Working with copyrighted plays? Here’s some stuff to watch out for!

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I need to be clear about a few things. First, I cannot give legal advice and this article is in no way giving legal advice. I wrote this article based on my own experiences as a producer and director. This article is simply stating that if you ever produce and/or direct copyrighted plays, you can run into the situations below, and even more. There are several companies that grant rights to copyrighted material. I don’t know who has the same policies and who doesn’t. They should of course give you instructions and information on what you can and can’t do. This article is pretty much meant to be a heads up to anyone out there who’s never worked with copyrighted material. In other words, this is all stuff I’ve dealt with that I think you should be weary of. But it certainly does not cover every aspect of working with copyrighted material. And it may or may not be something you run into.

Cartoon hands exchanging money for a paper with copyright symbol

A while back I saw a post on social media celebrating Public Domain Day. People were ecstatic. Me? Well… I was excited, but cautious. On the one hand… producing work that’s not copyrighted can carry a lot less headaches, namely that you don’t have to pay for rights. On the other… I worry that this work is now subject to people appropriating it, and this makes my blood boil. I’m not saying everyone does that. And bear in mind, I think directors and other artists can take liberties with plays—within reason. But there is a fine line between creativity and flat out rewriting the show! But the point is, if you’re going to work with copyrighted material when you’ve only worked with public domain plays… well, let’s just say that’s a whole new ball game!


Pocket watch in sand

Applying for and being approved for the rights to a play can be lengthy. Not always, but it’s possible. This depends on a number of factors. It can take up to six weeks to get a license approved. (This is my experience, there may be a license holder that has a longer timeline). So before you say, “hey, I wanna direct such and such”, it’s a good idea to search for that play on the license holder’s website. You can find out which license holder to contact on your copy of the play. Once you’re at their website, you can do a little research on the timeline of hearing back from people. You should take all this into consideration when planning a season of plays. Planning a theater season takes time, anywhere from a month, to a few months, to a year. Theater is a business, folks! The fun creative stuff is great, but you still have to do the grunt work!

In my experience, there was a lengthy contract to read

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If there’s not a contract (which I doubt, I mean, why wouldn’t there be one?), there’s likely going to be a lot of instructions to read… and I don’t know about you… but this sort of thing drains me! Some of the legal gobbledygook is hard to read, at least for me… but you gotta do it! And it’s all there for a reason. Of course, the customer service reps at the company usually understand that all this info is a lot to take in, so if you have a question you can always ask your license holder. But when it doubt about something, you can always clear it with them!

There are certain casting choices you may or may not be able to make.

cartoon silhouette of actors

The first copyrighted show I did had a character who was described as blonde in the script. The actor I wanted to cast was a brunette. I asked the license holder if that was OK and they said it was fine. In the play I’m working on now (which will be online due to Covid), I ran into the same situation—they said it’s not OK. Things can vary, but you may run into something like this. (If it’s a matter of hair color you can always get a wig… if you can afford it. But I didn’t wanna cough up the money–I had a very shoestring budget. An actor can also dye their hair, if they’re willing… and if you have the money for that in your budget.) Here’s another tricky situation: double casting small roles. In that same first play I had a few characters who just had a few lines. I asked if I could double or triple cast an actor… and the answer was no. So, begrudgingly, I found one actor for each role. And this was an amateur show as opposed to a professional one and the actors were volunteering their time. Luckily, I was able to rope some buddies of mine to do it. But let’s face it, while an actor has to start somewhere, it can be pretty hard to find volunteer actors to do this! And guess what? In another show I’m working on now (which is also online due to Covid) I am allowed to double cast!

There’s a lot of things you may not be able to do until the rights are paid for and acknowledged.

Cartoon holding stop sign

Want to announce that you’re gonna do a show? Wanna hold auditions? In my experience, you need to have the rights paid for first. I’m assuming that’s true for all license holders, but I could be wrong. Again, ask them! I actually know someone who got penalized for something like this. You may get a slap on the wrist, or your show might go down the drain. I can’t tell you what’ll happen, but what I can tell you is follow the rules!

Smiling emoji with a top hat and sunglasses, shrugging

All of this may sound scary, but these regulations exist for a reason. This is about protecting the author’s play. They poured their soul into that thing! And don’t think that if you’re an amateur company that these rules don’t apply to you! So, roll your sleeves up, and get to work. And if you’re doing something in the public domain, be true to what the author intended. It’s the right thing to do.

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