Buzz Worthy: An Irish playwright forces Sarasota company to revamp production

January 26, 2014 

A few weeks back, Asolo Repertory Theatre premiered its production of Brian Friel's "Philadelphia, Here I Come!" It was a lovely staging of the play that made Friel famous. It was also compact, running about 90 minutes, with no intermission.

A week later, a scheduled performance of "Philadelphia!" was canceled, and a performance of "Other Desert Cities," which had opened the previous evening, was substituted. There were confused ticket-holders at the box office, and the resulting audience for that evening's performance was small.

Asolo officials at first explained that it was a routine change of schedule, no big deal.

As it turns out, it is kind of a big deal.

"Philadelphia, Here I Come!" isn't supposed to be a 90-minute play that runs straight through with no break. It's supposed to be much longer, and it's supposed to include two intermissions.

Asolo, it turns out, did not have the playwright's permission to make changes, or at least not the kind of changes it made. The Asolo production, directed by the great Frank Galati, even cut out one entire character.

The playwright, or at least the playwright's agent, found out, and was not pleased. The agent demanded that Asolo close the show, so performances were immediately canceled.

Now Galati and his cast are back in rehearsals. They've added back all the material they cut, including that deleted character and those two intermissions. They'll reopen in early February.

The whole affair has become a hot topic in local theater circles. Most people are flabbergasted that the people at Asolo, who certainly know their stuff, would try to cut something so severely with the playwright's permission and without the playwright finding out. Asolo's productions make national news in the theater world, so the production wasn't likely to fly under the radar.

"What made them think they could get away with it?" asked Manatee County playwright Jack Gilhooley, the local representative for the Dramatists Guild, the national trade organization for playwrights. "The Dramatists Guild knew about it but we didn't protest. Why would we? We had to assume it was licensed."

Linda DiGabriele, the managing director of Asolo Rep, said that the cuts to Friel's play came about gradually, during the rehearsal process, and no one thought to contact the playwright.

After Friel's agents complaint, Asolo invited them to come to Sarasota to see the edited version, DiGabriele said, but the agents declined and just told them to do the entire play, the way it was written.

(Friel's agent in New York did not return phone calls about the matter.)

DiGabriele declined to estimate how much of the play had been cut, but when pressed, indicated that was "far less than 25 percent." And she said it wasn't too big a deal for the theater or its patrons, because Asolo has other shows currently in production that it could substitute for the canceled performances of "Philadelphia." Others who know the play as it is written estimate that Asolo must have cut much more.

Plays often get trimmed or changed by directors. Shakespeare plays, for example, are almost always cut significantly, because they're much too long for modern audiences.

But Shakespeare has been dead for centuries. Brian Friel is very much alive in his native Ireland, and his work is copyrighted. When a living playwright's work is edited by a production company, the company needs to get permission first.

Rick Kerby, the producing artistic director for Manatee Players, said he almost never makes any changes at all to a playwrights' words. One time, when he was staging "Damn Yankees," he got a request from the Pittsburgh Pirates, who train in Bradenton, to change the name of the team in the show from the Washington Senators to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

"I laughed and said I'd ask, but I didn't know if they'd go for it," Kerby said. "I was kind of amazed when they got back to me a couple of weeks later and said it was OK. I always err on the side of asking permission instead of having to get forgiveness later."

Just this week, a New York company that's producing a Florida playwright's new work asked the writer's permission to change two words -- just two words, not whole scenes and a whole character. The playwright said yes. That's the way it's supposed to work.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919.

Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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