“Things fall apart,” as Yeats said, and sometimes it seems like there is nothing we can do about it. The theater community watched a falling apart recently at Theater J with the abrupt firing of Ari Roth, Artistic Director of 18 years at that organization, and a new theatrical landscape has emerged. The news of these events has come fast, furious and piecemeal, often confusing and contradictory. But even through this cloud, a second coming has become clear, a new beginning for both Theater J and Mr. Roth, who will now both make theater a different way, without each other.
Though as heated a subject as this one cannot help but shade all fact with emotion, this article strives to present details from this affair with a minimum of vitriol and a maximum of objectivity. Some narratives presented here will not agree. Some quotations will contain accusations, which will then be countered as untrue by other quotations. As theater people, we know that conflict drives a story. But, also as theater people, we know that despite some hostility, there are good people making good theater, and the thing we can do about things falling apart is to support those who pick up the pieces.
In early November, the falling apart between the DCJCC and Ari Roth was, for an average theater-goer, unthinkable. I would never have described Theater J as “broken,” an oft-retweeted phrase used by Stephen Stern (a member of the Theater J Council, an advisory board for the organization) to sum up his feelings on recent events.
I was taking in Tony Kushner’s appearance at a fundraiser for the Cafritz Center for the Arts at the DCJCC. A fundraiser, as it was pointed out to me, not for Theater J (though it was entirely devoted to theatrical matters on a stage that most think of as Theater J’s stage), but for the DCJCC. Mr. Kushner was unreserved in his praise of Theater J, its work, and most particularly of Ari Roth, then Artistic Director of Theater J, the mention of whom got a clamorous ovation from the full house.
The unthinkable happens
Recently, from the very same stage, actors from Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide… read a very different statement from Mr. Kushner, this time vociferously condemning the DCJCC as political censors of Mr. Roth.
Mr. Roth has never shied from political controversy in his programming, to be sure. One of my most vivid memories of DC theater is wading through crowds of protesters at a reading of Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children in 2009. These protesters claimed that the play was anti-Israel, and those sentiments were echoed by some in the post-show discussion hosted by Mr. Roth after the play reading. Even in his pre-show speech, Mr. Roth expressed his ambivalence at the staging. Some participants in the post-show discussion commended Mr. Roth for the courage to program this reading at a center devoted to Jewish life and debate. While neither group dominated the discussion, one thing was sure: the theater was packed during and after the show. And how exhilarating it was to see theater that a group thought, for political reasons, I should not see.
Now that reading appears to be the inciting incident of a drama at Theater J and the DCJCC which came to climax with the termination of Mr. Roth as Artistic Director on December 18th and whose very public denouement now takes the form of vicious cuts in the press at the knot that once bound Mr. Roth, Theater J, and the DCJCC.
What an average theater-goer might also not know is how that knot works. The Artistic Director is an important but dangerous job, especially at an organization like Theater J and the DCJCC. Theater J is but an arm of a much larger organization, governed by Carole Zawatsky, the organization’s CEO, and an executive committee. So Theater J is at the mercy of a larger constituency than its own, a much bigger organization that represents not only the art on Theater J’s stage, but the interests of the Jewish community as a whole in DC. It was a small but loud faction of this community that protested Seven Jewish Children, and it is from factions like that that the Artistic Director of Theater J must protect its creators. All Artistic Directors live in the liminal space between board and artists, always searching for the balance between while taking the pressure of being the fulcrum. But the Artistic Director of Theatre J is especially challenged because of the structure of that organization.
Theaters aren’t their boards and theaters are not their Artistic Directors. Theaters aren’t the money they make or even the audience who buys tickets to their shows. Theaters are the hard-working and creative people — the actors, the stagehands, the dramaturgs, the staff, and (goodness knows they don’t get even half the credit they deserve) the stage managers — that give their hearts, sweat, sleep, and often tears to make magic happen on a stage whether the seats are empty or full.
But what follows, and what has been reported throughout the press, is not the story of those admirable individuals. This story is about the fight over the art that those people made, who chooses what kind of art is made, and how the beauty they created was to be governed.
