To Kill a Community Theater?

A controversy has been building regarding the stage version of one of my favorite books: To Kill a Mockingbird. For 50 years, a script owned by Dramatic Publishing written by Christopher Sergel has been performed in community and high school theaters around the country. Now, a version written by Aaron Sorkin is doing very well on Broadway and the owner of that adaptation is sending cease and desist letters to community theaters all over the country, ordering them not to perform the show. This has impacted my own community, as Dayton Playhouse received one of the letters just a couple of weeks before they were set to open. That means a set has already been built, actors have memorized and rehearsed, costumes have been tailored, etc. Now, they have to pull the plug and not perform it. That means refunding tickets and having one less show for the season.

I won’t get into the specifics of the legal battle between the two publishing companies: you can read about that here:

I did want to make a few points, though:

1) Atticus Finch is part of why I wanted to be a lawyer in the first place. He stands for everything that is noble in our profession. I find it ironic that a legal battle is ruining local theatres’ ability to perform this terrific show.

2) The two sides haven’t shared much information about the contracts at issue with Harper Lee (represented now by her estate), but I do not understand how one company could have the rights for 50 years, and a new script suddenly invalidate those rights. I did not see it stated anywhere that Lee revoked the rights for the Sergel script, only that she allegedly gave rights to the title to the Sorkin version. A lot more information will have to come out.

3) This seems like a stupid move on the part of Scott Rudin, the producer of the current Broadway/Sorkin version. While it is typical for a rights holder to black out community theatres from their shows while it is running on Broadway, and for a period while touring around the country, that is normally done by refusing to release rights when a local theatre applies for the rights to perform a show at a set time. This is different because we are dealing with theatres who applied for the rights from Dramatic Publishing (holder of the Sergel version), were given permission, and paid for the rights. Rudin’s legal battle is against Dramatic Publishing, trying to argue that Dramatic does not have the right to sell that script anymore. While Rudin may end up having the legal right to strike at these local theatres, I question whether it makes business sense to do so. Theatre people are close knit. They are also the target audience for touring shows. If the goal is to drum up interest in people going to see the Sorkin show when it goes on tour, this could backfire. I know a lot of folks who are planning to unofficially boycott that version over this fiasco. Imagine the frustration of a local, all-volunteer director and cast who have applied for the rights to perform the show, gotten permission, mailed the royalty check, and then have the show cancelled right before opening. Are those folks going to be excited to go see the show when it comes to their town? If it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird, these cease and desist letters aren’t any better.