Concept Stealing Or Creative Evolution? “The Trip To Bountiful” Controversy And The Ownership Of Conceptual Innovation

"Pay up! Timothy Wilson owns that color!"

“Pay up! Timothy Wilson owns that color!”

The late playwright Horton Foote’s gentle drama (all of his dramas are gentle, come to think of it) “The Trip To Bountiful” is being revived on Broadway, and is stirring up the kind of nasty controversy he would have detested. (You probably know Foote better as the screenwriter who brilliantly adapted “To Kill A Mockingbird” into the classic movie it became.) The production has an all-black cast starring Cicely Tyson, and some are arguing that director Michael Wilson stole the idea of presenting Foote’s tale as the story of an African American family.They also claim that he owes Timothy Douglas, the professional director who first staged the play this way (in Cleveland, in 2011) public acknowledgment, and possibly compensation. Alisa Solomon lays out the theatrical ethics controversy here, and explores many related issues, including the murky distinction between colorblind casting and non-traditional casting.

As an ethicist and a professional stage director, I have a simple and direct answer for what Solomon seems to believe is a complex question: Baloney. I don’t know whether Douglas and his supporters are motivated by dollar signs or principle, but there is no way to require compensation for staging, casting and interpretation innovations in the direction of a play (or musical) without strangling innovation, limiting artistic freedom, and turning the theater into a cauldron of litigation.

Each director who undertakes to stage a theatrical work, and I include amateurs and school productions in this as well, has an opportunity to make a permanent, even immortal contribution to how that play is understood and appreciated in the future. This begins with the basic, immutable fact that the more good and successful productions of a script there are, the more likely it is to be produced by other companies, and the more poorly done and received productions there are of a script, the more likely that play is to be ignored and neglected. In the best case scenario, a director will discover an opportunity or idea in the text that has never been noticed or explored, and reveal it for the first time through his or her directoral choices. When this happens, and it occurs frequently, the work itself is enhanced and changed forever.  But the work only benefits if that director’s conceptual contribution to the show is treated as a gift to art, audiences and the theater world, becoming part of the collective resources that this essentially collaborative art requires.

What the supporters of Douglas, and as I read her, Solomon, seem to be arguing for is some threshold of innovation by a director that would earn a degree of ownership. It is a horrible, venal, unworkable idea. A director wants to cast Richard the Third as a handsome, rather than a deformed and ugly, man, but first he must search a database, and discovers that another director did this at a small regional theater in 2006, and requires a royalty for the idea. Not only will that inhibit the current director from attempting his own version of the earlier innovation, one which may play completely differently in his hands, but it also will motivate him to devise a potentially profitable wrinkle of his own instead, after suitable research into what conceptual riffs on the Bard’s “Richard III” have yet to be registered. Richard as a woman? As an Asian? A child? A contortionist? As Bill Clinton? As a Velociraptor?

A director’s pride of accomplishment in discovering a previously unmined treasure in a work of theater ought to be the reception to it, and its ultimate ability to enhance future productions. A few tears ago, a West End production of “After the Fall,” Arthur Miller’s semi-autobiographical musings on his marriage to Marilyn Monroe, shocked audiences by casting a black actress in the role of the wife, removing the ghost of the iconic actress from the play entirely. It worked, and revitalized the play, which some critics felt was more coherent and moving once its celebrity references no longer imposed themselves on the audience’s consciousness. Should future audiences, and the work itself, not receive the benefit of this discovery because future productions will be charged to make use of it? This would be subordinating art to greed and commerce, and is unconscionable.

A few years ago, I received a sheepish call from a professional director colleague and friend, who asked if he could use my entire staging of a show, from beginning to end. The staging was over 30 years old, and he had seen a videotape; he had been hired to direct the same show, in the same space, with a similar cast. He asked if I objected, explaining that he thought it was the perfect way to do the show in that setting, and once he saw the video, he couldn’t conceive of a better approach. My answer was “Of course.” My own “original staging” included bits, pieces and ideas from over a dozen other productions, in addition to some innovations (or were they adaptations? Or variations?) of my own. “Just make sure the show is good,” I told my friend. “If it is, I’ll be proud and flattered.” And it was good. I’m sure some of the uses of specific staging from my old production in that one will be picked up and used—not “stolen,” but adapted—by directors who were in the audience, and the beneficiaries will be future audiences, the theater community and the authors of the show. This is how incremental innovation has traditionally worked in theater, and this is how it should work. I think it is the only way it can work, and result in the best creations on stage.

I do believe that if he was indeed inspired by Douglas’s casting concept, Wilson had an ethical—not legal, but ethical— obligation to give him a credit or an acknowledgment, as I always have when I could identify where my staging originated. That is only fair and collegial, and in no way impedes artistic freedom, production quality, or creative evolution. Directors, however, do not own their interpretive breakthroughs, transformational concepts and staging innovations.

The stage work that inspired them does.


Spark and Pointer: Matt Otto

Facts: Howl Round

16 thoughts on “Concept Stealing Or Creative Evolution? “The Trip To Bountiful” Controversy And The Ownership Of Conceptual Innovation

  1. This is ridiculous . Does it work both ways? Can we go find the person who first staged The Taming of The Shrew in the old west and kick their ass for that now over used idea?

  2. A Jewish guy I used to practice law with had a term for the Alisa Solomons (ironic last name, no?) of the world: “shit stir-er.” Not sure of the spelling but it’s a great, likely translated from the Yiddish, term for people who make their livings making mountains out of molehills, or nothing at all, for that matter.

  3. The part that I found objectionable was that the Broadway production apparently is using quotes from reviews of the Cleveland production in their marketing. To me, that’s not kosher.

    • It’s not.

      But there are professional companies in the DC area that both of us could name that have used the same unethical tactic when they were desperate for good reviews. The first one to do this prominently was David Merrick, I believe, with his (bomb) musical revival, “Oh Kay!”.

      • But what if they show that its a quote from a review from another production and alao only refers to the play itself and not performances?

        • Deceit. It’s intentionally misleading. If a review of Hamlet and the cut line is “A riveting play!,” nobody will think that the next sentence in the review was, “Too bad this production of it stinks on ice!”

          • How is it deceit if the review says “A brilliant play by a brilliant author” NY Times Review of the Broadway production of such and such a play?

            • It’s deceit because a reviewer’s judgment of a play is inextricably connected to the production of it. How often have you seen a review of a new play that says the play was a new classic but the acting and direction were rotten? Using an assessment of the play based on another, earlier production is misleading, and intentionally so.

            • That’s completely different. BEFORE a show is reviewed, it’s obvious, or should be, that any quotes are based on earlier productions. They still can be misleading, though: “The greatest musical Broadway has ever seen!” is a lie if you don’t point out that the review was written in 1946.

              • That’s what I was talking about as I’ve worked with companies in town where in the publicity before they show they have quoted reviews of previous productions but made it very clear that was what they were doing.

                Didn’t a company years ago find and invite people to see their shows that had the same name as local critics and then use their names in their advertisements?

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