This story is one of how an Artistic Director, feeling censored over what he chose to program, chose to move on, and how a CEO, feeling disrespected by her employee over how she chose to govern, chose to force him out. Now each party has what it wants, a new company for the Artistic Director and a new leadership search for the CEO, but at what cost? And aren’t the artists and staff the ones that suffer most from “those actions [that] have broken the theater” in Stephen Stern’s words? Remember them as you read on.
The Sounds of Silencing?
In the 5 years that have passed since the protested reading of Seven Jewish Children, the programming chosen by Mr. Roth for Theater J grew ever bolder in the confrontation of controversial issues, especially regarding Israel. Changes to programming at Theater J surrounding those issues, often publicly attributed to Mr. Roth, have come at an ever-increasing pace.
In early 2011, Mr. Roth produced Return to Haifa (by Israeli playwright Boaz Gaon from the novella by Ghassan Kanafani, the assassinated spokesman of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, PFLP), which incited objections from some of the DCJCC’s pro-Israel constituency, who consider the PFLP to be a terrorist organization. The production led to the DCJCC ousting of “Peace Cafes,” a long-time after-play discussion group hosted by Theater J, cancelled because the DCJCC objected to elements of the group that they “had no control over” (i.e. potentially anti-Israel content derived from the discussions).
More boldly, Mr. Roth scheduled The Admission by Motti Lerner (remember his name, because it will come up again) about the alleged massacre of a Palestinian village by Israeli forces. After a boycott campaign by an organization named COPMA (Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art) against the play, the full production was scaled back to a workshop level piece, though the DCJCC insisted at the time that the campaign did not influence their decision.
A recent culmination of that boldness, and the resistance to it by the DCJCC executive committee and their CEO Carole Zawatsky, came in the form of restriction of programming choices (alleged by Mr. Roth in this interview with Howlround) concerning plays about Israel and his own new play Reborn in Berlin –cancelled, as Mr. Roth claims, punitively by Ms. Zawatsky.
The most recent public spat between Mr. Roth and his employers came this November from the cancellation of the most recent iteration of the “Voices from a Changing Middle East” festival (which was host to Return to Haifa), not at the behest or with the will of Mr. Roth, but by directive from the DCJCC. Many recent articles in the press have pointed to this incident as the precipitating event in the termination of Mr. Roth.
You can read about the support for Mr. Roth that has poured in from local and national artists in reaction to his termination, defending his choices and politics as an artist and as Artistic Director by searching #AriRoth on Twitter. The narrative that Mr. Roth has presented is one of clear political censorship, of the poisoning and deterioration of the professional relationship between an Artistic Director and his employers over the artistic exploration of politics.
Mr. Roth is much beloved and respected in the theater community. His take on his termination and the alleged censorship behind it elicits powerful emotions of sympathy from any artist, including myself, who has felt the pressure of politics and the monied machine that funds art but is determined to control the contents of that art.
But now Ms. Zawatsky has fired back with accusations of her own that describe Mr. Roth not as a bold artist with a political bent, but as a disgruntled employee whose failed power play and consistent insubordination resulted in inevitable termination.
In the interest of presenting the widest spectrum of perspectives on these totally different accounts, DC Theatre Scene is not just linking to the complete text of Ms. Zawatsky’s first public volley against Mr. Roth, but also her answers to follow-up questions that I had concerning this open criticism of Mr. Roth as an employee.
A Contrasting Narrative
Ms. Zawatsky’s shocking riposte against Mr. Roth’s claims of censorship first came to light in an email sent to Motti Lerner (author of The Admission) and other Jewish artists who signed a letter of protest against the firing of Mr. Roth. This email, which was posted on December 25th to the Facebook page of the Association for Jewish Theatre tells a different story of the last 5 years, not one of censorship, but of deliberate defiance “that no employer would ever sanction.”
The narrative that Ms. Zawatsky presents has a short timeline, and one that she denies has any relation to the programming choices of Mr. Roth. As she put it in an email exchange with me, “[the DCJCC] have not and will not shy away from controversy.” Instead, her story is one of the violation of DCJCC protocol, which became so grievous that she had no choice but to terminate Mr. Roth.
