[BACKSTAGE is a series of posts focusing on the ‘Inside Baseball’ of the theater.]
If you don’t already have plans or tickets to see the Wooster Group’s latest show in Los Angeles next week, you might want to act quickly. It’s turning out to be a hot ticket surrounded by scandal (or maybe just incompetence, but more on that in a bit).
The New York-based Wooster Group has been performing at REDCAT for 12 years. It has been something of a coup for avante-garde theater lovers in Los Angeles. Every year the company has come to L.A. and presented their latest work. Angelenos have gotten to see challenging theater that has run the gamut of the company’s aesthetic. Last year’s sparse “Early Shaker Spirituals: A Record Album Interpretation” celebrated a direct simplicity where its production of “Vieux Carré,” a Tennessee Williams classic, remained remarkably true to the text while simultaneously blowing the whole thing wide open. (It’s hard to forget Scott Shepherd with a strap-on dildo traipsing about the stage).
If you’ve seen any of these shows, you know that the company has a very strong, and often radical, take on theater. The work breaks expectations, whether it’s the earphones the actors wear that’s piping in all manner of other audio input or the video screens offstage (and on) that often provide visual direction for the actors. (In peeking at them, I’ve seen everything from cartoon explosions to obscure Inuit movies to Richard Burton’s performance in “Hamlet” – which the company re-created with the addition of fast-forwarding and rewinding the action.)
The Wooster Group, like them or hate them, is aggressively tackling the art form. Their missteps are not the product of laziness. This is a company whose failures are worth seeing because they’re going after something – they are testing boundaries.
We have been lucky in Los Angeles to get to develop a long-term relationship with the company’s work thanks to REDCAT (and before REDCAT, UCLA’s predecessor to the Center for the Art of Performance).
It was no surprise this fall when REDCAT announced the Wooster Group’s latest project – an adaptation of Harold Pinter’s first play, “The Room.” The company was scheduled to perform at REDCAT starting next week, Feb. 4-14.
All was normal until Jan. 27, when suddenly folks in the theater press received a “Media Advisory.” Most of it is printed below but the headlines say it all:
PERMISSION TO REVIEW THE PRODUCTION DENIED BY SAMUEL FRENCH, INC.
CITING “OUTSIDE CIRCUMSTANCES.”
PERMISSION FOR FUTURE PERFORMANCES IN NEW YORK CITY AND PARIS CURRENTLY WITHHELD
“The Room” was scheduled to begin here in Los Angeles and then return to New York for a run and possibly an engagement in Paris in the fall as part of the “Festival d’Automne.” For now, the Wooster Group does not have rights to Pinter’s play for either of those engagements.
The REDCAT media advisory, in a smart attempt to make lemonade out of lemons, hints, “This may well be a production that only LA gets to see!”
So what’s happening?
Join me in the land of pure conjecture (that speculative territory usually reserved this time of year for presidential primary outcomes).
Typically, when rights are denied for a production you can trace it back to a simple cause:
- Rights are being withheld because the theater company in question does not have the prominence or position in a given market to justify granting the production (if a community theater tried to get the rights to do “Hamilton” in Los Angeles before the national tour, you can imagine the rights holder’s response – “um . . . no.” Extend that out to the premiere of a play in a given city and often a playwright will hold out for “the right production” at a prestigious theater.)
- The rights are already tied up by another company or a scheduled production. An offshoot of the above, if the Geffen (or other regional theater) is planning a production for next year of a script, those rights may tie up a given play for a period of time both before or after.
- It could be aesthetic. If a playwright believes that a particular company or director’s style or approach to the script might jeopardize that property over the long term (read: sully the playwright’s reputation) then rights might be withheld. This extends to cases in which a director is adapting a script and there is a concern that the text will be modified or reinterpreted (think Diane Paulus, Suzan Lori Parks, and Diedre L. Murray’s work on “Porgy and Bess.”)
- For some deceased playwrights, the estates are notorious for not allowing anyone to do anything with the playwright’s work.
- Bureaucratic incompetence: Someone forgot to get the rights.
