Artistic license isn’t always a good thing

Four rows away from the stage, I laughed as scenes from Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday were performed in front of me. The actors were so comfortable with their lines that they were able to improvise constantly, throwing punches and one-liners throughout the script. They even made fun of themselves, alluding to past shows the troupe performed and odd obsessions with the New Jersey Devils and Ted Nugent.

I’ll admit, I did enjoy the updates to the modernized version of Kanin’s 1946 play. However, I would’ve liked it much better in its original form.

Call me nostalgic for a time I did not experience, but the culture and social mindset of the 1940s is so rich and different compared to today’s. The play could have served as a nice trip back in time to post-WWII hope, idealism and junkyard gangsters.

The problem with an updated Born Yesterday is the abuse of artistic license. Artistic license, theater-wise, is the ability of a director to change things around in a play, usually contradictory to the way the writer wrote it. For example, a director might feel the setting of The Crucible may be more appropriate for our times to be in New York City instead of Salem, Mass., even though Arthur Miller didn’t write it that way.

My problem with artistic license is that it should be used in very small doses so it doesn’t destroy the show. It’s like a spice used in cooking. You don’t always need it, and when you do, a little is enough. Too much spice will ruin a dish – too much artistic license will ruin a play.

The common, but visit-to-the-doctor worthy side effects of artistic license are loss of plot, loss of dramatic tension and loss of audience. If artistic license gets completely out of hand, the plot is usually lost among the added lines, modernization and excessive improvisation.

Improv is a wonderful thing when it’s needed – when an actor misses his cue or a techie misses theirs – but it is also another spice added to the recipe of the play.

The dramatic tension goes down with the ship when the plot is lost. If the plot is lost, the climax or the eye-opening realization of a character – their dramatic tension – is lost because the audience couldn’t follow along. When the plot gets lost, the audience becomes lost as well.However, when used properly, a little artistic license can go a long way and actually improve a play. For example, Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was an amazing success. By adding only a pinch of artistic license to his director’s stew, he enlivened a timeless play and reminded everyone how timeless it really was. He only updated the setting – going from Verona, Italy, to Verona Beach, Calif. – the weaponry and the transportation.

Most importantly, though, Luhrmann did not change a word of dialogue. The original words ensured that all the ends would stay together. When Capulet asks for his longsword in Scene 1, Act I, he receives a gun with the name “long sword” written on its side. The play did not experience any loss – be it of plot, dramatic tension or audience.

Artistic license is like a strong, perception-altering substance and must only be used by very seasoned directors. It can make a great addition to a show and satisfy the wants of the actors and directors, but leaves out someone important: the writer. The writer wrote it for a reason, and an abuse of artistic license completely unravels the writer’s work.

I suggest it be avoided at best and only be used, if it must, with the finest of actors who can handle such a bold move. If used unwisely, disaster is inevitable.

Amy Mariani is a freshman majoring in mass communications.

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