Integrity and Ethics in the Theatre

C. Austin Hill

To my shock and dismay, these past few weeks have seen several stories hit the news—and the pages of this blog—that all center upon matters of integrity and ethics in the theatre.  From a “volunteer professional non-Equity theatre company” (whatever in the world that means…are they volunteer? Professional? I have no idea) stealing designs from other companies, to colleges violating authorial intent by failing to take the race of characters into consideration, to one of those same colleges proceeding to tech week WITHOUT a signed contract granting them rights for production, it seems that integrity is sorely lacking in our industry.  

And, perhaps most stunning of all, there has been backlash upon writers for this blog for having the NERVE to call out this type of bad behavior.  My friends, some of you are thinking about this all wrong, placing blame in the wrong places, and failing to uphold what I had always considered to be an unspoken code of ethics and mutual respect for other theatre artists.  So, indulge me, if you will, while I try to elucidate that code…or at least the version of it that I teach and model for my students, expect them to uphold, and hope that they carry with them into the industry when they leave me.

1: Do no harm

When you endeavor to make theatre, be thoughtful.  Be considerate of other artists—playwrights, directors, actors, technicians, designers, stage managers, choreographers, dramaturgs, and anyone else you may run into.  No single person in a production is more important than any other, and all of us are theatre artists.  A playwright is not a far-distant creature whose wishes and intentions can be ignored.  The director isn’t a villain to be fought against, nor a figure whose work can be ignored after opening.  Designers are not outsiders, even if they aren’t in the rehearsal room until tech.  Technicians are your friends…not food—they are NOT your servants, nor are they underlings.  The stage manager is not your enemy, she is there to ensure that everyone’s job gets done.  The dramaturg is not your research mule, there to do your work for you—they are there to help and support the production.  As theatre artists, you must understand the work of all other theatre artists.

2: Get permission

When you undertake an act of theatre, you have certain obligations.  You are obliged to secure the rights to, and pay royalties for, the work you are producing—even if you are a community theatre, a children’s theatre, a student production, or a group of actors just doing this for fun…EVEN IF YOU ARE NOT CHARGING FOR TICKETS, YOU MUST HAVE THE RIGHTS FOR PRODUCTION.  You may not take someone else’s work and use it without permission.  You may not watch a movie or listen to a cast album and then recreate the work without the knowledge of the creators of that work.  You may not advertise your production of “Frozen” without permission from Disney.  This is deceitful, and it is unethical…not to mention illegal.

Similarly you may NOT, not EVER, make changes to a published script without the express permission of the writer or their representative.  You cannot take out language you don’t like, you may not omit songs you think don’t work, you may not change the race, or the gender, or the names, or anything else about the characters without permission—particularly when race, gender, or otherwise is a crucial element of the play.  Some plays lend themselves to experimentation, or to explorations with gender or race—others simply do not.  If you cannot tell the difference, you really have no place in the theatre.  But there is always someone who does know the difference—the playwright or his or her representative. Again, it doesn’t matter if it seems like a good pedagogical tool, or an “interesting idea,” or if you are “certain it will work,” don’t cast a white actor as Martin Luther King Jr. without talking with the playwright; don’t cast a white woman to play a black male character; and do not cast white actors to play Asian characters when the playwright has already expressed their concerns about just such a thing.  If you can’t figure this out, do work that is the public domain.  Do Hamlet in Hawaii, or Moliere set on the moon.  Or, better yet, write your own ORIGINAL work and produce that.

3: Do not steal

It would be a great honor for me to know that my directorial or design work has inspired you.  It is another matter altogether if you take my designs and reproduce them without my permission.  It is another matter, too, if you attempt to recreate my blocking, or my stage pictures, or other aspects of my direction.  If you like my direction, hire me to direct for you…but do be warned that my production of Cats for you won’t look anything like my production of Cats for another theatre, and it CERTAINLY won’t look like the Broadway production.  I am a director, and my obligation is to make every one of my productions unique—not just from all other productions, but also from my own.  If you want to produce my production of Cats that I directed elsewhere, you’ll need to talk not just to me, but to that theatre—because, see, while I have rights to my directorial work, so does that theatre.

It is true that some plays are very specific about the settings, and that set design ideas are right in the script—along with blocking suggestions and costume design suggestions.  You need to learn to identify the times where these specifics are mandates from the playwright, and when they are descriptions of the original production designs.  It is VERY common, in authorized acting versions of scripts (those you’ll get from Samuel French or Dramatists), for there to be detailed set designs, or ground plans, or descriptions, that are NOT set down by the playwright.  Dramatists’ acting version of The Crucible, for example, very pointedly describes the original Broadway design, complete with diagrams.  This does NOT mean that this is the only way of visually interpreting the text.  Other scripts—John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, for example, spell out some author-directed scenic design elements—a two-sided Kandinsky painting rotating above a red couch, a hidden door on a raised platform—but there is still an incredible array of ways to interpret that design.  Looking at the Broadway production, great as it was, will inspire you…but it does NOT give you license to recreate it.  Even Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, one of the most tightly regulated plays in existence, allows for infinite variation in the visual design—how many different versions of a tree can you think of?

Taking a design and recreating it, or taking a director’s work and recreating it, is theft.  It is not flattering imitation, it is abhorrent appropriation of intellectual and artistic property.  As a designer or as a director, I spend hours—weeks, even—researching other productions (when they exist) of the play, or of similar plays.  I look at everything, and I draw inspiration from this place, and from that—I like this color palate, or that visual style, or the other piece of furniture—and then I work hard to make them my own.  I also draw inspiration from film, and from literature, and from art, and from architecture, and from nature…and I work to incorporate these ideas into my work.  For the world premiere I just directed (A Night of Blacker Darkness—a gothic vampire farce based on the novel by Dan Wells, and adapted by Allison Hill and Dan Wells), I was greatly inspired by the Wes Anderson film The Grand Budapest Hotel, the film helped me into the pacing and timing of the comedy, the mise-en-scene, and matters of physical style (particularly the fight sequences).  In NO case did I recreate so much as a line-delivery, nor a piece of staging, from the film. Nobody who saw my production would have thought I copied Anderson (as if that were possible), but it helped me all along the way.  This is how artists work. If you are not able to come up with your own ideas, you are not a theatre artist…you are a thief, and have no place in the theatre.

4: Become an advocate for ethics and integrity

When you see someone in the theatre acting in unethical ways, whether it’s a production making changes to the script, or a director or designer copying work, or someone mistreating another theatre artist, SPEAK UP.  I give huge kudos to Chris Peterson for speaking out against the theft that occurred at TheatreWorks, and for whomever tipped off Lloyd Suh and Katori Hall.  I think that if we sit back and allow these types of ethical violations to happen unquestioned, we all lose—the theatre as an industry loses.  Artists get devalued when artistry is no longer held sacred. 

It is no secret that there isn’t much money in being a theatre artist—at least most of the time.  So why do theatre artists pour days and weeks and years of their time into their work?  So that they can create art.  When someone takes that art and appropriates it in certain ways that violates a simple set of ethical guidelines—guidelines so basic that they shouldn’t have to be spelled out in an editorial—it takes something from us all.  The good news is, we can also help.  We need to stop defending bad behavior.  We need to stop making excuses for the dishonest, the unethical, the thieves, and the altogether uninformed.  Instead we need to situate ourselves as high protectors of this art form we hold sacred.  If we—the theatre artists—refuse to take a stand in favor of integrity and ethics, then we’ve already lost. 

Photo: Calvin College Theatre Department