The Theatreworks New Milford Scandal & How Not to Handle It

Chris Peterson

Last week, we broke the story that Theatreworks New Milford, a local CT theatre company, had copied the set and concept design for their production of Bell, Book and Candle from the design of the production at Hartford Stage/Long Wharf Theater's production in 2012. 

As obvious and egregious were the errors in judgement on the part of Theatreworks New Milford, as this site found out, it was only the latest error in judgement for this group because they had been basically copying set designs for multiple productions for years. Needless to say, since last week, the story has gained national attention. 

Many, especially locally, have criticized myself and this site for the way we've reported this story. While I admit that my writing style is aggressive and brutally honest, I've treated this story the same way anytime stories like these are reported to me. I've done the same with handling the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players production of The Mikado and the controversial casting of James Barbour in Phantom of the Opera. And if you think that stating Theatreworks New Milford's creative decision making was "lazy" and "bewildering" , is a personal attack, than there's nothing I can do about that and frankly, I don't care. Some have also asked why I'm singling out Theatreworks New Milford for this, when this happens everywhere. My reply to that is because this is happening in my own backyard and if you show me other relevant examples of this going on elsewhere, I'll report on that too. And if you feel I'm "piling on" Theatreworks New Milford, what I'm doing is commenting and investigating a situation that is ongoing and hasn't been resolved yet. Now back to the subject at hand. 

In response to the scandal, Theatreworks New Milford has, so far, suspended productions of Bell, Book and Candle. They have also cancelled their upcoming production of The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore which Bell, Book and Candle director Joseph Russo was set to direct this spring. And according to their website, have removed Joseph Russo from their Board of Directors.

While Joseph Russo certainly deserves some of the blame for what happened, he's not the only one. Considering the actions of Theatreworks New Milford over the past couple of days, more changes are desperately needed, and it starts with the head of the theatre. 

Since the story broke last week, Theatreworks New Milford and their leadership has been, for the most part, silent on the issue. But the actions and statements of President Glenn Couture over the past couple of days, are digging a deeper hole.

In statements to the press, Mr. Couture seems to be going the "We didn't know it was wrong" route. I expected him to go this route because what was he going to say? "Yes we've been intentionally and knowingly infringing on previous designs for years"? Not likely. But admitting that the theatre didn't know if was wrong, is just as problematic.

Theatreworks New Milford's production of Avenue Q  Photo/Rich Pettibone

Theatreworks New Milford's production of Avenue Q Photo/Rich Pettibone

What Theatreworks New Milford is, now, probably understanding is the gravity of the situation they've put themselves in. By copying other, possibly, copyrighted set design work for years, they put themselves not only at legal risk but also risk of not being allowed to produce shows at all. And let's say that they truly didn't know what they were doing was wrong, then that speaks to an egregious lack of oversight, knowledge and control on the part of the board of directors and especially Mr. Couture. 

Broadway Production of Avenue Q  Photo Credit: Walter McBride

Broadway Production of Avenue Q  Photo Credit: Walter McBride

Mr. Couture also has yet to answer for the previous examples of this happening at Theatreworks New Milford. As I discussed earlier, this is just the latest production where infringement of set design occurred. With their production of The Lyons last year, they failed to give credit to Allen Moyer's original set design despite essentially using his design from the Off-Broadway production. They also didn't give credit to Boeing Boeing designer Rob Howell for his designs for the Broadway revival for their production. The latest example is their production of Avenue Q. As you can see(right), the sets are practically identical, yet according to sources, Richard Pettibone and Mr. Couture himself, who served as the set designers on the show, "designed" the set and at no time gave credit to original designer Anna Louizos. Ironically, theaters can rent both the puppets and set when purchasing the rights. According to sources, Theatreworks rented the puppets but not the set. A video of the set construction also shows that as well. 

Now I have reached out to Mr. Couture to answer questions about all this, but he has declined to comment other than saying that a statement will be released on Wednesday. Given my multiple requests to speak with Mr. Couture that have been denied, I've been more than fair in giving him a chance to explain what happened. 

