The last time I blogged, it was to proclaim that Seattle has less of a problem supporting female theatre artists than other cities. That was five months ago. I recently had that theory slapped back in my face with a great little 70 minute solo piece called That’swhatshesaid. 

The show, conceptualized by my friendly acquaintance Erin Pike, written by my playwright friend Courtney Meaker, directed by a new admiration HATLO, and produced by another new admiration Ariel Glassman, is an intentional commentary and reflection on – with some parody of – women’s roles in modern popular theatre. I saw the original 20-ish minute version of this show a couple of years ago at On the Boards, during their Northwest New Works festival. It was intense, hilarious, sickening, and great. The show at the time took lines from American Theatre Magazine’s top 10 most produced plays of the 2013/2014 theatre season. Women’s lines, specifically. Just a few – the show was only 20 minutes, after all. The show reflected, of course, our cultural attitudes of what we expect women to say. “I’m sorry” and “what?” were among the most common.

The longer version uses a newer American Theatre Magazine list of shows – the 2014/2015 season – but adds stage directions and descriptions of characters bearing lady parts. They’re seductive, demure, or angry at their male relatives. They’re beautiful, or were once before they got old or bitter. With such a focus on just the women, it’s hard to imagine what the men use these characters to accomplish, because there isn’t a lot of substance there for men to interact with.

That’s the point of That’swhatshesaid.

The night I saw it (Friday, February 5th), HATLO, Courtney, and Erin offered a talk-back. They pointed out that, with only two women playwrights out of 11 of the most produced shows in one year, they were surprised to find that all of the shows seemed to reflect the same expectations of their female characters. Weeping, screaming, romance. They added that, with artistic directors, producers, directors, and other staff making choices on seasons at large theatres, what got produced and how women were reflected is not just about what playwrights put on the page, but about the whole of the theatrical experience and what the team expects, in general.

It’s a commentary on a systemic problem in culture.

This is a hugely important statement that the women have had to defend for over a week now. On a national legal stage with lots of public opinion.

You see, Bruce Lazarus, the executive director/VP of publishing giant Samuel French, contacted Erin Pike, Courtney Meaker, and their hosts at Gay City Arts because they had sent a cease and desist letter. All of the plays in the show are copyrighted by different publishers, and Samuel French had published four of the plays which That’swhatshesaid used as source material. At the time, however, Lazarus only issued the cease and desist because of a play called Bad Jews. This led to a bit of speculation in the lobby, before the show went on that Friday, about what the playwright had said to the publisher or vice versa.

In the version of That’swhatshesaid that got staged on Friday, when I attended, the lines from Bad Jews were redacted. This meant Pike was forced to stop mid-choreography or mid-line several times while the stage manager yelled “REDACTED!” from the booth. Rather than make the show less appealing, the redactions instead made the show very immediate, highlighting a patriarchy that routinely forces women to shut up at the merest hint of a threat to male privilege.

The show only ran for four days, but in the meantime, the crew has received more cease and desist notices. There was another from Samuel French regarding lines from The Whipping Man – a show referenced in That’swhatshesaid, but only because there are no female characters in the play. Pike literally says nothing from the show, there are no stage directions from the show, and the only reference to it onstage is a sound cue of 72 pages of text being flipped while Pike scurries around, trying to find her place in a world where there is no place for her. At all. There was also a cease and desist letter from Dramatists Play Service Inc regarding some of its properties – which, while president Peter Hagan mis-wrote the title of the show as THAT’SWHATHESAID (HE, note, not SHE), was a response more level-headed regarding a general statement of the publisher’s responsibility to protect the interests of its published writers. It didn’t seem like a freak-out about how the show might reflect badly on the playwrights, which is how Bruce Lazarus’s voicemail and communications with the press sound to me.

Look, I don’t know much about copyright law. I wish I did. I work for lawyers sometimes, but they’re personal injury attorneys for the most part. I have been a ghostwriter for an intellectual property firm, but I didn’t do enough work for them to really wrap my head around the issue of intellectual properties and copyright, so my understanding is still general. I believe, strongly, that artists should be paid for their hard work, but I also believe we live in a society that fails to promote artists solely based on merit. I believe copyright law is both important and outdated. I believe that large publishers have the right to defend the work of the writers they publish, but I also believe that, as a culture at large, we have the right to comment on the work that impacts us.

There’s been a lot of talk about fair use and whether That’swhatshesaid is technically a parody. I am concerned, actually, that we are all jumping on the “parody” defense because that’s been one of the most protected applications of fair use laws. I don’t think the show is a parody, though. It is NOT an actual, legitimate production of each of the 11 plays it references, and there are certainly moments of parody in it. The script, though, is largely an intellectual exercise brought to life on stage. It is a criticism, with some humor but mostly the humor of Roger Ebert, not so much the humor of Saturday Night Live. Criticism is still a protected part of fair use, though.

The ladies have lawyered up (thanks to Washington State Lawyers for the Arts) and although the show is over, it sounds like the legal battle continues. To have a small production get such national recognition and to have so many great artists come together and shake our heads in unison at the ridiculousness of our patriarchal copyright protections has been quite gratifying. I’d love to see future productions of this, but I think the artists involved in this one definitely need a break.

The Stranger has done a good job keeping track of the controversy and even stirring the pot a little.

American Theatre Magazine did a write-up of the whole thing today.

If you have loads of questions, like if it’ll go on tour in your city, contact Ariel Glassman (and leave Courtney Meaker, Erin Pike, and HATLO out of it for now. They need some sleep).

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