In 1892 Alfred Tennyson is credited as saying “great poets imitate and improve, whereas small ones steal and spoil.” For artists, the line between theft and inspiration has always been fine (see this video of Beyonce’s 2011 "Countdown" next to Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s 1997 "Rosas danst Rosas" for my favorite choreographic example). Which raises the question: can you own an idea?
I was initially interested in this question because my own work tends to be inspired by disparate sources, and I’m interested in a highly collaborative process where the “author” or instigator of an idea is not always clear. I believe in cross-pollination, but I also want smart, industrious artists to get the credit they’re due. I’ve been reading and listening to lots of things about ownership and originality (many of which I’ll share below) but so far as I can tell the rule is: There are no rules. But there are plenty of questions.
How does one go about owning a story? Or, perhaps that is too narrow a place to start. Perhaps first is, “What does the word own mean?” One definition from the Oxford English Dictionary is:
1. Have (something) as one’s own; possess
Possession immediately brings up intellectual property rights. Arwen Mitchell says in her eassy on HowlRound.com “in the U.S., the right to own property is as old as the country, as our freedom to express essential ideas of truth and meaning.” I agree, however, I also lament that culture is not supported by government in the United States as an essential part of civil society. Does this paradox indicate laws protecting artworks are just a means of commodifying non-capitalist things into the capitalist system? Or for giving artists a place in the market without having to acknowledge their inherently unquantifiable value?
Thinking of ownership as possession also carries the baggage of this country’s history of oppression and exploitation. Representation in theater is key to the discussion surrounding artistic ownership. Ideally anyone could write and produce whatever they want, but the playing field is uneven, historically and currently. Maybe in light of this, a different phrasal form of ownership should surface for the oppressors and the oppressed:
1.1.to get one’s own back: take action in retaliation for wrongdoing or insult
The Lark Apprentices, during our Artist Hours, often ask playwrights how they’ve represented someone outside their own culture without offending anyone. Every playwright has a different answer , but all acknowledge the nature of playwriting is such that you will always have a character or interest outside your personal experience whose story you have to empathize with. How does one “hold one’s own” as an artist attempting to follow your instincts while being respectful of others?
1.2.to hold one’s own: Retain a position of strength in a challenging situation
Questions of property, representation, and appropriation all circle around what Amy Shuman calls one of the “promises of personal narrative” - the entitlement to own one’s story as a way to “transcend personal experience.” But what about the ability of humans to seek understanding of others’ stories? Seemingly contradictory, Shuman’s other promise of personal narrative is empathy. For me, empathy is tied to another definition of “own:”
2.Admit or acknowledge that something is the case or that one feels a certain way
This is where theater in specific poses unique challenges in the already muddled discussion of ownership. I prefer to use the term theater in the broad sense of live, performative acts presented in a public place (including dance, storytelling, spoken word poetry, music, and every hybrid between). If theater is a way of expressing feeling or making observations about the world around us, does the creator not “own,” by the definition above, every single theatrical attempt they make? Then why does it feel so hard to own theater?
Maybe it’s because theater is a collective activity. Kirby Ferguson, creator of the film Everything is a Remix says, “creative works are property that we are all building.” Not only is theater made by collaborations between directors, actors, playwrights, designers, producers, etc., even if I could do all those roles alone, I would still need an audience. Each viewer brings their own lens to whatever ideas I present no matter how mindful my intentions. Perhaps ownership in theater is difficult because the second my collaborators and I put something in front of an audience, it belongs a little bit to them.
Maybe theater is tricky because it’s temporal. Cultural context matters. Theater does not happen in a vacuum and many would argue it should actively converse with the time and place in which it’s happening. Charles Mee says “the culture writes us first, then we write our stories.” And in fact, many people (including the voices on TED Radio Hour: What is Original) argue that nothing is truly original. Even the idea nothing is original isn’t original – I’ve quoted seven other people talking about originality in this article alone! To me, other people, our surroundings and our personal experience are the only content we really have to create with. Does this mean I, as an individual, can’t be the sole owner of anything? Maybe. But I like the idea David Henry Hwang brought up in his Artist Hour: We as artists are contributing to a canon within the theatrical community. I come from a long line of theater makers whose work I will respond to and “steal” from, but I can only hope that one day someone will want to “steal” from me. There is always a sense everyone is “standing on the shoulders of giants” (Sir Isaac Newton) in pursuit of a greater knowledge.
Maybe theater is difficult to “own” because it is alive. Every performance is different and the theater making process never ends. This begs the question, am I as a theater artist trying to own a finished story or own the process of exploring it (or both)?
I don’t know my answer to that question yet, but I do know that owning an ever-changing, temporal, living event is pretty scary. How can we combat the pitfalls of ownership? This leads me to my final definition:
3.Take or acknowledge full responsibility for (something)
Artists help to define the world and to envision what it could be. That role comes with responsibility to collaborators and audiences. As Dominique Morisseau said in her Artist Hour, “you can’t drop a bomb in the audience’s lap if you don’t know its contents.” In other words, an awareness that following your creative instincts might greatly impact someone else is essential. I have to actively “own” my choices by responding to collaborators, audiences and content and “owning up” to any mistakes along the way.
“great poets imitate and improve, whereas small ones steal and spoil.”
If at the start of this you said to yourself “Wait a minute, I thought that quote was Picasso - or Stravisnki - or Steve Jobs!” you’re probably right (see the history of the quote). Variations on this quotation have been attributed to many different thinkers by audiences, journalists, and critics over the last two-hundred years. Which is to say, even if artists get a handle on how to “own” something (or not to), who knows what will happen once it’s out of their hands.
I still have a lot of questions. But I do know this: I am part of community and a lineage. I am privileged. Time and space make my context specific. I will never be able to work in isolation. People will respond to my work in different ways and therefore, I have a great responsibility to be intentional about my creations.
What stories do I, Emma Kimball, own? That, I just don’t know yet.