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Home News Theater Southerland Leaves Next Amid Plagiarism Charges
Southerland Leaves Next Amid Plagiarism Charges Print E-mail
Written by Carrie L. Kaufman   
Friday, 21 May 2010 14:29

Artistic director Jason Southerland has left Next Theatre Company amid accusations of plagiarism surrounding Next’s February/March production of Return to Haifa.

According to playwright Margaret Lewis, who penned the version Next produced, late in the rehearsal process Southerland “had inserted dialogue and rewritten chunks of text” that she found out later were from the English translation of the original script by Boaz Gaon.

Next was supposed to produce Gaon’s script, but that fell through sometime last fall. Lewis was hired in November to do a separate adaptation of the Ghassan Kanafani novella.

“Jason Sutherland plagiarized parts of it and stuck them in my script and got sued,” said Lewis. She said that part of the settlement agreement Next has made with Gaon is that the theatre must put out a press release stating that parts of Gaon’s play were inserted into Lewis’ play. Lewis has seen a draft of the press release, which is due out next week, and isn’t happy with the wording.

“It does specifically say I didn’t do it,” said Lewis. But, she added, “It doesn’t specifically say that he did it.

“It exonerates me, but really those passages were inserted in the script by…fairies?”

Judy Kemp, Next Theatre board president, could not comment on the plagiarism charges, nor would she say if Southerland’s quick exit from Next stemmed from this incident. She did say that “there was not a law suit, there was a threatened law suit,” and that the board was ironing out some legal details before issuing their press release. She also confirmed that Southerland "is no longer our artistic director." Southerland came to Next 18 months ago from the defunct Boston Theatre Works. Southerland told the Tribune's Chris Jones on Friday that he resigned from Next because he and the board "reached an impasse."

For Lewis, this odyssey started in November of 2009, when she was asked to do a quick turnaround of the adaptation to the Kanafani novella.

“When he brought me on to do it, I said, are you going to get the rights and he said yes,” Lewis said of Southerland. “I was stupid enough to believe that.”

Later, Lewis saw that her play was departing from the novella and suggested they change the name to Between the River and the Sea. Southerland rejected that.

Then, “quite late in the game, we’re getting pretty close to opening, [Southerland] sent me my script that he had gone through and edited. I asked him where he got the stuff he was putting in and he said he went through his notes and some journals and some research,” Lewis said. “It just never crossed my mind that it was plagiarized.”

Lewis struck most of Southerland’s changes, but kept some of them in, mostly in the last extended scene between the two couples.

Yet, says Lewis now, if you look at a comparison between the disputed passages in Gaon’s script and the ones that were inserted into her script, “the language is exactly the same.”

Lewis is baffled as to why Southerland made these changes to begin with.

“To be honest, I could cut everything that was added, and nobody would have noticed,” she said. “It was very unnecessary to the script.”

Lewis is not the only one baffled by Southerland, who had not returned phone calls from PerformInk as of press time on Friday. Board president Kemp is also baffled. Southerland announced his resignation from Next via Chris Jones’ blog Friday afternoon, knowing full well that a press release was coming out the next week implicating his theatre in plagiarizing.

“He is not wise to be doing what he’s doing,” said Kemp, adding, “I would suggest whatever he might say would not be wholly truthful.”

For her part, Lewis wants to clear her name. She is not a plagiarizer, she says, and did a yeoman’s job in turning around a complete adaptation in three months.

“I think Jason put me in a very, very difficult situation,” said Lewis. “The only thing I have is my name and my reputation.”

Lewis said that, in addition to the press release admitting to lifting passages, the settlement agreement also stipulates that Next must expunge any reference to ever producing Return to Haifa and that she can never again have her play produced.

“We have to give it publicity and take publicity away all at the same time,” Lewis said. “I’ve struggled for 10 years in storefront theatres and here I got this big break and look what it turned into.”

Gaon was also contacted for this article, but did not get back to PerformInk by press time. Look for an update next week.

Editor’s Note: Kevin Heckman, Next Theatre’s managing director also writes PerformInk’s Review Roundup and listings columns. Heckman was not contacted for this story because of the obvious conflict of interest issues.

Last Updated on Friday, 21 May 2010 23:58