MARBLEHEAD, Mass. — A Broadway production of "To Kill A Mockingbird" is playing to sold-out crowds and drawing rave reviews in New York City. But that hasn't stopped the show's producers from clamping down on a small amateur acting troupe in Marblehead.
A company formed by the producer of the Broadway hit threatened to sue the Mugford Street Players if they went ahead with a planned version of "To Kill A Mockingbird" at Marblehead Little Theatre.
In a letter to Mugford Street Players President John Fogle, a lawyer for Atticus LLC said the performances would constitute "willful infringement of copyright" and subject the nonprofit group to damages of up to $150,000. The threat forced the Mugford Street Players to cancel the production right before it was scheduled to open March 1.
"It's a huge disappointment," said Fogle, who was also the play's director. "I've been directing for 40 years and done over 80 productions, and I've never had this happen."
Fogle said the Mugford Street Players purchased a license to stage "To Kill A Mockingbird" from Dramatic Publishing Company of Illinois, paying $100 per performance for 12 shows, or $1,200. Dramatic Publishing Company created a theatrical adaptation of the famous novel in the 1990s after an agreement with author Harper Lee.
But Jonathan Zavin, a lawyer for Atticus LLC, said in his letter the agreement prohibits amateur performances within 25 miles of major cities if a version of the play leased by Lee to another company is playing in New York or is on tour.
Producer Scott Rudin acquired the stage rights for the novel in 2015. His Broadway version, written by Aaron Sorkin and starring Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch, opened on Nov. 1 and is "expected to run for years," Zavin wrote.
Fogle said it's not unusual for an amateur show's rights to be pulled when a professional production comes to a nearby city. But it’s very unusual for a "blackout" to be imposed within 25 miles of any major city, regardless of where the professional production is being staged, he said.
"The rationale is that we damage the marketability of the Broadway production with our production," he said. "It's really kind of ridiculous."
Fogle's point is highlighted by the fact that Stage 284 at the Community House in Hamilton, Massachusetts, staged five productions of "To Kill A Mockingbird" in January. Managing Director Katie Clarke said she also licensed the show from Dramatic Publishing Company, but she never heard anything about a copyright infringement.
Clarke said she's not sure if it's because Hamilton is farther than 25 miles from Boston. By one Google Maps measure, the Community House is 25.8 miles from Boston; Marblehead Little Theater is about 16 miles from Boston.
Luckily for Fogle and the Mugford Street Players, their show will go on, though not in Marblehead. Their performance found a new home farther up the coast, at the Gloucester Stage Company, starting March 29.
The move circumvents the copyright provision. Gloucester Stage Co. is 26.7 miles from Boston.
"I think Atticus Finch would be proud of these theater-lovers who are putting up a fight and making it happen wherever they can," said Gloucester Stage Managing Director Christopher Griffith.
Scott Rudin, producer of the current Broadway version, said in a statement, "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."
"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," Rudin said.
The Marblehead group is not the only one affected by the ban. Dozens of community theaters across the country have been forced to abandon productions, including in Braintree, Massachusetts, Salt Lake City, Buffalo and Dayton.
Anger over the move has triggered an online revolt with the hashtag #BoycottRudinplays. Chris Peterson, founder of the OnStage Blog, wants ticket buyers to steer clear of all current and upcoming Rudin productions on Broadway, including "Hillary and Clinton," ''Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus," ''King Lear," ''The Ferryman" and "The Book of Mormon."
Paul Leighton writes for The Salem News. Reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.