Theaters Cancel ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ Shows Over Rights Dispute

(CN) —  The threat of legal action hurt the children the most.

And Toni Ruscio, president of Curtain Call Theatre in Braintree, Massachusetts, was the one who had to tell them that the show – “To Kill a Mockingbird” – would not go on.

Ruscio said in an interview that law firm Loeb and Loeb notified her on Feb. 20 that the theater would face a fine of $150,000 for copyright infringement if it did not cancel its show.

“Like all the other theaters affected, we had no choice but to cancel our May 2019 production,” Ruscio said. “We do not have the financial means to fight this in court.”

The threat of legal action from the owner of the new script of “To Kill a Mockingbird” pushed several small theaters around the country — which could not afford expensive litigation — to cancel their shows in recent weeks.

On Friday, after a barrage of criticism, Scott Rudin of Rudinplay Inc., the owner of the new script, offered to allow the theaters to use it. But that was too late for some of them.

The original script for “To Kill a Mockingbird” was written by Charles Sergel and has been a theater standard for decades. The Broadway version of the new, Aaron Sorkin version – now owned by Rudinplay – began previews at the Shubert Theatre on Nov. 1 and opened Dec. 13. Bartlett Sher is the director, and the show stars Jeff Daniels in the lead role of Atticus Finch.

The novel and play center around the character of Atticus Finch, an attorney who defends an African American from charges of rape. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize and became a global success, with more than 50 million copies in print. The play is adapted from the original novel.

After receiving notice from Rudin’s lawyers, the Curtain Call Theatre – which seats only 70 people – decided to procure another play.

“Being a volunteer organization, we are not in this to make money. We only want to offer folks a place to create, tell stories and appreciate the arts,” Ruscio said. “Unlike other theaters, we are not out thousands of dollars. Financially the loss for us is low.”

Ruscio said the theater had finished casting “To Kill a Mockingbird” just a couple of weeks before receiving the letter from Rudin’s lawyers, and rehearsals were set to start this week.

“While it was heartbreaking to tell all of the cast members, telling the children was particularly difficult,” Ruscio said. “They were crushed. Two of them had never been on stage before and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ was going to be their first real theater experience.”

Other theaters were closer to opening, and cancelling their shows left patrons and actors in the dark.

Matt Lindsay, chairman of the board of the Dayton Playhouse in Dayton, Ohio, said the playhouse last week decided to cancel its production of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which was set to open this week.

Dramatic Publishing Inc., which owned the original Sergel version of the play, had already sold scripts and production rights to regional and community theaters around the country.

Lindsay said the theater “did everything correctly to acquire the rights to the Sergel adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Such rights were secured, and paid for, 14 months ago.

“However, the opening of the new production in New York has changed the business landscape and appears to have rendered (our) rights no longer valid,” Lindsay said.

“We are in complete shock,” he added. “I feel terrible for our artists, on stage and backstage, who poured their hearts into making something beautiful and meaningful, only to have it ended so suddenly. The cast and crew have been hard at work on the production for weeks.”

Rudin has been in litigation for over two years over the rights to the new show. He negotiated with Tonja Carter, the representative of Harper Lee’s estate, over rights to a rewritten version of “To Kill a Mockingbird” from a new, A-list writer.

Rudin is not new to legal battles over his production. Through attorneys in London, he and the Lee estate reached an agreement in 2015 over the show’s rights, including how to address rewrites of the novel into a new stage adaptation. Nonetheless, Carter ended up suing Rudin in Alabama district court in May 2018, claiming his script departed too far from the novel’s original intent.

The case was settled out of court, and Rudin acquired the rights to both the Sergel version and the new rendition.

At least 10 other regional theaters around the United States and Canada are listed as producing the Sergel version of the show in 2019.

Rudin offered olive branches on Friday to playhouses that had to cancel their shows.

Ruscio said Rudin’s production company had contacted her about the new Sorkin version of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but “no official offer has been made to me yet.”

Rudin told the Associated Press on Friday that his offer was intended to “amelioriate the hurt caused here. 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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