Get inspired, but don’t copy

This post was inspired by a comment made in the Educational Theatre Association’s Open Forum by a member who mentioned his set design for a show was used by other groups without permission or attribution. He indicated it burned him — and I have to agree with him — so I wanted to offer some thoughts on the subject.

Although I’m not aware of anyone copying one of my set designs, I had a related experience a couple of years ago. For many years, I’ve been involved in stage magic, first as a professional performer, later as a hobbyist, and more recently as a columnist for an online magicians’ forum. At the suggestion of a friend, I also started designing and building props for professional magicians and collectors, which have sold through a highly-respected dealer.

During a magic builder’s conference in 2018, one of the guys mentioned he had seen one of my designs (with working drawings) published in a magician’s journal. It turned out that the writer had visited a collector a year or so previously and had shown interest in my piece. However, when I read his article, it was obvious that he was presenting my design as his original creation. After a slow burn, I wrote a couple of letters, and the writer published a sort-of-retraction in the next issue of the journal, admitting that he had seen my piece, thought it was an antique, and was “inspired” by it.

“Inspired” was hardly the correct term: he copied it outright. But at least we set the record straight.

The reason I’m mentioning this is that copying has been a problem in the world of magic for years, and it’s had a serious effect that also relates to theatre. People will create a new “trick” (anything from a card trick to a vanishing steam locomotive and then some), and someone else will come along — often in a foreign country — make inexpensive copies, and offer them for sale at a lower price. Then people will buy the cheaper version and often later complain that it’s not as good as the original. History just keeps repeating itself. But, as a result, some of the best creators have stopped publishing or marketing their pieces to avoid having them ripped off. They have shut the door on their skill and imagination.

Okay, I know what some of you are thinking: sue them. Unfortunately, given the relatively small amount of money at stake and the expenses involved, the only people who might gain anything here would be the lawyers. It’s just not worth it.

The same is true in theatre. What it comes down to is that copying someone else’s design without compensation, or at least securing permission, is basically stealing the time they put into that design. Although the notion that “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”  has been around for a long time and makes sense in some ways, it is also unfortunately often used as an excuse for laziness.

In fact, some years ago, a production in Cincinnati was cancelled because of a plagiarized set design. In professional theatre, the set designer’s union (the United Scenic Artists Association) stipulates, in their contract with the producing company, that the set designer owns the rights to the design. The Association’s Standard Designer’s Agreement states, in Section IX. A.: “All rights in and to the design as conceived by the Designer in the course of his/her services hereunder shall be, upon its creation, and will remain, the sole and exclusive property of the Designer.”

But — on the other hand — there’s nothing wrong with being inspired by someone else’s work to crate your own original work.. Artists, designers, engineers, writers, and many others have been doing it for centuries, and it’s an accepted practice: studying other people’s work is a great way to learn and to develop your own creativity. In fact, in school, we were expected to study other set designers’ work and understand why they did what they did.

But there was a line we were not allowed to cross.

So sure, by all means, look at other designers’ work and use ideas from it to create your own original designs. But don’t copy it. In the vast majority of cases, it won’t work for you as well as it did for the original production. Tailor your design to your own production.

The scene shop, part 3: rules

A set of rules for using the scene shop, prominently posted and easy to read, can help avoid misunderstandings and arguments, and ensure that everyone is using the scene shop properly and safely. This is especially important in the case of new hires, or if your organization uses a lot of volunteers who may not have worked in a scene shop before. The list can also be issued to scene shop users, and some shops even issue two copies and ask that a signed one be returned for the shop’s files.

Since the whole point of a set of rules is to get people to understand and adhere to them, the list “should” be short, clear, and easy to read. The most effective ones I’ve seen over the years have been printed on one sheet of 8 1/2 x 11 paper using a large font (14 pt or 16 pt), and the individual items have been either bullet points or very short paragraphs.

Below are some sample rules to include in your list. Rather than just copying them, however, you’ll want to see them in the perspective of your own organization and adjust as needed. I’m using the title Technical Director here, but you can certainly use a different label.

Sample Scene Shop Rules

The following rules apply any time the shop is open or in use.
No exceptions will be made for any reason.

  • The shop may only be used when the Technical Director (TD), or a designated representative, is in attendance.
  • Do not use any tools or equipment for which you have not been trained.
  • Wear comfortable clothing but keep in mind that you may get glue or paint on it. Old clothes are best.
  • Tools love to grab loose hair, jewelry, sleeves, and similar items. Tie hair back, remove jewelry, and avoid loose clothing.
  • Footwear must be fully enclosed: no open-toed shoes or sandals.
  • Food, drinks, or gum are not allowed. Water in a spill-proof container is OK.
  • Use eye and/or hearing protection on tools that are marked as requiring them, or as directed by the TD.
  • Use dust masks or respirators as required or as directed by the TD.
  • Keep your work area clean. Scraps and cutoffs belong in trash or recycle containers, not on the floor. The TD will instruct you on what to keep and what to throw away.
  • Never leave an unattended machine running. Turn it off.
  • Do not force or attempt to fix broken or malfunctioning equipment. Report it to the TD immediately.
  • Report any injuries (no matter how minor) immediately to the TD.
  • Keeping the shop clean and safe is everyone’s responsibility. Put your tools and equipment away at the end of a work session or as directed by the TD. He or she will tell you when to stop working and start cleaning up.

No horseplay will be tolerated at any time.

The tone of the list can take various forms: autocratic, informational, or even humorous,  or any combination of these. For instance, a YouTube video prepared by a model shop has taken their list of shop rules to new heights by presenting it in a humorous manner while at the same time using it to define the company culture to new hires. You can watch it at Ten Bullets.

To keep things simple, you may want to prepare a separate list for the paint area, noting things like washing brushes and rollers, covering paint cans, and so forth. That will also give the paint area its own identity.