PROVINCETOWN — After receiving complaints about what some consider a misleading fundraising campaign, the president of the Provincetown Theater board of trustees said he plans to negotiate this week with concerned theater historians, scholars and family members of the famed Provincetown Players.

In emailed letters sent last month, the families of playwrights Eugene O’Neill and Susan Glaspell, Noelia Hernando-Real, president of the International Susan Glaspell Society, and two leading historians all asked the trustees to stop using photos and names that invoke the memory of the century-ago groundbreaking Players troupe to solicit donations for the current theater.

“We are deeply concerned about your appropriation of Susan Glaspell’s name to legitimize donations to your theatre as well as about your suggestion that you are heirs of the original Provincetown Players,” Hernando-Real said in an emailed Oct. 23 letter.

Speaking also for the great-granddaughter of Players co-founder George Cram “Jig” Cook, who is in charge of the Glaspell/Cook estate, Hernando-Real said they hoped theater officials "will no longer use the names of the playwrights in your efforts to raise funds.”

Jeffery Kennedy, assistant professor at Arizona State University and a Players scholar who is set to publish a book on the group next year, called attempts to directly link the Players and the current Provincetown Theater “not ethical or correct.”

“Your theatre company, while important to ... Provincetown and Cape Cod, and with a deserved legacy of its own, does not have a direct connection or legacy to the Provincetown Players,” he said in a letter emailed to trustees Oct. 12.

“To incorrectly and dishonestly use the Provincetown Players’ legacy, particularly to raise money or heighten awareness of your company, is something scholars and members of these societies are committed to not allowing you to continue to do,” Kennedy wrote.

In a phone interview last week, David Wilson, board president at Provincetown Theater, said he was able to consult with board members earlier this month and planned to start working with the letter writers by this week. He wants to come to agreements with the organizations, he said, and hopes they will find a way that satisfies everyone for the theater to best represent how it continues the legacy of theater in Provincetown.

The letters, Wilson said, are “asking us to do nothing more than take a look at our marketing and fundraising campaign strategy, so we considered that a reasonable request. … We’re just going to open a conversation.” Provincetown Theater officials “just need to look at what we’re doing and whether we feel we can compromise in some way. Hopefully we can agree and move forward. … Everything is on the table and we are not objecting to any of it.”

Wilson spoke weeks ago to theater historian/archivist Gail Cohen, who has long ties to Provincetown and has been put in charge of the issue by O’Neill's heirs, after she first expressed concerns via email in July. Cohen then contacted the families and scholars, and Wilson said he had waited to respond until he talked to board members about how best to proceed.

Wilson said he expected the organizations might simply want to be credited for any information on or photos of the Players that the theater uses, though he did not at this point expect the theater would make large changes in its campaign.

“We’re not using their name in any way and we haven’t used their name in any way. … We are the current Provincetown Theater and we stand on (the Provincetown Players’) shoulders,” he said. “There’s nothing in our advertising or our website that we are, or ever have been, or claim to be the Provincetown Players. … So I think that’s going to be a pretty easy conversation” with the families and scholars.

For several months, the Provincetown Theater’s website has featured historic photos of the wharf building where the Provincetown Players performed in 1915-16, as well as photos of some of the group’s most famous writers. The website hasn’t shown a photo of the current theater building at 238 Bradford St.

Donors have been told on the website and in show programs that they can give at different levels, joining funding “circles” named for O’Neill, Glaspell, Cook and Harry Kemp. Historic photos of those writers have been part of the website membership page.

The Provincetown Players were a theater group — in town in 1915-16, then in Greenwich Village — widely recognized as creating a new type of drama, most notably through O’Neill (who won four Pulitzer Prizes for drama and the Nobel Prize for literature) and Glaspell (who also won the Pulitzer and is sometimes described as America’s first important modern female playwright). What the Players created in a makeshift theater at the end of a Provincetown wharf has been described as the “birthplace” or “cradle” of modern American drama.

“Eventually (the plays) evolved into being done on Broadway, in the case of O’Neill, and in theaters around the country,” said Jackson Bryer, professor emeritus at the University of Maryland and former president and chairman of the board of the Eugene O’Neill Society, in a recent phone interview. “So without Provincetown, American theater in the 20th century as we now know it probably would not have happened.”

