In this quiet summer theatre season, there's been nearly as much drama in the courts as on stages. As New York awaits round two of Lynn Thomson's battle with the Jonathan Larson estate over authorship of Rent, Floridians are keeping an eye on the dispute between Joe Mantello and Caldwell Theatre Company, over the latter allegedly copying Mantello's direction of Love! Valour! Compassion.
According to the New York Times, in late July, Miami Federal District Court Judge Kenneth L. Ryskamp denied Caldwell Theatre Company's attempt to dismiss Mantello's complaint, clearing the way for a trial.
At issue is Michael Hall's 1996 staging of Terrence McNally's Tony winning L!V!C!, which Mantello says copied such elements of his stage direction as tableaux, pantomime, choreographic movement and prop placement.
Said Mantello, "Hopefully, this case will put to rest assertions that stage directors have no property rights over their work." He's suing Caldwell Theatre Company for $250,000.
Ronald Shechtman, counsel for the Society of Stage Directors, told the NY Times that Mantello has to prove the copying was "substantial and involved unique creative work;" whereas Caldwell Theatre would have to prove the work was either not copied or that they lifted "ideas" rather than specific aspects of the production.
Bill McCarthy, in-house counsel for Caldwell Theatre Company, told Playbill On-Line (Aug. 12) that Mantello's complaint has already been whittled down from its initial four counts. "First we got the complaint dismissed in New York on jurisdictional grounds," said McCarthy. "Then two weeks ago, two of the four counts were dismissed, and the third is holding on by a thread (because the judge only "reluctantly" denied our motion on whether or not they can make a claim on us doing business as interstate commerce). Anyway, that means the suit is restricted to a plain, statutory copyright action. We're pleased with that because it limits the suit as far as damages, plus it gives Mantello and the SSDC a more difficult burden of proof, one that hinges on what's filed with the copyright office." Continued McCarthy, "Our position has been that there's no such thing as a copyrightable interest in stage directions. They become part of the production script which belongs to the author, which is then turned over to a licensing company. All these things Mantello is pointing to come right out of the licensed script. We understand what the other side is trying to do: establish a new legal principal. But the place to do that is the beginning of the process. If they want to carve out a piece of the author's property, do it with him.
"The traditional, accepted view is that everything that happens to a play during the first production, all belong to the author. So when you obtain the rights from a licensing agents, you've got the whole ball of wax. That includes the script, prop list, costume list, schematic design -- the publishers want to make it as easy as possible for you to get the show up. Especially in a regional theatre, where you have 2-3 weeks to mount a production. Of course, you're paying good money for it; it's not out of the goodness of their hearts."
Asked if that means such publishers as Samuel French and Dramatists Play Service might be brought into the trial, McCarthy replied, "Maybe, but not at this point. It might be necessary, since the SSDC is claiming the publishers don't have the right to put certain lists and charts in the licensed script. That's news to the industry, since it's been done like that for over a hundred years. But I know the SSDC has written a letter to these publishers demanding that they no longer do this.
"Who knows?" continued McCarthy. "That may be the ultimate question of where the licensing goes. But we're kind of caught in the middle."
Even so, McCarthy and Caldwell Theatre Company aren't taking a wait-and see position. "Last week we raised 15 affirmative defenses, plus a counterclaim against Mantello for defamation -- he accused us of stealing. So we're chasing him. We're not gonna let him get away with it. Certain statements were made by him that severely compromised our reputation."
For example? "Yes, director Michael Hall went to New York and saw Love! Valour! Compassion! twice; he sees a lot of shows when he comes to New York City. But in no way did he go there and take notes, or measure the stage -- that's ludicrous! They're not gonna be able to prove these things."
The next step in the suit will be Caldwell's response to the defamation countersuit. After that, says McCarthy, will come discovery and depositions, until ultimately, a trial date will be set. Asked whether the suit(s) might be settled out of court, McCarthy told Playbill On-Line, "We've been willing to talk from the start. We don't bear any grudges and acknowledge his fine work putting together the first production of the play. But he's asking for $250,000, and we will NOT pay extortion money. We made several offers that were turned down, and that went back and forth, but those discussions broke down." McCarthy would not specify amounts offered.
A statement released by the Society Of Stage Directors & Choreographers summarized the court proceedings and noted that the judge found Mantello's allegations "presented a short and plain statement...indicating the copyright which Mantello owns, and the specific ways in which defendents allegedly infringed upon that copyright. Plaintiff has satisfied the notice pleading and need allege nothing more."
Mantello wrote in the statement, "The ruling is an important step in an ongoing effort to define and clarify the unique contribution of a director to a stage production. The message being sent is that when licensing a play, you do not obtain rights to use stage directions that are not part of the script."
SSDC president Julianne Boyd concurred: "Hopefully, this case will put to rest assertions that stage directors have no property rights in the work they create on stage."