Actor and playwright Paul Storiale was performing in a Chicago production of Tony and Tina's Wedding when he came up with an idea. What if he took the concept of Tony and Tina's Wedding – an improv-heavy, interactive play based on a couple's wedding day – and created a comparable show, but featuring two gay leads?
“I wanted to do something similar,” he says, “but with a gay twist.”
In 2009, Storiale took his idea to producers William Reilly and Gary Lamb of North Hollywood's Crown City Theatre Company. They agreed to work with Storiale on putting his idea into action.
Now, five years later, Storiale is accusing Crown City of stealing his show. This weekend, Two Grooms: Big Gay North Hollywood Wedding Redux opened in Los Angeles for its second run. Not only was Storiale not involved in the production, but he's credited in the program only as having created “additional material.”
Reilly denies that Storiale deserves any further credit for the show. Yes, Storiale's idea is where the show began, the producer says. But after that, others did the heavy lifting. Furthermore, he says, Storiale initially claimed he wasn't looking for money.
There's one thing they both agree on: When Storiale first met Reilly and Lamb, he was looking for a theatre company with access to a church, which he needed in order to simulate a real wedding. “I approached Crown City and said, 'I've got this show and a few of the characters, I just need [… a theater company who's willing to work on this with me,'” Storiale says.
Storiale claims that he then created character descriptions and biographies, as well as a detailed outline of where the play would go. In July 2009, Storiale registered “A Big Gay Hollywood Wedding” with the Writers Guild of America.
The nature of the show, say both Reilly and Storiale, was that many of the lines were fleshed out by actors in rehearsals.
But after those rehearsals began, Storiale left for New York for about three months to work on another project. It was then, he says, that his collaboration with Crown City began to deteriorate.
Initially, he says, he wasn't able to reach Reilly or Lamb. “I said, 'I'm gonna be in New York, if you need lines or anything let me know,'” says Storiale. But as soon as he was out of town, “they didn't return my calls or emails. I had no idea what was going on.”
Reilly admits that during that time, he deliberately ignored Storiale. “I tried to include him but it just didn't work, so I had to phase him out,” he says. “That was probably my bad, but I was trying to be nice.” He adds: “He went to New York – what did he think was going to happen?”
When Storiale got back to Los Angeles, he was startled to find that another actor, Ben Rovner, had been given a writers' credit for the show. (Rovner did not respond to requests for comment.)
Reilly claims that Storiale was not credited as a writer because the development of the characters, as well as the scripted lines (some of the show is improvised), happened during rehearsals, when Storiale was not present. He also claims that Storiale's original characters too closely resembled characters from Tony and Tina's Wedding, to the point that Crown City was afraid there would be an issue of copyright infringement. According to Reilly, the show had to be all but rewritten.
“We didn't give him any writing credit,” he says, “cause he didn't actually write anything.”
Reilly also points to initial emails between himself and Storiale as evidence that Storiale “offered to help and asked for no compensation,” said Reilly. In an email dated March 5, 2009, Storiale wrote, “I'm not looking to make any money that would all go to crown city. I just want a successful show.” In another email, dated April 22, 2009, Storiale wrote, “again, i want to absolutely make it very clear that i ask nothing for this. It would be crown city's show….just want to be a part of creating it.”
Storiale now says that Crown City “took [those emails] way too seriously. I wanted them to know I could be trusted. Little did I know, they could not.”
The first iteration of Crown City's play, A Big Gay North Hollywood Wedding, ran from 2009 to 2010. Storiale was listed on the program under “Created By,” along with Reilly and Lamb – a credit with which he says he was fine.
But during that show's run – in February 2010 – Crown City copyrighted the show, giving writing credits to Reilly and Rovner. Storiale was unaware of the fact that Crown City had obtained a copyright.
In an email, Reilly defends the action, saying: “The play was copy righted [sic] with crown city's permission by the two playwrites [sic] that wrote it.”
Because of the ongoing friction between himself and Crown City, in April 2010 Storiale asked representatives for Crown City to sign a contract saying that he would receive “Created By” credit, as well as a credit reading “Original Material By,” and 12.5 percent of any profit generated by the show for Crown City. The contract, which was obtained by the Weekly, is signed by Storiale, Reilly, Rovner, and Joanne Magee Lamb, Gary Lamb's wife.
Reilly initially denied that the contract existed: “We never had any written contract with him at all,” he told the Weekly. He later conceded that the contract exists, but stipulated that he signed it based on a verbal agreement between himself and Storiale, which provided that Storiale would sign a work-for-hire contract.
A work-for-hire contract would have handed the rights to the show over to Crown City. Storiale says that no such verbal agreement existed.
After the initial run of A Big Gay North Hollywood Wedding, Storiale and Crown City parted ways. But in 2011, Storiale says, he discovered that a play called A Big Gay Cincinnati Wedding was being put on in Ohio by a company called Feisty Broads Productions. Reilly says that Crown City “permitted them to present the play royalty free.”
According to Storiale, he received no money or credit for it.
Now, with the second run of Two Grooms: Big Fat North Hollywood Wedding, the dispute between Crown City and Storiale has been reignited.
Reilly, for his part, maintains that Crown City owes Storiale nothing. “Paul basically did no work on the project at all,” he says. He did not respond to a follow-up email seeking clarification on how the previous contract, signed by himself, Storiale, and other producers, might factor into the dispute.
Storiale, meanwhile, says that he wants appropriate credit for his part in creating the show. “I want the show to be successful,” he says. “However, I deserve the credit that they promised me.”
According to Los Angeles attorney David Shraga, who specializes in entertainment law, the notion of who owns the rights to a play comes down to the details of who created what.
An idea, he says, can't be copyrighted – for instance, the idea of star-crossed lovers; or in this case, the idea of a couple's crazy wedding day. But if someone puts their own twist on it, and adds their own personal creative touch, that may be subject to copyright.
“The things people add” to ideas to make them eligible for copyright, he says, “are characters, plot, tone, setting [… things like that.”
Cast members of the current production of Two Grooms: Big Gay North Hollywood Wedding contacted by the Weekly either had no comment, or were unaware of the dispute. But one original cast member who spoke on the condition of anonymity felt that Storiale got shafted.
“It was a great idea and a great concept,” the person said. “I think two people got a little greedy, and tried to push the other person out.”