- OnStage Founder & Editor-in-Chief
Given the times we're living in, theatre can provide an escape but also an opportunity to create dialogue. Whether it's to inform, educate or simply gain feedback, conversations between cast and audience (known as "talk backs") can be a valuable source of information and enlightenment.
But not everyone thinks so. When it comes to the work of David Mamet, hell hath no greater fury than if you try to discuss his work after the curtain closes.
Tucked away in suburban Detroit, lies the town of Allen Park, MI. In addition to the corporate offices of the Ford Motor Company and the Detroit Lions' practice facility, Allen Park also features a small 20-40 seat movable black box theatre which serves as the home of the Outvisible Theatre Company.
This small Equity company, founded in 2015, "looks to tell stories with honesty through art and imagination through our passion for intelligent and thought-provoking provoking theatre", according to their website.
Their motto is "Challenge ideas. Inspire creativity. Find the inestimable beauty of life through art."
For the closer of their 2nd season, the company chose David Mamet's Oleanna. The two-person play centers on the power struggle between a university professor and one of his female students, who accuses him of sexual exploitation and, by doing so, spoils his chances of being afforded tenure.
The show's themes of the antagonism between genders, power and political correctness are ever present today as they were in 1992, when the play was released. Mamet's use of dialog is also seen as somewhat revolutionary for play writing which is why it is a staple of discussion in classes all over the country. Which is fine, as long as that conversation doesn't happen following a performance apparently.
During Outvisible's run of Oleanna, which closed in early April, the creative team (as they apparently do with all of their productions) wanted to host talk back sessions with the audience, who had just seen the show. That was until they received contact from a Dramatists representative, who holds the license to Oleanna, on behalf of Mamet himself.
According to sources they were notified that if they proceeded to have these talk back sessions or " anything like it were to happen within two hours after the performance, that we would be charged/fined $25,000."
Talk backs were not restricted in the original contract when it was signed by Outvisible, so a new contract was sent to sign, just four hours before the show opened that night.
Sources further stated that,
"We could only guess that he felt that the ideas contained in this work shouldn't be discussed because it should stand on its own."
I reached out to Outvisible and this was the statement I received from their Artistic Director, Adriane Galea. It reads:
As the director of Oleanna and the Artistic Director of Outvisible, I was disappointed in the talkback restriction. Oleanna is a captivating, intelligent, and very relevant piece of theatre, and I believe allowing the audience to talk through and ask questions about what they had just witnessed would’ve created a brilliant dialogue. But I also understand and respect Mr. Mamet’s legal authority to control the conversation surrounding his intellectual property.
This has been confirmed by Dramatists Play Service. Craig Pospisil, Director of Nonprofessional Licensing, stated that they had received the update clause from David Mamet's agent on March 30th, the day of Outvisible's opening night.
Mr. Pospisil added,
"I reviewed our records and found that we had ten licenses for upcoming nonprofessional licenses of Mamet's plays. I contacted each of those theaters the next day with the details. Outvisible was one of those theaters. The clause we were given was then added to all future licensing for the plays."
Calls and emails to Mamet representatives have not been responded to.
Keep in mind this is not the first time Mamet has done this. In 2012, it was reported that Mamet would not allow the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown, MA to gain rights to his play Race, unless they agreed not to hold talk backs after the show.
Again the reported reason was "Mamet apparently wanted the impact of his play not to be emotionally truncated by a structured discussion between the actors and their audience."
He's also apparently done this with Road Less Traveled Productions in 2014 as well.
While playwrights certainly have say over how their shows are cast and produced, this is the first time I've seen a playwright try to control the discussion of his works after the performance is over.
But Mamet is no stranger to being controlling over his work. Remember this is the same author that refuses to allow changes in pronouns in all-female productions of Glengarry Glenn Ross and once succeeded in shutting down another production of Oleanna with a gender neutral Carol.
While I certainly believe in authorial intent and that a playwright's wishes should be followed, shutting down the discussion their work sparks, seems both petulant and elitist. While it’s not a violation of First Amendment Rights, since Mr. Mamet is a private citizen, it doesn't do him any favors in an industry built on sharing ideas and discussion.
In a month where we've seen national headlines involving the works of Edward Albee, the issue of authorial intent and control is a hot button issue.
However this feels like a different situation entirely. This appears as though a playwright wants to control the interpretation of his work, which should always be left up to the audience who views it.
In an era when more dialog is needed, those who want to shut it down, aren't doing themselves any favors.
I've reached out to David Mamet's representative and will update with column with official comments as I receive them.
Chris Peterson is the Founder & Editor-in-Chief of OnStage, a theatre blog based in the Greater New York City Area. While OnStage was founded in May of 2014, Chris has been an active blogger since 2008 in both travel and politics. He has also worked in the theatre industry for the past 20 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @Chris_OnStage
Photo: Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles in the Broadway revival.