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Holding Our Tongues: Censorship in the Theatre

October 6th, 2010 No comments

I attended a fantastic Dramatist’s Guild symposium on Saturday, September 20th, at Cleveland Public Theatre.  The symposium was about Censorship in the Theatre and was arranged and coordinated by Faye Sholiton who deserves a tremendous amount of recognition and thanks for her effort in coordinating this event.  The staff of Cleveland Public Theatre are also to be much, much thanked and congratulated for this event which was not only well-attended but of significant importance.

The “headline” guest was Ozen Yula.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with Ozen Yula, he is a playwright from Turkey whose play was not only shut down in Istanbul; but it is entirely likely that he will be the unfortunate recipient of a death threat in his home country.  For clarification, a death threat in Yula’s part of the world is not the same as the run-of-the-mill death threat one might receive in the United States.  In the US you receive a few phone calls, voicemail messages, etc., from some impotent rage-filled couch potatoes who have nothing better to do but stew around in the mess they call their life while attempting to control other people.  In Turkey, on the other hand, your photograph appears in a fundamentalist newspaper where you are listed as being a very bad person and then a few weeks later you turn up dead and your killer is never caught.

Now, Ozen Yula did conceive of and create a fairly provocative play–by some people’s standards: Lick But Don’t Swallow.  The premise is sort of like a distorted It’s a Wonderful Life or perhaps Two of a Kind if you like John Travolta, Olivia Newton John, and screwball comedies; but I digress: an angel is sent back to Earth for 24 hours during which she must save one person.  The catch? The angel is sent back as a porn star.  (Well, no one said it would be easy…)  So, the whole of the play is a male and female porn star, a camera man, and a director.  As the porn stars fuck in various positions, she blathers on about a host of issues: from famine and hunger to violence, etc.  It is clear that Yula has a droll sense of humor and is not a little irreverent.  It is quite ironic in that, given the subject matter and the handling of the content, I don’t know that this play would have a particularly great staying power in the marketplace, funny as it is.  However, now that someone want to ban the play and possibly kill the playwright (Assassination is the extreme form of censorship–George Bernard Shaw), the play will take on a degree of interest and value that it may never have had.  Like so many things, as soon as someone wants to cover it everyone in the world wants to see what is going to be covered.

So, the play was set to go up in Istanbul, Turkey (at the Kumbaraci 50 theater in the Beyoglu district of Istanbul according to Tony Brown) and due to threats, etc., the theater notified the police and asked for some protection.  At this point, the theater was shut down (even though it had just been built) due to concerns about its compliance with fire codes.  As Yula explained, this may have been coded language to remind everyone of the Sivas Massacre in 1993: where 37 intellectuals, artists, and hotel employees were burned to death by a similar breed of fundamentalist nits that continue to infest the globe in 2010.  Yula is scheduled to return to Turkey later this month and God bless him and keep him from the deranged mob that he’s bound eventually to encounter.  This is censorship in its most overt form.

Yula was surprisingly philosophic and calm about the whole thing, saying that his intent is to “hold up a mirror” to his society/culture and hopes to “help through literature” so that the poor (economically) and brainwashed masses in Istanbul can “see their lives”.  This is now his ethic of playwriting.  Yula is clearly intent on doing the same thing here as his play Don’t Call Me Fat is up at Cleveland Public Theatre right now, and addresses the American obsession with eating, obesity, weight loss, and fame–themes that Yula identified in our society by watching television!

There are all sorts of forms of censorship, but the most disturbing sort follows on the heels of the sort described above–the violent type that Yula faces–and this most disturbing type is Self-Censorship.  This form received a great amount of attention during the day as it is the kind that most people face: for a variety of reasons.  The violence that accompanies some sorts of censorship are aimed squarely at the notion of making people shut their mouths and not to say anything in the first place.  As some of us playwrights went off to lunch we joked with each other saying things like, “I want you to just shut your mouth, as my having to censor you requires too much effort” and “the sooner you learn to censor yourself the easier it will be for me.”  Ha ha ha.  But that, of course, is the idea.  The whole of censorship and control aims at ensuring that thinking is controlled and regulated.  Once thoughts get outside of the head, then there is great effort involved in stomping out the ideas that have escaped.  Other forms of censorship include indirect means.  For instance, in 1996 in Mecklenburg County (North Carolina) the Charlotte Repertory Theater was assaulted for putting up a production of Angels in America.  A local religious nit there (we have them in America too, they just kill less frequently now than they used to) objected to the gay themes and no doubt the overtly liberal bias evinced by Kushner’s politics. Because there was no method of overtly closing the production due to these themes, the nit and the Republican mayor decided to go after the production for having nudity in it.  They were unsuccessful at stopping the production, however the Mecklenburg County Commissioners later retaliated by stripping all arts funding from arts organizations in the county ($2.5 million) and continued to retaliate until summarily voted out of office in 1996. Local playwright Eric Coble wrote a play about the events surrounding this insanity entitled Southern Rapture. Other silly forms (but no less frightening in their implications) include such things as changing the advertising for the Vagina Monolgues to the “Hoo-Haa Monologues” as clearly some American’s have no capacity to think about human sexuality or the human body in any manner beyond the level of a second grader.

