CMU School of Drama

Friday, September 23, 2016

When A Tree Falls in Athens and Rises in Camelot, Whose Design Is It Anyway?

Arts Integrity Initiative: There’s a very large tree that has been traveling around the Dallas-Fort Worth region in Texas. There’s no need to worry, as the tree hasn’t acquired independent mobility and become sentient, but rather, it has made major appearances in two theatrical productions in the area in a short span of time. Designed originally by Bob Lavallee for the Trinity Shakespeare Festival production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Texas Christian University, it just finished a run center stage in Camelot at Lyric Stage.

8 comments:

Katherine Sharpless said...

This article was really interesting, and posed a frustrating and unsatisfactory problem. It illustrates a good lessons for designers and artists of every medium when it comes to contracts and copyright. Unfortunately, it seems that the set designer in this article, Bob Lavallee, never got the recognition or compensation I believe he deserved artistically: his contract (or lack thereof) is what got him in trouble. He agreed to lend Steven Jones at the other theatre (Lyric Stage) his tree from Midsummer but appears not to have disclosed anything else. Somehow, his other set pieces made their way to the Lyric, were repainted and were passed off as another designer's (aka Jones using a pseudonym). I believe that Jones using a fake name instead of crediting Lavallee or even Lavallee and himself is proof enough that he stole work. It's disappointing to know that there were also other producers or technicians who let it slide. The unsatisfactory element of this article is that it never explains how and if the situation was resolved, how designers can protect their work in these situations, or cite a statement from Lavallee.

Rachel said...

I wish this article were clearer regarding the details of the scenic elements transferred between the theatres. It only says “other” repainted and redressed scenic elements reappear at the Lyric and doesn’t specific how many elements, how large, and how recognizable those elements are (it’s one thing for a theatre professional to recognize a reused piece, but would an audience member who saw both productions be able to recognize it?) The article condemns the use of the scenic elements as plagiarism without really offering any specific evidence.

If the repainting and redressing of the piece *doesn’t* make the element unrecognizable to the average audience member, then the designer has a legitimate complaint, but if such fundamental design elements as color, treatment, and dressing are changed, it would seem more likely that the scenic elements qualify as redesigned stock materials rather than a plagiarized design. I think its unreasonable to ask theatres, who paid for and own the physical product, not to reuse those materials if the design is reasonably altered.

Monica Skrzypczak said...

We were just talking about this sort of situation in class in conjunction with the USA contract and copyright as a whole. The signing off of the tree is a perfectly legal happening- he sold his work to the theatre for money and credit. If it had just stopped there it would have been fine, but when the theatre takes other pieces of the set and repurposes them then it’s a great gray area because what theatre doesn't use stock to augment future shows, but this simple repainting and set dressing together again with the tree makes the overall set look like it should be credited to Lavallee (because as a whole it was recognizable). But the situation gets even shadier when the theatre used a fake scenic artist as the scenic designer. Had they not done that, I think this story would have less sway and fall more in favor of the theatre- whether or not they had the right to use more of the old set pieces. It will be interesting to see if this story continues past this one article and I don't know which I want more. If the story continues a lot of theaters will come under scrutiny but designers might get more credit and proper control over their designs. Either way it could be bad- for the theaters or for the designers.

noah hull said...

After reading this article I shared Rachel’s opinion of wishing they had described what other elements of the set where transferred between theaters. Fortunately, the other article on the greenpage about this incident had those details. In addition to the tree a circular platform around the tree and a doorway with a special wagon that lets it dock with the platform and the drapery on that door appeared in the Lyric’s production of Camelot. If the borrowed elements had been minor things or more generic objects I don’t know who I would think is in the right in this situation. But after looking at pictures of the Lyric’s production of Camelot those items seem to form the overwhelming majority of their set. It’s one thing to use stock scenic pieces, its another thing entirely to slightly modify another designer’s work and pass it off as the work of another. Especially when that designer has already turned down adapting their set for your show and the designer being credited for the new set doesn’t actually exit and is just the same person who already asked the original designer to adapt their work and was turned down.

John Yoerger said...

The first part of this article sounds like a nice lawsuit for Bob. His work as a Scenic Designer, unless otherwise waived, is his own intellectual property and their usage of scenic elements not included in the agreement without his express written permission is infringement. I'm not sure why any reputable theatre company would consider it a good idea to utilize assets of a design for another production without the permission of the creator. It is effectively the same thing as using another artist's music (i.e. "Livin' on a Prayer" by Journey) into a production. Journey would be entitled to compensation for the use of their music within the production... The second portion of this article also raises an interesting question: Where does the "credit" for a designer stop if their work becomes stock? Isn't it wrong for another Costume Designer to come in and use that wardrobe article designed by someone else, and then still take credit as the overall Costumes Designer? Why aren't more Designers negotiating such stipulations into their contracts?

Antonio Ferron said...

I have very little to no knowledge on the legal/business side of designing for theatre, so I can only look at this issue on a very basic and fundamental level. When broken down I think one can easily say parts of Bob Lavallee's design were taken without permission and used in a different production. No matter which way you look at it Lavallee was robbed. Whether he was robbed of compensation, acknowledgement, intellectual property, or all of the above can sway slightly depending on who you talk to. I ultimately feel that Steven Jones was in the wrong no matter what. There's no problem integrating elements of other designs into your own, but give credit where credit is due. I honestly feel that his use of a pseudonym was just and attempt to hide his identity so that nobody would blatantly attach his name to theft. I'm glad this article was written for Lavallee's sake. Otherwise, an incident like this would just be left in the dark.

William Lowe said...

I think there is a major ethical issue which is brought up in this article, and I completely agree with the stance that Lavallee has taken. If the producer has taken on more than just that, it should be mentioned in the program. If the producer feels bad about the fact that they also pulled set-pieces from another company, then they shouldn’t do it at all. It is a greater issue that Jones tried to cover up what he did with a fake set-designer. I think the other issue here is how more was taken of Lavallee’s design than negotiated and credited. If more than just the tree was taken from his design then he should be credited with more than just designing the tree. I’ve been trying to decide how I feel about the tree being reused and I think that I’m completely ok with that, mainly because of Lavallee’s stance on the issue and how otherwise it would have just been trash and this gives the piece a new life, which I think is very cool. I think it would have been better if the tree was slightly altered so that it wasn’t identical, but I think that is far from the main purpose of this article and is honestly a very slight and minor thing.

David Kelley said...

So this article brings into light a interesting subject. Whether Lyric had the right to use a set piece made for a Trinity Shakespeare production. I have used set pieces from one show on another one, but I always found that unless it had received some extra work on it felt wrong to reuse it. This of course is excluding platforms and basic flats. With this said the fact that Steven Jones, producer at the Lyric, felt that he need the name Cornelius Parker a pseudonym, make me feel that even he felt that he was doing something wrong. Having read the other article on this subject I had found that the situation is even shadier than I first thought. Lyric really needs to compensate Bob Lavaliere the scenic designer for the Trinity Shakespeare Festival production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

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