While Mr. Couture is certainly not obligated to speak with me, I had hoped he would have come up with better statements to media outlets than ones implying that he, along with the board, didn't know what was happening in their own house. So the question I have to ask, is if Mr. Couture wasn't aware that the ongoing practice of what was happening with set designs at Theatreworks New Milford was unethical and infringement, in addition to being involved with it himself, how can he continue to serve as President of the Board of Directors? The truth is, he can't. 

Every leader of every theatre company should have the attitude that when it comes to what happens in their theaters, the buck stops with them. If Mr. Couture feels the same way, then I'm calling him to step down. 

Theatreworks New Milford needs a President who has the oversight and knowledge of what's going on in their theater and more importantly, when unethical behavior is taking place. Through his actions and statements, Mr. Couture has demonstrated he possesses neither. 

There is no doubt that the reputation of this theatre and some of those involved has been damaged, but in order for it to rebound strong, they need a complete overhaul. Putting out statements about new policies when it comes to vetting design for their shows isn't enough, new people need to take charge of this group. 

Theatreworks New Milford can be great again, it's more than likely the rest of their season will be spectacular, but it can't happen with people, who stood idly by while their theatre was plagiarizing other design work, still involved. If Mr. Couture truly cares about the future of Theatreworks New Milford, he'll step away from being a part of it. 

UPDATE: Theatreworks New Milford released the following statement, 

Dear Patrons and Friends of TheatreWorks,
We want to express our sincere apologies for the cancellation of some of the performances of Bell, Book & Candle.
As most of you know, TheatreWorks New Milford is almost 50 years old. We are a small, not-for-profit, non-professional theatre and our mission is not to make a profit, but to provide a service to the community of New Milford and surrounding areas. Our Board of Directors are all volunteers. We therefore must place a good deal of trust in our directors and designers to provide the best possible productions.
Joseph Russo, the director of this production, has directed a number of productions at TheatreWorks in recent years. He indicated that he saw the production of Bell, Book & Candle at Hartford Stage in 2012, which inspired him to stage it at TheatreWorks.
In his zeal to mount this production, Joe designed and built a set which contained major elements that were extremely similar to those used at Long Wharf/Hartford Stage. He was unaware that these actions constituted an infringement. Those of us at TheatreWorks who are responsible for the artistic decisions were unaware of these similarities until we received notification from Long Wharf Theatre and Hartford Stage.  
The Board of Directors of TheatreWorks takes full responsibility for this oversight, and we have taken the following actions:
1) Our production has been completely re-staged and re-designed, under the direction of actor/director Matt Austin and will reopen on Friday, December 18th for an 8PM performance.
2) Mr. Russo has voluntarily resigned from the Board, and has sent an apology to Hartford Stage, Long Wharf Theatre, Alexander Dodge and Darko Tresnjak, the latter two being the respective designer and director of The Hartford Stage/Long Wharf production of Bell, Book & Candle. 
3) TheatreWorks has also personally apologized to all of the aforementioned injured parties.
4) We are putting in place a new policy to review all of the design elements and staging of every future production before the production begins rehearsals.
The Board would like to extend a special thanks to our cast of Bell, Book & Candle, who were integral in the re-mounting of this production. In addition, we would like to thank Mr. Dodge, Mr. Tresnjak, Michael Stotts, General Manager of Hartford Stage, and Joshua Borenstein, General Manager of Long Wharf Theatre for their graciousness, understanding and forgiveness throughout this situation. 
Again, we are very sorry for this incident. It has been a hard lesson for us, yet we are very grateful for having learned it. We are also grateful for all of your patience, support and kindness throughout.
Thank you again, and we hope you can join us as we re-open Bell, Book & Candle on December 18th as a humbler and wiser organization.
The Board of Directors of TheatreWorks New Milford


With this statement, it's very clear that Theatreworks New Milford isn't properly taking responsibility for their unethical actions over the years. It's a shame.

Thumbnail Photo: Theatreworks New Milford's production of Bell Book and Candle, photo: Richard Pettibone