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Thespians have a rich history of bickering. My favorite dramatic duel happened in 1830, at the opening night of Victor Hugo’s Hernani in Paris. Hugo, a romantic, had blatantly ignored a number of theretofore sacred theatrical conventions — a plot that takes place over the course of a single day, for example, and in a single location — things that those of the neoclassical persuasion held dear. So dear, in fact, that at the premiere a brawl erupted between the two theoretical camps, classicists hissing and spitting at romantics, bohemians bludgeoning the bourgeoisie with mockeries, food, even fists. The fighting went on for weeks, forcing Hugo to enlist volunteer bodyguards. If this is what you got after a few infractions of Aristotle’s rules, imagine what those classicists would’ve thought of, oh I don’t know, Bare Breasted Women Sword Fighting, or My Fabulous Sex Life?
I tell this anecdote to broach an unfortunate matter which warrants only brief mention on this blog — a percolating dispute between two Washington theater companies over a production of The Lost Ones that I reviewed (quite positively) this week.
The current production comes courtesy of Spooky Action Theater. Directed by Robert Richard Henrich, performed by Carter Jahncke, it’s an adaptation of a short story by Samuel Beckett called Le dÃ©peupleur. Between 1999 and 2004, SCENA Theater mounted several productions of a similar piece, also called The Lost Ones in D.C. and in Europe, directed by Robert McNamara, also starring Jahncke (and at one point showing in the same space it currently occupies, The Warehouse).
McNamara issued a press statement alleging that the concept and several specific artistic elements of Spooky Action’s production were, as he puts it, “pirated” from SCENA’s earlier work.
Unless one of you fine readers has seen both productions, there are no clear answers here, and even then I’m not so sure how clear they’d be. At this point, it’s essentially one artist’s word versus another’s: Jahncke insists the piece is different and new; McNamara finds those claims dubious.
“This is a different production,” Jahncke said to me. “It’s been totally and utterly reworked, and I can only believe that it’s been reworked for the better. Where I was with SCENA, it was incomplete. I don’t spend years thinking about and months rehearsing a piece that’s already as good as it can be. This is an entirely different show.”
When I told that to McNamara, he responded: “I don’t see how it can be any better than what we created, to be quite honest. Things can better after years and years of work. But what I would argue now is that you’re seeing a substandard version of what was created by the SCENA Theater.”
McNamara says he has not seen Spooky Action’s production, nor does he plan to. He has asked Spooky Action for “rightful attribution.” With regards to legal action, McNamara says his theater is “exploring other options.”
While this dispute is a minor blemish on an otherwise extremely convivial festival, it does offer an opportunity to ponder some potentially instructive questions — most interestingly, when a director and a performer collaborate intimately on a solo performance, to whom and in what measure does that intellectual property belong? Is Jahncke being accused of plagiarizing himself? Or just those elements of the production that were not his brainchildren?