The Playgoer: Mini-Mea Culpa?

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Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Mini-Mea Culpa?

Early this morning Jim Nicola posted a lengthy statement on

The tone is definitely more contrite (or approaching contrition). But, make no mistake, the position has not changed. Still all a big misunderstanding--by the Royal Court, and by we who criticize. (He doesn't call us "shrill" at least).

But I'm afriad Nicola and NYTW will not achieve "closure" on this until they stop wanting it both ways. They want to stand for the play and say they're still committed. AND they want to avoid doing it right now. The truth is, they would put this behind them much faster if they had the guts to admit, "We blew it" and then said "The play will probably not be done at NYTW due to the breakdown in negotiations. But we hope it is done somewhere in the city soon and that everyone gets to see it." Now that's closure. And that's the way to truly support "Rachel's voice."

So without beating a man while he's down, let me try to respond constructively to some of the more newsworthy items in the statement:

First--thanks for filling in my chronology, Jim! (gmta?) The statement actually offers an interesting complement (or it parallel universe?) to the Court's account. Apparently, in the weeks leading up to February 17, when the Court seems to have been all business, the NYTW staff was busy "researching" what this Rachel Corrie girl was really all about. And getting worried about what they had gotten into. As I've speculated here many times, it really seems Nicolas was sold purely on the emotional content first (explicitly acknowledged today) and then he started hearing psst, Jim--people in this country hate this girl!

I'm still troubled by the way Nicola speaks of "the Jewish community" when it's clear he didn't consider liberal and leftist Jews who have been against the Sharon government and the bulldozing. As sensitive as American Jews can be about Israel, it's not a monolithic community. (Although Jews in the New York theatre world have let us down, too, in this episode by a seeming complicity such a "blind" pro-Israel bias. Or if not complicity, then silence.)

Probably the biggest news item to me at least is in the phrase, "This moving, first-person play was given to us..." I have been wondering all along, who initiated this? Working on the chronology began to make it clear to me it was probably Rickman, who reportedly is very personally invested in the whole project. (It was he who originally conceived of the idea when he first read extended excerpts from Corrie's diaries in Viner's paper The Guardian.) This man doesn't need to be directing one-woman documentary shows for his career. So it makes sense that in November, after the end of the run at the Court, he comes in search of a US production--perhaps out of obligation to Rachel herself and her parents (who became very involved in the play). It also makes sense that the Court itself would recommend NYTW, a theatre it had a heretofore good relationship--especially over two recent Caryl Churchill plays that transferred there (Far Away and A Number). So Rickman's November meeting with Nicola must have basically been a pitch. Might the charm and charisma of a major (and Bristish!) movie star on East 4th street have been a factor here, too? An offer NYTW couldn't refuse?

(Also worth noting how once again Nicola stresses his first response to the script as "moving". How much of the problem was in his failure to recognize this right away as inevitably "political." No accident many of us have been questioning throughout this NYTW's true commitment to Political Theatre.)

Nicola claims NYTW was apprached "because of our reputation for presenting difficult subjects in a thoughtful manner." Fair enough. (Although comparing this to the hiphop outreach on The Seven is hard to read with a straight face. And the Homebody/Kabul analogy has already been debunked by John Heilpern.) But how does he account for the clear failure to make that happen this time? At least he didn't fall back on just the "no time" excuse again.

Some of you might have raised an eyebrow or two at this remark: "As we listened to various opinions and read thousands of entries on websites and blogs, we realized we needed to find ways to let Rachel’s words rise above the polemics." But don't worry--he actually seems to mean blogs about Rachel Corrie and Israel. Because, obviously, blogs like this didn't get involved until Rachel's voice was silenced. I'm sorry--temporarily rescheduled.

I wonder, will Nicola ever admit/acknowledge that this whole (let's say, well-intentioned) contorted effort to "rise above the polemics" and stand "independent of the political issues" (his 3/1 statement)-- in short, many words to the effect that they were afraid of an out of control political debate--has led to just more polemics, politics, and debate?

Have you no irony, sir? No sense of irony at all?


Anonymous said...

This statement makes me want to cry, for it reveals something I have already know for too long but not wanted to admit: there is no more art in America.

Anonymous said...

NYTW's statement can, I suppose, be interpreted as a step in the right direction. But it's an excruciatingly small step. And with all that's been said over the last few weeks--with all the opportunities NYTW has had to acknowledge error--the statement has to be seen, ultimately, as a real disappointment.

Nicola continues to change his story; he continues to massage the facts to suit his point of view; and most disturbingly, he fails yet again to acknowledge that cancelling a play because of external political factors is flat-out wrong.

Several points:

FIRST, Nicola is still hung up on the idea that he merely "request[ed] a postponement" and that he remains committed to producing the play. To persist in using this kind of language, at this late stage, is disingenuous: NYTW didn't just request a postponement. It cancelled a production for which tickets were already on sale.

Now, Nicola may be interested in pursuing the play at some unspecified future date. But the consequence, in this instance, of declining to follow through with the scheduled production was the production's cancellation. Period. And all the obfuscatory language in the world doesn’t change that. (As The Playgoer astutely observed last week, if I contract to buy your house but ask to push the closing back till next year, I haven't postponed the purchase. I've effectively nullified it.)

