Back in the days before e-mail and scheduled passenger planes, an English theatre company took a production of a George Bernard Shaw play for a tour of Australia. They got to the venue for one of their performances and realised that they didn’t have time to perform the full show before catching their train to Melbourne for the next date of the tour. They sent a panicked telegram to Shaw asking for his permission to cut the (notoriously wordy) Prologue. To their relief, Shaw replied immediately, granting their request with the one condition that they performed the prologue on the train.
The point here is that the company had to ask permission. A play is a copyrighted work. The copyright holder (usually the author) has the right to place limitations on how the work is used. (At its most basic, you can’t use a work at all unless you have permission, usually granted in exchange for a royalty fee.) If you want to make any changes whatsoever to (performance of) a copyrighted work, then you need to get the permission of the copyright holder first.
There are obviously some practical limitations to this; for example, I’ve never seen an actor ask permission to forget his lines. It seems sensible to me to take a somewhat more relaxed view with scripts for school plays. Typically, they are written for a class-sized cast, but class sizes vary, as indeed do abilities. In such cases, for example, dividing a narrator’s role amongst multiple actors is usually within the spirit of the author’s intention. On the other hand, adding lines is not within the author’s intention, since if the author thought that more lines were needed, they would have been written in the first place. In that case, requesting a change is the sensible approach. We’ve given some guidelines in the Lazy Bee Scripts help pages for the sorts of changes that may or may not be made without permission.
Not asking permission for changes has consequences. Copyright is a legal structure; people can and do get sued for breaches. At a more practical level, most play festivals have competition rules that require any text changes to be approved by the copyright holder – so unauthorised departure from the text will result in disqualification.
So, the author has a right to refuse changes – but don’t let that put you off asking. Compton Little Theatre wanted to put on a production of Stephen Gillard’s wedding play “The Happiest Day of Your Life”, but when they auditioned, they found that they couldn’t get the right balance between male and female cast members. A couple of the auditionees said “you know, it could work with a switch…” At first, the director said no, but then thought about it and passed the question on to me (as rights agent). I asked Stephen who, in turn, thought about it before giving the change his blessing. The result will be staged at Compton Village Hall and the Leatherhead Drama Festival.