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Is It Still ‘Endgame’?

A dispute at ART raises issues of ‘interpretive freedom.’ Also: Equity fights playwrights over the conversion rule, and directors and writers talk collaboration.

Audiences at the current American Repertory Theatre production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame are receiving a pair of extraordinary inserts in their programs—a strongly worded disclaimer from the play’s 78-year-old author disavowing director JoAnne Akalaitis’ production as “completely unacceptable to me” and “a complete parody of the play,” alongside an equally impassioned defense of “interpretive freedom” in the theatre by ART artistic director Robert Brustein.

The program inserts were settled upon as an out-of-court compromise in an 11th-hour dispute between the Cambridge, Mass. theatre and Beckett’s representatives, including Grove Press president Barney Rossett, who informed Beckett of the subway tunnel setting (designed by Douglas Stein) and the Philip Glass overture and incidental music being used in the production. Rossett contended that these details, as well as interracial casting, turned the production into “a travesty” and “a gross distortion” of the classic 1956 play. Brustein called such assertions “preposterous.”

“To insist on strict adherence to each parenthesis of the published text not only robs collaborative artists of their interpretive freedom but threatens to turn the theatre into a waxworks,” Brustein noted in his program statement. “Mr. Beckett’s agents do no service to either theatrical art or to the great artist they represent.”

The controversy emerged during five days of previews in early December, as a flurry of telegrams, letters and press statements passed between the parties. The play opened on schedule Dec. 12, and received positive reviews.

Beckett has over the years favored strict adherence to the stage directions in his scripts, which often prescribe such details as the number of seconds for a pause or the number of steps an actor should take. In contrast to the “bare interior, gray light” called for in the text, Stein’s ART setting was described by reviewer Jon Lehman of the Patriot Ledger as “the embodiment of a defunct civilization in [a] forgotten catacomb. Slashing across the middle of the stage is the burned-out hulk of a subway car…The stage, gray with grease, soot and mud and awash with a puddle of filthy water, is littered with mechanical debris of all sorts. Bare bulbs, suspended from above, flicker and blink in inscrutable patterns, suggesting the death throes of technology.”

Glass’ percussive overture, also a point of contention, seems to imitate the roaring and rattling of a subway. Beckett’s representatives objected as well to the dedication of the production to the late Alan Schneider. Schneider directed the first U.S. production of Endgame, as well as the American premieres of most of the playwright’s other major works, and was known as a careful follower of all elements in Beckett’s texts.

ART refused to excise the dedication or make any changes in Akalaitis’ version, which adheres to Beckett’s script—the lines spoken by the actors—word for word.

Akalaitis has mounted several innovative Beckett productions as a member of New York’s Mabou Mines, including works adapted from prose texts. ART has also staged well-received productions of other Beckett plays, including Footfalls and last season’s Waiting for Godot.

The dispute drew comments from many theatre observers nationwide. An editorial in The Boston Globe supported “the freedom of those who give continuing life to the playwright’s work by interpreting it on the stage.”

No Play, No Showcase

The long-standing dispute between playwrights and Actors’ Equity Association over “conversion rights” escalated in December and January, when a number of play agents withdrew permission for plays they represent to be presented in low-cost showcase all productions Off and Off-Off Broadway. The withdrawals affected such theatres as the WPA, the Hudson Guild and Ensemble Studio Theatre, all devoted to staging new works.

The playwrights and their agents contend that the conversion rule—which requires three weeks’ payment or job offers to showcase actors in the event of subsequent productions under full Equity contracts—discourages regional theatres from producing plays that have been seen in showcase. The playwrights and agents do not want their plays encumbered with such financial baggage.

Actors’ Equity, however, maintains that the rule, in effect since 1981, provides necessary protection for actors who have worked in showcases for little or no wages.

Jane Moss, executive director of the Alliance of Resident Theatres/ New York, expressed concern that the withdrawals might grow into “some kind of a boycott” of showcases, and called the situation “very grave. This arena is all about new plays,” she noted.

