New Staff at the Guild
The Dramatists Guild is delighted to introduce two new members of the Guild staff, our new BA consultant and staff attorney Leesa Fenderson, who is an Intellectual Property attorney, and Elle Hartman, who is our new Volunteer Programs Manager.
Leesa Fenderson was born in Kingston, Jamaica and raised in Jamaica, Queens. She is a board member of Next Move Jamaica International, Inc., a nonprofit that connects diasporic Jamaicans with students of need on the island. Before pursuing writing full-time, she was a member of the New York State Bar and an in-house attorney at an image licensing agency known for its curated art and representation of some the world’s most iconic image-makers. Leesa has been dedicated to preserving the rights of artists and educating them on how best to manage their intellectual property since she worked as a contract coordinator at Hachette Book Group. That dedication led her to law school, but her desire to create art began to tug at her, years into her career as a lawyer. She began writing stories about her family, her triple consciousness as an immigrant, and how space and location are deeply tied to our physical and mental health.
She attended Columbia University’s MFA program concentrating on non-fiction writing in an effort to explore her diasporic roots. Intending to further her research and exploration of the question, she applied to USC’s Literature and Creative Writing PhD program. At USC, she has expanded her foray of narrative into fiction. As Cherrie Moraga wrote in A Xicana Dyke Codex of Changing Consciousness, “the fiction of our lives can sometimes provide a truth far greater than any telling of a tale frozen to facts.” Leesa explores both forms in an effort to unearth complex truths. In particular, her collection of short stories was birthed from the diasporic voices of women who bend her ear and her will to ancestral wisdom.
Leesa has worked at Rolling Stone magazine as an attorney, Banc of America Securities, Hachette Book Group, The School of the New York Times, and as a recruiter for her alma mater, Brooklyn Law School. Leesa’s fiction is forthcoming in Joyland magazine and Story magazine and has appeared in CRAFT literary magazine, Callaloo journal, Uptown magazine, Moko magazine, Paper Darts magazine, and elsewhere. She was a Finalist in Paper Darts’ Short Fiction contest, and Leesa’s fiction was chosen as a semi-finalist for American Short Fiction’s 2020 Halifax Ranch Prize. Currently, she is completing her PhD and is an attorney at the Dramatists Guild of America.
Elle Hartman is from Waterford, Connecticut, having lived steps away from the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center on Long Island Sound, where she had a summer job and spent many evenings listening to first-time readings of the works of playwrights such as August Wilson.
Elle received a dual Bachelor of Arts in English and Italian Literature from Albertus Magnus College. After college, Elle moved to Orlando and worked for Walt Disney World in human resources. While at Walt Disney World, she handled Service Trade Council Union ADA and workers’ compensation placements, along with leading the staffing for the openings of ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, All-Star Movies Resort, World of Disney, and Disney Vacation Club off-site locations. She then became Head of HR for 1,100 cast members at Disney’s Grand Floridan Resort and Spa and, along with her team, was the recipient of Disney’s first RAVE (Respect Appreciate Value Everyone) Award for diversity initiatives at the resort, including training manuals for all departments in several languages other than English.
Elle returned to the northeast and continued in human resources, first in finance and then in public relations as a Senior VP. In between all this, she managed the acting careers of her two children, who worked on Wes Anderson pictures and Adam Sandler films, along with some work for Nickelodeon. In 2020, along with her daughter, she opened a casting and production accessibility coordinator agency. Her daughter Zoë now runs the business. Her son Jack graduated from the School of Visual Arts in 2021 and works full-time in film and television props fabrication. Elle recently produced two projects: Life Through My Eyes, which showed at the ReelAbilities Film Festival, and the Chicago-based Latinx web series Border’d.
An EMS certified in COVID compliance management, Elle writes lyrics for a Long Island blues band in her spare time, is a golfer, an archer, and drives supercars from the car club she belongs to in Manhattan. She lives in New York and has a family home in Italy that she shares with her two sisters in a small resort fishing village on the Adriatic Sea.
When is it appropriate to pull the rights to my show?
We all recognize that the theatre industry is not perfect and often theatres and theatre companies that are intended to be safe spaces for collaboration turn into the exact opposite. We are also living through a time in which theatre-makers of all kinds are more empowered to speak up than ever before in response to violations of their rights while working in the industry. For the dramatist specifically, this has also brought up the issue of when it is appropriate to pull the rights to your play or musical.
First, it is important to acknowledge the difference between dramatists and most of the other personnel working on a production. Dramatists are not members of a union that can collectively bargain on their behalf. While the Guild has promulgated its bill of rights for dramatists for nearly a century, and its advocacy efforts have certainly helped to make these rights the industry standard, these rights are not guaranteed unless they are part of a written production contract. Without a contract, which includes provisions safeguarding your authorial rights (such as the right to be present, script and artistic approvals, and the reversion of rights), even if you feel as if those authorial rights have been violated, you are without recourse.
To reiterate, you should always, always, always make sure that you enter into a written production contract for any production, whether it is a small community theatre or a well-known professional one, because your contract governs your relationship during the process as well as how to get out of that relationship in the event it goes south.
In order to “pull the rights” to your show (i.e., terminate the production rights that you have granted to a producer), you must have a contractual right to do so or else you face potential liability. A contractual right to pull your show can take many forms; the most common form is when the producer is in breach of a particular provision of the contract and that provision provides for the author’s right to terminate in the event of such a breach. For instance, in both the DG Model Premiere Production Agreements and the DG Model Licensing Agreements, there is explicit language which provides that any violation of the provisions which safeguard authorial rights shall be deemed sufficient cause for author to immediately terminate all rights granted to the producer without any liability.
Therefore, if you feel that your rights have been violated, your first step is to look to your contract to determine the following:
• If the producer is in breach of its obligations;
• If you have the right to terminate the contract based on such breach, or a right to terminate for any other reason;
• If you are released from any liability if you exercise your termination rights.
If the producer is not in breach of the contract and there is no other contractual right on which you can base your termination, yet you choose to terminate the contract and “pull the rights” to your show anyway, then the producer may have a valid breach of contract claim against you.
Or the producer can simply ignore you and produce the show anyway, because they have a contractual right to do so. If they produce the play without a license, however, they face potential liability for both contractual damages and copyright infringement claims, which can be significant.
You might think that you are safe to pull a show if you have no written contract with the producer, but that is not so. Contracts don’t have to be in writing; they can be implied by a course of conduct by the parties that indicates a meeting of the minds on the essential terms of a contract. And while you may be able to terminate such an oral or implied agreement, a producer may have raised funds, invested resources (money, staff time, materials, etc.), and entered into contracts with other parties (actors, landlords, directors, etc.) in reasonable reliance on their agreement with you. Should you pull the show without a contractual right to do so (including a release from any liability for doing so), you may be liable for the “reliance damages” suffered by the producer because of your actions.
Even when there is no breach, can you pull the rights if the producer’s circumstances have changed to such an extent that allowing them to produce the show would damage your own reputation or work? Production contracts don’t have “morals clauses,” but there may be an argument to nullify a contract because fulfilling it would create greater liability for the author than was originally bargained for, changing an essential term of the contract… the cost to the author. This, however, is a theoretical legal argument you should explore with your own attorney before taking such an action.
As you can see, the decision to pull production rights that you have granted to a producer is not a simple one. While the BA HelpDesk is not able to review your signed contracts to help determine whether you have a valid claim for termination, the attorneys at the Guild can always review your unsigned contracts to measure them against prevailing industry standards and give you tools to negotiate provisions that include the right to terminate without liability in the event of a breach of the agreement.