Today I received a royalty check in the mail from Brooklyn Publishers, who market my one-act play The New Mrs. Jones. The check was pretty miniscule. When amateurs license a play from larger houses like Samuel French, or even Eldridge, the author generally gets at least half of the royalties theaters pay. That's not always true of smaller publishers. I don't say this to be judgmental. Clearly, I licensed Brooklyn to publish my script, and they do what they can to get it productions. Through Brooklyn, The New Mrs. Jones has been performed in Australia! I couldn't have done that on my own.
However, playwrights slave away for years on plays, and it can be disheartening when the royalty check you receive in the afternoon is for less than the price of a single ticket to the show you're going to see in the evening. That was the case for me today, and the show I'm seeing, Cut Throat at the Abingdon Theatre Company, isn't exactly Broadway. This is not the sort of thing that makes playwrights feel terribly respected.
Still, a production is a production, and clearly someone is doing The New Mrs. Jones. I figured I'd do a quick Google search and see if I could find out who it was. Some playwrights love Google, because it helps them catch the people who do their work without paying for it. Me, I've always been more of the stick-your-head-in-the-sand type. Yes, there are probably unauthorized productions out there, but what am I supposed to do when I find them? Call out that high school teacher who performed my play without paying for it? The same teacher who probably saw the drama club's budget slashed for the millionth time? Perhaps the answer is yes, that's exactly what I should do, but generally I don't.
Curious, however, I Googled "The New Mrs. Jones," and what did I find? The first result was not the Brooklyn Publishers website where you can order the play. Nope the first result was this YouTube video posted by one Cody Sharp:
UNAUTHORIZED VIDEO OF THE NEW MRS. JONES
Cody, I have no idea who you are, but I'm glad you seem to have liked the show. A commenter, one supersinger15, wrote: "oh my gosh this is my play!! Thank you so much for posting this!" Well, supersinger15, I truly am happy that the play merited double exclamation points. However, I tend to think of it as my play. Let us be friendly about the matter, though. Let us call it our play, since clearly lots of people were involved in the production.
In the YouTube video of our play, there is a glimpse of the program, and if you look really, really closely, you see a blur of writing that might even be my name. Then the camera moves on to Grandma. Lookin' good, Grandma! After that, we see the stage, and the cast acts out what looks like a pretty good production of our play. It's especially pleasing to hear the audience respond so enthusiastically to the humor.
Cody seems to have spliced together a number of key scenes, so viewers can get a sense of the whole piece. Who knows? Maybe the most recent production came from someone who watched the video. Perhaps Cody did me a solid in posting our play to the Internet. Still, I'm a little bit sad. Cody's name was on the YouTube page, but the name of the author of that dialogue? Good luck trying to pause the video and make it out in the upper-right-hand side of the frame, since it appears blurry and for less than a second.
I love it when people have fun with our plays, and if they want to post unauthorized videos, like I said, there's probably not much I could do to stop them, even if I wanted to try. Still, what kind of respect does the web have for playwrights when the first search result for "The New Mrs. Jones" is an unauthorized video and not even the site of my publisher?
I'll tell you how much respect the web has. The web has so much respect that the fourth Google result (after the video and two results for my publisher) is the Google Books entry for The New Mrs. Jones. There, you can read this fascinating biography of the playwright:
James S. Armstrong, CFRE, a management expert with more than thirty years of experience in politics, business, and nonprofit agencies, is vice president and director of the Children's Hospital Foundation in Oakland, California.
Wow! I'm a CFRE. I didn't even know what that was until Google told me it's a Certified Fund Raising Executive. Apparently, I have more that thirty years of experience in politics, business, and nonprofit agencies. I must have gotten started when I was nine!
Um, no, Google Books. I am not vice president and director of the Children's Hospital Foundation. That would be a different James S. Armstrong.
This is the world we live in, where playwrights write plays, and our plays get produced, taped, and uploaded to the Internet, but the playwright is not even acknowledged, much less asked for permission. It's easier to get forgiveness than permission, so maybe that's why Cody didn't ask. If he had put my name on the video, that might have gotten it flagged and taken down. Perhaps it's better to just label the clip "music" like he did and just hope for the best.
Still, I can't help but think that we can do better. By that I mean "we" as a society, "we" as a theater community, and "we" as playwrights. So this is what I did: I added a comment to the YouTube video.
This is James Armstrong, the playwright of THE NEW MRS. JONES. I didn't see this particular production of the play, but it looks like it was a lot of fun. If anyone is interested in reading the script and putting the play on somewhere else, please visit my publisher's website: https://www.brookpub.com/default.aspx?pg=sd&st=NEW+MRS.+JONES&p=19
Perhaps that's not the ideal way to handle these issues, but I figured I should do something. And who knows? Maybe my next royalty check will cover an entire ticket the the Abingdon.