The Playgoer: the bigger picture?

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Friday, March 03, 2006

the bigger picture?

The are two other factors determining this story, I believe. Or at least playing a role in the coverage (or lack thereof) and protests (or lack thereof) in the larger theatre community and press.

I The Politics

Let's face it. The Israeli-Palestinian issue is in a separate category for the American left, even New York liberals. No wants to touch this one. Not surprising we don't get a lot of theatre about it. I remember Joanne Akalaitis having some trouble a long while back trying to stage something of Genet's on the Palestinians. John Patrick Shanley's Dirty Story a few years back did succeed in broaching the debate--but only under cover of allegory, and to the effect of making all sides seem absurd. We probably should mention the oddly lame Broadway outing from 2004, Sixteen Wounded by one Eliam Kraiem (starring Judd Hirsch) which seemed like an attempt at sentimental reconciliation between the enemies. Regardless of whatever the play's merits might have been, it does not surprise me there was lack of interest among theatregoers and theatre artists in supporting a play reminding them of this problem that won't go away.

Ok, some will say that it's Jews (both in New York and in NY theatre), no matter how liberal, who will still stick by Israel and won't give the other side a hearing. I don't think it's quite that bad. But it does seem to me this cause is just not on the radar of the Downtown Left. Hence no reflexive instinct to come to this play's defense--as we could imagine for other causes. (Defending Corpus Christi against homophobia comes to mind, of course. But imagine the response if Public wavered on the anti-Bush Stuff Happens?)

II Forget Politics--people want to work!

Let's face it, part 2: Playwrights don't want to piss off New York Theatre Workshop. It's been very good to new work and young writers. Their "Usual Suspects" club has become a unique bestower of status and access to the downtown world--an elite for the anti-elites of Downtown. Yes, artists protested the canceling of Corpus Christi--but that was Manhattan Theatre Club. MTC is practically "the establishment" when it comes to non-profit theatre. Many artists don't expect ever to work there anyway! Chances are such a behemoth won't even get around to reading the names on the petition, so perhaps there was even a perceived smaller chance of blacklisting.

So on the one hand you have a population of hungry artists perhaps afraid to take a stand out of interest to their careers. On the other, there's Tony Kushner. Those "alums" of NYTW now successful, like Kushner and Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife) probably feel a lot of loyalty to Mr. Nicola. One only hopes they're at least communicating concern in private if they don't want to embarrass the organization publicly.
Another answer to the question, Where is Tony Kushner? Flying out to LA for the Oscars! Ponder this Sunday night: among the films celebrated are Kushner's Munich, at the very least a complex and "grey-area" view of Israeli militarism, and the foreign film nominee Paradise, for which the Academy has amazingly agreed to recognize "Palestine" as the country of origin.
When Hollywood outpaces East 4th Street in progressive politics, you know something is screwy.

(George Hunka's new podcast feature on Superfluities also addresses the careerism issue. Kudos to him for "airing" the matter.)


Anonymous said...

These are important points, Playgoer. And what George Hunka has to say in his Podcast is important as well.

I was so surprised by the silence after the Times article came out on Monday that I felt I must be missing something, that there must be a rational reason for the lack of response from my community. I remembered protesting with my colleagues outside of Manhattan Theatre Club when they pulled "Corpus Christi," and expected a similar if not identical response here -- as you point out, the circumstances are in some ways different. But the basic principle is the same.

I decided to speak out on Thursday when I played the following imagined scenario out in my head: I am a young playwright, just finishing up with school and getting ready to write plays I hope will get produced. I consider myself a political playwright with aspirations to speak to the mainstream. New York Theatre Workshop, having produced Kushner and Churchill and many others, is a theatre I dream about one day being produced at.

Monday morning I open up the New York Times. I read that "James C. Nicola, the artistic director of the workshop, said he had decided to postpone [My Name is Rachel Corrie] after polling local Jewish religious and community leaders as to their feelings about the work."

In the same section of the paper, I read a review of another play about terrorism. The play gets a rave review but also alerts me, "Don't expect deep psychological portraiture or specific political insights."

In the following days, I scour the internet, waiting to see how the theatre community responds to Nicola's decision to postpone "Rachel Corrie" because of its political content. But I find nothing. Instead I read that the play about terrorism sans "deep psychological portraiture or specific political insights" is moving to Broadway, and that "Rachel Corrie" will not be seen either on the Lower East Side or anywhere in New York.

I have not seen or read Martin McDonagh's play, but the point is this: if I were a young playwright, I would get the message loud and clear -- don't write political plays if you want to get them produced. And if you write a play that gets scheduled, and then pulled for political reasons, don't expect the theatre community to come out and support your freedom of expression. This is a ghastly message to send.

The kinds of plays our future playwrights produce will in part be a result of what values we are willing to support and defend in public forums. Plays do not happen in a vacuum; we have to speak out.

Anonymous said...

Also, Pete Gurney's play O, JERUSALEM! took a cockeyed look at the Palestinian-Israeli conflict at the Flea a couple of years ago. I was very moved by it, even if the play was a little maddening. It finds common ground in the death of a child, and at the end swelled to a utopian peaceful quantum future that was as preposterous as it was heartbreaking.

My feeling re: the silence on this Corrie censworship/"postponement" matter is that NYTW has engendered a lot of good will and they generally have good, if predictable, lefty politics there. It's the only theater that has consistently tried to nurture a supportive structure for the artists it likes. MTC has nothing like Usual Suspects. Neither does Roundabout, Lincoln Center, or The Public. So I'm guessing it has a lot of people wanting it to take a stand and announce a date, and come out of this not looking like assholes. This is really not much in their character at all. Also I would argue that NYTW is notorious for never announcing a season of plays with concrete dates. They do have a very rolling slate of works under consideration.

I'm very curious who they were talking to "in the community" that discouraged them from producing the play. Call me sheltered, but I sure don't feel any impact of Hamas' election on the cultural climate of NYC, apart from this fracas.

Anonymous said...

I think Playgoer's diagnosis is dead-on. (Am I a hypocrite for seconding it anonymously?)

That said, I'm not convinced Nicola *is* getting negative feedback privately from people like Kushner...If he was, why would he self-righteously complain about his "request for more time [being] blown into a screed about censorship"? (What does it mean for something to be "blown into a screed" anyway???)

Incidentally, according to NYTW's website, Doug Wright sits on the company's board. So he likely has access to Nicola if he wants to take advantage of it.

Alison Croggon said...

I too am curious about the "community" feedback - who and what it was. It does sound to me like asking for permission to put on a play. I'm not unaware of cultural sensitivities and not hostile to the idea of taking note of them; but unless you have a policy of a community determining a theatre's program, it sounds like giving away artistic power, which is, after all, the only power that theatres have.

Btw, Playgoer, I have stolen wholesale from your comments section for my blog (with appropriate acknowledgement, of course) - I hope that's ok.

Playgoer said...

Thank you for your comments. I agree so completely, absolutely, vociferously that I am quoting you in a separate post.
And, please, steal away for your blog. The more readers around the world, the more chance this story will finally gain traction