Well-reviewed, received and attended, the Washington D.C. production of “The Ice Child,” an original horror play by members of the three-year-old ensemble Factory 449, has stirred controversy because of its staging and production design, which is not only strikingly similar to a New York production of another horror play, “Americana Kamikaze,” but the company candidly admits that its visual concept was inspired by the 2009 work. Factory 449 also maintains that the plays are different, and that their appropriation of the design elements of the Temporary Distortion production of “Americana Kamikaze” is within the realm of acceptable, and ethical, theater practice. In a statement responding to charges of theft of creative output, the company wrote:
“Factory 449 has enormous respect for Temporary Distortion, and we are surprised and disheartened to see them react so negatively to our show. We wish we could have hosted them here in DC to see “The Ice Child” before it closed, to improve upon the distanced and limited context under which they’ve judged our production. The two productions are very different. We set out to tell a very specific, linear narrative, wholly of our own devising and written collaboratively by Factory 449. “The Ice Child” took its inspiration from many sources, and while the staging was partially inspired by Temporary Distortion’s 2009 production of Americana Kamikaze, we place equal if not greater weight on the story, tone, style, and acting components. For these we were inspired by the writings of Edgar Allan Poe and Ambrose Bierce, television shows such as “Criminal Minds,” and from the filming conventions of horror films in general.
“We admire Americana Kamikaze, but “The Ice Child” lives, speaks, and breathes completely differently. In addition to a completely different narrative, the sound and video elements in The Ice Child were birthed from the text and were in no way influenced by Americana Kamikaze….And while our staging was partially inspired by Temporary Distortion’s production, it was also an extension of multi-media presentation concepts that Factory 449 has been pursuing since our inception in 2009.
“If Temporary Distortion deems these factors irrelevant, we feel they overlook a fundamental aspect of creative inspiration. Artists are constantly inspired by each other’s work, and it would be naive or dishonest to say otherwise….”
Over on Culturebot, Jeremy Barker sees it differently:
“The end result, borrowing so liberally from Temporary Distortion’s show, seems to have crossed a line of professional courtesy and ethics. Throughout, I’ve done my best to be even-handed in trying to understand the various parties’ perspectives, but in discussions with other designers and artists whose work spans the experimental to mainstream, the sense seemed to be that “The Ice Child” was just too similar, without substantially altering or adding to the concept, for anyone to feel comfortable with the practice, particularly given the critical recognition of the production’s unusual style without credit being paid to the individuals who developed the concept originally”
I didn’t see either production, and I’m a member of the D.C. theater community, so perhaps my objectivity is suspect. But I’m also an ethicist, a professional stage director, and the artistic director of a theater company. I’ve seen other directors “borrow” staging innovations from me (“borrow” is director-speak for “steal”) and I’ve “borrowed” staging and design concepts from others. This is my wheelhouse, and I side with Factory 449, with one reservation.
The ethical practice is to acknowledge an inspiration. When I have taken a distinctive piece of staging from a particular director or production, I acknowledge the source. I’ve even acknowledged dead directors. I don’t describe exactly which aspect of the show prompted the credit, but a director, designer or company that provides inspiration ought to be recognized. This is Golden Rule territory for me. I absolutely and unequivocally deny, however, that a director has any obligation to ask permission from another artist to use a staging idea or concept.
A couple of years ago, a director friend called me to say that he had seen a videotape of a 30-year-old production of “The Pirates of Penzance” I had directed, and found himself on the verge of duplicating the whole show because he liked it so much. He was apologetic, and said that if I objected, he would do the show a different way. I told him that I was flattered, and that I had no problem at all with him using as much of my staging as he wanted. “I don’t even remember who I stole all those bits from,” I said, “but I know they weren’t all original with me.” I also told him that if my version was the best he could imagine, he had an obligation to the audience to use it as much as he had to. And that it was his show.
I would not be surprised if the arresting design for “Americana Kamikaze” had a variety of parents too. This is the nature of stagecraft, and every artist takes, learns, borrows, adapts, and is inspired by the work of those who came before him, who, in turn, were standing on the shoulders of other artists before them. Live theater is barely breathing as it is; a good injection of intellectual property law could kill it. I can see the court case now: “But our boxes were wider and shorter, and we had a woman in ours, in red light. You had a taller box with a man in it, and he wasn’t Asian, and he was in blue light. It’s completely different!” All we need to do to strangle theatrical innovation is to require productions to run the equivalent of patent searches to ensure that what the director thought was her innovation wasn’t done identically in a Tulsa experimental theater in 1989.
Once an idea is put on stage, it should become part of the resources of every other theater artist, and the theater artist whose creative inspiration should feel one thing when it is transplanted elsewhere by another director to enhance anew production: pride and generosity. This is how theater, and indeed all the arts, evolve, improve and thrive.
Pointer: Toni Brotons
Source and Graphic: Culturebot
Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at firstname.lastname@example.org.