A theatre out of Loudoun County, Virginia, is under legal action by Music Theatre International (MTI), one of the largest theatre licensing companies in the world. On July 17, MTI filed a copyright action in the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia against Theaterpalooza Community Theater Productions, Inc., which operates in Ashburn and Leesburg, Virginia, and Hagerstown, Maryland. According to MTI’s press release, Theaterpalooza “promot[ed] and present[ed] unauthorized performances of such MTI-licensed musicals as Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka, Matilda, Seussical, Little Shop of Horrors, Honk! and many others.” For smaller theatres and organizations, MTI offers lower-scale rental fees according to several factors, including number of performances and admission price. According to MTI, however, Theaterpalooza has failed to pay/license at least 16 MTI-licensed shows.
Teresa Walker, owner and director of Theaterpalooza, was incredibly distressed by these claims and charges. “We’re a struggling little performing arts company,” she said recently in a phone interview. She admitted to being behind on some payments in the past, but was alarmed by the charges made against her and her company. “When they say that there are 16 productions that are unlicensed, that’s a bunch of bologna. We have a past due notice for a couple of shows is what it really amounts to.”
Walker said her attorney has been in contact with the legal team of MTI. “We tried to send them as much proof as possible, without giving away our script, that we are doing our own original work.”
In their press release, MTI states that, beginning in 2015, Walker and Theaterpalooza have received notices from the theatre licensing company warning about failed payments. A further notice from MTI was sent in late 2016 “renewing its demand that Theaterpalooza stop infringing acts and start paying and to provide written assurance that it had discontinued and would not resume the use of copyrighted materials. MTI noted that it still had not received the overdue payment.” Finally, in 2017, MTI sent a follow-up warning after receiving word that the Northern Virginia theatre was still putting on and promoting “unlicensed and unauthorized productions.”
According to Walker, Theaterpalooza puts on original productions that often have recognizable characters or themes as other well-known productions. “We do an original Cinderella that’s written by our staff people, or we do an original Sleeping Beauty. When Frozen came out, we did an original Snow Queen.” Walker explained that, through a local licensing group, her company could pay for the music, all while creating original scripts and storylines surrounding the music. “We may be slow to pay our bills and that’s the reason that we got into this issue, but the problem we have is that we aren’t doing their shows.”
One statement in the press release claims that Theaterpalooza is continuing to ignore MTI’s warnings and has plans to put on Annie, Mamma Mia!, and Hairspray for their summer season. “Those are all canceled,” said Walker.
When asked as to the next step, Walker emphasized that she wishes to right the wrongs. “All we want to do is pay whatever fines that we have for having the late fees for the shows that we owe on right now,” she said.
As the owner of an arts center, Walker recognizes that artists must and should be paid for their creations. “We’re not trying to get over on anyone and not pay writers,” she said. “We want people to pay what is due to the people that wrote these shows that we performed.” But Walker expressed fears surrounding the legal action pointed at her children’s theater. “We want children to love the arts for the rest of their lives.” Not only does the theatre offer lessons, camps, and production opportunities, Theaterpalooza also boasts after school care, tutoring, singing, acting, and dancing lessons, and much more. “Will we survive this? I don’t know. Will we have to close down? It’s so sad because what we offer to the community is so valuable.”
Moving forward, MTI will be seeking profits from productions, an” injunction against continued infringement, fees and costs, and prejudgment interest.” Hopefully, the curtain will not be closing on this Virginia theatre any time soon.