Our View: Words Players controversy is much ado about nothing
Daved Driscoll's approach to theater is about as unique as how he spells his first name.
The artistic director of Words Players Theatre allows his students a lot of leeway in their performances. Improvisation is a necessary component of a youth theater troupe that operates on a subsistence budget. Despite these constraints, Words Players consistently puts on captivating productions that more than makes up in verve what it lacks in finances.
Even a casual theater-goer in the community probably is familiar with Words Players. If you attended the Thornton Wilder Short Play Festival in the spring or Shakespeare in the Park during Rochesterfest or the Original Short Play Festival in the fall or a production of "A Christmas Carol" near the holiday, you experienced the exuberance of one of their productions.
Words Players has come a long way since 2004, when it staged its first production during one weekend in a church basement in Rochester to today's busy ensemble that presents six productions year-round throughout the region. Words Players is part of Northlands Words , a nonprofit organization offering classes in acting and literature in addition to live theater.
We always figured Driscoll's troupe someday would receive national attention. After all, the Minnesota SkyVault Theatre Company , an offshoot of Words Players, was honored as the best new act at the 2014 Minnesota Renaissance Festival. Some Words Players alumni are working in professional theater and film animation.
But we were taken aback by the criticism from Doug Wright , president of the Dramatists Guild of America , who lambasted Driscoll in a letter over the submission guidelines of the eighth annual Words Players Original Short Play Festival. The guidelines reserve the right to change scripts and state that playwrights won't be compensated. Soon social media joined the assault on Words Players' reputation. Playbill , a national theater magazine, even covered the backlash.
What astounds us is that the Dramatists Guild, as well as the countless other critics on social media who piled on the recriminations, didn't take the time to understand that Words Players is a youth theater troupe. That's like the New York Yankees executive criticizing the head coach of a Rochester youth baseball team for how he chooses his lineup.
Critics also failed to realize that the Original Short Play Festival began seven years ago as a way for unpublished playwrights to see their work on stage. Helmed by student directors, the plays are presented with minimal costumes, props and sets.
The festival never was meant to stage works by professional playwrights. The misunderstanding mutated when the festival guidelines were circulated on social media to playwright message boards and websites.
When Words Players received more than 200 scripts from throughout the world two years ago, Driscoll rewrote the guidelines to let established playwrights know the festival is not intended for them. He planned to add even more clarity to the guidelines this year, but with six productions to supervise, he didn't get to it.
Driscoll took the high road and apologized to Wright in a letter, saying "how deeply I regret that my words have caused such consternation." Driscoll took the time to see the conflict from Wright's point of view, but he wasn't granted the same courtesy.
Unfortunately, Wright and the other critics didn't bother to learn that Words Players is an ambitious — but amateur — troupe of children and youth. Frankly, we don't think Driscoll needed to apologize. If anything, they should be apologizing to him and the young actors who make up the cast of Words Players' productions.
But we'll give Wright, who received a Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2004 , a pass on this one. It's probably been a while since one of his plays was staged in a church basement.