Stop! You, Yes You, Are Killing the Future of School & Community Theatre!

Spencer Lau

  • OnStage New Jersey Columnist

Did that catch your attention?  Who is killing in school and community theatre?  Aaron Burr? Scar?  Monty D’Ysquith?  Madame Morrible?  No, it’s not any of them.  They may be killing it on Broadway or on Tour but not in School or Community Theatre.  It’s production teams, directors, choreographers, etc. who either don’t know any better, or worse, don’t care.  

The State of the Art:

Earlier this year Chris Peterson, Founder and Editor in Chief did an article about a theatre company in Connecticut that had a set designer who copied from another company.

Believe it or not that has become something that is more common than we care to admit.  A little education on this subject, when a school, or community theatre, license a show they are all given a contract.  Some are more extensive than others.  But within that contract are regulations for show billing, videotaping (if allowed), scripts, etc. that production teams are to strictly follow.  Here’s where we go off the rails, READ AND FOLLOW THE CONTRACT!!!  It’s right there in front of you!!!

Right now you are saying, who are you to be telling me how to envision my show or who cares?  Honestly a lot of people do!  It’s a copyright that you are violating when you copy costumes, set, choreography, change songs, or add things that are from revivals or past productions.

Put simply, would you want someone to steal your creativity and imagination, or borrow it and not be given some kind of credit or compensation?  So how are these people killing the future of school and community theatre?  I’m glad you asked!

God I Hate Shakespeare:

If you know Something Rotten, then you know this song falls where the Nick Bottom wants to get ahead of William Shakespeare so badly, he takes extreme measures to do so.  Let’s apply that to present day school or community theatre.  There are a bunch of programs/companies in your area that you are competing against or groups doing the same show; you are just trying to get ahead because you know that your company is just that great.  Can you put a price on your integrity?  Are you really willing to risk it all?  Maybe you are a school in South Jersey or a community theatre group in Ohio?  Perhaps a blended program in Wisconsin or summer theatre program that is part of a dance academy in Texas.  Sure you could roll the dice and assume that no one is looking, and copy things from a Broadway production, or tour, regional theatre, whatever.  What does that say about your integrity?  What does that say about your trust in yourself, your production team or your actors?  Do you know what happens if you get caught?  Let me give you some examples from one particularly popular show right now, Lion King Jr.  Not billing the show as THE LION KING JR OR KIDS; copying the costume plots of the Broadway show; adding songs from the Broadway show to your KIDS version; turning your community theatre stage into a knock off of the National Tour.  I think anyone can keep going because you probably have seen things like this with any show.  What happens if you get caught?

Cell Block Tango:

He (she) had it coming…He (she) had it coming.  He (she) only had himself to blame…If you’d have been there…If you’d have seen it, I betcha you would have done the same.   Ok so you might not go to jail like Velma in Chicago and sing this but come on, you didn’t think I’d just use the title for this one did you?  How do you explain to your school/community theatre group when they get a cease and desist letter?  Or a fine of thousands of dollars?  Revocation of show rights?  We all hear the stories, this school or company got caught, but yet we don’t fear that?

Why is that?  Is the risk worth the gain?  Do you want to be known as the director or production team or company that ripped off a Broadway show or tour?  Take stock in what you do and the manner in which you do it!!!  Can you do very small things to “tip the cap” to the Broadway show?  I think it’s only respectful to do so.  Give your audience some Easter eggs (like so many movies do now).  For instance, the school I direct just did Legally Blonde Jr.  For the prison scene we had 15 girls on stage in highlighter orange T-shirts and each kid had a different number on it: 24601 (Les Miserables), 525600 (Rent), 1776 (1776), 442 (Allegiance), 42154 (MTI Offices), etc. etc.  Perhaps a very recognizable dance step (NOT STEPS OR CHOREOGRAPHY) will suffice, but to turn your production into something that it’s not.  There are people at iTheatrics who work with MTI, Samuel French, R&H, Disney, Tams Whitmark to craft these shows for schools or folks who work at these companies who do it for professional productions.  When did you get smarter and better than the folks who work with the writers, composers?  Now don’t get defensive, settle down.  How do we fix this?  It’s actually kind of simple folks.


There are high stakes in community theatre but there are ways to ramp up your show.  Here’s what you can do:

1.    Don’t watch any productions of the show you are producing.  Have a fresh perspective and let your creativity flow.
2.    Read and follow your contract, if you have questions, call your representative.  They have people who handle what is in bounds and what is not.
3.    Roundtable discussions with colleagues or your production staff and have reflective time on their ideas.  Some of the most insane ideas don’t always have to come from you.
4.    Pay attention to your surroundings.  There are so many other things that can inspire you and give you paths to follow.
5.    Ask for permission to make changes.  While this is doubtful to happen often, if you have a revolutionary idea, get it out there with the people who created the work.  You might just have opened a new path for yourself!
6.    Experiment, experiment, experiment but set yourself a deadline as well.  Try things 1000 times.  It’s part of the creative process, honestly.  If you trust your people, they may help guide your direction.
7.    Research, research, research.  Research the time period, the characters, society, the norms of society, the culture, psychology, all those things.  The more you read and learn, the more your mind will want to expand.

Always Starting Over:

So at this point you are saying to yourself, “oh jeez, I’ve read all of this and I still don’t get it.

How am I killing school and community theatre?”  How is my show imitation, change show billing or copying things from the show going to hurt my school or community theatre group?

There are a few answers to that.

1.    Show titles will become harder to license.  The more groups are found to be doing things the improper way, the better chance that the producers of the shows or the license holders of the shows will be less likely to allow them to be adapted for schools or community groups.
2.    Show titles will become more expensive to license.  If the current trend continues, I would imagine you will have to pay higher amounts for licensing, which you will have to turn around and put into your ticket sales, which, in this day in age will hurt your ability to operate in the black.
3.    Reputation, trust as lost.  You are as good as your work and your word.  I live and teach in a community that boasts 4 community theatre groups within 20 miles of each other.   The word gets around (yes that is a Hamilton reference), not only amongst the community but licensing companies.  It is a much small world than you think it is.
4.    Money, money, money.  You won’t be in the money, you’ll be out a lot.  Can you imagine what would happen if your school program was misusing your contract?  Even worse, you cause your community theatre company to fold?  You look at your Young Simba, or Flounder, Red Riding Hood and tell them and their parents what you did.

In order for musical theatre, or theatre in general is to flourish, we all need to work in concert with each other.  In the end, doesn’t our work speak for itself?  Do we really need to copy and steal to get ahead?  If you think so, you are in the wrong world folks.  There is brilliance in everyone that is involved in theatre.  How do we use that and actively engage it is the difference.  Be great, create great things, teach great things and do great things.  But make sure they are your things and not someone else’s.

Break a leg!!!