OLEAN — A New York City-based licensing agency says the Olean Theatre Workshop casting a white actress as a slave character violated its licensing agreement as well as copyright law.
An official with Dramatist Play Service Inc., which licenses the U.S. rights for the “The Crucible,” told the Olean Times Herald Friday the casting is the kind of change that would have required preapproval from DPS and the estate of playwright Arthur Miller, which owns the rights to “The Crucible.”
The DPS official added the agency never approved OTW’s casting change, nor did OTW ever ask for permission to make the casting change.
“The licenses are very specific that no changes are allowed to the script,” said Craig Pospisil, DPS director of nonprofessional rights. “That includes not only the dialogue but also elements of the stage direction that are germane to doing the show, such as race and where (race is) a specific part of it, as being a slave character would probably be.”
“Copyright is there because somebody created the play. It’s their intellectual property,” he added. “You may think, ‘If I move the arm on this statue a little bit it doesn’t make a big difference.’ But maybe it does to the creator.”
Sandra Mulryan, who is white, played Tituba during OTW’s production of “The Crucible” last month. Tituba is a character based on a real-life slave believed to be either Caribbean or South American who was one of the first women accused of witchcraft during the Salem witch trials.
Researchers debate whether the real-life Tituba was born in Barbados, South America or Africa. In many professional productions and the 1996 film version of “The Crucible,” she is portrayed by a black actress.
Some in the local community scene have criticized OTW, a Washington Street not-for-profit theater company, arguing the casting violated copyright laws, as well as “whitewashed” a role meant for a woman of color.
“It’s more than problematic — it’s wrong. You broke copyright law,” said Nelle Davis of Cuba on Friday after hearing DPS’ stance. “On a moral level there’s issues, but the reason why this wasn’t just a difference in opinion was that it did break copyright law.”
Pospisil said DPS wasn’t made aware of the casting until last week, following the Times Herald’s initial May 19 story on the local criticism surrounding the casting. He said he then reached out to Arthur Miller’s estate for its input before sending an email to OTW on Friday in order to “express our displeasure.”
He had yet to hear back from OTW as of Friday afternoon.
Both Lesley Patrone, who runs OTW with her husband Nick, and Jake Riggs, the director of OTW’s “The Crucible” production, declined comment Friday.
Had DPS been aware of the casting prior to the play’s May 3-5 run, Pospisil said the agency might have asked OTW to cast a woman of color in the role and pulled the rights if OTW could not oblige.
Given that OTW’s production of “The Crucible” has long since ended, Pospisil said he could not discuss what, if any action, might be taken against OTW, but that it may depend largely on the theater company’s response.
“If they’re regretful or have a good explanation and say, ‘Yes, we absolutely should have contacted you,’ and if they’re willing to work on it, an author or agent is more likely to say, ‘Let this be a learning experience for them,’” he said. “Nobody’s trying to grind anyone into the dirt on these things. We understand that sometimes people make mistakes.”
Patrone and Riggs previously defended casting Mulryan as Tituba, saying there was no malicious intent behind it and that it was done out of necessity. Riggs, who made the casting decision, said he did so because no women of color came out for public auditions.
Pospisil said theater companies in predominantly white areas — like Olean — have asked for permission to cast a white actor or actress after having difficulty casting a person of color; he noted it happens less often now that more people are educated about whitewashing, the oft-criticized practice of white actors portraying people of color or characters traditionally played by people of color.
However, he said DPS mandates theater companies ask for permission in such situations, as its website states productions “must always ask for and receive written permission to make any changes to the script.”
DPS licenses out the rights for nearly 5,000 plays on behalf of the plays’ respective rights holders, often charging a fee to those who wish to put on the play.
“The important thing is please ask if you feel you have to, need to or want to make a change, and also be prepared that the answer might be no,” Pospisil said “Don’t have your heart and your season solely set on, ‘We must do this play.’ We’re glad you love that play, but if you have to change it in terms of dialogue or casting in order to shoehorn it into your season, then it’s just not the right fit.”
While rights holders are sometimes amenable to a production taking curse words or racial slurs out of a play’s dialogue, Pospisil said changing a character’s race is a “taller order,” especially when race is integral to the character.
“In this case if the character is a slave and the play is in a very specific historic setting, then you really have to adhere to what was written and what was intended by the author,” he said.
Davis, who has previously performed in local community theater, said neither she nor others who have criticized OTW are “happy that it came to this.”
“It’s unfortunate that it had to come to this, but when there’s no accountability or even recognition that this is wrong … what else can be done at that point?” she said.
Davis added she’s been disappointed by the response from OTW officials and some others in the local community theater scene, noting they’ve been mostly defensive and not willing to understand why the casting was problematic.
“I think the reason they are so defensive is they love their theater … and it is a community and that’s what they’re protecting,” she said. “They think it’s a critique on the actual individual performance or on an individual person, and it’s not.”
She added she hopes any potential consequences for OTW are “very minimal.”
“I hope that just having it recognized as an issue serves as a learning opportunity more than anything … to help make better decisions in the future,” she said.