The embers are not merely warm but still hot from the D.C. Jewish Community Center’s firing of Theater J Artistic Director Ari Roth late last month. The conflict was long-simmering and amply chronicled: the controversial Middle East-themed plays Roth championed for years, the escalating pushback from outside agitators inflamed by what they characterized as an anti-Israel agenda.
The end was abrupt: The internal rifts and brinksmanship finally reached a head on Dec. 18 when JCC Executive Director Carole Zawatsky terminated Roth after 18 years on the job.
But even as both sides continue to field persistent media requests about a falling-out that sounds different depending on which side is talking, they are moving ahead. They have to. At Theater J, the show is going on, with writer-director Aaron Posner’s new play, “Life Sucks,” having started performances Jan. 14. And across town, Roth is striking while the spotlight is bright. He has announced a new troupe, Mosaic Theater Company of DC, that will have its headquarters at the Atlas Performing Arts Center.
“I am trying to seize the moment,” Roth says, “the energy of having luckily landed on my feet with very good partners at the Atlas.”
In the immediate aftermath of his firing, Roth received a flood of support. Playwright Tony Kushner, whose “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures” was reaching the end of its run at Theater J, protested with a letter read from the stage by the cast. More than 100 artistic directors nationwide signed their own letter backing Roth.
But none of that could change the fact that after nearly two decades — and in the middle of a six-play season that has four plays yet to come — the longtime voice and face of Theater J was gone.
“There’s a lot I don’t have right now, and a lot I’m trying to rebuild,” says Roth, who has established an office at the Atlas.
The budget for the current season at Theater J is $1.5 million, not including the money saved in rent and overhead by being in residence at the JCC. The infrastructure he enjoyed (and developed) at Theater J is a lot for Roth to replace. But the general sense is that he has been heading toward the door for some time.
“The Admission,” a play by Motti Lerner that suggested a massacre of Arab villagers by Israeli forces during the 1948 war that established Israel, was a flash point in the fall of 2013, with the small but dogged anti-Roth group COPMA (Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art) calling the upcoming play a “blood libel.” The show ended up being a success at Theater J last spring, and Andy Shallal, Roth’s former partner in Theater J’s “Peace Cafe” discussion series, produced an extension at Studio Theatre.
“The staff had no choice but to turn their back on me,” Roth says of his actions to move the play two blocks east. “That transfer was part of my insubordination.” (In the days after Roth’s firing, Zawatsky countered the outpouring of pro-Roth sentiment with a letter charging Roth with “a pattern of insubordination, unprofessionalism and actions that no employer would ever sanction.”)
Last May, Roth felt a personal sting when Zawatsky scotched a series of workshops planned for this spring of Roth’s new play, “Reborn in Berlin.” Jane Lang, who founded the Atlas and stepped down from her leadership post last month, counseled him at the time not to do anything rash. “Jane was an active listener and adviser,” Roth recalls.
Roth is positioning Mosaic as “independent, “intercultural” and “inflected with a socially progressive lens,” according to the new Web site; early this month, he told WPFW Radio that Mosaic also will include the “gentle inflection of a Jewish lens.” The company’s launch is targeted for next fall, with a season that may feature four or five plays, perhaps with colleagues Roth has been talking to at Arena Stage and Woolly Mammoth and with his new neighbor two blocks away from the Atlas — the Capital Fringe. And of course Roth promises a “Voices From a Changing Middle East” festival in 2016. The “Voices” project was canceled last year; like the axed “Peace Cafe” discussion series, it was part of what Roth thought were critical casualties of his programming.
“People are sending me things that are resonating with this intercultural encounter angle,” he says of the scripts coming his way. Themes of ethnicity and identity had been voiced afresh in recent seasons at Theater J in such works as the Sudanese-set drama “In Darfur”; David Mamet’s law office potboiler “Race”; and David Henry Hwang’s quirky identity study “Yellow Face.” Roth expects Mosaic to press ahead in those directions.
“I intend to get money,” Roth says. Last week, The Washington Post reported that he has raised $120,000.
