Dozens of community and nonprofit theaters across the U.S. have been forced to abandon productions of “To Kill a Mockingbird” under legal threat by Broadway and Hollywood producer Scott Rudin.
They had cast the actors. Sold the tickets. Rehearsed the scenes.
But now, across America, small theaters are canceling productions of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” citing a threat of litigation from a powerful, sharp-elbowed Broadway producer related to a contract that dates back half a century.
The theaters were planning to stage an adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel, by playwright Christopher Sergel, which has been widely staged by adults and students for decades. Lawyers for producer Scott Rudin, backed by the Lee estate, are telling the theaters that their productions are no longer permissible because there is a new adaptation, by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, which opened on Broadway in December.
Rudin is the lead producer of the new adaptation. In January, he asserted what he called his exclusive stage rights in forcing the shutdown of a British touring production of the Sergel version.
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Now he is making the same claim in the United States, leaving small theater companies scrambling and creating financial shortfalls for several tightly budgeted nonprofits. The Kavinoky Theatre in Buffalo, New York, was two weeks away from staging “Mockingbird” when it received a cease-and-desist notice from Rudin’s lawyer.
The Buffalo production had been shaping up to be a success, with some 3,000 advance tickets sold. The cast of 19 actors, which included six children, had been rehearsing for weeks, and the set had been built. Now, the theater is offering refunds to ticket purchasers and plans to stage an adaptation of George Orwell’s “1984” instead.
“I truly don’t understand why this is a problem for them,” Loraine O’Donnell, the theater’s executive artistic director, said of Rudin’s company.
Lyn Adams, executive director of the Oklahoma Children’s Theater, is similarly puzzled. “The truth is our audiences are high-school and middle-school kids, and I just don’t know how we would hurt anybody,” she said.
Nonetheless, Adams has canceled a production of the play, scheduled to take place in September at Oklahoma City University, saying the nonprofit could not afford to risk the cost of losing a lawsuit. “It was a very strong-arm kind of letter, shaking their finger at us and telling us we were doing a bad thing and would be sued if we went ahead with a production,” she said.
The theaters are caught in the middle of a dispute between the Lee estate and Dramatic Publishing Co. (DPC), founded in 1885, which sells theaters the rights to put on the play.
The estate’s lawyers sent several letters to Dramatic in the past few weeks protesting its granting of rights to a number of theaters. The letters invoked a 1969 contract between Lee and Dramatic that blocks “Mockingbird” productions within 25 miles of cities that had a population of 150,000 or more in 1960 (the last census year before the agreement was signed) while a “first-class dramatic play” based on the novel is playing in New York or on tour.
The estate is also objecting to some productions featuring performers who are members of Actors’ Equity, the professional actors union, saying that Dramatic may license only amateur productions.
In late February, with the dispute apparently unresolved, Rudin’s lawyer sent letters directly to the theaters warning them not to put on their shows.
In a statement, Rudin said: “We hate to ask anybody to cancel any production of a play anywhere, but the productions in question as licensed by DPC infringe on rights licensed to us by Harper Lee directly. The Sergel play can contractually continue to be performed under set guidelines as described in detail in its own agreement with Harper Lee — and as long as those guidelines are adhered to, we have no issue with the play having a long life.”
Representatives for the Lee estate, and the original playwright’s grandson, Christopher Sergel III, who now heads Dramatic Publishing, declined to comment.
One copyright expert said he thought the producer was within his rights to demand the venues cancel productions. “If they own the rights, they own the rights, and they can police them as much as they want,” said the lawyer, Jordan Greenberger, who is not affiliated with the case.
Anger over Rudin’s move has triggered an online revolt using the rallying cry #BoycottRudinplays. Chris Peterson, founder of the OnStage Blog, wants ticket buyers to steer clear of all current and upcoming Rudin productions on Broadway, including “Hillary and Clinton,” “Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus,” “King Lear,” “The Ferryman” and “The Book of Mormon.”
“If a theatre was consciously stealing creative license, that would be one thing. This is something else entirely. This is wrong,” Peterson wrote.
The restrictions on local productions are meant to protect the financial viability of a national tour by restricting competition. The new Broadway production, with a cast led by Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch, has been selling well at the box office, but was costly to mount — up to $7.5 million to capitalize, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which is high for a nonmusical play. It is expected soon to announce a plan to tour.
Even so, several theaters said they were stunned to learn, only at the last minute, that they had to kill their shows.
The Dayton Playhouse, a theater that seats about 170 in Dayton, Ohio, was preparing to open “Mockingbird” on March 8 and had sold more than $11,000 in advance tickets. On Feb. 20, theater officials got their warning letter.
“We feel we have arguments to make, but we can’t afford to go to court to make them,” said Matthew Lindsay, chairman of the playhouse’s board, who was also set to play the role of Atticus Finch. “We have a very disappointed all-volunteer cast.”
Olivia Mongelli, 11, who was to play Scout, Atticus’ daughter, in Dayton, said the cast learned during an evening rehearsal that the play would be shut down. “Everyone onstage was just in shock,” Olivia said.
At least eight theater companies in the United States have canceled “Mockingbird” since receiving a letter from Rudin’s company, though one of them, the Mugford Street Players in Marblehead, Massachusetts, is not giving up. It won’t stage the play at its usual venue, 16 miles outside Boston, but instead is moving the production to Gloucester, about 40 miles from Boston.
More than 25 community-theater productions of “Mockingbird” are scheduled to be staged this year, according to lists on Dramatic Publishing’s website. It’s unclear how many of those will go forward or how many will be permitted in the future, though ones outside urban areas, like an April production at Pennsylvania State University, appear to be safe. “We’ve paid for the rights, we’re deep into rehearsal, and we’re about to load our scenery in,” said Rick Lombardo, director of the Penn State theater school.
Rudin is nothing if not strong-willed and willing to litigate. After he bought the stage rights to the novel and won Harper Lee’s approval for Sorkin as the playwright, Lee’s estate sued him, asserting the new adaptation deviated impermissibly from the novel; he countersued and offered to stage his play in front of the judge to prove his case. The dispute was settled. (Lee died in 2016.)
For decades, Sergel’s version of the play has been a staple at community theaters around the country. Besides the productions in Buffalo, Dayton, Marblehead, and Oklahoma City, others have been called off in Braintree, Massachusetts; Buda, Texas, near Austin; Azusa Pacific University in Southern California; and Salt Lake City.
In Utah, 21 actors at the Grand Theatre in Salt Lake City were practicing their lines during a recent rehearsal session when the theater’s artistic director interrupted with the bad news.
But with the specter of a legal battle looming, it decided to cancel the play. Seth Miller, the Grand Theatre’s executive artistic director, estimates the cancellation will result in a loss of some $20,000.
“I’m angry and frustrated, because we’re not impacting his show, not even a little bit,” Miller said. “They know we’re not in any position to mount a legal defense.”
Anne Cullimore Decker, 83, an actress and a local legend who has been performing since the 1950s, was preparing for the role of the play’s narrator, a grown-up Scout Finch. “It was a shock,” she said. “There’s more than a little irony in it, since ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is about a trial against an innocent man.”
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.