An Interview With Former Theater J Artistic Director Ari Roth
Many thanks to Ari Roth for taking the time to tell me more about his recent firing from Theater J and sharing with me his deep passion for the political power of the theatre.
P. Carl: The Washington Post suggests that your firing was essentially a battle over what kinds of dialogue can be tolerated inside a Jewish organization. Were you ever considering some kind of line that couldn’t be crossed as you were programming for Theater J?
Ari Roth: There were a few lines that were sort of implicit and inferred by simply my choosing to be part of a resident company at a Jewish community center. Plays that affirmed the right of Israel to exist and that didn't advocate the dismantling of the State of Israel or that suggested that the State of Israel was an illegitimate endeavor, those were plays that would not be produced. There was a deep understanding from the time I got there eighteen years ago that we all had an attachment to Israel and that Israel was a part of our identity as American Jews and that Israel was important to the American population at large by virtue of our relationship with it. The ideal always was to engage with Israel in an honest and as mature and as nuanced a way as possible to present the humanity of the people who lived there, and who lived in the midst of and on other sides of the borders, so that's where we began. Where we evolved to was an understanding by 2011 when the JCC was forced to restate its position on Israel—that the Center or its programs did not condone, or promote boycott, divestment, or sanctions of Israel. That became a red line, and it's a long history of how that statement came to be. But I happen to oppose cultural boycotts in general and I would oppose cultural and academic boycotts on Israel, so it was easy for me to adhere to a red line that said our plays cannot promote boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS).
What is the relationship between the one hot button issue that perhaps crosses the institutional line? No Palestinians on stage, that's the new JCC edict let's say, but what about all of the other races, and all of the other conversations? But if you restrict one, you are really restricting everything.
There were complications immediately when some very smart good people, non- Jews and Jews, who may have had a pro BDS position, for example Mandy Patinkin and Theodore Bikel, people who have signed on to the idea of selective economic boycotts of products from the West Bank and Israel. So the JCC also had to live with these contradictions, because we would honor Theodore Bikel on our stage in 2013. BDS was the issue and the red line. So we were living within those parameters. You might say that what’s changing the nature of discourse in the Jewish community at large these days—after the summer's war in Gaza and the deaths of dozens of Israelis and thousands of Palestinians—is the message coming out of our established Jewish community umbrella organization which has been one of extraordinary solidarity with the people of Israel, and refusing to mention any casualties, deaths, or lingering suffering of Palestinians in Gaza or in the West Bank. We began to understand that the perspective that could hold the plight of Israelis and the plight of Palestinians simultaneously was no longer welcome in our community centers, and indeed, since summer the JCC has not had one program that would present a perspective from a Palestinian point of view, even if it was presented by an Israeli artist or journalist. So things have changed in a fundamental way since the summer.
Carl: Going a little deeper on that one, the issue of free speech around Israel is a huge global issue with life and death consequences. What role do theatre critics and artists have in this fight? It feels like to frame this moment as being about THE THEATRE in all caps is to miss the point, is this a tiny symptom around a much larger ill.
Roth: All you have to do is look at the breakdown of the Kerry-led peace talks and the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians to know the huge importance of Palestinians and Israelis, antagonists from opposite sides of the border, being able to talk to each other and being able to work on compromises to ensure a viable future. This is critically important in every strata of society—socially, economically, professionally, and of course politically. Civil society has a role to play in bringing political actors together. It is all intertwined. The work that theatre people do and the work that journalists do and people to people initiatives outside of the political sphere have in moving society forward toward reconciliation, or any type of coexistence is critical. Theatre is doing special work but it's of a piece with all of the other kinds of people to people initiatives that help transform conflict into coexistence. So I think theatre and Theater J has played a role in making a safe space and a gathering place as well as playing a symbolic role, for those who can't be in attendance, where people can look at each other, experience each other's narratives, each other's traumatic heartbreak, and go through a kind of catharsis together through drama. For many it’s transformed their perceptions of the other, their perceptions of themselves, provided deep education about the other, and a richer sense of where you come from and how your homeland came into being. Those are really important roles and that's what we were able to foster for a very long time. Do some people find that threatening, especially in a time when there isn't interest in reviving a peace process, well, yeah, you could say there is political pressure not to have those reckonings, those encounters, anymore, but just as the peace process breaks down politically there becomes an imperative to start one anew and that will happen culturally as well as politically.
