Sharing The Same Hat

So the head of the drama program started the sow what may either be the seeds of destruction or bountiful harvest today. He decided the show he would produce next Fall will be a world premiere written by a former student. Involving a playwright in the rehearsal process is tricky business. I worked for a theatre that ran a playwright competition and was involved in the process of mounting world premieres. Even if there isn’t tension over a request to cut what the playwright wants to retain, there are generally issues over receiving rewrites in a timely manner.

I was supposed to see a new version March 15 so I had some concerns in this repsect. To be fair, there were rumors that we were entertaining other scripts so perhaps we can’t blame him for being under motivated to do rewrites.

But to add icing to the cake, the director wants to make the playwright co-director on the production. The playwright has had some directorial duties in conjunction with the director, including with shows he has written, so there is history and precedent for this. This former student just has never had a theoretically co-equal role with the director before and the productions were on a much smaller scale.

I say theoretically because the technical director, show director and I discussed the ideal scope of the alumnus’ authority and duties. Ultimately, the director has responsibilities by virtue of his position with the school which he can not cede or shirk regardless of the titles bestowed on anyone. Many of those responsibilities are in relation to me so verification will be sought for even the most minor request the alumnus makes.

So there is the totality of the situation. The playwright is placed in a position where he theoretically exerts equal artistic control over his product but in practice will not. There may come a point where this situation is tested when he is asked to rehearse a segment interpreted in a manner with which he does not agree. What will be his actual ability to insist on his vision of things given his position as playwright and co-interpreter of the work?

Conversely, if the drama director accedes to the playwright’s vision, he could be called on the carpet neglecting his responsibilities. (Though rather unlikely given the current version of the script. Still, a caution for any pondering a similar arrangement.)

Among the reasons why I did not immediately object to this arrangement given all these possibilities is that the playwright is aware of his limitations as a director. He knows he is good at staging certain aspects of a production but weaker at envisioning and executing others. While everyone in theatre tends to have huge egos which emerge at some point during the rehearsal process, I believe that realization will temper the situation overall.

While there is potential for all sorts of anxiety and problems to arise, there also exists great opportunities. A large cast of people will have the experience working with a playwright. The director potentially has another resource with which to accomplish the production goals. The script represents a departure from the type of shows we have done in the past and has the potential of attracting a large, young audience.

In many respects, this is the sort of endeavor we should be undertaking. Setting up the parameters of the relationship now hopefully avoids problems in the future. It isn’t likely I will be writing too much more on this topic in the near term but keep an eye open come Fall to learn how things are progressing.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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