At least eight small theater companies nationwide have been forced to cancel planned performances of an adaptation of Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" because of a dispute with a larger company over a decades-old contract.
According to The New York Times, a Broadway producer sent cease-and-desist letters to theaters because he claimed they were in violation of a 1969 contract that stipulated "To Kill a Mockingbird" productions cannot be held within 25 miles of cities that had a population of at least 150,000 in 1960 if a "first-class dramatic play" based on the book is being staged either in New York or on a tour.
In this case, a production starring Jeff Daniels has been playing in New York City since December, with plans to take the show on the road. Several plays using a different adaptation of the book, some of which were slated to begin performing this month, were told to cancel their plans because they violated the aforementioned agreement between Lee — who died in 2016 — and the Dramatic Publishing Company.
After the dispute between Dramatic and the smaller theaters did not reach a resolution, letters were sent by lawyers representing producer Scott Rudin, who is putting on the Broadway version of the play, in February telling them they must cancel their plans to perform the show or risk legal action.
The development has left theaters out thousands of dollars.
Oklahoma Children's Theater executive director Lyn Adams told the Times, "The truth is, our audiences are high school and middle school kids, and I just don't know how we would hurt anybody. 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."
Rudin said he regrets the order to cancel the plays, but that he has to follow the law.
"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," he said. "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."
The "Mockingbird" production currently on Broadway had to clear its own set of hurdles because of the 1969 agreement. It was given the green light in May 2018.
Deadline.com reported late Friday that Rudin had offered an olive branch: The theater's can put on his version of the play penned by Aaron Sorkin that currently is playing on Broadway.
"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," Rudin said in a written 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 the opportunity."
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