You Can’t Add or Subtract Theatre

There actually is a lot of math involved in the Theatre: adding and subtracting actor salaries, ticket sales, lumber for scenic elements, electrical fuses for stage lighting, yards of material for costuming, etc. But adding and subtracting the story, dialogue, etc, is a different ballgame.  Many theatre-goers seem to be confused or unaware of theatrical licensing, and not that I’m an expert by any means, but I just wanted to share my knowledge of how you cannot add or subtract dialogue, words, songs, etc in a theatrical production, nor can you produce a show that has not been licensed to you.

When you go to see a production of THE WIZARD OF OZ, for example, the organization producing the show had to pay ‘royalties‘ and sign a licensing agreement in order to perform that copyrighted material. That means the writers who created the original show receive compensation for using their work on stage. Think of a play as a novel, the author of that novel always gets a cut of book sales because they wrote it, so does the playwright of each production.

There can be very strict rules to follow when producing, as the original creators of the show wish to keep the integrity of the piece. Imagine if you told your friend Larry a story, you made up and then you hear the same story from your friend Jimmy, but all of the facts are misconstrued and the point of what you said was completely missed. <– That is why there are strict copyright rules in regards to theatrical literature. It is the writer’s way of quality control once the show is being done all over the country. 

As a playwright myself, I would be very upset if certain lines of my scripts were changed or omitted without my permission. Those lines or sections of my play would not be present in the material if they had not been needed for the story, and organizations do not possess the right to change words, lines, or characters to fit their needs.


“Gosh, there was just so much foul language in this show, couldn’t they have just edited it out?” -Audience Member

^Actually no, the theatre would be breaking their copyright agreement and breaking the law. So no, they cannot edit parts of the script to adjust towards different audiences, they must do the script as written. 

In 2017, Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis discovered that Shelton Theater in San Francisco was producing his play THE LAST DAYS OF JUDAS ISCARIOT, but had cut several scenes and characters from the original script. Guirgis reached out to the theatre, giving them an opportunity to adjust their unsanctioned adaptation, but received heavy pushback from the organization which resulted in the shutdown of that production.

It seems a little extreme: shutting the production down, but actually, it was no longer the play Guirgis had written. The organization had not only chopped up his words, they also refused to comply with his plea asking them to reinstate the play as it is licensed as.

I also have known of several companies who have produced plays or musicals without paying licensing and royalties. Not only is that illegal, but extremely disrespectful to the creator(s) of the show. What gives you the right to just use someone else’s words and the story they spent hundreds of hours building?

In many regards, not paying for royalties is often done in an educational setting, where the producer claims that doing the show is for education. Whether you’re selling tickets or not, whether you’re only performing for parents or large crowds, it does not matter. You cannot subtract that fee from your budget: You must pay the author of the material to produce it. 

Many do not understand these facts, so my post is not to chide or shame, but to educate on these very important items of the theatre. We often are so excited about the glitter and the tap shoes or are so taken aback by some colorful language, that we don’t realize certain things cannot be added or omitted from productions. 

For other sources regarding Copyright or Theatrical Licensing see below:

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