The Playgoer: Semantics

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Sunday, March 12, 2006


Here's another Jim Nicola statement I haven't seen before, apparently from Variety, in an article printed on this Alan Rickman fan site. (Which I hear actually broke the whole story to begin with!) Anyway, some theme and variations here, but slight shift of message. I also include the interesting remarks of reporter David Benedict:

"As we went through the process, we lost confidence that, in the short time we had, we could to the best of our abilities keep Rachel Corrie's voice heard above the din of other voices attempting to use the play for their own political purposes," Nicola tells Variety. "We were never for a second concerned about the response from people who actually sat in the theater and experienced the work - the strength of the piece speaks for itself." The news that the NYTW engagement had been bumped from the schedule prompted concerns that Nicola was entering into the dangerous territory of self-censorship - fearing bigots, and silencing debate before it could happen. The move also appeared myopic in terms of the rest of his planning. Would politicized writers like NYTW regular Caryl Churchill be happy to have her work seen there again?

[...] Nicola insists, however, that the NYTW run eventually will go ahead.
"Our commitment to the project has never wavered," he says. "We asked a rather
routine question, or so we thought, of our colleagues: Could we move to a later
date and find the time for us to do our job better? That question has been
interpreted by them as censorship. It bewilders us and disappoints us."

First, there's that bit again about "voices attempting to use the play for their own political purposes." I used to think he meant something like Hamas. But now it's clear: he had a vision of Jewish groups picketing the theatre and its "terrorist" play. Does he honestly believe this will be any less of a risk six months from now? A year?

Second. One reason this argument goes nowhere is every time someone says "cancelled" NYTW responds, "No, postponed!" So let's examine this.

Let's say you are about to move into an apartment. You've met with the broker, the owner, whoever. Perhaps you've even signed the lease? So you pack your stuff, you move out of your old place. Then you get a call saying, "We actually don't want you to live here right now. But how about maybe next year sometime?" Would you consider that simply a "postponement" of your living arrangements?

Since theatre booking is essentially a real estate deal anyway, the analogy is not really a stretch. Of course, I have no idea if the equivalent of lease--contracts?--had been signed. (Should be straightforward to track down, though, no?) My point is, a postponement is a cancellation. It means, we're not doing this right now. And in the world of theatre, some hypothetical statement of maybe doing play in the future is all too familiar as, well, a rejection. Ask the playwrights out there.

Now to their credit, New York Theatre Workshop is actually notorious in the off-Broadway world for basically never committing to any show. Ask any of the "usual suspects" and they'll tell stories of "backtracking" on interest in their projects. It's an environment to nourish and encourage, which is great. But at some point all artists need to know if their work is going ahead or not. Nicola seems to enjoy juggling many balls at once, and since he calls the artistic shots there with almost total authority, he can afford to keep it loose and make up his mind--or change it--whenever he feels like it. So when most nonprofit companies mail out a brochure to past ticketbuyers announcing their "season", from NYTW you'll get something like "Here's 7 of 8 plays we're thinking of. Trust us, they're all good. And we'll probably do 4 or 5 of them."

My point is not to criticize this process. Hey, it's worked for them. But it's funny that the most charitable thing I can say about Nicola's position in all this is that he probably thought he could treat Rachel Corrie the same way--in other words, like the playwright was just another desperate downtown writer who will gladly wait another year (and let NYTW retain the rights!) since Jim is his or her only hope. You can imagine, then, how Mr Rickman and the Royal Court Theatre responded to such assumptions.

Hey, it's just a theory. And theories are still all we have...


Anonymous said...

It's not a bad theory, but it leaves out the fact (at least if the Royal Court people are to be believed) that tickets were already on sale and flights had already been booked.

Stepping back, though, I think we're now at a critical point in the development of this story: I'd argue that NYTW has not yet done irreparable damage to its good name and its standing in the artistic community. But, three weeks into the story, the window for action is quickly closing.

The complicating factor, of course, is that simply rescheduling the play for May, after its West End run, may no longer be possible: The Royal Court may not sanction it. (Can you blame them?)

But that's a decision for the Royal Court. How NYTW comes out of this episode, I'd argue, will depend upon how decisively the company abandons its current "what's the big deal" posture and upon the kind of discussion it has with its constituents about what's transpired over the last few weeks.

And that will require a few steps.

First, NYTW needs to acknowledge in the clearest possible terms that cancelling a production because of the possiblity that it might offend external critics and theatre outsiders is a bad thing. Period. No backtracking, no gibberish about "contextualization."

Second, NYTW needs to put forward a timetable for producing RACHEL CORRIE at the earliest possible date. If the Royal Court won't allow the production to go forward, fine. But NYTW needs to show its constituents that it's doing everything possible to make a production happen.

Third, NYTW needs to engage in a dialogue with its constituents about all the questions the last three weeks have raised, and how things might be handled different in the future. A panel discussion featuring Jim Nicola, Wayne Kabak, Oskar Eustis, John Weidman and Christopher Shinn would be a good start. All of the theatre's associate artists, subscribers and donors should be invited, and plenty of time should be allocated for audience questions.

To my mind, taking those three steps would be enough: NYTW would emerge from this debacle more or less unscathed. The story would end up as a footnote rather than a defining moment.

Of course, it is far easier to do nothing: To ignore pesky critics and to assume that those who have kept silent endorse the theatre's stance. But if NYTW takes that approach, it will be paying for its inaction for years.

Kabak and Nicola need to realize (and quickly) that the majority of those writing about and speaking out about NYTW's behavior are doing so not because they want to see the theatre crumble but because they want to save the company from the consequences of a terrible, reputation-bruising mistake.

Anonymous said...

I can't imagine the possibility of demonstrations outside or inside the theater had anything to do with Nicola's decision to withdraw "My Name..." from current scheduling. The history of presentation of Rachel Corrie art suggests otherwise.

The first full-length treatment of Corrie, "The Skies are Weeping," was cancelled by the composer because of explicit threats b y Zionists and Christian Zionists to performers and because of a hostile public meeting. The presenters didn't cancel or postpone, the composer did, after being told his student performers would endure sanctions. There was pamphleteering at the public meeting from several viewpoints, but it was done tastefully.

That was in April, 2004. Since then, many artists have mounted successful events about Corrie. In NYC, composer Paul Crabtree's "An American Persephone," which focused upon Corrie, was peformed without negative reaction last year. Bread and Puppets Theater has mounted a Rachel Corrie production designed for young people and put it on tour. Rude Guerilla Theater's players have described to me "an original play we did last year [which] featured a monologue about Rachel Corrie that pretty much brought down the house, so she's really special to us."

Many songwriters have presented credible works about Ms. Corrie, most notably, Dave Rovics.

When "My Name is Rachel Corrie" was presented in London in 2005, demonstrations were civil. Jews demonstrated in favor of the play, as well as against. When I went on October 29, I saw Jewish friends in the audience.

In November, 2005, when my cantata, "The Skies are Weeping," was finally presented after cancellations in Anchorage and NYC, demonstrators as well as pampleteers outside the venue were cordial. One demonstration against - two for the performance. The Bobbies were bored, some wishing they could be on the other side of Mare Street, where the first night of an ale sampling contest was about to begin.

All these performances and productions have involved Jewish performers. Some have been created and inspired by Jewish artists. "My Name is Rachel Corrie" is a case in point.

A viable group of young dramatists and actors in London is now soliciting 10-minute plays about the NYTW's decision and its consequences!

I doubt NYTW will be able to ever mount this small play. They certainly deserve no help getting it put up on their stage at this point, do they?