[This came from a Dramatists Guild member]
A director removed the first ten minutes of one of my plays.
They did it without my permission or my knowledge.
This is what happened, as best I remember it:
I had made travel arrangements to see the one-night-only performance of my play, but because of an emergency, the director had moved the performance up a few days, maybe a week, and I couldn’t make it. But I called in on the phone for the talkback session. The moderator, director, and other people involved talked to me about what worked in the play and what didn’t, and I took notes. It was a good talkback. But through the course of it, I learned that the audience had been generally confused about the play. And then someone (I don’t remember if it was the director, an actor, or someone else) asked if maybe the audience would have understood the story better if the first ten minutes had still been there.
I remember not being angry. I was more disappointed, sad, and surprised. Confused. What had caused this? The draft I had sent the director had still had its first ten minutes. Although I had once experimented with removing those ten minutes (more on that later), I was sure I didn’t have an electronic draft with the first ten minutes removed. Then I learned, though, that it hadn’t been me. In the talkback, the director admitted to cutting the first part of the first scene and to moving other things. The moderator and other people seemed to conclude, and so did I, that these changes had more than likely led to much of the audience’s confusion. Moreover, these changes did not give us a good sense of how the play would have been received in its intended form. Another grim thing someone brought up after the performance was that most of the audience had left the theatre before the talkback, and so for all they knew, the performance they had seen was how the play was “supposed to be.”
Before the talkback, I had been unaware that the play had been altered. I had been absent during rehearsals because of how far away I lived. The director was my friend, however, and our friendship has always been based on mutual respect. We had emailed each other throughout the process, and about two months before the performance we had a meeting in person. In this meeting, I mentioned I wanted to send the director a new draft. I had made a few changes, mostly in the stage directions, and to me these changes were tiny. The director understood that I had the right to make changes, but asked me to please hold back on them because the process was already difficult. The director was a university student at the time, and I remembered college being hectic, with overwhelming work to do on other projects as well as plays. So I decided my changes were minor enough to skip this time, and that I would use them the next time the play was staged (if that ever happened, and so far, it has not). I realize now that if I had stood firm, the director would have had an opportunity to learn how to work with a playwright’s new changes even when it was hard. What does Hamlet say? “I must be cruel only to be kind”? But more than that, I should have been suspicious of the director’s refusal to incorporate my changes. I could have asked the director if they were having other difficulties with the script, because then I might have learned that they planned to move things and cut things. And I would have been able to clarify that they did not have my permission to make changes without me (I have also learned the importance of having a contract, which, because of my inexperience, I didn’t have this time).
Instead, after that meeting, I figured the play they presented would be the previous draft I had given them, without the small changes I had suggested, but still (mostly) the play I intended it to be.
I was never the best student director in the world. I’ve made mistakes, too. One thing I’ve learned from such mistakes is that being a student is no excuse to rearrange a script. You still need permission from the playwright to change things. The playwright makes the changes, and only if the playwright wants to. As a good teacher or professor, you teach your students how to work in communities outside of academia, and in the professional world. So it’s a good idea (I’d go so far as to say essential) to give students experience working with living playwrights. When you work with a living playwright, you learn to communicate with the person who wrote the script, and the play isn’t just your vision, it’s the playwright’s vision. I think my director and I learned from this experience that such communication is vital, and here’s why:
I’m almost certain the audience’s confusion could have been avoided or at least lessened if the director had asked me this question at some point: “What do you think of us cutting the first ten minutes?” Directors want to do all sorts of things, and most of them ask me before they do them, even though I might say no. Sometimes they have a brilliant idea or simply something I would like to try, and I will say yes. I say yes much more than I say no! But if you’re afraid to ask me because you think I’ll say no, and you do the thing I might have said no to, you risk damaging the play, and that can reflect on you as a director. I know people who say that if a play is “bad,” the audience blames the author and not the director, but in reality, I see blame come off on the director, too. Communicate with your playwright, and things will turn out better. If the director who cut the beginning off my play had asked me about cutting it, I could have explained something important: I had already tried a reading of the play with the first ten minutes cut.
That first reading was a year earlier, more or less. Its director (a different director) suggested the play would be much better without the first ten minutes. This director wanted to go “straight to the action.” So I decided to try it. I tore out the first ten minutes (eight pages) of the play half an hour before we did the reading. And it totally bombed. It was a major disappointment.
[So the playwright had already tried out the play minus those ten minutes and it didn’t work]
I could have told the current director about that reading if I had known they were thinking of doing the play without its first ten minutes. But I did not know, because they didn’t tell me. I remember thinking after the talkback and reading over the script again that the play did need to lose most of what was in those first ten minutes, but it needed to keep the things that helped the rest of the play to make sense. If the director had talked to me about it, I could have looked at the script again and seen that it needed cuts, and I would gladly have cut the first ten minutes myself and put the important information somewhere else in the opening scene. I wished I had known!
But we learned. I think the director saw how badly it turned out not to have those first ten minutes, and regretted cutting them. So even though most of the audience probably left thinking the play they had seen was the play I had meant it to be (when it wasn’t) and that’s unfortunate, I think the director (and I!) learned from this experience not to mess around with the script you’re directing. I remember we had a one-on-one talk about it and left the discussion on good terms. There was no reason for me to damage our relationship because of this mistake. I would gladly have this person direct more of my plays.
As for future arrangements with any director, I’ll be sure to have a written contract.
Some horror stories have happy endings.
I’m still working on that play, and it’s still kicking my butt. Do I make it longer? Shorter? What do I move? What about the characters? Should it be a musical?
However it turns out, I hope one day we’ll see it performed as its author intended.
[Hopefully. I’m glad this playwright’s experienced turned out positive eventually. So many don’t]
Thanks for reading. Next week we’ll have another Theatre Horror Story.
Feel free to message the blog if YOU have a story to share.
This story comes from a playwright I know. They belong to the Dramatists Guild and are good at what they do.
In 2016, I pitched a script to a local theatre hoping for just a workshop. The AD [artistic director] said he loved it and suggested three public staged readings, with Q+A. As time went by, three readings were reduced to two, then to one. I was assigned a director and the first rehearsal was scheduled on a Sunday morning one week before the reading date. I arrived at the theatre to find it locked, and a voice mail telling me 3 of the 6 actors were unavailable, but we’d pick up again Tuesday or Wednesday. The week went by and I heard nothing.
[What world did this AD grow up in where it is okay to just cancel a reading and not even tell the playwright????]
I wrote a complaint to the AD which went unanswered. So what if we cancel your reading without notifying you? Eventually I spoke to one of the theatre owners who was sympathetic to me, and he said I was supposed to have received a letter from another of the owners (never happened), and an email from the director (never received).
[Looks like the owners and AD went to the same school of unprofessionalism]
A couple of years later I decided to try to mend fences, even though I was the victim. Sometime later the theatre put out a call for directors to pitch projects for their next mainstage season, and I pitched one of my full-length plays. Got an email from the AD saying the theatre was not doing original plays for its mainstage season (which was not specified in the call). Some months later the theater announced its mainstage season, which included an original full-length play – by the AD.
[What’s the saying? Burn me once shame on you, burn me twice, shame on me? Nah, burn me twice, shame on this dishonest evil little theatre hurting playwrights]
Abuse and unprofessionalism in the theatre should stop. We’re supposed to be on the same team, but that seems to be the exception, rather than the rule.
Hopefully, I can keep making these posts until American theatre becomes a safer working environment. I’ll probably be 1,500 years old by then.
I want to thank our anonymous playwright who bravely came to me with this story.
If anyone has a story to share, please reach out to me. You will always be anonymous.