A Shaw Thing

GBShawBack 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.Compton Little Theatre production of The Happiest Day of Your Life by Stephen Gillard

5 thoughts on “A Shaw Thing

  1. Though beware my experience at a festival that shall remain nameless. I submitted a playscript that was accepted for the festival and a director was allocated. The director was more experienced in film than in theatre work, as I should have realised when he contacted me and asked me to supply a scenario taking the story along lines I didn’t want and hadn’t written. He explained that the cast he was working with were of ages and experience etc that didn’t quite fit the characters I had written, and I was sympathetic to that. So, turning it round in 24 hours, I rewrote the script to fit his actors but still keeping to the structure and story of the original and sent it to him and the festival organisers. I should have smelt a rat when I never heard back from him to acknowledge receipt or anything. Come the first night of the festival, I finally met the director before the show and he greeted me by saying that the play was at least 90% my script. “Uh-oh”, thinks I, but I keep mum: best to see what this actually means in practice. So I watch the play and it is immediately apparent that the director had simply binned my script and substituted his own, (using some speeches of mine, I grant you) along the lines of the scenario he had wanted all along. To give an idea of how big the change was: at one point right at the end (the play was about the 1968 Backing Britain campaign) the central character meets a rather creepy man in a pub who turns out to be a member of the then-new National Front: this persuades her that the campaign has gone too far and she must end it. The version I found myself watching turned this scene into the main theme of the play almost from the start, climaxing in a big National Front rally and nearly all the main characters joining it. I was utterly shocked and almost speechless with rage. I wanted to withdraw the play from the festival (it was due for two more performances), since it was my entry – this was a festival for new writing – but the organisers persuaded me that this would disrupt the festival badly and would be hard on the young actors. We compromised with the Festival removing my name and everything about me from posters, programme etc. Now, clearly the director was treating the playscript as a filmscript – a very different animal – but I am still shocked that it was allowed to get to the stage where I was actually watching my own work and having to remark afterwards that I hardly wrote a word of what we’d just been watching.

      1. Oh I agree. I got the Society of Authors involved, especially as there was to be a video of the festival and I did not want what was in effect a travesty of my work going into the public domain. The trouble is that the only step on from a compromise of the sort I reached (which was compounded by the point that the organisers were friends of mine and I hoped to keep the contact with the festival going into the future. In any case, I strongly suspect the director was pulling the wool over the organisers’ eyes too) is to go to law, which is prohibitively expensive. So, if any other writers should find themselves in a similar predicament, be aware that, once the performance has taken place, even if it is the first of a run, in practice your options are limited – there are practical issues about the organisation of the festival, people having bought tickets, the actors having worked in all good faith, and so on, which militate against any effective measures being taken. It is also worth being aware that some people will regard you as being precious and unreasonable and you will end up with the feeling that you are regarded as the one who is spoiling everyone else’s party. None of this is a reason for not taking action to defend the copyright of your work; just go in with your eyes open!

  2. I wrote a play for a highly prestigious fringe one-act drama festival and as I learned later the assigned director leaped on it with swoops of misguided joy since he had entirely missed the point of it, turning the prolonged ordeal piece I had written into black comedy loosely based on The Witches of Eastwick which I had never in fact seen. After the final run-through without an audience, having arrived at the festival, I crept into the actors’ dressing room and mildly suggested that the universal joy radiating from the cast might be diluted a little but they were clearly in thrall to the director and the play went ahead as he had directed it. Another assigned director for the same festival in a different year with a different script, again a guy I never met until the final run-through, assumed for some reason he claimed to have found hidden in my words that the leading character suffered from dementia when he was merely a little confused, as was I by the end of it.

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