So which of these is applicable to the Wooster Group and “The Room”?
Samuel French Executive Director Bruce Lazarus said in a statement (full text below) that, “The Wooster Group announced the Los Angeles production of Pinter’s “The Room” before securing the rights. Had The Wooster Group attempted to secure the rights to the play prior to announcing the production, the estate would have withheld the rights.” That statement seems to begin with #5 and work it’s way through the rest of the list to incorporate a little of everything. It’s saying that the Wooster Group didn’t request the rights in time but even if they had asked we would have said no.
I find the suggestion that the Wooster Group didn’t apply for the rights in time a little tough to swallow. No level of incompetence would surprise me in the American theater (having committed my own fair share of it). But this is a company with national and international touring plans that had already announced it was considering this piece the first part of a trilogy built around Pinter’s work. The other two pieces were to be a collaboration with choreographer Mark Morris around Pinter’s “Some Kind of Alaska” and a production based on Mr. Pinter’s 2005 Nobel Prize Lecture. I find it hard to believe a company with that kind of planning would simply neglect to secure the rights.
While it would be profoundly upsetting if incompetence were the cause, it would be even more disturbing if the reason had to do with the company’s aesthetics.
While Los Angeles may be this production’s last stop, it will not, strictly speaking, be it’s first. The Wooster Group did a monthlong preview of this production in New York this past fall. One can imagine word or experience of this production raised concerns.
This, too, seems difficult to fathom. The Wooster Group’s aesthetic is hardly hidden (see Scott Shepherd’s strap-on dildo above). One can be shocked by a particular Wooster Group show, but one should hardly be surprised by the adventurous company. If Mr. Pinter’s estate was/is concerned about this particular production, someone hasn’t gone to see enough of the group’s work.
I’m torn. Part of me hopes that this is scandalous censorship: that a shocking production is being closed down by an overly cautious estate. That would be a tragedy, but an artistic one.
Some part of me hopes it’s just bureaucracy that can be overcome and that the show, beyond Los Angeles, will go on.
Then there’s the resigned cynic who believes it’s not going to amount to anything. Maybe, like some of the Wooster’s work, it was an adventurous misstep that someone decided was neither daring enough nor traditional enough to move forward.
The tragedy, if this does not get resolved, is it will likely have a significant impact on the Wooster Group financially. Imagine if you’d just paid for a full production and were expecting both those weeks of performance and that box office as part of your year. That’s frightening for any non-profit.
Either way, I’m dying to see it.
Comment from Bruce Lazarus, executive director of Samuel French:
Samuel French is licensing agent representing the wishes of the Harold Pinter estate. The Wooster Group announced the Los Angeles production of Pinter’s “The Room” before securing the rights. Had The Wooster Group attempted to secure the rights to the play prior to announcing the production, the estate would have withheld the rights. Holding The Wooster Group in great esteem, the Pinter Estate decided to accommodate the company in their post-announcement request to present the play, with the provision that the production could not be promoted or reviewed. The Wooster Group appealed this decision. As a further courtesy, the Pinter Estate accommodated by allowing The Wooster Group to promote the production, but maintained their provision for no reviews of the production. As the licensing agent, Samuel French stands by the decisions of the Pinter estate and continues to advocate for authors’ rights to control their property as they see fit.
From REDCAT’s Media Advisory:
MEDIA ADVISORY REGARDING
(Los Angeles, CA – January 27, 2016) – REDCAT and The Wooster Group announce that Samuel French, Inc., which manages the United States rights for Harold Pinter’s work, restricts critics from reviewing the world premiere of the Group’s production of The Room at REDCAT (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater) February 4 to 14, 2016.
On January 11, 2016, Samuel French instructed the Group that all promotion and reviews of the production would be forbidden. The Group appealed this decision, and Samuel French subsequently lifted the restriction on promoting the production, but informed the Group that the restriction on reviews will remain in place. Samuel French’s licensing agreement states that “There may be absolutely No reviews of this production; e.g. newspaper, website posts etc.” The Group was also informed that they could not currently receive permission for future performances of the production being planned in New York City and Paris.
