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Echo Theater’s feud with playwright takes some strange twists

Chris Fields, artistic director of Echo Theatre CompNY

Chris Fields, artistic director of Echo Theatre CompNY

(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

The feud between Los Angeles’ Echo Theater Company and the writer who encouraged the public to boycott his new play took a series of bizarre twists this week, ending with the writer publicly retracting his earlier accusations against the theater group.

The Echo issued a news release Tuesday in which it said that playwright Tommy Smith had made “false claims” in his assertions that the Echo presented his play “Ghost Light” without permission.

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The short play, which runs about half an hour, is a series of monologues that the Echo has presented as an addendum to a separate play performed at the Atwater Village Theatre.

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Smith said last week that the Echo never obtained permission to present the play beyond a workshop run, adding that “I literally have had my play stolen from me.”

He said he was paid for the workshop run, but that talks for a production beyond that broke down.

The Echo refuted those assertions Tuesday in a statement from artistic director Chris Fields. Fields asserted that the Echo has a contract signed by Smith on June 18, as well as a canceled check, “proving that he gave us the rights to present his play for twelve performances and that Mr. Smith was paid in full.”

It remains unclear if the contract was for a workshop run or a full production. A heavily redacted copy of the signed contract, sent by the Echo, said the author of the play agrees to a “maximum of 12 performances” after which the terms for further performances would be negotiated.

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Last week, a spokeswoman for the Echo said “Ghost Light” was performed four times in August and once in September with actress Deborah Puette. The company has since canceled future performances of the piece following the clash with the writer.

In his statement on Tuesday, Fields said that “in fact, Mr. Smith’s statements constitute actionable defamation under California law.”

He added: “In the face of these shocking and false claims, the Echo sought a retraction in discussions with Mr. Smith’s agent. Our initial preference was not to add more fuel to the fire by commenting in public and to try to work this out between us.”

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A spokeswoman for the Echo declined to elaborate when asked if the Echo is planning to take legal action.

Smith issued a separate statement Wednesday in which he publicly retracted his earlier accusations.

“After taking the time to consult with legal representation, I am profusely apologizing for and retracting my statements about Echo Theater Company and its project ‘Ghost Light,’” he said.

Smith said he consulted with the Dramatists Guild, the New York-based professional association of playwrights, on the matter.

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“I thank Echo for allowing me the time to fully understand my situation and consider this difficult admission,” the playwright said. “I am sorry that the public had to be involved at all.”

The Echo is a small company that presents plays at its home venue, the Atwater Village Theatre. The company has produced other plays by Smith, including “Fugue” and “Firemen.”

Last week, Smith said he wasn’t planning on taking legal action against the Echo. “This is a community art, built only on the goodwill between artists, and there isn’t enough money to bring in lawyers,” he told The Times.

Twitter: @DavidNgLAT

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