Other items of note.  During the opening discussion with Ozen Yula, Tony Brown moderated the interview and later a panel, which included Michael Mauldin, Head of the Dramatic Arts Program at Cleveland State University.  Gary Garrison, Executive Director of Creative Affairs for the Dramatists Guild of America talked a bit about how the DGA handles censorship issues.  Later in the afternoon, Raymond Bobgan, Executive Artistic Director for Cleveland Public Theatre gave an update on the Gordon Square Arts District planning/activities.  Later, later in the afternoon there was a panel discussion which included David Faux, Director of Business Affairs at the Dramatists Guild; Ari Roth, Artistic Director of Theater J; and Betty Shamieh, a playwright whose plays have been highly successful in Europe and translated into many languages, but have not been staged in the US, as she sees it, because of their representation of Palestinian families and issues of concern to Arab-Americans.

On the whole, this was an invigorating and exhausting day, and much glory and honor is due to those who arranged for it to happen.

Subsidiary Rights — Ralph Sevush/David Faux

June 13th, 2011 2 comments

Subsidiary Rights

I went to several presentations by Ralph Sevush, Executive Director for the Dramatist’s Guild; often, he was accompanied by David Faux, Director of Business Affairs, whom I met at the Cleveland event hosted by CPT: Holding Our Tongues: Censorship in the Theatre. These were some of the most valuable and astonishing talks. Probably the most astonishing point, a truly horrifying point, brought up during the talks being attempts by directors to attach copyright ownership to playwright scripts for changes in stage directions. My God!

Faux began by discussing the terminology of Subsidiary Rights: common understanding being — corporate — wholly owned subsidiary — this thing that exists for the benefit of the other thing. They both went on to discuss that in any main production of a play/musical — certain rights are triggered; and that these rights exist purely due to the main production; successful productions have other descendants: for instance, a successful play may result in publication, which is a subsidiary right: another production elsewhere at a higher level of prestige, a movie, etc.


Probably one of the most troubling things that Sevush pointed out is that there are works can get encumbered to the point that they are unproduceable. This led Sevush to caution that playwrights must pay attention to what is happening at the front end of the process. For example, a play gets produced in 2 LORT theaters at 5% each and has an equity showcase at 5% and a director has attached some % to it; by the time the show gets to NY there is already upwards of 15%-20% taken off the top. This may result in not enough of a %age left to make a producer interested in the show: and so it never gets produced. That is frightening.

Often subsidiary rights have to do with proximity to the event or direct lineage of benefits (subsequent to). That is, if a show is doing great and someone in the audience says, hey we should make a movie of this, there is a connection between the production and the movie, that triggers certain subsidiary rights. However, if a movie of a play is made 10 years after it has been staged, that connection is no longer direct and subsidiary rights may not be triggered.

Additionally, during a production contracts often grant rights to a producer–stage production, tchachkes, souvenirs, albums (ancillary); but there are rights that you reserve.

For the explicit record, a playwright owns his/her play.

During any production the producer gets limited license; as the playwright you own the right to re-license; tabloid productions; derivative works; subsidiary rights are rights subsequent to a production and do not have anything to do with the main rights—or Grand Rights, of ownership of the script property.

Producers make profits from the production, as do investors. But often it may not be enticing enough for the investors to simply back a play; so they are enticed by participating in a revenue stream that goes beyond the production; that is, by promotions, souvenirs, etc., producers assert that “we have added value that goes beyond the original production” (producer) – and that investors will get a piece.

Sevush notes that this line of thinking was important when shows had to pay for themselves; but that as time goes on there are changes, especially with non-profit “producers” entering the picture. Further, that it is not the same rationale for NonProfit theaters to advance the initial rationale (revenue stream); that ForProfit producers advanced.

Broadway model of subsidiary rights: 40% of revenue for 18 years subsidiary rights share (model from broadway) just to open (that is, the play opens one night and then closes). Think “The Producers” begging for a flop.

Sevush proffered an equation: %, duration, territory = parameters get negotiated (how much, for how long, where). That is, the percent of the revenue share, the amount of time over which that share will persist; the scope of the territory or domain in which that rule applies.

Broadway producers get the greatest commercial share of subsidiary rights, usually descending (40% 10 years, 35% next year, 30% next, etc.); get a certain percentage for film over the lifetime of the deal.

