SAN DIEGO — Playwright A. R. Gurney, forced to choose between the Dramatists Guild and San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, has resigned from the guild and from his post as guild secretary.
At issue was the contract for his new play, "The Snow Ball," scheduled to open at the Old Globe on May 9. The Dramatists Guild had called for a boycott of all members of the League of Resident Theatres that refused to adhere to a guild-proposed standard minimum contract with all playwrights.
Thomas Hall, managing director of the Old Globe as well as president of the LORT, had adamantly rejected the guild proposal in an Oct. 11 letter.
Gurney decided to sign with the Globe and resign from the guild.
"They didn't ask me to resign," Gurney said by phone from his New York home. "But they let me know that they could not approve of my relationship with the Old Globe since the Old Globe was not prepared to give certain rights to other playwrights that they had given to me. To make it easier for them, I resigned rather than force them to kick me out."
He indeed would have been ousted, confirmed Peter Stone, president of the Dramatists Guild, from his New York office.
"If he had not resigned, there would have been a very strong expulsion. Here is a man who was as responsible as anyone else for the conception of the contract, was in on all of the discussions, who had as much to do with it as anyone I can think of, who signed the letter (to the LORT theaters threatening the boycott), and, when it came to endangering his own production, had not the courage to stand with his fellows. It's not a very attractive spectacle."
Stone said he saw only one clause in Gurney's contract, but that it alone made the contract unacceptable.
It was the so-called "assignment clause," which specifies who has the right to determine who will produce a future commercial production of a show that originated at a LORT theater. The official position of the guild is that a playwright, alone, should assign those rights. Theaters negotiate the assignment clause on a case-by-case basis, with better-known playwrights such as Gurney being given more of a say in future productions.
In Gurney's contract, he and the Old Globe would share the assignment rights. This was unacceptable to Stone for two reasons: because Gurney would not have total control, and also because the clause made it clear that other playwrights might not receive even as much control as Gurney got, he said.
Gurney speculated that a theater's ultimate fear in giving the assignment clause away to a new or unfamiliar writer is that a playwright might elect to hand the next production over to his own mother.
But Stone said theaters also could act irresponsibly, assigning the rights "to Saddam Hussein" or to someone who might cheat the playwright.
The Globe's Hall defended the theater's right to help choose a play's future producers: "When we're investing a half a million dollars in a production, you expect you'll have some say in its future. You never make that money back in a nonprofit theater. The only hope is to make it back in a commercial production."
For Gurney, it was a question of divided loyalties in a painful internal struggle that the Globe ultimately won.
"It's an argument of two rights, and I got caught in the middle. It's never pleasant to be in exile. I feel sad," he said.
The Dramatists Guild members "believe very strongly that they want to bring the moment to its crisis. I felt equally strongly that I had certain loyalties or obligations that I couldn't deny. (Old Globe Artistic Director) Jack (O'Brien) and I had been working on this for over a year. I couldn't walk away from it. And the contract that was proposed to me was eminently fair."
The Old Globe premiered two of Gurney's plays, "Another Antigone" and "The Cocktail Hour." Although "The Snow Ball" will actually debut at the Hartford (Conn.) Stage in February, it will be a co-production with the Globe, which has handled all of the negotiations on the project. Hartford is also a member of LORT, an association of 68 nonprofit theaters that also includes the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, the South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa and the La Jolla Playhouse.
Now the Globe is free from any similar battles for the rest of the winter season, Hall said. Every other playwright is either signed or, like August Wilson, is not a member of the guild.
Still, Hall said he is planning to meet with representatives of the guild in New York in about two weeks to talk to them in "a nonnegotiating form."
"I am anxious to do this," he said. "My first response for the Globe is that I'm very happy about this result (with 'The Snow Ball'). But, as the president of the league, it's not helpful to have any antagonism. I feel the playwrights are getting caught between two principles, and it causes me concern for the future of playwrights and LORT theaters."