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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Chase

Mockingbird cancellation timeline


By now most people know that the Kavinoky Theatre production of the 1991 Christopher Sergel adaptation of Harper Lee's novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, has been cancelled. Some have wondered how the theater could have been so naive as to think they could do the show at the same time that a major Broadway production was happening. Typically, when a first class production of a play is mounted for Broadway, rights are frozen.

Some explanation might be helpful.

The Kavinoky Theatre was in no way naive. They contracted for rights to the Sergel adaptation with Dramatic Publishing in December 2017. Dramatic Publishing, also known as DPC, has been a major publisher of plays since 1885. Playwright, Sergel (1918-1993), was, in fact, President of the firm from 1970 until the year of his death.

Early in 2018, when the theater first heard that a Broadway production of To Kill a Mockingbird was planned, they immediately contacted DPC to request clarification. "Do we need to be worried about this?" asked executive producer / artistic director Loraine O'Donnell. She was assured that their contract was good, and that production was entirely authorized.

This seemed reasonable. The Broadway production is an entirely different adaptation from the Sergel Version, for which permission was reportedly first obtained from the Harper Lee estate in 1969. The new Broadway play was written by Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The Farnsworth Invention), and is being produced by Scott Rudin's Rudinplay productions.

All seemed well. The Kavinoky began production and the show went into rehearsal for a scheduled March 8, 2019 opening.

Then, in recent days, what seemed like a steady arrangement, began to come unraveled. The theater was contacted by a journalist from Salt Lake City, Utah, saying that a production in that city had been cancelled after representatives of the Broadway production asserted their exclusive rights to the title. At this point, the Kavinoky was perplexed; they had heard nothing.

The other shoe was about to drop. theater finally did hear from legal representatives for the Broadway producer, ordering them to stop production or risk being in willful violation of copyright -- a potentially costly proposition. The estate of the late Harper Lee, author of the novel, contacted the Kavinoky, expressing regret, but siding with the Broadway producer. The Kavinoky contacted DPC and was assured that their contract was valid, and they were good to go.

Meanwhile, along the way, they also learned that a Mockingbird tour of the UK and Ireland had been closed down by order of representatives of the Broadway producer.

Caught in the tangle of a legal web over rights involving DPC, Rudinplay, and the Harper Lee estate, the Kavinoky realized that they were in a precarious situation, neither of their creation, nor within their control. They determined that they had no choice but to cancel, and to wait and see how the legalities sorted out.

Today, the theater sent a letter to its subscribers. The text is reprinted below:

February 25, 2019

Dear Kavinoky Theatre Patrons,

It is with deep regret that I inform you that The Kavinoky Theatre is canceling the upcoming production of To Kill a Mockingbird, which was scheduled for March 8-31.

Rudinplay, producers of the new Broadway adaptation of the play, contacted The Kavinoky, advising that the theatre did not have the rights to stage the production of Harper Lee’s novel. Two years ago, the Kavinoky signed a contract with Dramatic Publishing (which Harper Lee’s estate gave the rights to in 1969), but Rudinplay claims Dramatic Publishing does not have the right at this time to give permission to regional theaters to stage the older version of the play.

When we learned of the Broadway production in early 2018, we contacted our royalty company and were cleared to proceed. We were informed at that time that we had the rights and were one of the last companies to be able to stage this adaptation.

Since we were contacted by Rudinplay just two weeks before we were scheduled to open, we did not have time to litigate this legal dispute between publishing companies. Instead, we chose to move forward with a new show.

In place of To Kill a Mockingbird, The Kavinoky will present 1984, (March 15 through April 7 – please note the date change), a play about what happens in the ensuing years following the end of George Orwell’s novel. To Kill a Mockingbird tickets will be honored for 1984. However, if you wish to receive a refund, please contact the box office and we will accommodate your request.

We apologize to each of you for this late cancellation, but as the largest producing house in Buffalo, the show must go on. Our entire company will be ready, and we are looking forward to staging 1984.


Loraine O’Donnell Executive Artistic Director


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