In an extraordinary demonstration of unity and anger, more than 60 artistic directors of major theater companies from across the country on Monday denounced the D.C. Jewish Community Center’s firing of Theater J artistic director Ari Roth “for blatantly political reasons.”
Saying in an open letter that they were “outraged” by the dismissal, the directors called on the JCC’s governing board to renounce the decision and the nationwide theater community to protest “in all possible ways.”
Meanwhile, an artist who was supposed to participate in Theater J’s season has pulled out because of Roth’s firing. The highly regarded Washington director Jennifer L. Nelson, who was to have staged Tanya Barfield’s “The Call” for the company later this season, said Monday that she could not in good conscience be part of it.
“For me, going forward with the production amounts to tacit approval of the decision to fire Ari for his commitment to civil civic dialogue,” Nelson said in an e-mail. “Isn’t civic dialogue what theater is for?”
Theater J officials said they are reaching out to other artists, hoping to avoid other changes of heart, and to audience members who have been contacting the company in large numbers about the situation. “The focus for Shirley and me and the rest of the staff is really about this season and the art we’ve already committed to,” said Rebecca Ende, managing director of the theater, referring to acting artistic director Shirley Serotsky. “This was a season in large part Ari’s vision. We feel committed and passionate about producing that work as best as we can.”
Organizers of the artistic directors’ open letter said that the artistic independence of a theater’s leader is an important value that has been compromised by the Theater J executive committee’s action.
“The stated cause was ‘insubordination’ and it is absolutely clear that Roth was fired because of the content of the work he has so thoughtfully and ably championed for the last two decades,” the artistic directors’ letter said. “The actions of the JCC, in terminating him for blatantly political reasons, violate the principles of artistic freedom and free expression that have been at the heart of the non-profit theater movement for over half a century. Such actions undermine the freedom of us all.
“A free people need a free art; debate, dissent and conflict are at the heart of what makes theater work, and what makes democracy possible. We deplore the action of the JCC, offer our complete support for Ari Roth [and] urge the American theater community to protest these events in all possible ways.”
The names on the letter represent many of the most influential theater leaders in the country, leading theaters from Alaska to New York, from California to Maine. Among those signing from New York were André Bishop of Lincoln Center Theater and Oskar Eustis of the Public Theater; from Chicago, Martha Lavey of Steppenwolf Theatre and Robert Falls of Goodman Theatre; from Minneapolis, Joe Dowling of the Guthrie Theater; and from Washington, Howard Shalwitz of Woolly Mammoth Theatre and Michael Kahn of the Shakespeare Theatre Company.
Eustis, who spearheaded the drafting of the letter with Tony Taccone, artistic director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California, said that the response was unprecedented in his experience. “None of us can think of another time that there has been such complete unanimity among artistic directors,” he said. “The idea of an artistic director having to be afraid of being summarily dismissed for the content of their work creates an enormous chilling effect on the freedom of expression. Everybody understands this.”
Roth, who for 18 years had been artistic director of Theater J, an arm of the JCC on 16th and Q streets NW, was fired Thursday. The reason he was given, he said, was “insubordination” for talking to the news media without prior permission. But it was Roth’s clashes over his choices of plays having to do with Israel — some of which were implicitly critical of the country — that Roth’s wide range of supporters say was the actual cause. His dismissal was delivered by chief executive Carole R. Zawatsky, who reports to the JCC’s 17-member executive committee, after he refused to sign a severance agreement that would have required him to keep quiet about his departure.
The executive committee, in turn, reports to the JCC’s full board, to which the artistic directors addressed their appeal for a renunciation of the firing.
The firing, which also has been denounced by many in the Washington theater community, as well as by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, followed a years-long struggle over some of the programming regarding Israel that Roth championed. Roth said that he and Zawatsky, who arrived at the JCC in 2011, were often at loggerheads, as she went about what Roth has characterized as efforts to mute the impact of his offerings.
Some advocates for the community center are privately suggesting that the confrontation was a clash of management styles and that Roth had been planning to leave for some time — but on his own timetable. Roth attended the final performance at Theater J on Sunday night of Kushner’s “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures,” during which the actors read a statement from Kushner, excoriating the JCC for the firing.
Zawatsky was there, too, and she and Roth exchanged pleasantries after the show, according to some who were present. Roth is now formulating plans for a new theater company, to be called Mosaic, at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street NE.
Eustis said that it was the JCC’s upending of the usual process of parting ways with an artistic director that inflamed Roth’s colleagues across the country. “The board of directors has the option of hiring and firing an artistic director when their contract is up, based on whether the artistic director is fulfilling the mission of the theater,” he said, adding that the letter was in no way taking a position on the manner in which Israeli issues were portrayed at Theater J.
Ende, for her part, said that no change in the company’s mission is planned and that she hopes that Theater J and Roth’s new troupe will thrive.
“Certainly no one wanted it to play out this way,” she said. It’s devastating to have this happen. Ari is moving on to what is going to be an important new venture, and our hope is that there will be even more good theater in this town.”