Many years ago I was in a commercial production of a new play and some of the actors were being pretty free-and-easy with the text – throwing in gags, ad-libbing and paraphrasing.

The director gave them a roasting.

“Stop mucking about with the script – it’s illegal and it’s immoral!”

That gave everyone pause for thought.

Sure, we understood there was a contractual obligation to get the author’s words right – but immoral?

The more I thought about it, the more sense it made. Having worked with so many playwrights over thirty years, and now having one for a daughter, I have come to appreciate how much agonising goes into constructing every piece of dialogue: the re-writes; the scratching-out and starting again; polishing draft after draft in workshop after workshop.

When the thing is finally on paper it bears the author’s name and he/she will be judged on what is uttered on the stage. Some playwrights, especially of the Y generation, are happy to collaborate and involve the actors in the creation of dialogue. Some rely heavily on a “verbatim” theatre technique, adapting and reshaping words overheard in the street or recorded in interviews.

But to playwrights of a generation or two ago that would be anathema. The play was conceived and composed in an ivory tower and handed over to a theatre company with the threat of legal action if a word or comma was changed without permission.

I guess a playwright is free to choose by which route a text is finally achieved, but I sympathise with writers who demand that the script, once agreed upon, should be stuck to.

A recent case in Western Australia highlights the situation.

A fierce split occurred between the Perth Theatre Company and the author of a play it had commissioned. Ironically, the play was titled Alienation. The author, Lachlan Philpott, claimed that thirty percent of his text had been cut without consultation, stating that the script had “been very significantly altered to the extent that it does not represent the script of which he is the author”. He went on to state that this was “a sad indication of the way that playwrights are viewed in some parts of the theatre sector”.

He was supported in this by the Australian Writers’ Guild (AWG) Playwriting Committee, which issued press releases calling for “respect for writers and new Australian work”.

The Q Theatre, Penrith, co-producers of “Alienation”, cancelled their season in support of Philpott.

A number of playwrights have expressed concern about a conspiracy against playwrights, and Rosemary Neil, writing in The Australian accused a particular theatre company of a “deep-dyed ideological bias against text-based plays”.

Supremacy in the theatrical hierarchy is constantly shifting, and in my time I have lived through eras variously dubbed “Writers’ Theatre”, “Directors’ Theatre” and “Designers’ Theatre”. At times, the actors have revolted and established Actors’ Companies where directors and designers were generally dispensed with, and the spotlight focussed on the performers – two planks and a passion.

Despite the domination of any one faction, theatre has always tolerated alternative forms running alongside the mainstream; a lot of popular theatre has never been text-based. We have virtually no textual records from nearly 400 years of commedia dell’arte. Circus, vaudeville, music-hall and (needless-to-say) mime have left us a few photographs, stage directions and snatches of song, and the few scripts that remain are lifeless without the comedians who created them.

Right now we are seeing a lot of theatre that is verbatim, or physical or musical, created by teams of “theatre workers” or “theatre makers”. The old denominations of director, writer, designer, performer have been blurred or dispensed with. This is all fine and dandy, and can happily co-exist with “writers’” or “text-based” theatre, as it has done in the past.

There is room for all.

But to add fuel to the fire, we have the controversy about re-writing the classics, a phenomenon that has managed to get up the noses of disparate groups. The academically inclined protest that it is an insult to the likes of Chekov and Strindberg to rewrite their plays, but retain their titles. Not only are Chekov and Strindberg quite good enough as they are, goes the argument, but it is seriously misleading to sell tickets to a classic you are not going to see.

Quite a few playwrights feel aggrieved too because, they say, these works are taking the place of new Australian plays, and, with their generally sizable casts and high production values, soaking up resources. Most Australian playwrights don’t dare aspire to a cast of more than four or five if the show is to have any hope of getting on. Playwright Stephen Sewell has entered the lists, proclaiming that theatre companies should not pass off adaptations as new Australian works and condemning those arts bureaucrats who let the companies get away with it.

The word “immoral” springs to mind again.

Is it fair trading to sell a new work under the guise of a classic title?

How many years does it take for the text to become common property to be reworked, pillaged or hacked about at will?

This goes beyond the mere issue of copyright to the deeper issue of respect for a writer’s work and reputation.

For the sake of our own cultural tradition, should we be obliged to respect the integrity of classic texts, or are they to be regarded as just so much raw material for “theatre workers” to play with?

If so, the gulf between theatre practice, and academic research and commentary can only become wider.

The Playwrights’ Group 7-On say they have no problem with classic adaptations as long as they don’t replace new work. They also point out that “adapting” a classic is a lot easier than creating a play from scratch and, moreover, “No new plays – no new classics”.

It is undeniable that text-based theatre is one of the cornerstones of Western civilisation, from the Greeks through to the Elizabethans, to Wilde and Chekov to Miller, Beckett and Brecht. For many of us, the greatest experiences in the theatre have been when a great text is brought to life by a team of director, designer and actors, everyone collaborating to serve the whole rather than any one part.

If theatre in Australia is going to flourish we have no option other than to treat playwrights not just with respect, but with enthusiasm and encouragement.

Theatre companies must nurture writers by granting them internships, opportunities to live within a theatre community and feel themselves to be a part of a creative process. If writers are employed as dramaturgs for a period of time they can make valuable contributions to the work in hand, as well as have the chance to develop their own craft in a stimulating, inclusive environment.

Although a “classical” company, Bell Shakespeare employs dramaturgs and commissions new work through its development wing, ‘Mind’s Eye’, where five writers are currently working on commission. The Sydney Theatre Company hosts the Patrick White Fellowship, and both Griffin and La Boite offer writers year-long residencies.

A lot more needs to be done and many more opportunities created to give new work an airing.

Every theatrical generation is defined and assessed by the body of work it leaves behind – and that means texts.

The rest is ephemera.

Remember: If there are no new plays, there will be no future classics.

Share via