The end to Roth’s tenure at the company he set up in the final days of 2014 is a bitter close to what had seemed a successful revitalization of his career as a theater leader in Washington. Just before creating Mosaic, in December 2014, Roth was fired as artistic director of Theater J, the company he ran for 18 years as part of the DC Jewish Community Center. In that case, his resistance to pro-Israel activists’ demands to stop producing plays that gave voice to both sides in the conflict in the Middle East set in motion his dismissal by the community center.
At Mosaic, paradoxically, forces at the opposite end of the political spectrum — those advocating a more active anti-racism stance, as well as a lengthy list of other reforms, including more strictly pro-Palestinian theater pieces — led to Roth’s downfall. Last month, over Roth’s objections, the company posted on its website a sort of mea culpa in response to a list of demands from a national group of artists of color titled “We See You, White American Theater.” That 29-page document, released in July after the death in police custody of George Floyd, was directed at the white-dominated theater industry nationwide and was signed by dozens of prominent playwrights and actors of color.
“We have programmed without consistent cultural competency, leading to harm of audience members and artists,” Mosaic’s statement reads in part. “We have been complacent in validating a siloed and singular leadership style based on the comfort of routine. We have upheld white leadership to the detriment of BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and People of Color] artistry and expertise.”
“They’ve become enamored with a new ideologically driven structural model to run a company. That is in conflict with the artistic foundations of the company,” Roth said this week, referring to the 14-member staff and the board’s executive committee, a nine-member panel that conducted tense negotiations with Roth over the past few months. In a series of recent interviews, the 59-year-old Roth alleged that he was mostly shunned by the staff upon his return in October from the sabbatical, during which he says he was supposed to have taken time to work on a play, reflect on his flaws, and adopt a new, less highhanded management style.
The extraordinary events at Mosaic reveal a crisis that may be spreading more widely throughout the theater world, as the covid-19 shutdown gives nonprofit companies and their boards time to contemplate a philosophical reset, and staff members express their displeasure with the status quo. In recent months, a growing number of top-rated theater companies have hired or promoted BIPOC theater administrators, in response to the “We See You” document and other initiatives.
Mosaic, which has produced a number of plays by and about people of color and had on its agenda an ambitious trilogy about the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, is hoping to move on quickly, despite daunting financial challenges. (While the troupe has avoided layoffs, it recently had to cut more than $1 million from its budget.) The board issued a carefully worded statement Tuesday night, linking Roth’s departure to a positive, evolving culture at the company.
“As part of this next phase,” wrote Board Chair Bill Tompkins, “Artistic Director Ari Roth will be leaving Mosaic to pursue new opportunities. Following all due process and a full consideration of his thoughts, and with a sincere thanks to Ari for being the spark that launched Mosaic, the board of directors unanimously voted to accept his resignation. His is a legacy of creativity, drive and passion that helped shape this theater company.” Seiden and the company had no other comment when contacted by The Post.
The upending of Roth’s tenure commenced in June, when the staff presented Mosaic’s board with a 17-item list of, according to Roth, “white supremacist behavior and management practices” by both Roth and Seiden. (Mosaic has seven White and seven BIPOC staffers, Roth said.) Micromanagement, tokenism, overwork, inadequate compensation and public fighting between Roth and Seiden were among the grievances. As part of his sabbatical, he said, Roth composed a statement of contrition, which was disseminated to the staff.
In his absence, the company instituted an “exciting restructuring,” according to a letter Seiden posted to the public. “The ‘time out’ has given us an opportunity to evaluate our internal structures,” he wrote. “The Theater is steeped in the centuries-old myth of the singular mostly male artist of genius. But this ‘visionary with vast power’ model has been problematic.”
“ . . . A key innovation we’re exploring is what we’re calling ‘values-based decision making.’ That is: We are trying to acknowledge and prioritize the many and sometimes competing values at play in our decisions. This transparency builds trust and the ability to make decisions with maximum buy-in.”
For his part, Roth says that “tensions were exacerbated, not ameliorated,” by the process he was subjected to, and that he had no choice but to leave. “It is a company I still very much care for,” he wrote in a farewell letter to the public dated Wednesday, “a company that finds itself, like so many institutions, in the throes of cascading crises, navigating valiantly, but in Mosaic’s current state, with depleted trust in the structural leadership role that a founding artistic director can offer.”