It wasn’t my idea.
In the summer of 2010, I was taking a playwriting workshop at Stonybrook South Hampton with Emily Mann. In the evenings, there were special events and panels and one of them was about being a playwright in the digital age. Marsha Norman talked extensively about protecting your work from people producing it without your permission (and the obvious: without paying royalties).
I should have such a problem… I thought to myself later that night as I sat on a single bed in a sterile-looking over air-conditioned room and hunched over my laptop and typed “Mistaken Identity” into Google. Mistaken Identity is a ten-minute play about a lesbian, Hindu Indian woman who is at the end of a long line of bad dates with an Texas Cowboy who’s desperate to get married.
At the time, this was my only published play. Mistaken Identity is published in Laugh Lines: Short Comic Plays (Vintage Press: Lane/Shengold, ed.) and The Bedford Introduction to Literature and Literature to Go. (Bedford/St. Martin Press, Meyer, ed.).
Sigh. I wish someone would steal my work half-way around the world…
And a blog popped up, written by a woman in Bangalore, India.
After quoting lines verbatim from my play, the author of the blog shared that “Mistaken Identity” is “mostly mistaken to be a play that one has come across somewhere and just can’t remember the playwright” (Can I just say that I’m not sure this is a compliment?) As I scanned the blog, I learned quickly that my play was featured at the Rangashankara’s Festival of Comedies in Bangalore, that it was directed by a young director, she believes intentionally, because she thought an older director might edit the content that would be considered controversial. She wrote that she was thrilled to play the main character, Kali, and she wrote about what was challenging for her. She finished the blog with quoting additional lines from the play.
There it was in print! Who cares that she couldn’t remember my name? She was talking about my themes, my characters, my lines, my play! I’ll send a nice email to the festival director; they’ll apologize and send me money and maybe they’ll invite me to India the next time it’s produced again – wow – I would love to go to India! So I sent my enthusiastic email and got… nothing.
I wrote the actress who wrote the blog about how I’d love to connect with her or the director and find out how the show went and got… nothing.
Months later, a close friend, Kalav, who inspired the play, was visiting and together we called the festival office in Bangalore. Kalav translated our conversation to Hindi. The woman on the phone wanted to know what made me think my play was a part of their festival. She dismissed my explanations and kept trying to rush me off of our call. It was clear that she thought I was mistaken about my play Mistaken Identity. I offered to email the link to the blog. She said she’d be in touch. I sent it to her. Now we’re getting…
Despite multiple emails going in one direction, I never heard from her again.
I wrote the Dramatists Guild (yay for the guild!) and found out there was little I could do about international issues like this unless I wanted to hire a lawyer and then the fees would be much more than I would ever make anyway… Sigh…
Here I was, many months later and just for the heck of it, I decided to Google Mistaken Identity once again and discovered that the play was produced at The Keller Theatre in Giessen, Germany! At this point in my life, I had never been produced internationally so now I could say my work was done without my permission in two entirely different countries! There was a review of the production in German which meant I had no idea what it said, but still, a review in German, in Germany!
Since I had had such awesome success at my first attempt to connect with my international producers, I decided to try again. And I waited to hear nothing once again.
Almost immediately, I received this email from Martin P. Koob, the Artistic Director of The Keller Theatre:
“Sharon – so glad to hear from you! We tried to find you and were unable to. We love your play, and I directed a fantastic production. So sorry that we went ahead with it, but we tried to find you and couldn’t and didn’t know what else to do. Please send us your PayPal account so we can…”
That was three years ago.
Since then, Marty and I have become email, Skype and Facebook friends. A year after producing Mistaken Identity, The Keller Theatre produced my short play, Occupied, with three other short plays written by members of The CRY HAVOC Company, where I am a Resident Playwright. And this summer, Marty and The Keller Theatre commissioned me to expand my ten-minute play A Visit to the Bronx, developed at CRY HAVOC, into a one-act play for a September 2013 production at The Keller Theatre. The Keller Theatre is the oldest English language theatre in Germany, and Marty shared that I would be the only playwright in the history of the theatre ever produced three years in a row.
I decided to clean out my frequent flyer miles and go.
I couldn’t have been hosted more beautifully – starting with Marty greeting me at the airport with my name on a piece of poster board, to living in a board member’s home and having a different tour guide each day soar through the autobahn (highway) in small German-sized cars at lightning speeds to show me more of Germany. And, of course, I got to see my play produced in Germany with the actors working in their second and third languages, as well as the audience. The actors did a truly commendable job and Marty’s direction showed he really understood the play, which is about a young Jewish woman who travels to the Bronx to find the address where her grandmother was born and ends up meeting her grandparents in 1950 when they were her age. That Marty thought it was important to have this comedic-drama (that references the Holocaust) produced in Germany says something about Marty and about The Keller Theatre. And to say that it was complex to travel to Germany for the first time—a Jewish woman who lost family members in the Holocaust—is an understatement. I had to catch my breath when I heard the wailing sounds of the sirens (that I’ve only heard in Holocaust movies), and saw the small plaques on the streets with the names of families that were deported.
I spent a day in Frankfurt, where I visited a Jewish museum with Marty and with a lovely German woman from the theatre company. As I’m excitedly sharing information with her and as we’re walking the halls of the museum, I keep having this obvious thought: she would be friends with the children or the children’s children of those who were deported… And, at the same time, while in Germany, there was the incredible generosity of everyone I met, lots of laughter, seeing my play in another country where I was welcomed fully and immediately, and creating friendships that feel like they’ve always been there. I wouldn’t change this experience for anything.
So, thanks, Marsha Norman, for the idea to go looking for your work. And thanks, Mom and Dad, for teaching me you can ask for what you want and deserve without being a jerk. And a huge thank you to my new Germany buddies: Marty, Gaby, Aliye, Julie Ann, Annelise, Manfred, Hella and Peter, and everyone else over at The Keller Theatre.
From all of this, I learned that sometimes you might get a credit to write on your resume even if it’s denied you were produced there – thanks Bangalore; it’s on my resume – and sometimes, you get a new working relationship. In my case, it was so much more. There’s already talk of future collaborations at The Keller Theatre. I can’t wait.
This article was written for and published by The Dramatists Magazine (Jan/Feb. 2014).