It is the theatres that are caught in the middle of the dispute. Artistic director Richard Bell of the American Kaleidoscope Theatre said his group had planned to stage Richard Corey, a play by A.R. Gurney, in March 1985, but Gurney, through his agent Gilbert Parker of the William Morris Agency, recently withdrew the rights. Gurney and Parker also withdrew permission to a group of actors from Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater who wished to produce a festival of the writer’s one-act plays at the small Riverwest Theatre in New York. Gurney had asked Equity to waive the buyout provision for League of Resident Theatre productions outside New York, but the union declined to do so.

“I feel very sad about doing this,” Gurney told The New York Times, “but it’s a question of principle. To put these plays in a situation where they’d be so encumbered would be a poor idea.”

The conversion clause also applies to revivals, which prevented the WA Theatre from presenting George Kelly’s 1946-47 play Fatal Weakness. The Samuel French agency will not grant showcase rights to the play.

The flurry of pull-outs is apparently an effort on the part of playwrights and agents to persuade Equity either to change the conversion rights rule for regional theatres, or to waive it in individual cases. So far Equity has taken a firm stand in support of the rule as a vital protection for actors, and has shown little inclination to compromise.

Examining an Intimate Process

“I want the director to pick my pocket,” said playwright Michael Brady, a participant in the recent roundtable for playwrights and directors sponsored by Theatre Communications Group. “I don’t want the director to shake me and mug me, take off my clothes and say, ‘Where’s that damn blue handkerchief?’ I want the director to find out what I already have in me but am not quite able to pull out.”

The topic under consideration was the collaborative relationship between writer and director, with special emphasis on the period prior to rehearsal and production. Chaired by Kyle Renick, artistic director of WPA Theatre in New York, the discussion among the seven playwrights and nine directors unearthed a number of areas of agreement.

The language used by the participants throughout made clear the intimacy of the writer-director relationship. Playwright Constance Congdon, describing a successful collaboration, explained that, “Sometimes it’s like being married and sometimes it’s like being divorced. But it is a highly charged relationship. Every writer writes from his or her own experience. And you let someone into that world totally. Furthermore, you end up telling them what you were trying to get at, so you’re incredibly vulnerable.”

“You feel honored to be included in a playwright’s very intimate process, in that person’s biography,” responded director Barnet Kellman. “I think directors are grateful to be included in that way.” There was general agreement with director Amy Saltz that the pre-production period is a creative time, and that problems are more likely to arise during the rehearsal process, when everyone is under pressure.

“I keep hearing the frustration of artists not being able to control their own destinies,” said TCG director Peter Zeisler, who noted the absence of the old-fashioned producer as a catalyst between playwright and director. “One of the basic problems,” he continued, “is how to create a structure which is going to allow artists to have more control over their own work and one that is going to help the germination process between the director and the playwright.”

Problems between writers and directors, however, were seen as insignificant when compared to the difficulties of dealing with artistic directors and commercial producers; those difficulties, in turn, seemed minor when set against the fundamental impossibility of making a living in the  theatre.

Many of the participants deplored the tendency to stress play development programs over new play production, contending that play development programs have proliferated beyond the need for them. “It’s my opinion that the age of ‘play development’ is ending as we speak,” said Renick.

Turning the discussion to the growing plight of the freelance director in today’s theatre, Kellman said, “When Alan Schneider died, it was the end of a breed: the guy who made his living directing in the theatre. You’ll never see it again, because the theatre does not provide a living for directors.” Renick agreed: “Directors are told, ‘We don’t hire directors whose work we don’t know.’ It’s really grim out there. I think we ought to start pressuring funding sources into doing something, because there aren’t going to be any directors left,” he concluded.

“We’re all in trouble and unless we can find ways of helping each other and helping to make the theatre more viable financially for everybody, we’re sunk,” Saltz remarked.

“As people who have a vision,” agreed playwright Sheldon Rosen, “we should apply that vision to our own profession. The creative artists of the theatre should be the ones to get together and say how they want their theatre to be.”

Other participants in the roundtable, one of an ongoing series convened by TCG, included playwrights Craig Lucas, Eduardo Machado, Peter Parnell and Kevin Wade, and directors Steve Kaplan, Stephen Katz, Bill Ludel, William Partlan, Norman Rene and Steve Schachter.

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