Carl: Has the response to your firing surprised you? Had you known you had such incredible support to draw from around the country…
Roth: …well, I don't know Polly Carl, can you quantify that? How much money does it amount to, all that support? I mean it's a little like drinking water from a fire hose. I'm teasing, but I don't know how on earth to harness all of this support right now. I don't have crowd-sourced funding, I don't have a website yet, I don't have a bank account yet. All of that is coming in the next days. I'm on vacation without a laptop right now, so it's been a little bit nutty!
Carl: Here’s the entire question I was starting to ask. Has the response to your firing surprised you? Had you known you had such incredible support to draw from around the country would you have approached this situation any differently?
Roth: No! Are you kidding? No! I knew what I was doing. And I know there is a lot of support out there for what we've been doing. I've got the theatre community of Israel behind me. I know my standing and what my commitment has been to Israeli artists of all types, of all genders, of all backgrounds to offer them a forum here in Washington, DC. I know what that is. I'm confident about doing the right thing by them. I've understood that when you can engage the conflict in a nuanced way, in a respectful way, people will pay attention. I felt confident in sticking up for.... the festival [a festival scheduled for March 2015 of eleven staged readings] was cancelled by the institution. People around me said it's only one small thing of what Theater J is about. So you don't do this festival, just do a play on Israel. You can still do one thing, figure that out. Let go. I was just much much much too committed to a multi-platform festival with different plays speaking to each other, creating panels, workshops, peace cafes, and I didn't think we should let go of it, even though it would have avoided the confrontation.
Carl: Is there a fundamental rift between the nature of artistic work and the nature of institutional work? That’s what some might say, that the artist answers a different call than an institution, yet I don’t see other artistic directors in the US getting fired for their artistic choices. When you look around the country has the theatre in general become too complacent in the battle around free speech and artistic freedom and deep political engagement in general?
Roth: What an interesting question. I guess by extension we'd be asking whether touching Israel in particular is a kind of third rail for American theatre producers and American theatregoers. If you look around the country, how many plays are there on an annual basis that touch on the Middle East conflict? And then you think it's such a rich source of drama and there are so many talented people writing about it, why aren't they touching this subject? I don't think they should use my example as a cautionary tale, they should use my example as a reason to do more of it. I shouldn't be one of the only TCG theatre artists engaged in this issue. It's inexplicable to me that we don't have a dozen other theatre companies engaging in this theatre subject. It isn't the third rail, it isn't that volatile or lethal. There's not that much paranoid Jewish money that is so concerned about this issue being voiced. I think artists ask themselves how much do they know, how much more could they learn about the conflict and what's my responsibility to reflect that on our stage? A lot of people could be doing this work and should be.
Carl: There is so much conversation flying around about your firing, I’ve even read a letter calling for your reinstatement. For those of us wanting to take action, to really do something to respond to this, where do you think we should focus our energy?
Roth: I think we should try to create a national conversation around the conflict, and we should look at the playwrights and directors who are doing work in Israel, in Palestine, in Egypt, in Syria, in Jordan and we should get the work out there. If this wants to be about me a tiny bit let me collaborate with other theatres in recommending work and in having conversations that are led by a cross-cultural panel that is smart and respectful and you can have really strong, civil dialogue about plays that address a really pressing issue. And it doesn't only have to be about Israel. I think we should be deeply engaged in the Middle East as it's changing. My commitment is something that wants to be shared with others. If not a thousand flowers blooming, let's get dozens and dozens of theatre companies doing little festivals, if not full productions, engaged in the region and bring people together. Don't be afraid of people on the far margins who threaten to boycott. My firing was not about only program choices, it's a very long, deep, political, and personal relationship with both the CEO's office and the bureaucracy of a community institution that has twenty-one different programs of which the theatre is just one. So there's jockeying for space, there's turf warfare, there's many different things, the theatre was the tail wagging the dog of the institution and they wanted to correct that as well. There were many different things going on but when you talk about flagship theatres in our country, about strong independent politically engaged theatres in our country, have them lean into this issue as well, and that's what they should take from my situation. There's a ton of interest out there.
Carl: What hope/expectation/concern do you have at this point around Theater J itself?