He emphasized, though, that “it was a group, an organization, that was the origin. It wasn’t the city, it wasn’t the town. (The theater troupe) happened to be located in the town, but they were a specific organization.”

At the top of the home page for the Provincetown Theater website, there has for months been only been a historic photo of the wharf building, with the prominent title of “Birthplace of American Theater” in black letters. Smaller white letters at the bottom of the wharf-theater photo — which critics say is difficult to read — say “Provincetown Theater, Located in Provincetown, the Birthplace of Modern American Theater.”

The wharf-theater photo, with an overlay of that Provincetown Theater phrase, is at the top of every page of the website, and photos of the Players members are used on the membership page. Soon after he became artistic director in April, David Drake created a series of social media posts related to Players members under the heading “Our Legacy.” He said in a social media note that he wanted “to reinvigorate our legacy in the Provincetown Theater. As its new artistic director, I am very keen on claiming these pioneers to rebuild our future mission.”

Kerry Jones, husband of O’Neill’s granddaughter — who, as trustee, said he represents the playwright’s four children — asked the theater in his emailed letter last month to “immediately cease using the name and photograph of Eugene O’Neill and the other Provincetown Players to solicit contributions.” In his letter, he noted that “The Provincetown Theater never asked permission from the Estates about your Birthplace Of Modern American Theater Campaign nor were any of the Scholars consulted.”

Hernando-Real expressed similar concerns about permission, noting that descendant Ariadne Cook Lourie “personally expressed to me her concern that she was never contacted by you to use Cook and Glaspell’s names to solicit funds.” Glaspell, experts say, was opposed to later theater companies using the group’s name and achievements.

“You can’t use their names unless the estates and the agents of those people permit you to,” agreed Bryer. “I don’t know the legal niceties, there might be a public-domain kind of thing, but certainly it’s a courtesy for those people to not go throwing those names around without asking in some way. … If you’re trying to make money off someone else’s name, you may not have a legal obligation to clear it with them in some way but you certainly have a moral (obligation) to do so.”

Those are the types of permissions that Wilson said he now hopes to get, and the credits on photos that he is willing to give.

“We would be glad to acknowledge any credit that would need to be given,” he said. “We don’t feel that we own anything. We feel that we are crafting a message going forward and if we need to give credit going forward to any organization, we’re more than willing to do that.”

When asked why there’s been a photo on the website of the wharf theater and not the current theater, Wilson said: “I guess that’s something I’m going to have to talk to David Drake and the board (about) and see if that’s something we’ve missed, something that we need to consider. … We’re going to continue to build on the history of the theater here in Provincetown. And as we build on it, (recognize) every prior theater, whatever their name was, and how that has lifted us up and we are all better off for it.”

The existing Provincetown Theater opened in 2004 and has since gone through numerous directors, groups, board members, financial troubles and reorganization. Many members of the current board of directors, including Wilson, started serving in the past year or so.

Wilson called 2018 a “pretty exceptional, phenomenal, sold-out performances” rebuilding year for the theater, with productions and fundraising successful enough to retire the $50,000 debt from 2017 and have money available to carry the theater through the 2019 winter months. Theater officials also hope to continue to take the lead on working with other Provincetown arts and community organizations to create a mutually beneficial coalition.

Historian Cohen has been frustrated about the connections being made between Provincetown Theater and Provincetown Players in part because she has had similar conversations with past leaders at the 14-year-old venue. In 2005, one reorganization took the name of Provincetown Players until Cohen, and several scholars and family members, filed similar complaints. Cohen said she also worked to stop a past group from using the Lewis Wharf photo.

In a July email, Cohen told Drake of that history, but felt the current administration, through its fundraising campaign, was taking an unfounded connection to the past group “to the extreme.”

“It is reprehensible that Provincetown Theater cannot exist on their own without trading on the Provincetown Players’ own achievements,” she said. “And the words (for) soliciting funds (that say) Support The Birthplace Of American Theater — The Provincetown Theater is not” that birthplace.

The O’Neill and Glaspell societies have worked with past Provincetown Theater officials on programs related to the Players’ history, and Hernando-Real told trustees in her letter that the Glaspell society would be happy to collaborate on “any kind of event you may plan to celebrate the works and legacy of the Provincetown Players, as your current use of their names suggests you wish to do.”

— Follow Kathi Scrizzi Driscoll on Twitter: @KathiSDCCT