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Playwrights dispute: testing theaters' collaborative role

How much control should artists wield over the use of their work? Two recent theatrical disputes are raising anew this question of artistic authority.

The separate controversies, one a disagreement over artistic interpretation in the American Repertory Theatre's new production of Samuel Beckett's ''Endgame ,'' the other a growing financial dispute between playwrights and Actors Equity over union rules, are testing the collaborative nature of American theater. In each instance, different but related questions are being raised over the rights of playwrights to control their texts.

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The dispute between the American Repertory Theatre (ART) in Cambridge, Mass., and Mr. Beckett, the Nobel Prize-winning writer, who is generally considered the greatest living playwright, centers on the possible artistic misappropriation of a playwright's work by a director. Conversely, the disagreement between several New York playwrights and the actors' union over retroactive salaries due to actors performing plays in low-cost ''showcase'' theaters highlights the complex financial interdependencies. Observers say the impact of the disputes could have a possible dampening effect on some theatrical productions as well as on the performances of new work.

At issue in the ART-Beckett controversy are departures from the author's original, explicit stage directions. Contending that the production distorted his play by setting it in an underground subway tunnel rather than in the specified cell-like room, Beckett, acting through his US publisher and agent, the Grove Press, tried to halt production of the 36-year-old work. Other objections included minor textual changes, the addition of a musical score by composer Philip Glass, and the casting of two black actors. The theater, however , refused to halt production. Robert Brustein, ART's artistic director, insisted that the revival adhered faithfully to the play's text and that any additions or modifications were within the creative domain of the director, Joanne Akalaitis.

The unusual settlement, reached just hours before the opening night curtain last Wednesday, narrowly averted a court battle and allowed the play to proceed. Both sides made concessions. Grove Press and Beckett permitted the revival to continue, provided the theater withdrew the author's name from advertising campaigns and published a two-page program insert detailing the play's original stage directions as well as a statement by the author disavowing the production ''as a complete parody of the play as conceived by me.''

While the agreement, which some have called nearly unprecedented, avoided litigation, both parties said the controversy raised significant questions ranging from charges of racism to First Amendment violations. At the very least, theater's traditional role as a communal art form involving playwright, director , and actor has been challenged.

''The main issue is one of free expression,'' says ART's Brustein. ''I see this as a serious civil rights issue, one with First Amendment considerations.''

In a printed statement of support, James Leverett, a director of the Theatre Communications Group, called the action by Grove Press and Beckett ''deeply disturbing'' and one that ''seems to be denying the basic energies of the collaboration that distinguished theater from the other arts.''

The Grove Press, however, contends that it is Beckett whose rights have been infringed. ''The general problem is that the theater is a collaborative art and Mr. Beckett is a very specific writer,'' says Barney Rosset, president of Grove Press and Beckett's American theatrical agent. ''But to say that (our actions) are censorship is Alice in Wonderland.'' ''They (the ART) are preventing the author from presenting his work as he perceived it.''

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''When does the playwright become the designer and director and lighting engineer?'' asks Brustein, pointing to several Beckett productions, including ''Endgame,'' that have deviated from the author's stage instructions. 'The irony is that Beckett has directed his own work and departed greatly from his text,'' Brustein says.

Meanwhile, the growing financial dispute between Actors Equity and several playwrights over a three-year-old union rule governing the transference of plays from one theater to the next is threatening the stability of New York's Off Off Broadway theaters.

In nearly half a dozen instances, playwrights, including A. R. Gurney and Romulus Linney, have refused, or in some cases withdrawn, permission for their plays to be produced in these small theaters as a protest against the so-called conversion rule. Collectively their actions could limit the flow of new play productions in New York.

What the playwrights and their agents are objecting to is the union regulation stipulating that whenever a new play moves from a showcase, or nonunion theater, to a regional theater, the original actors must continue in the production or be paid three weeks' salary. Depending upon the cast size, the conversion rule can cost a theater up to $10,000 - a nominal figure in a multimillion-dollar commercial production but possibly 30 percent of a nonprofit theater's budget.

''The crux of the issue is that if a play is done in an Off Off Broadway theater, it will not get done in a (regional) theater; they simply don't have the money to pay off the cast,'' says Jane Moss, executive director of ART New York, an alliance of 82 New York theaters.

Actors Equity maintains that the rule only provides actors ''reimbursement'' for their work. But playwrights and some directors insist that the rule imposes such a financial burden on plays that future productions in noncommercial regional theaters are virtually halted. In some instances, actors themselves have petitioned the union for a waiver of the rule.

''Our gripe is that we need to get our plays done, but there are financial liens on them that inhibit future professional productions,'' says playwright Gurney, who withdrew the production rights to several of his plays from two New York theaters because ''I didn't want to . . . have their future inhibited.''

''We don't think one creative artist should be putting his hands in the pockets of another,'' says Gilbert Parker, a literary agent with the William Morris agency. ''The plays are effectively stopped from having their second production in a (regional) theater.''

Meanwhile ART New York is trying to mediate the dispute as both sides agree that the repercussions strike most heavily on Off Off Broadway theaters.

''If indeed the agents decide to pull all their (clients') plays, the situation will be worse than tricky,'' says Ms. Moss. ''Agents want to believe they are forcing Equity's hand, but if the theaters close, they will win the battle but lose the war.''

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