Of Coping and Ensemble Agreements
For this issue, I consider how the DG devising contracts can work in regional context through an interview with Jake Hooker, Co-Director of A Host of People, Detroit-based devising ensemble.
Anita Gonzalez: You were just introduced to the idea of a collaboration agreement for devised work when we spoke the other day, yet you have been making and touring ensemble work out of Detroit for seven years. What do you think about the idea of offering your collaborators a written agreement?
Jake Hooker: I think it’s a wonderful inroad of the Dramatists Guild, although in some ways a surprising one that did create some skepticism for me. A Host of People, of course, uses contracts in our work, but those are largely about performer-creators and designer-creators and don’t deal, specifically, with “authorship” because the works are group authored, so it is nice to see that DG’s guidelines work somewhat to accommodate that complication.
AG: How might a contractual agreement help you and your company to “cope” with the ambiguities of ownership in devised work?
JH: Thus far, all of our works have been group authored. In fact, we simply say they are “by A Host of People” however, our next piece, Death of Cleopatra, will be the first time we work with a writer who is only a writer. The piece will create new challenges because a) it’s a singular source—a translated adaptation of an Egyptian play by Ahmed Shawqi; b) there will be a single person generating the text -- the poet Kamelya Omama Youssef; but c) we will still engage in our devising process with performers, directors, and designers who will help create the world of the piece and work to democratize all of the many theatrical elements of the performance.
AG: Some of your production concepts are drawn from existing literary works, how do you parse ownership between the original authors, the company, and the directors?
JH: Well, again, because we’re group authoring, and that includes words, movement, design elements, and so forth, we say “by A Host of People” and, thus far, that has satisfied everyone. We send all of our elements through many phases and filters and so the text we end up using is changed, altered, and hybridized through the process, whether it’s generated from a company member or originally came from a classic piece of literature. Ultimately, our contracts are clear that A Host of People—the company—“owns” the performance rights to our finished works.
AG: Can a collaborator agreement help with inequities of power in community outreach?
JH: Absolutely! We haven’t yet truly had a situation in which we were making work with non-performing community members; in other words, people who are not folded into our ensemble. But another piece we are conceiving of now—Fire in the Theater!—which is about the freedom of speech, will be very much sourced from various communities and so this type of agreement should prove useful.
AG: Consider the specifics of the contract. What do you find useful?
JH: It’s very useful that DG notes right away that these agreements are templates and they require tweaking. I think it will encourage us to dig more deeply into our contracts, especially as our work morphs and changes with different projects.
AG: Do these distinctions and clarifications of the various contracts apply to development work in your company?
JH: The short answer is yes, even if some of the specifics aren’t quite right for our company. I think it’s very good to have a couple of different models dealing with the way different works originate differently and that, yes, as a work moves into production and touring, new language applies. Especially since often a creator-performer is unable to tour and new non-creators need to step into a performance situation.
AG: You function as producer and author and deviser and director/choreographer. How do you articulate to your ensemble the distinction between those roles?
JH: We articulate these distinctions, blurry though they may be, very often, by expressing which hat we’re wearing at a particular time. However, we are very adamant that to work with A Host of People means you wear different hats and that’s a feature and not a bug! Of course, the two founding co-directors (myself and Sherrine Azab) wear the most hats.
AG: Could your ensemble “cope” with the nuances of executing these contracts? Why or why not?
JH: Perhaps not these specific contracts, but versions of them -- yes. I think they’re very useful models and now having spent some time with them, we will certainly use them to better craft the contracts we are using.
Jake Hooker is Co-Director of A Host of People, a Detroit-based devising ensemble. www.ahostofpeople.org for more information.