As well as managing two of the four Learning Centres in an FE college just north of Cardiff, I also teach a few hours a week on the Performing Arts courses. This is something I have enjoyed for the last five years since beginning my PGCE and has helped broaden my understanding of how some learners will submit anything other than their own work.
Plagiarism is something that we are all aware of and that we know to be an increasing challenge for tutors’ year on year. For example, we’ve all heard the one about the student who printed their work from the internet and didn’t even bother to delete the adverts from the side of the page, and the student who helpfully hyperlinked a number of webpages to help us understand the points they were making but submitted their assignment in paper, rather than electronic format.
But when it comes to a practical drama assessment, and we can see that the student has clearly watched YouTube clips of well-known actors for inspiration, when does research for character become an impersonation?
When we think of “The Importance of Being Earnest”, we are waiting for Lady Bracknell to say her famous line “a handbag?” and we often expect this line to be said with the traditional/ typical Edith Evans delivery. Nobody is surprised when this happens and often, if the actor says it differently we can be a little disappointed. So why when I see a 17-year-old student performing a monologue from Henry V with the exact same inflections, intonations and timing as Tom Hiddleston or Joanna Vanderham uses as the love stricken Juliet do I feel disappointed and sometimes, even a little cross?
Of course we could argue that these speeches, written over 400 years ago are performed the same way every time for a reason, and that after all this time there is no room for new interpretations. I would like to offer a counter argument to that and say that many of the themes and narratives of Shakespeare’s plays are relevant to today’s society and because they are, as texts, technically out of Copyright (as we know, Copyright as a law wasn’t introduced until 1710 – nearly 100 years after Shakespeare’s death) they can be interpreted in many different ways to make them more engaging for today’s audiences and as such will require a new form of delivery.
That is perhaps a discussion for another time so going back to the question about impersonation being a form of Copyright or Intellectual Property infringement or violation; we know that with the exception of impersonating someone in authority for example a police officer or a lawyer, impersonation isn’t illegal however, if I had won critical acclaim for my ground breaking new interpretation and performance as Goneril in King Lear and then every actor from here to there with access to the internet and a desire to play strong leading women copied my work right down to the last inflection, I think I would have something to say about it.
In most theatres, as the tab warmers come into focus and the house lights dim, the duty theatre manager will welcome us to the performance, remind us to turn off our mobile phones and inform us “that under Copyright Law, the use of photography or recording equipment is strictly prohibited”, inferring that the work we are about to see is protected. We know that the text or dialogue will probably be covered and that the production company will have paid for the appropriate rights to perform the work but what about the work of the actor? A musician who writes their own songs will have protection under Copyright law for both the live and recorded shows so how about he or she who will win this year’s Olivier Award for Best Revival or Best Performance? Should we look at protecting their work in a similar way? Why would we want to pay to see Dame Judi Dench play Queen Isabella when we know we can see Jane Smith with play the same part in exactly the same way?
When we watch Rory Bremner or Jon Culshaw we know that we are about to watch somebody pretending to be someone else, usually a public figure and we understand that we are there to be entertained, what is said will make us laugh and we not going to see anything new, we know what to expect; but when we are pleasantly surprised by a performance that does something we are not expecting, that everyone thinks this is the new way things should be done and then copies them ‘down to the last T’, why are we shocked that the actor in question feels that Copyright law has let them down a little?
Actors copying each other’s performances is probably something impossible to police in today’s Social Media, video sharing, live streaming, Snapchatting, What’sApping world and as I said at the beginning of the piece, this is intended to be a topic for coffee time debate or a cocktail conversation starter among other likeminded Information Professionals; although it’s one that I have asked my learners to think about when they are preparing for their university and drama school auditions as I feel it offers a moral dilemma that I’m pleased I didn’t have to think about when I was younger.
About the Author
Based just outside of Cardiff, Jo is a full time Learning Centre Manager and part time Performing Arts Lecturer; a would be runner, sometimes cyclist, often theatre goer, avid traveller, occasional fundraiser and forever dog lover, Jo enjoys most aspects of FE life and education.