Two Years After Launching Mosaic, Ari Roth Reflects

Trundling my way to DC’s Mosaic Theater aboard the city’s long-delayed, notoriously expensive but finally operational H Street trolley, I pondered why I’d petitioned HowlRound for the opportunity to interview Mosaic’s Founder/Artistic Director, Ari Roth. After all, hasn’t enough been written about Roth since his controversial firing from the DC Jewish Community Center’s Theater J in December 2014? And doesn’t everyone involved in American theatre know about the stunning comeback Roth made, launching his own theatre company, Mosaic, within weeks of his firing? The answer to those questions is probably a resounding “yes.”

But what many people may not know is that Roth not only brought to Mosaic his Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival—a festival, Roth says, Theater J was not interested in continuing; he also brought his passion for post-performance programming centered around social justice. Throughout Mosaic’s first two seasons, he and his staff of twelve have created scores of panel discussions, Peace Cafes, and other types of interactive events. Nearly three out of four performances for every production feature some sort of talkback. Who does that?

The trolley eventually glided to my stop in the heart of what is a rapidly gentrifying Northeast neighborhood. Walking past a dilapidated parking lot and a jumble of businesses old and new, I noted the stark contrast between the affluent Dupont Circle neighborhood where Theater J is located, and this far edgier area. Roth has embraced this new location with programming that reflects the H Street Corridor’s demographics. In Mosaic’s second season, for example, virtually every play—from Kirsten Greenidge’s Milk Like Sugar to the Hanna Eady/Edward Mast Israeli-Palestinian play The Return—is focused on the stories of diverse populations, or what Roth calls “intercultural encounters.” Roth’s efforts are rapidly gaining recognition: he recently won the Mayor’s Visionary Leadership Award, and Mosaic Theater won the 2017 Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company.

two performers sitting onstage
Ahmad Kamal and Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan in The Return, photo by Stan Barouh.

Marilyn Millstone: During your tenure at Theater J, and now as founder/artistic director of Mosaic Theater, you have become renowned for your commitment to social justice programming. What does this commitment come from?

Ari Roth: My parents raised me on the South Side of Chicago, just a few blocks from where Michelle Obama grew up. The neighborhood was going through a paroxysm of white flight; my parents decided to stay. This had a tremendous effect on me. My commitment to the Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival, which I started at Theater J and brought with me to Mosaic, is rooted in my parents’ backgrounds: both are German Jewish refugees from the Holocaust. My mother and her sister went into hiding in France and then Italy during the Holocaust and then, in 1945, emigrated to Israel and lived in a youth village for orphans. My mother and father met as young graduate students at the University of Chicago…at an Israeli folk dance gathering.

'We’re creating a place for multiple views to be aired and synthesis to be created, but we can’t create that synthesis every night…the conversation is unscripted and uncensored.'

Marilyn: I recently attended a performance of The Return where the panel discussion afterward got very heated. Some patrons walked out. How do you feel when that happens?

Ari: When you’re running a social justice theatre and you’ve got [panelists] close to the frontlines and they see the audience as conspiring to support the status quo, they want to shake the cage. You’re going to have some extraordinary conversations and some that do a disservice to the art. The rewards [of doing social justice programming] are enormous and you do a lot of strong community building, but there’s also risk. These are stories that need to be told and conversations that need to be convened; these are not the voices you’re going to hear on CNN. You will ruffle feathers. We’re creating a place for multiple views to be aired and synthesis to be created, but we can’t create that synthesis every night…the conversation is unscripted and uncensored.                      

Marilyn: Reflecting on the two and a half years since you launched Mosaic Theater, what has brought you the greatest joy/satisfaction?