40% for 10 years (off broadway); 21 performances with a press opening gets 10%; 32 performances gets 20%, etc. scales. Industry standard

LORT = 5% for 5 years (standard) concession by DG; though a concession based on not fighting about it; this is being re-considered now by the Guild.

For a show produced on Broadway the territory is US and Canada.

Sevush encouraged those in attendance to think of subsidiary rights as a rock in a pond (broadway is a big rock). There are different rights based on the venue and purpose of the event: equity showcase; LA equity waiver for spaces with less than 99 seats, etc.

Sevush posits the question: what value have the producers added? reviews? etc

Sometimes they’ll ask 2-3% equity showcase; what does the author get on the front end? if the producer gives you no $$ / royalty, etc. then they should not be asking for $$ on the back end. If you paid me nothing, why am I paying you?

What has troubled Sevush is the expansion of this approach to taxing subrights for developmental workshops and festivals; as Sevush points out, theaters haven’t even produced your work, you have self-produced (in a festival) fee to apply, likely a participation fee, pay a chunk of the box office (if you get anything), and you don’t control the schedule, location, press, etc. AND these theaters want subsidiary rights, perhaps something like 2% for 7 years.

Sevush is even more incredulous when looking at Not-for-Profit; that these theaters get the benefit of tax exemption and exist for charitable purposes so they should be taking the risk of a for-profit theater w/o sticking it to the artist.

I both agree and disagree with this perspective; having received a Certificate of Non-Profit Management at Case, I know that the notion that Non-Profits not profit from something is misconceived. The signature point of Non-Profit status being that any financial benefits may not “inure” to any individual. That is, money that goes into a Non-Profit must, by law, go to the organization and not to any individual, i.e. shareholder, as in a For-Profit corporate model. I do agree with Sevush that there is a charitable purpose for which these organizations exist and that the “shareholder” who should benefit (or one of them) from the operations of the NP is the artist; and that NPs that gouge artists are looking in the wrong place; as Sevush points out in his article in the Sept/Oct 2010 issue of The Dramatist. (However, I will point out that PBS has suffered for never adequately taking steps to recoup %ages from Sesame Street back in the day.)

Some definition was given to theater classes:
1st class (broadway 1,000 seat theaters, actors, etc at top of their rates)
2nd (500 seat houses, etc)

Middle tier theaters tend to be non-profit; often plays will be produced with regional theatres and those theaters will take the hit but a certain % will be loaded into contracts so that they benefit from future rights in NY if it goes to Broadway, for instance. Pay option rights for future.

Must keep in mind the question “What is the value added?” Not just perception, but the actual amt of $$ they’ve invested in the production. For instance, Sevush asks, “If you’re produced in Peoria are you getting the same value as if you’re produced in NY?” For instance, Samuel French will not publish the print copy of a play if the show has not been produced at a commercial or Non-Profit theater in NY.

Goal for contracts will try to get the larger production share to be picked up by the next producer up–so if you option 5% of your subsidiary rights to Peoria and the show goes to Broadway where they take 40%, you want to get a contract that has the initial 5% absorbed into that 40%.

Probably one of the most troubling things that Sevush pointed out is that there are works can get encumbered to the point that they are unproduceable. This led Sevush to caution that playwrights must pay attention to what is happening at the front end of the process. For example, a play gets produced in 2 LORT theaters at 5% each and has an equity showcase at 5% and a director has attached some % to it; by the time the show gets to NY there is already upwards of 15%-20% taken off the top. This may result in not enough of a %age left to make a producer interested and the show: and so it never gets produced. That is frightening.

You own the property; if they want a piece they have to come to you.

Examples of when %ages might be requested: Actors where there is an improvisational component; Directors might want; 0-10% based on a “good production”; Dramaturg might want a piece (RENT case).

The Playwright licenses the play to the producer who then hires the director; so you as a playwright should NEVER sign any agreement with the director.

Scenic designers can get re-use fees if the design is re-used, but the producer should pay this fee and it should not come out of the playwright’s contract based on %ages.

Book doctors/script doctors. Commmercial. Producer can replace the author if the work is based on an underlying original work. The producer owns the underlying rights of the work.

SDC (society of directors and choreographers) they are a union; they are employees; they get paid fees, have health insurance, etc. That is, a writer runs the risk of never getting anything (no read, no produce, etc) but a writer is not similarly situated with a director–who has certain benefits.

Article — DG is attempting to role back some of the rights that np theaters have presumed to take with regard to subsidiary rights. For instance, the NY Public has waived its interest in the first $75,000 the author makes after the production. Still 10% over 10 years. “Windfall”. There’s other ways, fees up front and % of the door to the theater, with no subsidiary rights. LORT 5-7%.

Publication rights (Sam French) if the play wins the festival. When you sign up for the festival there are certain things that you agree to.

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