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Changes in attitude, changes in latitude

While contemplating writing this blog post, prolific beach bum musician Jimmy Buffett entered the Margaritaville in the sky, and I began to re-listen to his vast music catalog. And while his jukebox musical, Escape to Margaritaville, will never be considered a classic, this blog post's title (a Buffett song) relates to something more timely and prescient in the theatre world:

Changing a play or musical's script to fit your specific theatre's needs or beliefs.

This is not a new topic, but in recent months, it has become a real hot-button one.

Last year, a church in Texas came under fire (and immense fines) when they unofficially staged a production of Hamilton, with highly Evangelical dialogue added to the script; this was not only illegal (as the show is not available for community theatre yet), but also even more historically inaccurate than Lin-Manuel Miranda's original version.

Similarly, here in New England, the talk of the town this summer was a local theatre that omitted a Black character from their production of A Chorus Line when they were unable to find an actor to play him. The licensing company found out and, a week before the show went up, it was shut down.

When I was a kid, doing unofficial shows was something that people got away with more easily. I remember a summer camp production of Newsies, long before Disney ever brought it to Broadway. And, in those dark, pre-Internet/social media days, it was a lot harder to get "found out" by the licensing authorities.

Not so, now. With theatre companies promoting their productions on Facebook and the like, it's only a game of six degrees of separation before your homemade version of Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban falls under the watchful hawks who own the rights. Ironically, with the SAG-AFTRA writer's strike still going on, I find it bizarre that theatre groups try to work around paying writers when they claim to support them. (In the Potter case, I'm all for taking as much money away as possible from transphobe J.K. Rowling.)

What is the reason for theatre companies playing by their own rules? One possibility could be this: Theatres -- especially those of the community variety -- are in dire straits; companies are shuttering left and right because audiences do not want to come out as much as they did before the pandemic (which also stems from a plethora of reasons). To continue operations, they have limited options: charge audiences more? Have actors in a production pay? Choose cheaper -- but lesser-known (and therefore less profitable) -- shows? Or, as is the case most often, I believe, try to get away with it. As detailed above, sometimes they get caught red-handed, other times they get lucky.

Some performing arts groups that are focused on programs for children try to explain these actions as being "educational," and to an extent, I agree. For theatre to continue, we need to bring more kids in, so while these groups should still follow the law of the land, exceptions here should be made.

More concerning to me, however, is not the writing of your own version of a popular book, or having a Zoom session where you and your friends perform a (copyrighted) movie script, but changing entire parts of a play or musical to suit the community it's being performed in or with.

In the past few years, an infamous production of Disney's Mulan Jr. had nary an actor of Asian descent, instead opting for using makeup to create the particular ethnicity, (which feels even more offensive to me than not using any makeup at all). Similarly, I couldn't believe it when a local group staged a production of In the Heights with only one Latinx actor in the ensemble. A dear playwright friend of mine discovered one of his works being performed in Texas (why is it always Texas?), but rather than pay the licensing fees, the title was changed and the authorship was credited to the director, so as not to attract the licensing company. And who's middle or high school hasn't done a production of the Afro-centric Once On This Island, trying to avoid the issue of casting actors of color by saying the show is "about class"?

As mentioned previously, the group that edited out a Black character from A Chorus Line might have been the one that got nabbed, but it's anything but a rare occurrence. For the record, I am not happy that this theatre got caught with its hand in the cookie jar; I'm no "theatre cop," nor is this a case of schadenfreude. Indeed, it's a sad result that might have been done from necessity for an otherwise vital and longstanding performing arts institution that may now be facing the end of its storied history.

I'm not writing this blog post to prove why the above examples are heinous (though some are more than others), but rather that there are so many plays and musicals out there, waiting to be produced, that can satisfy your particular community. Even if you can't find a rap musical about Evangelical politicians, you may be able to buy a license with ASCAP or other music licensing agencies and perform a cabaret-style revue of that particular Tony winner.

Do you love a certain Disney property but can't afford MTI's bonkers rates, or cast it appropriately? You're legally allowed to write a parody, which is an art form protected by federal law (see the Harry Potter spoof, Puffs, as proof).

If you have your heart set on a musical with a diverse cast, and you don't want to do a cabaret or a parody, but you also realize the difficulties of finding the talent that fits? Well, recruit -- reach out to other theatres, contact actors through social media, and, this may set you further back financially -- offer to pay them. Such upfront costs may allow you to do the show of your dreams, ignore the risk of fines or shutdowns (and irate audiences), and hopefully, it will break even for you. If not, well, at least you've done it the right way.

We in the theatre industry must help each other out when possible and continue to find new and appropriate ways to combat the challenges we face. At the same time, it is hugely important that we also demonstrate that we respect the writers of the shows we most love and not only compensate them for their artistry, but make sure we tell the story they have passed into our trusting hands.

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