For Theater J and the JCC, it’s a stroke of scheduling luck that they don’t have to deal with a controversial show now, because the next play up in the season happens to be Posner’s new “Uncle Vanya” knockoff, “Life Sucks (or the Present Ridiculous).” A playwright with a premiere script in rehearsal might understandably panic when the boss gets fired, but Posner didn’t flinch. For starters, everyone was aware that Roth was operating on the brink.
“By mid-fall, it was clear that Ari wasn’t going to be around for 2015-16,” Managing Director Rebecca Ende says.
Beyond that, Posner once ran Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre and New Jersey’s Two River Theater. He has worked with most of the major companies around D.C. His first Chekhov adaptation, the 2013 riff on “The Seagull” at Woolly Mammoth that he titled “Stupid F---ing Bird,” is being produced across the country. And with “Life Sucks,” Posner is directing his own script.
No turbulence there.
“Practically, the day-to-day impact was negligible,” he says. “No one’s happy about it [the firing]. But people accepted it, and we are going on with our work. . . . And that was Ari’s perspective. Keep doing the work.”
“Having Aaron at the helm of this show was such a blessing,” says Theater J Acting Artistic Director Shirley Serotsky, who has been with the company for more than six years. “Aaron’s such a pro. And he has so much experience running theaters.”
Now Serotsky and Ende are seeing through the March premiere of “G-d’s Honest Truth” by Renee Calarco and a May staging of Tanya Barfield’s “The Call” (at the Atlas, of all places). Charles Busch’s 2000 comedy “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” will conclude the season in June. By then, Theater J’s 2015-16 season will have been announced, although it will almost certainly be chosen before a new artistic director is hired.
Ende and Serotsky, sitting together in Theater J’s tiny warren of offices inside the DCJCC, realize they have a lot to prove — to artists, to audiences and, certainly, to prospective candidates for the artistic director’s job. Is there a content line that can’t be crossed?
“There is, and that hasn’t changed,” Ende says. It’s the “no BDS” policy — no artists or works that support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.
“From everything we have been told, there are no new rules,” Serotsky says. Roth’s firing “did not feel like this was an issue of content from the inside.”
Still, they acknowledge that content drove the external protests and that those protests helped fuel the internal frictions. Zawatsky, speaking in a conference room upstairs at the DCJCC, adamantly refuses to reopen the circumstances of Roth’s firing. “The decision was not politically driven,” she repeats.
Zawatsky refutes the protesters’ charges that Roth and the theater’s programming have been anti-Israel. But she declines to say whether Arab characters will take the stage in future productions.
“Certainly we will continue to do works from Israel,” she says. “And whoever is relevant to the play will be in the play.”
Ask Zawatsky and Roth whether his firing legitimizes the five-person COPMA and its protests, and you will receive two different answers.
“Completely,” Roth replies.
Zawatsky counters, “I feel COPMA gets emboldened by the press, quite honestly.”
For Roth, a major issue was “non-arts people” within the DCJCC increasingly micromanaging the theater. “That was COPMA’s point — that I was getting away with murder,” he says. “But the theater can’t be great with this kind of oversight.”
“We will not put forward a season to appease COPMA,” Serotsky insists. “I don’t know what COPMA wants.”
“Nor do we care,” Ende quickly adds. Candidates for Roth’s job are sure to ask about that, and potentially serious candidates have approached the theater, Serotsky and Ende say.
For Serotsky, one of the toughest parts of the past month has been the avalanche of national criticism from artists she admires. “Did you see the Jon Robin Baitz tweet?” a friend asked her, in a bummer moment that has typified the firestorm. (On Dec. 22, “Other Desert Cities” playwright Baitz tweeted, “I call on theater artists of conscience to decline any invitation to work at Theater J, in the wake of Ari Roth’s firing. Unconscionable.”)
The notion that Serotsky is on the wrong side of a censorship flap is painful. But she adds, “The fact that we are still here shows that we don’t agree with how this has been framed.”
Serotsky and Ende say they will know that the waters have finally calmed when they don’t have to fend off such battle cries and can simply focus on producing the next play.
“That,” Ende says, “will be a good day.”