Scott Rudin's offer was extended to any theater whose rights to stage the old version had been challenged by his legal team.
Broadway producer Scott Rudin, facing a barrage of criticism over his efforts to shut down productions of “To Kill a Mockingbird” around the United States, on Friday offered an olive branch to the affected theaters, letting them put on a version of the play.
At least eight theaters from California to Massachusetts were being forced to cancel productions of “Mockingbird” that would have used a decades-old script by playwright Christopher Sergel. Rudin, whose “Mockingbird” now playing on Broadway uses a new script by Aaron Sorkin, invoked a contractual provision that prevents theaters around many cities from putting on the play while a version is playing on Broadway.
The clause is intended to protect the financial viability of Broadway productions, but Rudin’s moves, reported Thursday by The New York Times, were criticized by many as bigfooting.
Rudin called several of the theaters — some of them tiny nonprofits with all-volunteer staffs — to apologize, to explain what happened and to offer them the scripts to the new adaptation. Rudin said there would be no fee for use of the new script.
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The offer was extended to any theater whose rights to stage the old version had been challenged by Rudin’s legal team.
But as a practical matter, the offer was too late for some of the theater companies, which had already rehearsed the older script, and were days away from beginning performances. At least one, the Kavinoky Theatre in Buffalo, New York, had already torn down its set after receiving a threatening letter from Rudin’s lawyer.
Some of the theaters, though, said they would accept Rudin’s offer and stage the Sorkin version.
“This is wonderful,” said Jill Brennan-Lincoln, chairwoman of the theater arts department at Azusa Pacific University, a Christian college outside Los Angeles that had been planning to cancel its production of the play after getting a cease-and-desist letter from Rudin’s lawyers. “APU is grateful and excited about the prospect of producing Sorkin’s version.”
Lyn Adams, executive director of the Oklahoma Children’s Theater, which had abandoned its plan to produce the Sergel script, was also intrigued, saying that “if given the opportunity, we definitely could and most likely would take them up.”
Doug DeGirolamo, president of Hill Country Theater in Buda, Texas, said he had received a copy of the Sorkin script from Rudin’s office and was hoping to stage it. “For our small little theater to do a show that’s on Broadway right now would be a huge boon to us,” he said.
But his theater’s production will have to be delayed so the cast can learn new lines and movements, and some actors have already taken other roles, he said.
Rudin defended his actions in a brief statement, saying, “As stewards of the performance rights of Aaron Sorkin’s play, it is our responsibility to enforce the agreement we made with the Harper Lee estate and to make sure that we protect the extraordinary collaborators who made this production.”
But he also blamed the situation on the Dramatic Publishing Co., which is run by Christopher Sergel III, Sergel’s grandson, saying it had erred in issuing licenses to present the play to theaters that should not have received them. Rudin has argued that a 1969 agreement between Lee, author of the novel, and Dramatic Publishing bars productions by theaters within 25 miles of a city that in 1960 had a population of more than 150,000 people, as well as productions using professional actors, when a “first-class” production is running on Broadway or on tour.
“We have been hard at work creating what I hope might be a solution for those theater companies that have been affected by this unfortunate set of circumstances, in which rights that were not available to them were licensed to them by a third party who did not have the right to do so,” Rudin said. “In an effort to ameliorate the hurt caused here, we are offering each of these companies the right to perform our version of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ Aaron Sorkin’s play currently running on Broadway.”
Sergel declined to comment.
It was an unusually conciliatory gesture for Rudin, who has a reputation in the theater industry for being strong-willed and litigious. Before the Broadway adaptation opened, he was locked in a legal battle with the Lee estate, which argued that the play departed too much from the novel; the dispute was eventually settled.
It is also rare for a hit Broadway show to grant licenses to local theaters, particularly when a national tour is anticipated. Rudin’s “Mockingbird” has grossed $24 million since opening in December.
When news broke that local theaters were canceling their performances after Rudin’s lawyer threatened them with copyright-infringement lawsuits, many supporters of community theater were outraged. Some called for a boycott of Rudin’s productions, using the hashtag #boycottRudinplays.
“Unfortunately this issue has been the shot heard ‘round the fine-arts world over recent days,” said Davis Varner, president of the board of the Theater of Gadsden, a community theater in Alabama that is planning to stage the Sergel version this month. The theater is not near a big city, so its rights appear to be unchallenged, but Varner issued a statement referring to Rudin as “the bully from Broadway” and said, “I am saddened and disappointed for those groups who have been forced to cancel their productions through no fault of their own.”
Some community theaters are intrigued by Rudin’s offer but wary of the logistical challenges involved in staging a completely different version of the play on such short notice. While Sorkin’s version closely tracks Lee’s novel — the story of Atticus Finch, a small-town lawyer in Alabama who defends a black man, Tom Robinson, against false charges — it follows a dramatically different narrative structure, and gives more prominent roles to the novel’s two main African-American characters, Robinson and Calpurnia, the Finch family cook.
Seth Miller, executive artistic director of the Grand Theater in Salt Lake City, which canceled its planned production of “Mockingbird,” said it was too late for his theater to mount a different version of the play in the scheduled time slot. It would have to do it next season, but he said he was not sure how long Rudin’s offer was good for.
For some, like the Dayton Playhouse in Ohio, which was scheduled to stage “Mockingbird” on March 8, there was little time for the cast to prepare.
“At best we could mount a reading,” said Matthew Lindsay, chairman of the theater’s board, describing a performance in which the actor would hold scripts. “The optimal situation would be that Mr. Rudin offers us the opportunity to perform the Sergel script.”