SECOND, Nicola's account of the community feedback process continues to change. Compare what he says in the statement with what he told The New York Observer last week.

From the new statement:

This is our standard operating procedure. Six months before producing Homebody/Kabul, for example, a play in which an English woman disappears in Afghanistan, we discussed the text, together with the playwright, with an Islamic scholar at NYU and with members of the local Afghan community...In researching My Name is Rachel Corrie...we spoke to friends and colleagues in the artistic community and to religious leaders as well as to representatives of the Jewish community, because the play involved Israeli action.

From The Observer:

"How many members of the Jewish community in New York have made their feelings known to you opposing the play?"

"I haven't personally spoken to any members of the Jewish community who've opposed the play," he replied. "I have spoken to many Jewish friends who have had degrees of discomfort with the topic...

"What do you think your decision is saying to the Arab community?" I asked Mr. Nicola.

He replied, "We haven't heard from anyone in that community, and I can't speculate as to their reactions."

So was this a genuine concerted effort at gauging local sentiment or was it a half-hearted survey of Nicola's friends? The party line has, to put it charitably, evolved.

(An aside: Is it really permissible, in New York in 2006, to consult "representatives of the Jewish community" as stand-ins for the Israeli perspective? As an American Jew and a progressive, I find it insulting. Of course, some don’t. But--at least before this incident--I would have expected a different, more sophisticated approach from NYTW.)

THIRD and most disturbing, there's nothing in this statement to suggest Nicola believes he made a mistake. Nothing at all. He continues to cling to bizarre notions about the role of theatre in the wider public discussion. He writes: "Our responsibility was not just to produce it, but to produce it in such a way as to prevent false and tangential back-and-forth arguments from interfering with Rachel’s voice."

It's not the first time Nicolas has given that kind of explanation. And yet I must confess I still have a lot of trouble figuring out what his fuzzy language is supposed to add up to. But here's a stab at it: Nicola seems to envision a kind of theatre removed from public debate--indeed, so far removed as to be essentially walled off from controversy. No cross-dialogue, no artistic-political synergy. Nothing.

This would be a puzzling stance for any theatre director. But it’s utterly befuddling coming from the director of a theatre that has produced the work of Caryl Churchill and Tony Kushner.

I would like to ask Nicola: What is the danger here? What if false and tangential arguments were made? What if a debate simmered outside the theatre and in the lobby? Did the producers of Death of a Salesman worry about "tangential arguments"? Were the backers of Angels in America paralyzed by the fear of "false" charges? Of course they weren’t. And thank God they weren’t.

Here’s a hint: An artistic director isn’t responsible for the entire public dialogue. He is only responsible for the part of that dialogue that occurs within the four walls of his institution. By cancelling "Rachel Corrie" NYTW has left its own dialogue a little bit weaker. The decision--and the theatre's failure, even at this late date, to repudiate it--speaks volumes about the company's core values.

Anonymous said...

While In London over the October 28-30 weekend, I heard more than once that "someone in New York" is interested in the play. On the evening of October 29, after the final performance of "My Name...," in the bar at the Royal Court Theatre, I heard that Rickman would be in NYC later in the fall and would try to meet with "interested parties."

Regarding Playgoer's comment "[a]s sensitive as American Jews can be about Israel, it's not a monolithic community. (Although Jews in the New York theatre world have let us down, too, in this episode by a seeming complicity such a "blind" pro-Israel bias. Or if not complicity, then silence.)"

Having watched the progress of Rachel Corrie art, both positive and negative, "not a monolithic community" is an understatement. When there was a negative reaction in my community when I attempted to produce music about Corrie in early 2004, local Jewish friends called, apologizing for not being able to stick up for me publicly. In correspondence with longtime and new Jewish friends all over the world, I've had many instances related to me about how a small minority of ultra-Zionists seek to control the debate about all issues concernig public perception of the Israel-Palestine conflict, even down to the micro-management level of this play or my music.

The fact that so many talented Jewish artists have been involved in "My Name..." has not been mentioned an any of the few major media stories about the history of this play in London and NYC. In the week after "My Name..." closed in London, media coverage of my cantata about Corrie, "The Skies are Weeping," by BBC, the Guardian, the Jerusalem Post and the Evening Standard was fair in some ways ,but manipulation of the reality of both the level of Jewish involvement in my music and sympathetic protests outside the concerts was faulty enough, the BBC ombudsman recently had to issue this statement:

"London News, BBC One London (2 November 2005) included a report on the world premiere of a cantata in memory of Rachel Corrie, who had been killed by an Israeli bulldozer as it demolished a house in the Gaza Strip (the planned premiere in the US having been cancelled because of threats to the musicians). The report mentioned "about thirty protestors from three different Jewish groups" who had handed out leaflets outside the event, and interviewed one of the protestors.

The organiser of the event complained that this, together with the omission of an interview which she had given, gave a misleading impression of Jewish attitudes to the event. She and several participants were Jewish, and one of the three Jewish groups outside was demonstrating in support of the event."

In Alaska, when trying to get my cantata performed, we also had a large group of Christian Zionists to deal with, but, by and large, they're a dim lot, and don't mix with artists.