Her story begins in November with the cancellation of the “Changing Voices from the Middle East Festival,” but not with its contents. Her issue is with this Washingtonian article about the cancellation, in which Mr. Roth publicly revealed his reservations about censorship at the DCJCC, made distinctions between the will of Theater J and the will of the DCJCC, and gave an inkling of his separation from the DCJCC saying, “there’s time for me to find other opportunities, venues, and context to keep presenting all the work and visions we have artistically.”
Ms. Zawatsky says that Mr. Roth violated DCJCC policy with this interview by not going through proper communications channels. She provided me with one of the “clear and written warnings” that she references in her letter:
“Your action today in speaking the reporter [sic] from the Washingtonian and your continued statements in the press dividing Theater J from the DCJCC is an act of insubordination. You are an employee of the DCJCC and therefore are required, as are all staff, to work with the Director of Communications and the CEO on all press activities. You have been warned several times and continue to act outside the bounds of the DCJCC protocol. Additionally, you did not inform me of the press interview after talking to the reporter. He read a letter you sent to the Forward that was particularly divisive about your relationship with the DCJCC. These actions are damaging and need to stop.”
Ms. Zawatsky also reveals the precipitating event in the termination of Mr. Roth, what she terms as “a clear attempt to wrest complete control over Theater J:”
“On November 21st he sent an email to the Theater J Council and Theater J staff (who are employed by the DCJCC), inviting them to a January 6th meeting at the home of one of the council members. In the email Ari, a full-time employee of the DCJCC, asked council members to help him create a competing theater by inviting them to ‘attend an informational and brainstorming session to discuss the range, focus, viability and timetable for the establishment of a new, alternative producing company.’”
In “discussions [that] took place over several weeks beginning in the fall,” Ms. Zawatsky says that, ”With the support of the DCJCC executive committee I rejected Ari’s proposals to take Theater J from the DCJCC” that “this season (2014-2015) would be his last and that he take Theater J with him when he left.”
Mr. Roth’s alleged response to the rejection of his proposal was to tender his resignation on December 14th, effective in March. And although Ms. Zawatsky declined to provide an exact time when his email proposing a new theater company was discovered by her or the executive committee (in response to a query about the nature and timing of the discovery, she said only “Ari sent his email to several people.”), the discovery of that email by Ms. Zawatsky and the executive committee (perhaps a forwarding by an employee more sympathetic to the committee than to Mr. Roth?) must have been the final straw on the already strained relationship.
To quote Ms. Zawatsky further: “In the interim, Ari’s behavior continued to be consistent with someone who thought he would be taking the theater with him when he left. He demonstrated clear disregard to his employers and took for granted that the DCJCC would continue to pay his salary while he pursued projects under other venue names.”
To be clear, Mr. Roth has already announced his intention to form a new theater, called “Mosaic Theater Company,” which is taking up residence at the Atlas Performing Arts Center with its first production in the Fall of 2015. Part of Ms. Zawatsky’s allegations are that Mr. Roth had been planning the creation of this company for “many months.”
Ms. Zawatsky points to this particular allegation when asked to respond to the wave of support for Mr. Roth from the theater community and Artistic Directors specifically:
“I am surprised that the arts community does not recognize the important fact that Ari was planning to leave the DCJCC for many months and that he wanted to start his own venture. Now he has his own venture and is free to pursue his artistic visions as he sees fit. We are surprised that the narrative Ari has presented continues to be about censorship rather than his clear desire to move on to a new venture.”
Both Ms. Zawatsky’s and Mr. Roth’s narratives have been called into question: in the press, in official public statements, and privately among the theater community. A recent statement by Mr. Stern, long-time Theater J Council member, has called Ms. Zawatsky’s letter “distortion of the reality of what occurred.” He says, “One clear power that I agree rests with Carole is the hiring and firing of the Artistic Director, and finally she unequivocally exercised that, and is now in my view futilely searching with her ‘communications team’ for ways to justify its timing and impact.”
