Rights are right...

by Michael Eddy

Welcome to the June issue of Stage Directions magazine. Once again, students are graduating and moving on to the next stage of their studies, professional training, and/or starting the work of their professional career. For many, work in summer stock is the most immediate thing on the horizon. Spring also brings spring openings of new productions on stages across the country. Some revivals, some brand new original works and some new works from other sources, especially film adaptations. Film to stage has been a trend that seems to keep building momentum and one that adds a layer to a topic that is very important to any artist—theater or otherwise—copyright. 

Many of you may have seen or heard about the production of Alien the Play at North Bergen, NJ high school. Online photos and video of the school’s production, which used the movie Alien as its source material, went viral. Interest even spurred a one-night only encore performance with financial support from director Ridley Scott and a personal appearance by actor Sigourney Weaver. One swirling question of the production was ‘How did they get the rights?’ Let me state that whether the school had the rights or not is not clear at this time, as we go to print. In this issue our contributing editor Howard Sherman, who attended the encore performance, looks at the innovative work the students did to recreate the iconic moments of an effects-filled movie on stage. 

He also looks at the issues of copyright—the one lesson perhaps too few seem to be taking away from this production. Again, whether this particular production held the rights or not, the fact that it is unclear makes it a good opportunity to discuss the absolute need to get rights. Producing unauthorized works without permission is not okay (regardless if they are big corporation or movie studio or a young playwright relying on their royalties from a past success to let them continue writing) and honestly it is not in the spirit of how theater artists work. We are a collaborative industry and that means we work together; trusting each other and sharing our ideas but always aware that credit is properly due for the hard work creating a piece of art—be it writing, designing, choreographing, fabricating—it all deserves respect. Sadly, there are many elements of theater work that the original artist/designer/director/etc. are not protected, but written work is without any gray area protected until—after a considerable amount of time—it goes into public domain. Which is where anyone not wanting to pay rights can pull from a wealth of public domain works and create their own way of telling a story. 

Yes, it’s praiseworthy when a teacher finds a unique way to engage their students; but as inventive as a production might be; as many skills that they may learn, a lesson that should never be taught is that it is okay to break someone’s copyright. Many depend on support and recompense from their previous work to sustain them as they create new work. It is not for us to decide when someone is successful enough that they are no longer due their proper royalties. Respecting each other’s work and rights means we will continue to have new works that diversify the voices expressing themselves on stages at all levels of theater.