Recently, issues of casting and race have arisen in our national conversation about theater. While the Dramatists Guild applauds these necessary, rigorous and heartfelt conversations, it seems to us that there is a simpler principle at stake here: the right of authors to safeguard their work.
Playwrights own our material. We are protected by copyright; in fact, we have sacrificed a great deal for the privilege of authorial ownership, most notably the right to unionize. We have foregone equitable compensation, health and pension benefits, and the right to collectively bargain. But in doing so, we have retained the hard-won right to protect the integrity of our work. This includes approval of all creative elements, including the cast.
Play licenses clearly state that "no changes to the play, including text, title and stage directions are permitted without the approval of the author" or words to that effect. Casting is an implicit part of the stage directions; to pretend otherwise is disingenuous.
Directors who wish to dramatically reimagine material can choose from work in the public domain. But when a play is still under copyright, directors must seek permission if they are going to make changes to the play, including casting a character outside his or her obvious race, gender or implicit characteristics. To do so without meaningful consultation with the writer is both a moral and a legal breach. Most writers welcome these conversations, because they further the spirit of collaboration, illuminate or clarify the author's intent, and prevent unfortunate situations like the recent occurrences at Clarion University and Kent State University.
One may agree or disagree with the views of a particular writer, but not with his or her autonomy over the play. Nor should writers be vilified or demonized for exercising it. This is entirely within well-established theatrical tradition; what's more, it is what the law requires and basic professional courtesy demands.
Dramatists Guild of America