Ari: Exercising resilience. On a daily basis. Starting from scratch. Managing the minutiae of a mid-career start-up—well, that isn’t exactly a “greatest” joy, but it’s a primary one. Things I’d taken for granted, or hadn’t paid thought to, as to how one makes critical, foundational moves, like incorporating, establishing a board; opening a (corporate) banking account, a PayPal account, a MailChimp and SquareSpace account; getting that “certificate of clean hands” from the city; all that and so much more feels both very small and monumental. The idea that a human reboot is possible, like the dynamics of divorce, I suppose, starting over alone, when the first time around—when you were young—things were handled very much by a team, or preexisted your coming onto the scene, or maybe you were overly reliant on others doing the detail work—the logistical heavy lifting—and now it’s left to you to figure out things you were too aloof, or too busy to do something about. The satisfaction of reassembling one’s enterprise after it’s fractured. How do we restore and make ourselves whole? There’s a toolkit to follow in building a theatre, but there’s also real live human elements that are much more than logistical. It’s the reassembling of pieces from your old community while making and creating new bonds, new courtships, new alliances; the profusion of new relationships has been pretty astounding. Maybe that’s the deeper joy. 

Marilyn: What has made you angriest?

Ari: At first, I thought it was the traffic; the extra twelve minutes to my commute (from Northwest to Northeast), every bottleneck felt like cruel punishment and a comeuppance; the indignity of getting fired and then losing productivity. Until a friend gave me a breathing exercise to practice while being stuck, just to empty the mind, to pause, and then maybe reflect that the added commute time was literally a couple hundred seconds, and that it wasn’t such an onerous twist of fate to move from a privileged commute to one traversing different quadrants in a racially divided and rapidly changing city. Now I treasure my thirty-minute drive. What else? I suppose it’s been hard to accept the losing of some people: supporters, patrons, friends who couldn’t make it to this side of town, who still haven’t been here because of those extra twelve minutes from Potomac or Bethesda, and that inability to geographically extend our relationship. That’s been a frustration, not an anger. A lament. Anger should be relegated to injustice. The thing that makes me angriest is the Steve Bannonization of America and the emptying out of governmental institutions built to stabilize the globe and the environment. The microdrama of a theatre company and its leadership relaunching with an emboldened vision is, of course, sidebar to the bigger horror story unfolding on the world stage.

'It’s been deeply pleasing to experience so much meaning in this coming together…The feelings of inflated meaning and elation of purpose have really been present for a great many of us stakeholders during Mosaic’s first two and a half years.'

Marilyn: What is something you've tried to resolve but can't, no matter how hard you try.

Ari: A part of me goes back to getting those funders from Potomac to come and see us perform and it frustrates me that they won’t, specifically because of the fallout—not the geography issue so much, as the termination drama; the lingering critique that in my leave-taking, I hurt the J. Let me not go back to that. I’ve accepted and not accepted that people took sides, and that some ruptures are lasting, even as I can still see certain former friends-of-the-theatre on neutral territory—safer ground (literally, that is how they perceive it)—and while the encounters are cordial, the support (materially, artistically, as a presence) will have winnowed. And that diminishment—or that boycotting, call it what you will, even though they’re not the type to boycott—frustrates.  

Marilyn: What has made you laugh the hardest?

Ari: A scene from Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s Hooded, Or Being Black For Dummies. Here’s the setup:

Tru (played by the brilliant Jeremy Keith Hunter) is schooling preppy-bougie Marquis (played by the dashing Keith Royal Smith) on the finer points of becoming more authentically black. Marquis has just had a moment of frustration where he’s lashed out at his (possibly imaginary) friend, exploding:

MARQUIS: You, Tru, are a stereotype! And I refuse to take lessons from some “homie” from the “hood” who thinks because he’s from the inner city that he has the monopoly on “blackness.” You are a joke! This is a joke! And you can take your manual and stick it where the sun doesn’t shine!

Whereupon Tru takes the manual, searches for a particular page, and then says:

TRU: Numbuh 31: ‘To make sure your point gets across, end [any and] all disputes with the phrase “Bitch!” Now had you said, “...and you can take your manual and stick it where the sun doesn’t shine, BITCH!” I might’ve believed you. But you didn’t know to do dat cuz you haven’t read duh manual.

