'Corrie' Fears Unrealized

By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 18, 2007

On opening weekend of the Contemporary American Theater Festival, Shepherd University campus police patrolled the small theater where "My Name Is Rachel Corrie" is playing, a sign of the heated reaction that has accompanied the solo piece wherever it has gone. There were no incidents or demonstrations, though during the lead-up to the festival, a stack of passionate letters urged producing director Ed Herendeen to drop the play, some subscribers canceled and one board member resigned.

But the dip in ticket sales and donations that Herendeen had steeled himself for when he chose to do the radioactive play about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not come about, according to Herendeen and festival staffers. The four-play repertory continues through July 29 in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

"We dodged that bullet, so to speak," said Herendeen, who early this year estimated that in a worst-case scenario the festival might lose as much as $50,000 by doing the provocative play. However, ticket sales for the July 6-8 opening weekend were up 3 percent over last summer's opening, Herendeen said, and donations so far are up $21,000 over 2006.

One festival board member, H. Alan Young, resigned in protest over "Rachel Corrie," which sketches the life of the young American activist killed by an Israeli bulldozer in the Gaza Strip in 2003 while protesting Israeli military incursions. Festival associate producing director Peggy McKowen said that after a board retreat in March at which feelings about the play were aired, Young resigned and rescinded a "verbal pledge" of $100,000 toward the festival's capital campaign.

Young would not speak on the record to Backstage.

One thing that came out of the retreat, board President Stephen Skinner said, was a reaffirmation that "the board's role is not to interfere in the art at all. We can only support or not support our artistic director, and we overwhelmingly decided that we supported his choice."

Herendeen roundly rejected criticisms that the play is anti-Semitic in its impassioned challenges, through Corrie's own words, to Israeli policies during its occupation of Gaza. He sees Corrie as an American persona -- the idealistic student. "If she's anti-anything, she's anti-violence," he said. "She could've ended up in a lot of dangerous parts of the world and a similar thing could've happened."

Stanley Marinoff, a board member whose family has been involved with the festival for 15 years, said he agreed with many of Young's concerns. "The play is about a naive young lady who went off to be a human shield for an organization that's probably a terrorist [front] organization," he said. But Herendeen, whose skills as a director Marinoff praises, has complete artistic autonomy and does not need the board's approval for plays he wants to produce, Marinoff said.

Under the circumstances, Marinoff believed the thing to do was to offer "a balanced presentation" that gives theatergoers a view "other than what was presented in the play" to consider. This has been attempted with a series of post-show discussions, including a July 8 Peace Cafe, where about 100 theatergoers debated the play's merits. There is also a two-page ad in the playbill countering the play's contentions. Corrie's parents attended the opening weekend and an afternoon panel discussion July 7.

Herendeen maintains that "Rachel Corrie" and the other three plays in the rep (Jason Grote's "1001," Lee Blessing's "Lonesome Hollow" and Richard Dresser's "The Pursuit of Happiness") are achieving his purpose -- provoking discussion. "People are talking to one another and they're talking to me," he said, "and isn't that what we're supposed to be doing? . . . I'm convinced more than ever that this was the right decision."

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