A small San Francisco theatre stirred controversy in recent weeks when it staged a production of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Last Days of Judas Iscariot that incorporated significant and unauthorized cuts to the material.
Howard Sherman, the theatre executive and arts advocate behind Arts Integrity Initiative (an Internet watchdog that documents instances of artistic censorship and unethical practices affecting the arts community), was the first to report on the production and the heated dialogue on social media that followed.
Audiences attending the Shelton Theater summer production of were greeted with a program note from director Richard Ciccarone explaining the artistic reasoning behind his decision to “transform” Guirgis’ play.
“For me, a play is a living document that should transform from production to production. It is something the author bestows upon the public as a gift to be shared and theatre remains the greatest interpretive art the human race has developed,” he wrote. “I say this because it is my fervent belief that as a director, an actor, a designer, a producer, a stage manager, a board operator, and an audience member, we are all taking the work of one artist and reinterpreting it into our own separate experiences. The play may not be what the author intended in his original vision, but as a work of art. I believe it is our duty to interpret and not simply repeat, to participate, not just transmit, and by doing so become a collaborators in the work.”
Guirgis’ rambunctious comedy—set within a “ghetto of purgatory”—imagines Judas Iscariot on trial for the murder of Jesus Christ, with a series of witnesses ranging from Freud, to Mother Theresa, Satan, and Pontius Pilate. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman directed the play’s 2005 premiere at the Public Theater.
Judas Iscariot runs just under three hours as written, but Ciccarone had cut the piece down to nearly 80 minutes for the Shelton Theater run. Guirgis learned of the changes through Dramatists Play Service, the licensing and publishing company that represents his work, who suggested the production be shut down.
Instead, Guirgis sent a letter to the theatre, thanking them for producing his work, but expressing outrage that fellow theatre artists would violate federal copyright law and alter his work without seeking permission.
“I thought about the theatre itself,” Guirgis explained in an email to Playbill. “How much thankless work it takes to run a theatre and how hard it is just to stay in business.”
He allowed the production continue, stipulating that an insert would have to be placed in the program with the following language:
“The play you are seeing tonight has been improperly and extensively cut and edited. These edits and cuts were made without permission, against the wishes of the playwright, and in violation of Federal Copyright Law.”
His letter concluded, “Put in the inserts. Or close the play. Your choice. Either way—please send my love and thanks to the rest of the cast. And my thanks to both of you as well.”
Guirgis shared several pieces of correspondence he received from Shelton Theater Artistic Director Matt Shelton and the play’s director, which stated that the edits were not an act of artistic hubris, but were made in practical attempts to fit budget limitations and the capabilities of a small theatre company.
The situation escalated when images of the insert surfaced on social media, indicating to Guirgis that the theatre had used the language to market the show as a work of subversive theatre.
Guirgis went public with the ordeal in an August 4 Facebook post, sharing the letter he sent to Shelton and Ciccarone, as well as a photo of the new insert and the director’s note included in the program.
A day later, Guirgis posted again, stating that the production had been shut down.
Guirgis told Playbill that despite the breach of contract and unethical practices on behalf of the show’s director, he felt a connection to his fellow theatre artists who had dedicated themselves to the production—even if it did not represent the author’s original intent.
“Small theatres have been the ones who have produced my work. Small theatres and small companies are the ones who foster community, and take more risks than bigger theatres. So I have much love for them and am grateful to feel a connection to them.”
Those personal experiences, he said, are what prompted him to initially allow the Shelton production to continue.
“I thought about the actors—how they’re probably being paid very little and working very hard and doing what they do in large part for the love of it...” Guirgis wrote. “...And I thought about the director, I mean, I still can’t get my head around how he could do what he did and his directors note was something I could not disagree with more—but he was very apologetic and seemed genuinely admiring of the play itself and he seemed like a nice guy who was now in over his head. These are theatre folks. Our people. Theatre people: many freaks—but one tribe…”
An outpouring of support from colleagues, friends, and fans on social media also provided Guirgis—a Pulitzer Prize winner for his with an opportunity to reflect on the 2005 premiere of Judas Iscariot and the loss of Hoffman, who was a close friend.
Guirgis previously served as co-artistic director of the downtown artists’ collective LAByrinth Theater Company, which gave life to many of his plays.
Founded in 1992, the company has undergone major changes in recent years, notably the death of founding member Philip Seymour Hoffman in 2014, and the announcement earlier this year that artistic director Mimi O’Donnell was stepping down.
An outpouring of support from colleagues, friends, and fans on social media also provided Guirgis—a 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner for Between Riverside and Crazy—with an opportunity to reflect on the 2005 premiere of Judas Iscariot and the loss of Hoffman, who was a close friend.
“I don’t look back a lot,” he wrote. “I always feel like you’re only as good as what you’re doing right now. But when this incident happened, I was flooded with comments on my Facebook page—many of them expressing their feelings for the play, and further, many of them describing how they were in a production or directed one, or saw the original—and you can't help but feel kinda good about that. And so I let myself look back a little.
“At the time, I felt like it was a big failure on my part. I felt like I let everyone down. I remember that. But I also remember Phil [Seymour Hoffman], my director. He was the model of patience, love, passion, intelligence, commitment, and understanding through a long and chaotic rehearsal and preview process. He was selfless. He was a rock. And I remember my friends on that stage—Liza [Colón-Zayas], Yul [Vázquez], [Stephen] McKinley Henderson, Eric [Bogosian], John [Ortiz], Sam [Rockwell], Yetta, Elizabeth, Adrian, Mums, Jeff, Callie, Salvatore, Kohl, Deb –they gave everything they had and dealt with new pages, cuts, adds, all kinds of craziness—and they were brilliant. And I remember Butch Honeywell’s monologue. In previews, a lot of people who saw the show thought I should cut Butch’s speech. Some people I really respected. I won't name them. But I’m glad I kept it in. So yeah, a lot of memories. Oh, and Father James Martin! Theological Advisor. And now a lifelong friend. The truth is we were all extremely fortunate to have each other back then—and we knew it, but we didn’t really know it. So thinking about Judas reminds me to live in the day I’m currently in and to appreciate it. We lost Phil. He ain’t coming back. And none of us are staying here permanent.
So, you know, make the most of each day, be with those you love, and try to do good work, that's all there is.”