or omissions to Shakespeare and the classics. If you’re performing a play or musical that has to be licensed—whether or not you have to pay royalties—making changes isn’t only unethical and disrespectful, it’s illegal.

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