Can You Copyright Stage Direction? | On Culture | Chicago Reader

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Can You Copyright Stage Direction?

Lawsuits over Urinetown haven't helped to decide the matter.


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It's the dog days of summer, when people make themselves scarce and the news—even startling news—can just slip by. For instance, if you've been in the wilds of Michigan or some other place with more trees than computers, you might not know that the unthinkable happened last week at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater: its mama and muse, 34-year employee and administrative head Marcelle McVay, resigned.

The announcement of her impending departure came from the VG board of directors—the same board that sold the company's former home, now called the Greenhouse Theater, over the protests of McVay's husband, artistic director Dennis Zacek, last spring.

Meanwhile, word came that Tom Mullen will direct a new musical called Tomorrow Morning (to run, coincidentally, at the Greenhouse, now owned by a member of the Victory Gardens board, starting in October.) That reminded us that some interesting issues were raised by litigation over Mullen's production of Urinetown at the Mercury Theater two years ago—and by a similar lawsuit, settled just last month, over a Urinetown production mounted by the Carousel Dinner Theatre in Akron. The questions included whether aspects of a show beyond the script and music—especially stage direction—can or should be copyrighted. Both the Chicago and Akron companies were accused of cribbing elements including choreography, lighting, set and costume design, and stage direction from the Broadway production of Urinetown. Two labor unions—the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers and the United Scenic Artists—joined the Broadway team in bringing the suits.

One spin on this is that the suits were an attempt by directors, choreographers, and such either to get a piece of the royalties that have traditionally gone only to writers and composers or to tack on new fees for themselves (which may chill the regional market for previously produced shows by driving up the cost of putting them on).

Mullen resolved his dispute last November, and the agreement sealed his lips. "All I can tell you is it's always about the money," he says. The joint statements issued in both the Chicago and Akron cases pretty clearly favor the Broadway team. Both Mullen and Carousel wound up paying an extra fee, above and beyond the music-and-book-licensing tariff they'd already paid, "for their use of the material originating in the Broadway Production"—material that included the work of the director, choreographer, lighting director, set designer, and costume designer. The takeaway: if your production of a show that was originally produced somewhere else looks like that show, you'd better have made those extra licensing arrangements.

Weirdly, that's true even though nobody actually owns a copyright on stage direction for the Broadway production of Urinetown. Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers president Karen Azenberg says applications for copyright were "not accepted" by the U.S. copyright office "in the form submitted," and the question of whether they ever will be accepted remains open. While copyright has been awarded for stage direction in the past, Azenberg says, and while her union's position is that direction absolutely should qualify for copyright protection, the issue's never been tested in court.

In a joint statement of their own, the Dramatists Guild of America and the coauthors of Urinetown, Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis, argue that a U.S. Justice Department determination in the Mullen case clearly rejects the idea of a copyright for stage direction. "No doubt, the deliberately ambiguous language of the settlement will be quoted by the very people who authored it to prove that there remains some confusion or uncertainty around the issue of a director's copyright," the DGA, Holliman, and Kotis write. "There does not."

To add to the confusion, there's no standard licensing agreement or fee for production elements—each one has to be hammered out individually. And it's not clear where inevitable similarities end and actionable imitation might begin. If your Fiddler on the Roof has a fiddler on the roof, is there another piper to pay? "No," Azenberg says, "that's a detail dictated by the material. What we're concerned with is the totality of the work, where it's using a majority portion of the staging." It's simple, she adds: "If you don't want to pay and license the original staging, just don't do the original staging. Create your own.

"The amount of money choreographers and directors get for this kind of license is minute. Given the cost of these productions, that money's not going to make a dent, even at a regional theater. We were depicted as the big bad Broadway people; that's not the truth. The important thing about these settlements is the acknowledgment that the work of the original creators was used, and that what's created is the property of the person who created it."

Tomorrow Morning, by British composer Laurence Mark Wythe, came across as an engaging tuner with a surprising emotional punch when it got a staged reading at Stages, the Theatre Building's new musicals festival, in 2007. Last winter Wythe and executive producer Hilary Williams recruited Mullen to direct and coproduce the Greenhouse show. If it works here, they hope to take it back to London and then, maybe, to New York. Mullen says his staging will include an innovative "filmic" treatment, with a video by Mike Tutaj running as continuous background to the stage action. That sounds both risky and copyright worthy.

The House Adlai Built

I schlepped out to Libertyville recently for the first public event at what used to be the home of Adlai Stevenson II and is now the headquarters of the Adlai Stevenson Center on Democracy, a nonpartisan nonprofit created by Adlai III last winter. A fund-raiser for the center, which "seeks to enhance the global understanding and practice of democracy" by coming up with "practical solutions that make government more accountable," the event featured a panel of old-guard politicians like George McGovern and John Anderson, who reflected on changes in the presidential nominating process (it will be broadcast on C-Span in the fall). It also offered a chance to traipse through the 70-year-old house where Stevenson entertained the likes of JFK and Eleanor Roosevelt.

The bare-bones restoration (with what looked to me like a slapdash interior paint job) had me wondering whether government accountability might begin with a report on what happened to the $2 million state grant that was spent on it. But officials of the Lake County Forest Preserve District, which owns the place, told me they had to deal with lead, asbestos, and mold. Architectural historian Susan Benjamin, who assessed the house for historic designation before the work began, says that she sees "vast changes" from its previously dilapidated condition and that it's "off to a good start." According to Benjamin, the structure, designed by Perkins Wheeler and Will, "is very modern, very avant-garde, very progressive, like Adlai was."

Tours will be offered September 7 and 21 and October 26. Advance registration is required, along with a prepaid fee of $3 for Lake County residents and $5 for nonresidents. The house is at 25200 N. Saint Mary's Road, Libertyville, 847-968-3321.v

Care to comment? Find this column at And for more on Marcelle McVay's resignation, visit our Onstage blog.

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