Roth: I love the staff. This is a painful divorce process right now. The staff by huge majority are very strong mature women who are the children being torn in two by a departing artistic director and a center that is paying them a good wage and good benefits. And most importantly, we have four shows in the season left—two world premieres coming up. Even with all of my differences with the CEO I was hoping to stay through the launch of the second world premiere of Renee Calarco's G-d's Honest Truth after Aaron Posner's Life Sucks (or the Present Ridiculous). We were just in deep dramaturgical conversations on Tuesday and Wednesday and I'm fired on Thursday. It's kind of difficult for everybody. We've had very soulful meetings as an ensemble to talk about the importance of wanting to be a living legacy. What I leave behind are these new projects as well. And Shirley Serotsky, who is the acting artistic director, started as my literary director, has been a great associate artistic director. She's an incredible director, directing at Round House Theater in January so she's going to be pulled in a hundred directions. It’s a very difficult time. I only want support and love for the senior staff of Theater J. They are fantastic. And what the future holds for both companies, Mosaic Theater Company of DC (my new company) and Theater J, I'd like that there is room and audience and resources for everybody. But if not, I don't mind Mosaic becoming a big mid-sized theatre really soon and me being able to hire as many great people as possible. I'd be very happy to have that happen.
For 18 years the DCJCC has considered Ari the right fit to run Theatre J. Then a new CEO arrived and a downward spiral started, leading to Ari being unceremoniously fired. Escorted out of the DCJCC by security, no less. That smells of disrespect, and a healthy dislike, by the CEO and the EC, not because of professional reasons.
Carl: Is there anything else you want the HowlRound readership to know?
Roth: I think it's really important to know that Theater J was a collective, it wasn't just me. Theater J was about a lot more than just Voices from a Changing Middle East—that was a festival we would do once every eighteen months. So we have a locally grown community supported arts festival where we commissioned eighteen local playwrights and produced a half dozen of them over the last four years. We were really involved in conversations on race, whether it was through Jacqueline Lawton's The Hampton Years, or David Henry Hwang's Yellow Face, or Mamet's Race. We started a conversation on race back in 1998. In canceling one small but significant part of the season (the festival) you endanger so much of the rest. The question of principle really was do I let the battle of the festival go in order to fight for and ensure the good work of all of the other things that are out there? What is the relationship between the one hot button issue that perhaps crosses the institutional line? No Palestinians on stage, that's the new JCC edict let's say, but what about all of the other races, and all of the other conversations? But if you restrict one, you are really restricting everything.
I found that out myself in May. We were supposed to have a seven play season even though the edict was no plays on Israel, we want a quieter year, but the seventh play was a workshop of a play I was writing, the third installment of the Born Guilty cycle. Born Guilty is based on interviews of children of Nazis by Peter Sichrovsky that I adapted for Zelda Fichandler in 1991. The sequel was The Wolf in Peter, and then I was in the middle of writing a third play, Reborn in Berlin, which is exploring how a new generation, what we call the third generation of children of perpetrators—along with new Israeli expats living in Berlin, and Turkish Muslims, South Asian Muslims, all young people living in Germany today—are wrestling with questions of identity, how they recognize and honor the legacy and history, the meaning of the Holocaust in a very complicated twenty-first century. My CEO cut that play from the season, in a punitive sense, because of the success of Motti Lerner's play The Admission and our desire to see that play continue its success at Studio Theatre against the wishes of the CEO and the executive committee of the JCC. Then they turned around and would not allow Reborn in Berlin, the workshop of my new piece, to happen as part of the season. That was in May and we were announcing the season two days later. We went from a seven play season to a six play season. Because it was personal and the play was still a work in progress, I did not go public with that. I absorbed that horrible sting and that horrible act of censorship. I would be deftly bringing in the Arab/Israeli conflict in a season where the CEO did not want the Arab/Israeli conflict to be mentioned on stage. I can understand how the CEO felt that I had artistic and political agendas that were not in line with hers. So that was the bitter pill of the spring and the cancellation of that project informed the summer of trying to seek structural remediation. The situation we are in is unsustainable, how do we create a sustainable relationship? Theater J still does a lot of good for the community center. If you don't like the Arab/Israeli conflict on stage, let me do it outside, or let Theater J become a separate 501(c)(3) and then rent from the JCC as a strategic partnership—that was not allowed, a nonstarter. Letting me moonlight and produce the Voices of the Changing Middle East festival, independently build a firewall between myself and the JCC, but stay committed to all of Theater J's other great programs, they wouldn't allow that either. The third proposal, an unspoken proposal, let's all break away. We didn't all break away. There are too many interests in staying at the JCC, there is a lot of affection for the building, the center, and people have their jobs too. In the end the cancellation of the festival meant that I was going to move on. Again, I was hoping to move on in an elegant and orderly way after these world premieres were produced. There were other issues that precipitated the immediate firing, but why on earth would I have to vacate my office and remove everything and be escorted out by security guards within twenty-four hours. It was handled wrong.