By all accounts, the Studio Theatre's recent production of "Waiting for Godot," which closed Nov. 1, was a raging success.
But Studio's artistic director, Joy Zinoman, says she was the victim of "bullying" and "intimidating" tactics on the part of the U.S. literary agents representing the estate of playwright Samuel Beckett. The battle of phone calls, faxes and letters continued from late September through mid-October.
The production featured black actors Thomas W. Jones II and Donald Griffin as Beckett's Everyman-hoboes, Vladimir and Estragon, and used black vaudeville traditions to shape its characters and stage business.
Zinoman hinted and Jones was convinced that racial insensitivity prompted the New York-based agency Georges Borchardt Inc. to direct the theater to "cease and desist" its production. Although representatives of Borchardt wouldn't go on the record, they denied in a letter to the Studio that race was the basis of their concern.
Whatever the case, the battle was at the very least a clash of mind-sets -- creative vs. legalistic -- that raises the question of whether an author can control his work from the grave. Studio's ordeal kept the Washington theater community abuzz for weeks, though Zinoman wouldn't discuss it for the record until last week.
The London-based literary agency Curtis Brown, which handles the Beckett estate in the United Kingdom and has had similar disputes with other theater companies, also declined to comment.
The trigger for the dispute was an enthusiastic review by Peter Marks in the Sept. 24 New York Times. It was the first time the Times had reviewed a Studio production, and the review received prominent display on the front of the newspaper's arts section. Borchardt's responded by instructing theatrical licensing company Samuel French to send the cease-and-desist notice. In his review, Marks used terms such as "hip," "jazzy," "hip-hop," "black slang" and "liberty-taking" to describe Zinoman's "Godot." He also noted the actors' interaction with the audience.
"The justification for dealing with the audience is not something I made up. . . . I revere this play," insisted Zinoman, nearly weeping in frustration and pointing to a sample of Beckett's stage directions, requiring the characters to "turn toward the auditorium" when saying certain lines, and to other Beckett stage directions that seem to require ad-libbing, such as "Vladimir and Estragon protest violently" or "general outcry." Said Zinoman of her production, "It is the text."
Jones angrily speculated that the reviews led Borchardt's representatives to assume "that what we're doing is running around grabbing our crotch, looking like young urban black America, trying to impose that in this piece of work. When you try to close a piece without having seen it, there are some real challenges. . . . I do stand by the fact that I think that racism got in the way."
"Whatever their motivation, the best defense against this kind of thing," Zinoman said, "is to keep the play open, and for people to come and see the production, and I went after that goal with a great single-mindedness and purpose."
With a bit of lucky string-pulling and her insistent personality, Zinoman kept her show open -- and, she insists, unchanged -- against Borchardt's accusations that she had violated a rider in the Samuel French contract requiring no changes in Beckett's original text or stage directions. Near the end of September, after Borchardt raised questions, she signed a separate affidavit agreeing again to the stipulations in the original contract, but then Borchardt refused permission to extend the show beyond its original closing date of Oct. 4. (Zinoman forged ahead anyway, eventually extending the show to Nov. 1.)
Alleen Hussung of Samuel French, who issued Studio the rights to "Godot" and later sent the cease-and-desist letter and affidavits at Borchardt's direction, wouldn't comment last week beyond saying that as far as she was concerned, the problem had been solved and Studio was "adhering to the stipulation in the rider. . . . The theater is a wonderful theater. I have no problem with Joy Zinoman."
But Zinoman and her director of production, Serge Seiden, had problems with Borchardt. Seiden recounted a phone conversation with a Borchardt representative in which he was told of "troubling" aspects of the production. Seiden said he was asked about the theater's "injection of race" into the play by using black actors in white-face -- something the agents had seen in a review by Dan Avery of Washington's Metro Weekly. Avery also characterized Zinoman as "playing the race card." (The actors had faint white makeup on their lips, not their faces, to imply that they'd been in vaudeville.)
All through the first two weeks of the dispute, said Zinoman, no one from Borchardt had seen the play. "I think this is the issue," she said.
Zinoman and Seiden still were trying to persuade the agency to send someone to see the play in early October. Then Zinoman's husband, who works at the State Department, remembered that a co-worker is a distant relation of Samuel Beckett's by marriage. A few phone calls later and Zinoman had a transatlantic conversation with Edward Beckett, the playwright's nephew and executor of his estate. He was "lovely," Zinoman said.
Perhaps Beckett gave Borchardt a nudge, because soon afterward the literary agency sent someone -- at Studio's expense -- to see the play and take notes. Zinoman then was asked to sign an affidavit promising that the actors would not ad-lib or engage the audience in "theatricals." She refused to sign. Finally, on Oct. 13, she went to New York for a heart-to-heart with Samuel French's Hussung, with whom Studio has had a long relationship. The next day, Zinoman said, Studio received a final letter from Borchardt, denying any racial overtones in its criticisms of the production and with no further reference to affidavits.
