A scene from Next Theatre's production of Return to Haifa
A scene from Next Theatre's production of Return to Haifa

Evanston’s Next Theatre has staged some wild plays over the last 29 years—from Tracy Letts’s Killer Joe to the current sci-fi piece, War With the Newts—but not many stranger than the real-life drama that’s unfolded there over the last few weeks.

First, on May 21, came word that artistic director Jason Southerland was stepping down after only 18 months on the job. Southerland told the Tribune he “didn’t click with the board” and resigned. But Next board chair Judy Kemp had a different take on it: she says he was “discharged,” and that they hope to have an interim replacement within a few weeks.

Then PerformInk‘s Carrie Kaufman broke the news that local playwright M.E.H. Lewis was blaming Southerland for plagiarized lines discovered in her play, Return to Haifa, which Southerland had commissioned and directed at Next last winter.

The tale of two couples—two Palestinians who fled their Haifa home in 1948 and the Holocaust survivors who’ve lived in it ever since—Return to Haifa is based on a 1969 novella by Palestinian activist and author Ghassan Kanafani. Next didn’t have permission to adapt his work—but Kanafani was killed by a car bomb in 1972 and didn’t protest. The offended party was Boaz Gaon, the Israeli author of a play that premiered in Tel Aviv in 2008, also called Return to Haifa and based on the same work. In late February his lawyer presented Next with a cease-and-desist letter charging plagiarism and threatened to sue.

The letter cited themes and other elements original to Gaon’s work, including lines from the Next production that appeared to have been lifted verbatim from an English translation of his play.

Lewis told PerformInk, “Jason Southerland plagiarized parts of it and stuck them in my script.”

M.E.H. Lewis
M.E.H. Lewis

An award-winning director, Southerland (who, reached by phone this week, said he has no comment at this time) was hired by Next after Boston Theatre Works, which he founded and ran for a decade, went broke. He saw the Hebrew-language Tel Aviv production of Gaon’s play and was so taken with it that he wanted to produce it here. It’d already been announced in a brochure, in fact, when his negotiations with Gaon fell apart. (According to a February 10 posting by John Beer on the Time Out Chicago blog, Southerland said the “hitch” was that the Kanafani estate wanted Gaon to change his version of the story—in which “pro-Palestinian elements” are tempered—for any production outside of Israel, but Gaon hadn’t done so.) When Southerland couldn’t come to terms with the playwright, he decided to commission a new play based on the book. Lewis says he rejected her request that it be given a different title.

Next’s successful production of Return to Haifa came to an abrupt halt March 7, when, in response to Gaon’s threat, the theater canceled a planned extension of the run. On May 28 Next issued a formal apology to Gaon that announced Southerland’s “immediate” departure but stopped short of explicitly exonerating Lewis. Sources close to Next say the scope of the statement was worked out with Gaon’s lawyers as part of a settlement. For whatever reason, Lewis has been left to scramble on her own to salvage her reputation. More guarded now than she was when she talked with PerformInk, she responded to my interview request by writing out her side of the story, which she considers a cautionary tale for other writers. Here it is, in her own words:

In fall of 2009, I was commissioned by Next Theatre to write a play inspired by the novella Returning to Haifa, by the Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani. I was aware that a Hebrew language version of the play already existed that had been produced in Tel Aviv, and that Next had originally planned to produce that play (in English translation), but that those plans had fallen through.

I never read the play which had been produced in Tel Aviv because I didn’t want it to influence my work. I was inspired by both the novella and by the hours of research I did, but the play I wrote was shaped by the needs of theatrical staging and a contemporary American audience. A novel and a play are two drastically different art forms, and each medium requires different approaches. I only had about 4-6 weeks to write the first draft, which was due on November 21, and then about another month to turn in the second draft. I turned in the second draft on January 2, and rehearsals began on January 5.

Because this was a new play and because it was written so quickly... the development process required more involvement from others than is usual. It’s actually not uncommon for a director, producer or others to have a lot of input when producing a brand new play, but in this case the input was rather more forceful than usual, and the suggestions were very specific.

On January 11, about three weeks before previews began, I was e-mailed a copy of the script which had been edited, with dozens of new lines inserted. When I asked where the new lines had come from, I was told they came from notes made while reading Kanafani’s novella and other work, and some private journals. I was shocked that my script had been manhandled in this way, but, in the interest of open-minded collaboration (and, of course, hoping to maintain good relationships with highly respected professionals), I went through all of the edits. I rejected most of them, but I accepted eight of the insertions—a total of 230 words—and they became part of the script as performed in the production at Next.

The production was very successful, and the theatre decided to extend the run. Just after the extension was announced, a letter was delivered to the theatre which claimed that portions of my script had been lifted from the play which had been produced in Tel Aviv. Most of the similarities that were detailed in the letter seemed superficial to me, but the letter also listed eight passages of dialogue that were exactly the same in both plays. Eight passages. 230 words, out of a 20,000 word script.... They were all the insertions that I had accepted from the suggested edits.

The case was settled out of court. One of the stipulations is that the script I wrote can never be produced again, and in fact all copies of the play had to be destroyed. I’m very proud of the play and of the production, so of course this is painful for me....

I feel terrible that this happened. Mr. Gaon has been wronged, and so have I. I’ve struggled in storefront theatres for ten years to build my reputation, and now it may be ruined. Independent playwrights are always in a precarious situation. We need to please directors and producers in order to get our work mounted, and that makes us very vulnerable. More often than not, during the development process, suggestions are made that the writer is uncomfortable with but allows anyway, in the name of collaboration or simply to please a powerful producer. This isn’t just true for me. Every writer I know talks about this conflict. We get so much feedback from so many people that it’s a constant struggle to maintain the coherence of our vision. This is the worst example of what can happen when there is no respect for the script and the writer.

At this point, I’m not interested in pointing fingers or assigning blame. I simply want people to understand that I would never knowingly steal from a fellow writer.