Okay, that’s funny writing. But then Tearrance tops himself in the moment immediately following as Marquis explodes in even more frustration:

MARQUIS: AAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH!” (as he swats away the manual) Just go away! Go Away! GO AWAY! (as he storms off.)

To which, Hunter, the white preppy wannabe best friend, watching from the side chimes in:

HUNTER: Bitch!

And the audience erupts with laughter, especially the way Dylan Morrisey emphatically nailed it, whereupon Hunter covers with the icing on the cake:

HUNTER: He should have said it. Right there would have been a good spot too...

And the whole sequence is just comic perfection. I hope I’ve done it justice and it’s not just a “you had to be there” moment (although you can be actually there again when we bring the show back for a five-week encore engagement next May, as we say “hats off” to the great Tearrance Chisholm once more!).

three actors reading a book
From left to right, Jeremy Keith Hunter, Dylan Morrissey, and Keith Royal Smith in Hooded, or Being Black or Dummies. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Marilyn: What has made you weep?

Ari: So many things. There’s generally an unsuspecting moment at every first rehearsal. It’s almost always felt like we’re making history—of course we’re really just making personal history on the milestone of getting here, of bringing talent and expression and risk and effort and exhaustion together, all in a moment of crystallization, leading to an overwrought verklemptness where my cup runneth over with pride. It’s been deeply pleasing to experience so much meaning in this coming together, even as events in short order might flatten out the emotions, and box office vicissitudes may leave a sense of deflation. The feelings of inflated meaning and elation of purpose have really been present for a great many of us stakeholders ­during Mosaic’s first two and a half years, and we’re all feeling like a bunch of proud parents having made it to graduation for one of our kids (each production), and that’s sixteen kids and counting.                                             

Marilyn: What has surprised you the most?

Ari: Not ruing the decision to bypass Hollywood as a writer and miss out on “where the action is.” I’ve had zero misgivings, and that surprises. Well, I suppose that’s more personal than pertinent to the theatre. Letting go of things, which gets to the matter a bit more, like with respect to my own playwriting as it impacts Mosaic. I suppose the surprise is my own relationship to my identity as a playwright. I haven’t shared a new work in four years, and I don’t really feel the urgency to do so in Mosaic’s lineup, but then I haven’t earned the right to have a new manuscript produced in another theatre either. So I suppose this drama I’ve had with myself—that I haven’t been more anxious (or maybe I am, and I’m just hiding the anxiety, not very well, apparently). Instead, a new belief that it’ll come when it comes, when it’s time, the new writing, although I do have to apply myself a bit more rigorously; be a little bit more disciplined—which is actually an amazing word. To be disciplined is to resent the pressure to adhere as it’s imposed from without or within; while at the same time, to be disciplined is to example a virtue of fortitude and rigor with good results. I chafe at discipline and long for it. And somehow, in making Mosaic happen in a hurry, we collectively, Serge [Seiden, our managing director] and I, and the board and the staff and artists, have been thrillingly disciplined, in all the best ways.

Marilyn: What wakes you up in the middle of the night?

Ari: My wife telling me I’m snoring and that I should stop. I occasionally obey. I get more anxious about teaching—Will I be ready for that first day of the new semester?—than I do about producing. Really. My ass is less on the line and exposed than those of the actors, the writer, the director. I think cash flow this season might wake us up in the middle of the night. I think getting a line of credit will let us sleep easier. I think being unable to pay back that line of credit if it’s overextended (and should that ever come to pass) would wake us up even more. I hope it doesn’t. I don’t think it will. I think we’re going to be fine.                                                                                                      

Marilyn: What is your fondest dream for Mosaic?

Ari: Getting a play of ours to Broadway. Or a nice Off-Broadway house. There are still a lot of unrequited New York dreams and Mosaic may or may not ever factor in realizing some of them. I wonder how we’ll do with our upcoming Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival Tour where we’ll bring a few of our solo works on the road to three or four college campuses in February 2018. I think there are other “fondest dreams” for me to have for Mosaic locally, like maybe one day our own space? Our own series of spaces under an amazing, cantilevered roof? Maybe that too.

