Asolo Rep Faces Criticism for Cuts to 'Philadelphia'

By Handelman, Jay | Sarasota Herald Tribune, February 2, 2014 | Go to article overview

Asolo Rep Faces Criticism for Cuts to 'Philadelphia'


Handelman, Jay, Sarasota Herald Tribune


The Asolo Repertory Theatre is not the first theater to get in trouble for altering a playwright's work and violating contractual agreements for production rights.

Playwrights and publishers say it happens all the time, but rarely with a professional theater on the level of Asolo Rep, which was forced to restore cuts made to Brian Friel's 1964 Irish drama "Philadelphia, Here I Come."

A few days after it opened Jan. 10, the theater received a cease and desist order from Friel's agent, the play publisher Samuel French, because of changes made by director Frank Galati.

He excised two intermissions and three characters who are seen briefly, added some songs and a brief dance, and trimmed some of the remaining dialogue. It was part of an effort to streamline the storytelling and increase its impact on a modern audience.

But the theater apparently didn't get the permission required to make such changes from the playwright.

"In general, professional theaters are part of the culture of the theater, in which they recognize it's a writer's medium and the author owns the play and you can't change the play without permission," said Ralph Sevush, executive director of business affairs for the Dramatists Guild.

The much bigger problem, he said, is usually with schools, camps and amateur theater clubs "where they are often ignorant of the standards or thinking that no one will mind or care."

Asolo Rep immediately shut down the show and sent the cast and Galati back into rehearsal to restore the cut scenes and characters and "do the script according to Brian Friel's wishes," said producing artistic director Michael Donald Edwards.

Asolo Rep officials are understandably reluctant to say more about the problem or the changes that will be unveiled when the show reopens on Tuesday. The production continues in the rotating repertory schedule through April 12.

But the theater has come under fire from a number of arts writers and theater-related web sites for the way it slighted the work of a living playwright, even if it was with good intentions.

Among them is Wall Street Journal theater critic Terry Teachout, who had planned to attend one of the canceled performances before he was told that it had been canceled, with no explanation.

"I was staggered when I heard what Asolo Rep had done -- not because they did it, but because they didn't clear it first with Mr. Friel," Teachout wrote in a column published Friday. He considers "Philadelphia" to be "one of the best plays of the postwar era."

He and others also were surprised that someone of Galati's stature was involved, no matter what the motives behind the changes.

Galati, a longtime theater professor at Northwestern University, an associate director of Goodman Theatre in Chicago and a member of Steppenwolf Theatre, where he developed his stage adaptation of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath." He won two Tony Awards when the play transferred to Broadway.

He now lives in Sarasota and is part of Asolo Rep's American Character National Advisory Group.

"I have to assume that Frank Galati thought that this right was obtained," said Bruce Lazarus, executive director and general counsel of Samuel French. "He should know better. He's an author himself. I'm sure he wouldn't take too kindly to someone cutting a few characters out of 'The Grapes of Wrath.'"

Sevush said he didn't know what Galati knew or was told. "For all we know, he was told the theater took care of it. But in general, this is the kind of behavior we would prefer to see directors and producers get this permission up front rather than after the fact for their own benefit as well as the author's."

Sevush said standard licensing agreements between theaters and publishers state that "no changes can be made to the text, title or stage directions of the play without the express permission of the author. …

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