- Associated Press - Monday, December 5, 2016

This coming spring may be the first time in 27 years during which Harper Lee’s south Alabama hometown of Monroeville doesn’t host its popular series of performances of the stage adaptation of her landmark novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

The series is currently rudderless, as Mockingbird Company - the nonprofit that replaced the Monroe County Heritage Museum as the organizer of the productions in a controversial move last year - has not found a permanent replacement for the director it fired earlier this year.

Mockingbird Company, which was started in May 2015 by Lee, her lawyer Tonja Carter and Montgomery accountant Paul Fields, also does not have a contract to stage the performance series at the old Monroe County Courthouse, where it has long been a fixture of the southern Alabama cultural scene.

And many members of the play’s all-volunteer Mockingbird Players cast say they will not act in the 2017 series if Mockingbird Company does not reconsider its approach to the management of the play, which they describe as onerous and disrespectful to the actors, some of whom have performed in the play for over two decades.

Lee isn’t around to voice an opinion; she died in February 2016. Though some of the play’s organizers remain cautiously optimistic that the series will take place and that these significant problems will be overcome, a number of cast members and other people close to the negotiations say this spring’s performances are likely doomed.

“My personal opinion is that they won’t be able to do the play this year because they won’t be able to get enough members of the old cast together to do one act,” said Eric “Gator” Gould, a member of the Mockingbird Players who has played a number of parts including Tom Robinson’s employer Link Deas and the town drunk over the past 13 play seasons.

Tim McKenzie, a 10-year veteran of the “Mockingbird” cast who serves as chairman of the board of the Monroe County Heritage Museum, provided AL.com with an email Fields sent him on Nov. 19 on behalf of Mockingbird Company rescinding its contract to rent the courthouse from the museum.

“This is notification to the Monroe County Heritage Museum that Mockingbird Company rescinds the Facility Rental Agreement for the use of the courthouse and grounds in 2017,” the email read.

Pete Black, a member of Mockingbird Company’s board who was directed by Carter to speak with AL.com on behalf of the nonprofit, said he is “not sure exactly why it was rescinded; we have not come to terms with the rental amount” but added that he is “confident it will be resolved” when asked about the status of the rental contract.

“The Mockingbird Company has made an offer to pay the going rate to pay the museum what it makes when they rent the courthouse. We’re pretty close to coming to an agreement,” he said. “We’re in discussion with the museum board.”

McKenzie, however, said he had not heard from any representative of Mockingbird Company since he received the email on Nov. 19.

“There is a possibility out there we just won’t have a play this year. We don’t want to see that, but it’s a possibility,” he said. “It’s a bunch of junk going on, that’s all I can say about that …. To the actors, we feel like something’s just been taken away from us, and that creates some animosity.”

Wanda Green, the museum’s executive director, said that she had not been in recent contact with Mockingbird Company and that she was not aware of the status of the contract or any negotiations over it.

As for the vacant director’s chair, Mockingbird Company dismissed well-liked amateur director Jane Busby earlier this year, after she presided over this past spring’s largely sold-out “Mockingbird” performances.

Mockingbird Company replaced her with renowned professional stage director and actress Greta Lambert of Montgomery’s Alabama Shakespeare Festival, of which Carter is a board member.

On Nov. 19, Lambert attended an open audition for actors hoping to take part in the 2017 play series, but found that many of the Mockingbird Players had declined to show up.

They were protesting a rule introduced by Mockingbird Company for the forthcoming season that requires the old cast members to re-audition for a play that most of them have acted in for years.

The amateur actors were also upset over the proposed rehearsal schedule, which would require them to attend rehearsals as many as four days a week for months leading up to an expanded slate of performances, according to Robert Champion, who has played Boo Radley in the play series for more than two decades.

“We finally got a schedule of the rehearsals and it was totally undoable,” Champion said. “I think someone forgot we are not a professional group, we are everyday working people.”

Lambert is no longer signed on as director of the play, though the story of her departure varies depends on who is telling it.

Perhaps the most critical problem facing the play series is the fact that the Mockingbird Players are currently in the midst of “a mass mutiny,” according to Kathryn Taylor, who served on the museum board from 2008 to 2014 and continues to keep tabs on the museum and play.

Many of the Mockingbird Players are also upset that Mockingbird Company is handling the sale of tickets to the performances and taking in the money, which they believe should go to the Monroe County Heritage Museum, as it had for years.

McKenzie, Gould and Champion said they would all love to participate in the play again this year, but only if its proceeds go to the museum.

“Leave Monroe County Heritage Museum alone and let the museum have control of the play,” Gould said. “We’re not happy. Why should I go do it for free for Tonja Carter and the Mockingbird Company to get the money? What they’re doing is wrong, and the way they’re going about is wrong.”

In the past, ticket sales to the performances typically brought about $120,000 into the museum’s coffers each year, former museum bookkeeper Francine Grider said last November. But beginning this past spring, Mockingbird Company sold the tickets and collects the proceeds, only paying the museum $48,000 to “rent” the courthouse, an amount that Grider said was so low it could lead to the museum having to close within the next couple of years.

Asked why the company will not offer the museum more money, Black said the production didn’t make money this year. He said the company simply wants to pay what it considers to be a fair amount.

If the cast does not get on board with Mockingbird Company’s vision, cast members including Gould and Champion worry that the company will try to turn it into a professional theatrical enterprise. That’s a result Champion says he would hate to see.

“I’m real sad that something wonderful has been taken away from us and, more important, from the community,” he said.

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