Curtains for English theatre?
Theatre lovers weep for The Phantom - shot down by an e-mail and a call
The curtain fell down abruptly- just a few hours before the opening night of the show of shows last Thursday when a simple e-mail stopped The Phantom of the Opera from being staged at the Lionel Wendt Theatre.

Was it a case of panic?
The following questions however beg an answer.

*Why did the organizers panic when they received an e-mail and a telephone call- not even a court order and not seek legal opinion.

*Hasn't the trustees of the Lionel Wendt an obligation to advice and ensure that local productions obtain more than a CMC permit.

*Why was the towel-thrown in so easily?

*Director Jerome De Silva says that "We just don't have that kind of money" to pay for the copy right. But, is this after he has studied the law of the land? It might be useful for them to have studied a recent case where ETV fought - and won- a copyright battle in court over BBC, a mightier organisation than the Really Useful Theatre Company.

*What is the role of the Performing Rights Society in all this?

*How can the Government help?
*How can theatre goers help, at least in this instance, the well-meaning Workshop Players-a group of young amateurs offset the huge financial burden incurred?

Theatre lovers in Colombo were still reeling this weekend over the shock closure of the Workshop Players' production of the multi-million rupee production 'The Phantom of the Opera'.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was also expected to grace the show.

In a dramatic turn of events, 'The Phantom' was called off after theatre authorities received an email and telephone call from Australia warning them that they could face legal action if the show went ahead.

The last minute 'injunction by e-mail' had all the hall marks of a mala fide for a show that had been in preparation for six months and publicised over three weeks.

The production, one of the most expensive to hit the local stage was estimated to cost approximately Rs. 3.8 million and was billed to be a lavish spectacle with many special effects and dazzling pyrotechnics. Tickets had been sold out long before opening night.

"The Lionel Wendt authorities received a phone call from the Really Useful Theatre Company in Australia asking them if they had checked their email. The message was that The Workshop Players had not obtained the rights to stage 'The Phantom of the Opera' in Colombo and hence the production had to be halted," said the distraught Director Jerome de Silva. The Really Useful Theatre Company is a subsidiary of the Really Useful Group formed by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, the original composer of 'The Phantom of the Opera' and a string of other hit musicals.

The Phantom of the Opera starring Jerome de Silva as the Phantom and Serela Athulathmudali as Christine was to be the Workshop Players' tenth anniversary production. It followed on this popular group's earlier successes such as 'Cats', 'West Side Story', 'Les Miserables' and 'The Lion King' and was to run from October 17-28.
Eager theatre-goers, all agog over opening night came to the Wendt on Thursday evening only to be greeted with the disappointing news that the show was off. On Friday, a terse announcement in the newspapers said that 'The Phantom' was cancelled and ticket refunds would be given at a later date but, a host of theatre goers refused to accept the refunds and asked that it be donated to the Director of the local production.

A trustee for the Lionel Wendt Selvam Canagaratna said the theatre had nothing to do with the problem. "It was the director's decision to call off the show due to the dispute over copyright," he said.

But others blamed the theatre owners for chickening out very early from a move to legally contest the fiat by e-mail and telephone. Admitting that they had not obtained the rights to stage the show in Colombo, Jerome de Silva however said the huge cost involved was what prevented them from doing so. "It's not even an option to try and buy the rights for every production done in this country. We just don't have that kind of money." Lawyers for the Workshop Players are now working on making representations to the Really Useful Theatre Company to see if the production could go ahead even at a later date.

"We were only hoping to cover costs through ticket sales and sponsorship," said Jerome. "If at all, we would have had a cast party with the proceeds of the souvenir. So anyone thinking that I make big bucks off these productions is completely off the mark as we barely manage to meet our expenses."

A veteran theatre personality who has devoted his spare time to promote English theatre in less privileged schools, Jerome de Silva has, as both actor and director been in the forefront of English theatre for over three decades. He launched the Workshop Players ten years ago and recently masterminded its Sinhala counterpart in a bid to encourage young people all over the country to take up drama. "The cast and crew are devastated and so am I. But they seem to be finding their strength in their various religions at this time, " he said.

The 50-strong cast and crew who had practised enthusiastically for six months working through the night as the play neared its opening were in tears as news of the cancellation hit them. For many to whom 'The Phantom' would have been their first big 'break' on stage, it was a cruel and heartless act. Backstage at the Wendt on Thursday evening, they prayed, sang hymns in little groups and comforted each other. On Friday, some attended mass at the Infant Jesus Church in Slave Island, hoping for a miracle that would see the show back on the road.

"Devastated would be an understatement to describe what we feel right now. Why are we being hurt like this when all we are trying to do is bring a little bit of Broadway and West End to Sri Lanka?" said Mahesh, a young member of the cast.

"We weren't hurting anyone by doing this play. Nobody was gaining monetarily, there was no profit, only the experience of a lifetime which was snatched away from us," said another of the cast, 18-year-old Shihani.

"This will not only affect "The Phantom' but all of English theatre in this country," said a crest-fallen Jerome. "We will never be able to stage another foreign production in our country again. This is something we should think about. Our country should take a stand to try and help this cause."

While the public ponders over the larger implications of the cancellation of 'The Phantom', the Workshop Players are meanwhile appealing to theatre lovers to help them with the approximately Rs. 1 million deficit they now face on expenses already incurred on the show. Some performances to come are ahead on the production-line "Caught in the Net", a sequel to the popular "Run for your Wife" is due in 2003. "The Complete Works of Shakespeare" and others are on the way. Is it curtains for them too? Merisa de Silva

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