Going further, Mr. Stern states that Ms. Zawatsky’s accusation that Mr. Roth had been planning to leave for months “leaves out much of reality.” He says that Ari Roth and Theater J staff, in consultation with Council for Theater J, developed a number of scenarios for a cooperative way forward and presented them to DCJCC leadership.”
He puts this activity before Ms. Zawatsky’s timeline saying that at a Theater J Council meeting on October 29th, “all of the scenarios presented to her were rejected. I think it was then that it became crystal clear to us all that the die was cast and major transition at Theater J was inevitable.”
More disheartening is Mr. Stern’s description of the day that Mr. Roth was fired, that a letter from the Council, urging “a cooperative transition” “was delivered by email the morning of December 18, perhaps simultaneously with the fired Ari being escorted from the building.”
I spoke with Mr. Stern today. He said that he was “deeply disappointed” in the rejection of the efforts of himself and the Theater J Council and “skeptical about the long term ability of a professional theater of the kind we built to be under the micromanagement and supervision” of the DCJCC. But, he says “It’s clear that the Theater J Council will remain,” and that there will be members who want to work with Mr. Roth’s new venture In the new year, and “some members who will want to do both.”
He is steadfast both in his support of this season and in his support of Mr. Roth and Mr. Roth’s new endeavor. Mr. Stern will continue his involvement with Theater J in 2015, and is going to Israel and the Palestinian territories with a tour of Woody Sez, an independent production of the show which Theater J has twice presented. He will continue to be a strong voice for collaboration and cooperation, despite saying that the ending of Mr. Roth’s relationship with Theater J “didn’t have to happen this way. It really didn’t.”
Questions as we head into the new year
There is obviously much hurt here and much conflict, too. But more questions remain, unanswerable by the presentation of facts, but only by the slow chemistry of time:
– Could Ms. Zawatsky’s patience not have extended through March, when this situation might have become an uneasy decoupling instead of a bloody amputation? Will this clash affect the rest of Theater J’s season?
– Will new plays at Theater J have the same grit for politics or will they become, as playwright Edward Bond once said, “an art without politics [that] would be trivial?”
– Will the still enwombed Mosaic Theater Company flourish despite its tumultuous conception or be stillborn from this controversy?
– Will these troubles affect other Artistic Directors, whose art depends on the protection of dramatic creators from the potential censorship of funders, but whose livelihood depends on those same funders?
– In what direction will the brilliant Shirley Serotsky (Acting Artistic Director of Theater J) and the skillful Rebecca Ende (Theater J’s Managing Director), now custodians of the Theater J mantle, lead the company? As Mr. Stern says, “The burden is on the heroic Theater J staff, to pick up the pieces and hold together this season that embodies, theirs, ours, and Ari’s vision.” Their struggle, now made more burdensome by this upper echelon in-fighting, is the most important. After all, their job isn’t just to talk art or manage it or fund it, theirs is to make art, to forge bodies in an empty space into perfect moments that move us all.
– And what of the next person to take the Artistic Director’s mantle? Can that person live up to the standard of professional work that has made Theater J one of the highest watermarks in DC’s growing theatrical world? Perhaps as importantly, will that person be allowed to?
These questions transform, as a different Kushner (Rabbi Harold, not Tony) once said, to no longer asking why something happened, but asking how we will respond, what we intend to do now that it has happened.
What will we do to respond?
As the new year dawns, I know what I will do to respond. Theater J still has more than half a season left, with incredible world premiere plays by locals Aaron Posner and Renee Calarco, planned by Mr. Roth and executed by Ms. Serotsky and Ms. Ende. There’s no way I would miss those plays; there’s no way I could not support those wonderful artists. And a rough beast named Mosaic Theater Company slouches toward the H Street corridor to be born in a second coming of Ari Roth. Who would want to miss his wild new adventures? I will continue to support his work and find again and again that exhilaration he gave me so many years ago. I don’t see any contradiction in supporting all of these artists and theaters, now a part of a slightly changed DC theater scene.
In fact, supporting them all is my New Year’s Resolution. I hope it can be yours.