I received this request September 23, 2021, forwarded from Concord Theatricals:
Several years ago, we performed this show with our local community theatre group, and all went well. Last year, we were looking to do it again and were advised to cancel our plans as local groups were objecting to the inclusion of the word “redneck” in the title. Is it possible to adjust the title, to remove that reference and promote it as A Good Old-Fashioned Country Christmas? The show is, otherwise, a great fit for our theatre group and community. We just want to avoid negative attention since we are a nonprofit group that raises money for scholarships for graduates entering study in the performing arts.
What a lovely compliment to do my play once and have such a positive experience that you wish to do it again. However, while I fully support your desire and your mission to raise money for scholarships, I can think of no worse example to set for them than to ask a playwright to change the title of a play. The First Amendment states that we all have the right to free speech. That includes comedy writers. I have read recent articles penned by comic geniuses like John Cleese and Mel Brooks that state that comedy is dying because of these attacks on free speech.
When I originally wrote A Good Old-Fashioned Redneck Country Christmas in 2008, Jeff Foxworthy and his friends were making careers telling audiences, “You might be a redneck if…” Where I grew up in a small town in Michigan, there were and still are lots of rednecks of every color and creed. I contend there are likely rednecks in all 50 states and most countries throughout the world. You see, my experience with that word is that it means simple, country folk who don’t have a lot of education and money. The term actually comes from the fact that people worked outside where their necks would become sunburned over the course of the day. Thus, a red neck, literally.
My father, who was a system’s analyst in the early days of computing, used to deflect compliments or redirect unpleasant conversations by using the self-effacing statement, “Well, I don’t know much about that. I’m just a simple redneck boy at heart.” Somewhere along the line, activist groups have decided to ascribe much more nefarious meanings to the word, but I will never believe that the good people I know who proudly refer to themselves as rednecks are hateful and angry. It is simply not true, and by giving in to pressure to change the title, you are allowing them to control a narrative and to infringe on both your and my First Amendment rights as artists.
Theatre artists must stand up for what’s right. I am deeply saddened by this request and even more so by the fact that a theatre group supports this type of attack on the First Amendment.
Recently, a local well-known theatre was re-opening with its first production since March 2020, a production of one of the great American classics. There was great excitement and a lot of publicity. Theatre was coming back!
But something kept nagging me. I realized that all the media about the production mentioned changes made to the script. Reference was made to social and cultural reasons why these edits were made. No reference was made to getting permission from the author’s estate.
This is troubling. The theatre, being reputable, most likely went through the proper channels. But the public doesn’t know that. More likely, lack of those details conveys that it’s okay to make changes to scripts to suit an individual production—perhaps more so when the author is a ‘dead white guy.’
To publicly talk about cutting the script without reference to getting script edits approved by the author, or estate in this case, is detrimental to our profession. With the amount of publicity that this theatre receives, they inadvertently are sending a message that it is okay to edit a script as the producer or director wishes.
While we can’t control what the media prints, playwrights and theatre artists can control what they submit in news releases and say in interviews.
It’s on all of us, as playwrights and theatremakers to be vigilant in the message we send. The Don’t Change the Words campaign was established by the Guild to help us all raise awareness on this issue. #DontChangeTheWords
New London, CT
As the country continues to grapple with the coronavirus and its economic impacts on the arts/theatre industry, especially in rural areas of our country, many organizations are trying to stay alive. Most organizations being the only outlet for art accessibility and, more importantly, arts education, are finding it hard to ignite the engines to begin the creation of theatre in this ever-spinning cycle of variants and economic hardship. Regional and community theatres, such as the Teche Theatre for the Performing Arts in Franklin, Louisiana, that were shuttered for more than two years from the pandemic, continue to struggle as they’ve felt forgotten to the corporations receiving hundreds of dollars in PPP funding. However, being used to operating on a small budget while creating great returns on its investments, these small theatres across our country are generally supported by their communities through ticket sales and sponsorships. The unsung heroes of arts education continuously create outlets for actors, singers, playwrights, musicians, artists, choreographers, costume designers, and so forth, filling the void of many of the cut arts programs in our school systems across the United States with a small or all volunteer staff. Passion for the arts can usually be found at the root of the foundations of these venues. The ability to pull diverse audiences throughout regional areas while contributing as key tourist destinations and much needed economic drivers is not generally the forefront of these venues. However, the love of art and creativity of the mind is shown through new works from playwrights, composers, librettists, and lyricists on these small stages more than any other venues across the country. See a show or two! Enjoy a concert! Take the leap and volunteer or audition for a production! But more importantly, be an advocate and cheerleader for our nation’s arts venues that could use a (no pun intended) shot in the arm after being dark for over two years. #SupportTheArts #SupportArtsEducation
Ed “Tiger” Verdin