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Legal threats from Broadway 'Mockingbird' kill Kavinoky show 11 days before opening

Eleven days before the opening of "To Kill a Mockingbird," the set was built, the cast of 19 was deep into rehearsal and 3,000 tickets were sold.

Then an email changed everything for the Kavinoky Theatre production.

A powerful Broadway producer told Loraine O'Donnell, Kavinoky's executive artistic director, to cancel the show or risk being sued. As it turns out, the Kavinoky was hardly alone: Small theaters across the country received similar warnings calling on them to abandon their productions of "Mockingbird."

The Kavinoky and other theaters are the collateral damage in a theatrical dispute, with Scott Rudin, the producer of a new adaptation of "Mockingbird" on Broadway and author Harper Lee's estate on one side and the Dramatic Publishing Company, which sells theaters the rights to stage plays, on the other.

The issue concerns a 1969 contract between Lee and the Dramatic Publishing Company. Language prevents "Mockingbird" productions to be staged in cities, or within 25 miles of them, with populations of 150,000 or more based on 1960 U.S. Census figures when a "first-class dramatic play" based on the novel is playing in New York City or is on tour.

The Dramatic Publishing Company, which licensed "Mockingbird" to the Kavinoky for a percentage of the box office gross, has a different interpretation. O'Donnell said a representative told her to ignore the warning, but the company also wouldn't cover legal expenses if the theater was sued.

Broadway producer's change over 'Mockingbird' too late for Kavinoky

A request for comment to the Dramatic Publishing Company was not returned.

A representative of Rudin reiterated on the phone to O'Donnell that the Kavinoky would be sued if she staged the classic adaptation of "Mockingbird" by playwright Christopher Sergel.

"We hate to ask anybody to cancel any production of a play anywhere, but the productions in question as licensed by Dramatic Publishing Company infringe on rights licensed to us by Harper Lee directly," Rudin said in a statement to The Buffalo News.

The change in shows has happened so fast that posters advertising "Mockingbird" are still on Kavinoky's theater doors.

"There is a dumpster outside, and our entire set is in there," O'Donnell said of the jangled piles of wood.

The Kavinoky lost "thousands and thousands of dollars" building a "Mockingbird" set that was scrapped without ever being used. "There is a dumpster outside, and our entire set is in there," said Kavinoky executive artistic director Loraine O'Donnell. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

"It's been unreal," she said. "I feel like I'm in a movie."

On a table in the front of Kavinoky's Baroque-style, 259-seat theater are a bunch of props from the ill-fated show, including a gavel, hammer, cane, fedora and old-fashioned telephone.

Behind them are three large black trunks with three LED screens, which will combine into one that stands 20-foot-wide and 8-feet-tall. The screen will be a set piece, with the action taking place underneath for an adaptation of George Orwell's "1984," the replacement play that O'Donnell, her designers and cast are rushing against the clock to open on March 15.

The screens were obtained in 2017 for such a purpose, thanks to a $47,000 grant. A metal frame to hang it is being built onstage by set designer David King.

O'Donnell has heard from theaters in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Illinois also forced to cancel shows.

"They're all in shell shock," O'Donnell said.

O'Donnell said she has felt that way, too, but has neither the time or the luxury to feel like that for long, or mourn over what could have been.

After all, the show must go on, she said.

"We have subscribers who are expecting a five-play season, and we have a responsibility to put on a show," O'Donnell said. "With just two weeks' notice we were already in trouble to put on a show, so we couldn't wait even another day.

"We learned about this at close to the end of business on Wednesday, and we thought of a plan on Friday," she said.

O'Donnell gathered everyone together after the decision was made to tell them of the unexpected turn of events.

"I said to them, 'If you want to walk out of here right now because you didn't sign up for this, I totally get it,' " O'Donnell said. " 'But if you want to see what '1984' is about, we're going to go downstairs right now and read the play out loud.

" 'Then, if you want to be involved in the production, you can let me know by noon on Saturday,' " she said.

A poster advertising the now-canceled "To Kill a Mockingbird" is still displayed at the Kavinoky, which had scheduled matinees to appeal to school groups. "A lot of teachers saw we were doing the play a year ago and worked their curriculum around us so their students could see the play," Loraine O'Donnell said. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

"Almost every actor before we even walked downstairs came up to me, hugged me, and said, 'I'm in,' " O'Donnell said. "They said whatever you need to do, we'd do anything for the theater. It was really – I haven't cried since this happened," she said, choking up. "It was such an emotional moment.

"I thought, these people are putting the theater first," O'Donnell said. "That means everything to me, and it shows the quality of our theater people here in Buffalo."

Everyone in the cast of 'Mockingbird," including six children, will be in "1984," either performing live or through audio and video appearances.

Typically, there are four weeks of rehearsal for a show, with scripts available months in advance. Set and costume designers often have a year to get ready.

"Are they scared? Oh yeah, they are," O'Donnell said of the actors. "They have to learn their lines in three weeks. But I have never seen a more committed group of actors, and designers, too."

"Mockingbird" was one of the season's most popular selling shows, and one-third of the tickets were for children's matinees involving a dozen high schools and middle schools.

O'Donnell feels badly for the students and their teachers.

"A lot of teachers saw we were doing the play a year ago and worked their curriculum around us so their students could see the play," O'Donnell said.

Because "1984" is another classic novel adapted for the stage,  O'Donnell is hoping the matinees will be retained. It was also chosen because the set is relatively easy to construct and isn't prop heavy. The adaptation by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan was performed on Broadway in 2017, and is being directed by Kyle LoConti. It closes April 7.

The financial risk for the small theater company by the loss of "Mockingbird" is a concern.

The cost to build the set alone cost "thousands and thousands of dollars," O'Donnell said.

There has also been 500 refunds since the cancellation was announced.

"Like all nonprofits, ticket revenue is only one source of revenue, but it's a big piece of the puzzle," O'Donnell said. "Losing ticket revenue can be financially devastating."

O'Donnell is still at a loss why the Lee estate and Rudin, the Broadway producer, found a need to act as it did against a small Buffalo theater, as well as other small theaters across the country.

"We don't know what the truth is in this fight, but we also don't want to be hurt by it," O'Donnell said.

"We need everybody's support to come out to see '1984,' and to support this amazing community of actors and designers."

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