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Community theaters from Ohio to Buffalo to Salt Lake City are finding themselves in the privileged position of being able to present the regional premiere of one of Broadway’s biggest current blockbusters, one for which many New Yorkers are still scrambling to score tickets.
Controversy emerged in recent days when leading Broadway producer Scott Rudin, whose premiere production of the new Aaron Sorkin adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird has been playing to sellout houses since it began previews Nov. 1 at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre, prompted stock and amateur companies in various states to drop plans for imminent productions of an earlier stage version of the Harper Lee novel by Christopher Sergel.
The companies received cease-and-desist letters from Rudin’s lawyers pointing out that their agreement with licensing organization Dramatic Publishing Company, which controls the rights to the Sergel adaptation, was in breach of an agreement made by Rudin with author Lee before her death in 2016.
Charges of bullying were quick to circulate in the theater community, with some calling for a boycott of Rudin productions.
“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,” said Rudin in a statement released exclusively to The Hollywood Reporter. “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.”
“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,” continued Rudin’s statement. “For these theaters, this is the version that can be offered to them, in concert with our agreement with Harper Lee. We hope they will choose to avail themselves of this opportunity.”
Rudin specified in a follow-up phone interview that rights to perform the Sorkin version will be extended only to those companies that already had negotiated rights through DPC, many of which were well into the rehearsal process, with sets constructed and ticket sales underway. They include The Grand Theatre in Salt Lake City; Mumford Street Players in Marblehead, Mass.; Kavinoky Theatre in Buffalo, New York; Curtain Call Theatre in Braintree, Mass.; and Dayton Playhouse in Ohio.
“I think it’s a good save from something that was, honestly, not the fault of the people who licensed it and not the fault of the people who owned the rights — which people are us — but I think ultimately for those who still can do it it’s a good solution,” said Rudin. “Everything that they licensed, we’ll stand behind with ours.”
“Letting these theaters do it now is a substantial give for us, obviously, because it’s really not in our interest to have the play out anywhere but on Broadway right now,” he added.
Given that Rudin is not expected to license regional rights to the play for another two to three years at least, the gesture represents an uncommon opportunity for theaters off the commercial grid to get their hands on top-tier material at a very early stage. In Sorkin’s new version, Lee’s story of Alabama lawyer Atticus Finch, played by Jeff Daniels on Broadway, defending a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman has proved to be both timely and trenchant.
Rudin specified that nonprofit companies are free to continue to license the Sergel version, which was first performed in 1990, provided they meet the conditions of population size, being outside a 25-mile radius from large cities and are cast exclusively with amateur actors. The producer said that a planned British tour of Sergel’s play, which was shut down in January for the same reasons, was probably too late to benefit from the offer to present the Sorkin version and was a different situation given that it was a professional production.
“For any company that wants to do it, that fits that bill, we’re happy for them to do it,” explained Rudin of the version by Sergel, who died in 1993. “We’re not looking to stop that play being done anywhere. It just can’t be done everywhere.”
“We had let Christopher Sergel’s grandson and DPC know months ago they had no longer any right to license it under the conditions,” Rudin continued. “They basically ignored about a half a dozen cease-and-desist letters and continued to license it, then we started to see these productions pop up and we said to the people who were doing them, ‘You don’t have the right to do this.'”
Asked whether the Sorkin adaptation is destined to become the official theatrical version of Lee’s novel, Rudin stressed, “There’s never going to be an official version of it because both of them will have to coexist on the amateur level.”
“The point here was to stop DPC, not hurt a bunch of theaters,” Rudin added. “Frankly, this was the only thing I could think of that would at least give them a play to do called To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s just that they can’t do that version under these circumstances. It’s kind of a rabbit out of a hat for the simple reason that the only thing we control is we have an agreement with Harper Lee that was made while she was alive, and it gives us a very clear set of rights. If somebody’s infringing on those rights, the only thing that’s available to us is our play, so that’s what we’re giving them.”
A North American tour of Sorkin’s To Kill a Mockingbird is expected to be announced shortly, along with international productions. Meanwhile, the Broadway run is defying the traditional winter box office doldrums by continuing to play to capacity houses, grossing a whopping $23.8 million to date.
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