In an email to the Group, Samuel French Licensing Manager David Kimple did not give a specific reason for the sudden restrictions, only citing “outside circumstances.” Mr. Kimple wrote that “Mr. Pinter’s catalogue is, as you know, world famous; to keep this catalogue afloat, there are many moving pieces and the work of the estate is not limited to any one single person. There is an entire team of professionals who have committed to strategically planning and curating productions in a way that will help to carry this great work even further during today’s constantly changing theatrical landscape. We are elated and honored to have your company investing in a show like this but, unfortunately, outside circumstances require us to maintain this restriction.”
Mark Murphy, Executive Director of REDCAT, called the restrictions “highly unusual and puzzling,” adding that, “This attempt to restrict critical discussion of such an important production in print and online is deeply troubling, with the potential for severe financial impact. It seems strange to me that anyone would think critical discourse about this seminal play could be somehow harmful. And, it would be a shame if these ten performances in Los Angeles were the only chance for people to experience the production. I am proud that REDCAT is presenting the premiere of this production of a seminal play, performed by The Wooster Group, one of the world’s most influential and highly regarded theatrical ensembles. I am stunned that critics would be asked to withhold any commentary in the form of a review, or that it might never be performed again.”
Prior to premiering The Room at REDCAT, The Wooster Group presented the piece in sold-out advance showings at The Performing Garage, the Group’s home theater in New York City. These performances, which took place October 28 – November 21, were authorized by Samuel French without imposing any limits on press access.
The Room is directed by The Wooster Group director Elizabeth LeCompte and features performances by Group members and associates Ari Fliakos as Mr. Kidd and Mr. Sands, Philip Moore as Riley, Scott Renderer as Bert Hudd, Suzzy Roche as Mrs. Sands, and Kate Valk as Rose. The full ensemble includes: lighting: Jennifer Tipton with Ryan Seelig; original music tracks: Omar Zubair; sound: Max Bernstein and Eric Sluyter; sound consultant: Bobby McElver; video and projections: Robert Wuss and Max Bernstein; assistant director and costume supervisor: Enver Chakartash; stage manager: Erin Mullin; production manager: Bona Lee; and technical fellow/sound assistant: Gareth Hobbs.
Development of THE ROOM is supported by: the National Endowment for the Arts Art Works program; public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council; the New York State Council on the Arts; the Asian Cultural Council; the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation; Distracted Globe Foundation; the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation/New York Theater Program; the Fan Fox & Leslie R. Samuels Foundation; The Shubert Foundation; and the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust.
FROM THE WOOSTER GROUP
Background on our production of Harold Pinter’s THE ROOM at REDCAT in Los Angeles
January 28, 2016
In July 2014, we contacted the Pinter estate and asked for permission to develop our production of THE ROOM. The estate instructed us to apply to Samuel French, Inc. Later that month, Samuel French sent us a license agreement to perform the piece in New York in October 2015.
We entered into discussions with REDCAT about performing the piece in Los Angeles and included a brief announcement of that engagement in our press release for the New York City run. At that point, we did not know the Los Angeles performance dates, ticket prices, and other specifics that Samuel French requires for license agreements.
We understand that Samuel French was surprised when the announcement appeared in the press, and we immediately started working with them on October 16, 2015 — before our New York performances began — on a license agreement for Los Angeles performances. Three months later, on January 11, 2016, Samuel French sent us a license agreement that contained a restriction on publicity, promotions, and press reviews.
At no point in those three months were we made aware that this restriction was a possibility or that the rights to perform in Los Angeles were potentially unavailable.
The reason we were given for the restriction by David Kimple, Samuel French Licensing Manager, on January 20, 2016, was as follows: “Mr. Pinter’s catalogue is, as you know, world famous; to keep this catalogue afloat, there are many moving pieces and the work of the estate is not limited to any one single person. There is an entire team of professionals who have committed to strategically planning and curating productions in a way that will help to carry this great work even further during today’s constantly changing theatrical landscape. We are elated and honored to have your company investing in a show like this but, unfortunately, outside circumstances require us to maintain this restriction.”