My American Theatre magazine story about artistic theft and social media

Screen Shot 2018-01-25 at 3.13.37 PM.pngImitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the old saying goes. It may be true, but it doesn’t pay the bills. And in theatre, blatant imitation isn’t flattery—it amounts to theft of an artist’s intellectual property. Production photos, fight choreography clips, even bootleg production videos are often just a Google search away. While it’s never been easier to copy someone else’s work, it’s also never been easier for directors and designers to find potential offenders.

In 2015, for instance, Detroit-based set designer Monika Essen had a colleague alert her to Facebook photos shared by a local community theatre company. Why? Because the company’s set appeared to be a replica, down to the style and positioning of its furniture, of one she’d created for a 2005 production of Ice Glen at Ann Arbor’s now-defunct Performance Network Theatre.

“It wasn’t as well crafted or as well painted, but the concept was exactly the same,” said Essen. “I called the person in charge there, and at first she denied knowing me or seeing the show. But it’s not like [the design] came from the script. It was an abstract concept I came up with. It’s not like it was a realistic set that had the same moldings and color scheme.” Essen then recalled the person on the phone backpedaling yet again, before admitting that “maybe she did see it at the Network years ago, and subconsciously she must have thought about it when doing the design.” To which Essen responded, “You have to pay me, or you’ll be in a world of trouble. I will shut your show down.”

In the end, the company agreed to pay Essen the union rate for her design, though the whole experience left a sour taste in her mouth. “When I looked at those photos, I was shaking, I was so upset,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a community theatre or professional.” Had Essen met with greater resistance, she would have contacted her union, United Scenic Artists 829, for more support. But for her, it wasn’t just a matter of income loss. “It’s not just the time it takes to research and design and create something. It’s like part of your soul, so it ends up feeling like someone stole part of your soul.” READ THE REST HERE


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