Who’s the Real Writer When the Play is Devised?

by Daniel Robert Sullivan

in Fox Fellowships

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(This post is part of the Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowships and Fox Fellowship Circle salon.)

We sit in a circle at Roundabout Theatre Company and I ask questions. “Why are you laughing so much? You’re quiet today; is something wrong? Here’s a news article; what’s your opinion on it?” That’s a baseline, but sometimes the questions have been deeper.

“You’re seventeen and dating a thirty-eight year old; why does this feel right to you? Your apartment just burned down three days ago; where are you staying and do you need anything? You say someone snuck a weapon through school security; can you tell me how and give me some insight as to his intent?”

I’ve been meeting with a team of high school students in New York City to devise a play from their stories. I’ve been recording conversations, editing their opinion writing, and trying to unearth the comments that have meaning beyond the confines of their school walls. I work alone to process the information and attempt to find the characters and structure that rise from their words, but whose play is it?

It would be simple to say, “This play written by ___, ___, ___ and ___.” I could do that, but it wouldn’t be entirely accurate. Ultimately, I’m the one who first puts words to paper.

It would be more accurate to say, “This play devised by ___, ___, ___, and ___.” I could do that, but who do I list first? And did we really devise it together, as one unit? Not really. We did a lot of storytelling and improvisation exercises together, then I went off and wrote a lot, and now we are doing a lot of acting and revising together. That’s not quite a devised play in the strictest sense.

Actually, the question of who to list first is one that plagues me. I realize I am putting the cart before the horse, but I want to establish now the criteria for publishing our names in the future. I want these students to have credit as authors if we are able to publish the play we’re creating, but I want those who show up and work hard to get a little more credit than those whose attendance has fluctuated.

Oh! And I have a dramaturg advising the project. And two hands-on apprentices helping out. They’ve contributed ideas, so they should get some credit, right?

Here’s the solution I’ve come up with, though I welcome any opinions on how to adjust it. Every day we work on this play in the studio, I have each of us sign a log book. I will calculate the exact number of hours put in on site, and that will determine the percentage of authorship credit each of us receives. I will not include any time I may choose to put into the working on the play at home. That is bonus time and will not count toward my own authorship credit. Why? Because at-home time and “thinking” time is a little intangible; I’d rather document hard and fast time in the studio as the only time that counts.

The individual with the most hours in the studio when the play is finished (undoubtedly, this will be me) will be listed first. The student with the next highest amount of actual hours on site will be listed second, etc. At the moment, this play has thirteen contributors. Allowing me to dream for a moment: if royalties are ever received from this play, we will all share them as a direct percentage of hours spent creating the work on site.

This seems like a fair method to me; the key factor is actual time spent. Our stories, our imaginations, and my midnight typing in bed are all tricky to document, so I’ve decided not to count them at all.

We’re clocking in our creative time. Seem like an ok idea?

Want to read more about this project? An intro is here, some student insight here, a racial question here, and some worry about structure here.

Daniel Robert Sullivan appeared in Jersey Boys as Tommy DeVito in the Toronto and International Companies. He has performed at Kansas City Rep, Arizona Theatre Company, Pan Asian Rep, the York, Utah Shakespeare Festival, Gloucester Stage, and others. His backstage memoir, Places Please! (Becoming A Jersey Boy), was published last year by Iguana Books.

The William & Eva Fox Foundation, a private grantmaking foundation, is committed to the artistic development of theatre actors as a strategy to strengthen live theatre. Through its prestigious Fox Fellowships the Foundation has provided more than $3 million to underwrite periods of intensive study, research and training by actors recognized as having a serious commitment to the theatre. In 2004 the Foundation awarded fellowships totaling $150,000 to ten distinguished actors. The Foundation is the largest grantmaker solely dedicated to the artistic and professional development of theatre actors, and one of very few that provides direct support to individual actors.