Marilyn: When you contemplate your journey from Theater J to Mosaic, what goes through your mind/heart/soul?

Ari: A lot of love and gratitude. A lot of thank yous. A lot of pleasure at having passed through a dramatic journey—from having built something at Theater J that still lives on and that’s continued to do very well as its own renewed entity—while becoming a voyager in my own public drama in the pursuit of making a lot of new dramas by other artists come to life. I’m very appreciative of the new neighborhood I’m in; the new neighbors and partners I’ve come to value; the other Resident Arts Partners at the Atlas Performing Arts Center; an amazingly varied and wonderfully committed board and staff. The bounty of that journey, and all the arduous work therein, is very present for me. I’m living the dream. Every day and a great many nights. Mostly good dreams. The occasional nightmare. A life in the theatre.

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Fearless interview! Thank you Ari for your visionary leadership as both founder & artistic director of Mosaic Theater and a dear friend. Leadership is earned. I like to think of it as a "verb", and truly about actions. As leaders we know our lives are on display one step and day at a time. So, in humility and if we are ones who look into the mirror purposefully to seek for, to examine that which we do not yet in focus clearly see then we allow theater the conductor of staged art, at its best to share observance, the personal, unity in space, free in thought, fearlessness, and give audience passage to see deemly yet be not paralyzed to shine light on actions needed. Thank you and stay AWAKE my friend! I am proud to be a Mosaic Theater board and team member. NJ

what a wonderful article... thanks Marilyn for the questions and Ari so good to hear your clear voice. sending you my best from the Arizona desert.

Very very proud and fulfilled to be working with you Ari. I too have made a mid-life shift and I thank you for the opportunity. At today's staff meeting and the flurry of meetings immediately afterward I was continuously impressed and thrilled by the staff assembled - Elizabeth Walle, our indefatigable Development Director, Rebecca Cohen who seems to be able to bring clarity to every topic, Victoria Murray-Baatin bringing rigor and life force to leadership, Chris Banks (making his own brilliant mid-career production move), Kala Granger tirelessly leading the Accessibility charge, Bob Schlehuber our public programming curator extra-ordinaire, Mirvlyne Brice -- whose connectivity activity is making our Mosaic more and more a MOSAIC, the brand new Communications Duo of Megan Behm and Donna Hobson who are killing it, Mar Cox whose grace and skill bring harmony to the front line - Patron Services, Farida Muhammad holding down the financial fort, and Lina Khawalda who toils assiduously in the mine of contracts and navigates the e-world of Airbnb and Travelocity... This is a staff to celebrate - if we had time. Eight big productions, 5 staged readings, a mini-tour (!) and all those panel discussions - plus a growing accessibility program. And valet parking and a bookstore... And a Board of 26 brilliant true-believers. What more could you ask for? OH!: The opportunity to work with super-talented artists who are intentionally diverse and intentionally local, national, and international. When I lay it out like this, and stop obsessing about closing FY2017 it's a gift.

My friend and partner, Serge Seiden: You have shared some work-day enthusiasm here that names the team and expands the narrative of the interview profoundly, vitally, showing how we all are in this process of reinvention together. We couldn't build this mosaic -- this mini-utopia (as all theater must be, according to the great theater thinker, Jill Dolan) -- without each other. And it is so important to take the time, like we did today at our staff meeting, to counsel our best and most humble selves, to re-center and reaffirm our commitment to each other; to our mission -- and then to go forward with spirit and fervor and humor and attention to detail and get a whole lot of work done! That was the glory of the good day; and those days repeat themselves frequently, under your organization and leadership. It goes without saying, but I should say it for all of HowlRound and beyond to read and hear: Thank You for all you've given; for all the hours you've toiled; for all the artistry you've brought to us in the productions you've helmed and will continue to. I too was grateful and exhilarated today. Long may we have many similar days of production! xo