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Laurie Flanigan Hegge: Dramatists' reaction considers futures of Words Players actors

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Laurie Flanigan Hegge

Why would an organization like the Dramatists Guild of America be interested in the controversy over a submission policy at a youth theater troupe?

I'm not surprised that some folks would be taken aback to hear that the guild took the controversy with Words Players so seriously.

In its Aug. 12 editorial under the headline "Players controversy is much ado about nothing," the Post-Bulletin Editorial Board asserts the Dramatists Guild of America didn't take the time to understand that Words Players is a youth theater troupe. I assure you that this is not the case.

The editorial board hit the nail on the head with, "Some Words Players alumni are working in professional theater." You see, young theater artists working on the fly with very little money but lots and lots of heart turn into professional theater artists who work on the fly with very little money and lots and lots of heart.

And yes, the game changes, and the stakes sometimes get bigger, but every theater artist I know can trace her values and beliefs about appropriate theater practice back to an influential teacher or mentor where it all started. It's crucial that educational theater practitioners understand the responsibility they bear in teaching students how important it is to respect the playwright.

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Words Players' artistic director Daved Driscoll landed in the crosshairs of this controversy, but I ask every teaching artist out there: What are you teaching your students about playwright respect? Were you taken off-guard by the realization that it is not kosher to make changes to a play that is not in the public domain without the express permission of the playwright? Are you teaching your students that it's OK to do so?

I invite educators and others to learn more about why this practice is not acceptable.

This controversy hit a nerve with playwrights across the country because it's all too common. Playwrights consistently face situations where changes are made to our work without prior approval, and frequently the offending parties believe they are totally in the right to do so, leading to the inevitable question: "Where did they get the idea this was OK?"

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Doug Wright faced this exact situation recently when Samuel French, the largest publisher of plays and musicals, closed a production of his "Hands on a Hardbody" at Theater Under the Stars in Houston, Texas.

Wright's collaborator, Amanda Green, attended a performance and was shocked to discover while she sat in the audience that the show had been altered completely and rendered unrecognizable. The director, Bruce Lumpkin, had invited Green personally to the performance, and one can only assume he thought she'd be happy to see what he'd done. She wasn't.

I can assure you I have heard the same story over and over again, but not every playwright has Samuel French to intervene on their behalf, and so we advocate for ourselves, crying "foul" when a submission opportunity is viewed by a national audience through the magic of the Internet, or, as was the case with the many playwrights across the country who asked the guild to respond to the controversy with Words Players, the guild advocates on our behalf.

Last but not least, I'm not surprised at all that our guild cares about what's going on at an educational theater in Minnesota. The Dramatists Guild of America advocates for all playwrights, composers and librettists — even playwrights being performed for the first time in a church basement.

I know firsthand we Minnesotans take our arts, and our artists, very seriously, no matter the age or their stage of development, from kids to emerging artists to established professionals. I have no doubt the students at Words Players are doing incredible work, and I look forward to seeing their festival in October and shaking Daved Driscoll's hand as a fellow theater artist.

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I know this controversy has been very hard on Driscoll and his theater community. It's my sincere hope that this teaching moment illuminates our teaching practice with regard to playwright respect across the board, and that the budding playwrights at Words Players have gained some valuable insight into their future profession.

Opinion by Laurie Flanigan Hegge
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