Meanwhile, the run continued to sell out and completed a four-week extension. Now that it's over, it's unlikely any legal action will be taken, but it may also be a while before Borchardt will allow Samuel French to give Studio the rights to do another Beckett play.
South African playwright Athol Fugard had a different experience with Beckett himself years ago. "When I approached Beckett for permission to do Godot' with an all-black cast way back in the 1970s," he recalled in a telephone interview last week, "he had no hesitation."
Fugard, who said he came to know Beckett, said racism was alien to him. "Nothing would have been more abhorrent to Sam Beckett. I know that very, very specifically."
Of the literary agency's actions toward Studio, he said, "If all of this is now the result of the literary estate deciding that this is what Sam would have liked, then they are very conceited and very silly, because his work doesn't need that sort of protection."
For sheer persnicketyness, however, the Beckett estate is legendary when it comes to maintaining the playwright's text and stage directions. A production of "Godot" using women was closed before it opened in July at the Edinburgh Festival, for example. Some of the estate's actions certainly reflect the writer's own celebrated determination to control productions of his plays. American Repertory Theatre (ART) in Cambridge, Mass., infuriated him in 1984 when director JoAnne Akalaitis did "Endgame" with an interracial cast and a set designed to look like a subway station. Beckett had a statement put in the program that the production wasn't his play. Artistic directors have had to sign that rider about Beckett's text and stage directions ever since.
Robert J. Orchard, managing director of ART, said last week, "I think the agency is reflecting the interests of the Beckett estate, because how it's being handled now and how it was being handled in 1984 are similar." But he still questions the policy for its "chilling effect" on artists.
"The thing about Beckett and any great dramatist is that the work has space; it has room for interpretation . . . and therefore to shackle it to some rigid, strict constructionist interpretation is to really deny it its dignity as a work of art." Round House's Square Deal
Round House Theatre is several steps closer to its goal of moving to a new theater space planned for downtown Bethesda, at the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and East-West Highway.
The Bethesda Intermediary Theatre Authority (BITA), a committee from Montgomery County government and arts organizations, selected Round House to be the resident troupe in a free-standing 400-seat theater, designed as a public amenity to complement an office complex for Chevy Chase Bank. The bank will lease the theater to the county, which will lease it to Round House for a pittance plus utilities. The developers, Farr-Curtis & Associates, have said that the complex might open in early 2001. Round House will operate its theater school in a renovated space in downtown Silver Spring.
The next step is a review of the proposal by the county attorney's office. As reported in Backstage a year ago, Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan has long been enthusiastic about the idea. Follow Spots
The National Theatre canceled this past Thursday's matinee of "Barrymore" after actor Christopher Plummer made it known that he hadn't agreed to a weekday matinee. Harry Teter Jr., general manager of the theater, says it was a misunderstanding between Plummer and the producers, Livent Inc., a company undergoing a spot of financial and managerial turbulence. The William Luce play is a tour de force for Plummer, who's onstage the entire time, backed up only by a character who talks from the wings. It did "fair" business during its week-long run, according to Teter, selling at about 50 percent of capacity despite good reviews.
Studio Theatre will have a benefit performance of "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde" next Tuesday on behalf of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, which works nationally to increase the number of homosexuals in public office. Tickets will cost $75, including a post-show reception. Call Daren Phillips at 202-842-8679 or Stephen Gorman at 202-882-1126.
Brian Hemmingsen, who just completed a larger-than-life turn as the villain in Scena Theatre's "Jungle of the Cities," missed two performances of the Bertolt Brecht play when his wife, actress Nanna Ingvarsson, gave birth to Sebastian Jakob Ingvarsson-Hemmingsen on Oct. 10. Both parents are founding members of the Washington Shakespeare Company and Hemmingsen is its former artistic director and a founding member of Scena. He'll next portray Brecht in "A Bertolt Brecht Cabaret" at Mount Vernon College's IN Series, starting Friday. Call 202-625-4655.
American Century Theater will replace its originally scheduled winter show with Terrence McNally's 1966 play, "Things That Go Bump in the Night." The Arlington-based troupe's negotiations with CBS for the rights to stage a few classic episodes of "The Twilight Zone" have stalled. "Things That Go Bump" will open Jan. 6. Call 703-553-8782. CAPTION: Donald Griffin, above, and Thomas W. Jones II used black vaudeville traditions for their roles in "Waiting for Godot." ec CAPTION: "I think that racism got in the way," says Thomas W. Jones II, right, with Donald Griffin, of the dispute that shadowed Studio Theatre's now-completed run of Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot." ec CAPTION: Joy Zinoman: "The best defense . . . is to keep the play open, and for people to come and see the production." ec