The Playgoer: Why Brian Lehrer is Wrong

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Monday, March 27, 2006

Why Brian Lehrer is Wrong

ADDENDUM: I only just realized how appropriate Lehrer's title is: "How to Avoid a Controversy." Yes, "avoid" is definitely the operative word here...

For one thing, because of this--the extensive Royal Court Theatre education packet for their run of My Name is Rachel Corrie last year. I shall explain...

Ever the Solomon of "Sensitivity," Lehrer--in this statement here and on the air on his popular local NPR broadcast--offers the conforting judgment that the controversy over New York Theatre Workshop's pulling out of producing the play is equally the fault of the Royal Court for supposedly insisting on no "audience outreach" at all.

This is a demonstrably false statement, and Lehrer should do some actually research on this story and take it back.

Granted, he seems to have formed (if not predetermined) this impression in his on-air interview with Corrie co-creator Katherine Viner, by goading her into taking the classic defense of the artist: My work speaks for itself. Under fire, it is not surprising she would invoke such a defense. Especially when asked why she did not feel comfortable about her play being shown around to pro-Likud partisans for pre-approval.

But, look: Viner may be now designated by Royal Court as the play's only spokesman (the top brass and her partner Alan Rickman apparently want to stay above the fray), but she frankly is not the right spokesperson for them in this story. Mainly because she was not party to the direct negotiations between the two theatres in bringing the play to New York.

More importantly, as Philip Weiss's reporting in The Nation shows (as does the Playgoer timeline), the Royal Court were not the ones to walk away from opening the play here on March 22. They were not the ones to call it off on February 17. That was Jim Nicola of NYTW. Nicola called them to say NYTW was not doing the play as scheduled--outreach or not outreach.

Lehrer's scenario implies that when NYTW made its vague proposal to do the play sometime in the future--supposedly because a whole year of "outreach" was needed--the Court said "Outreach? Talkbacks? No way!" In fact, what the Court had to respond to was: a) the unreliability of NYTW as a negotiating partner so far--esp. not fully including them in discussions of "mollifying the Jewish community" concerns; b) the lack of any firm date in the future, while the creators of the piece were understandably eager to get the show on sooner than later; and c) the clear implication that NYTW was effectively giving opposing constituencies not "outreach" but a veto-power.

Lehrer says the Royal Court's giving up on NYTW's empty promises:
indicates to me that the playwrights were more interested in picking a fight and creating a public issue – creating another grievance against pro-Israel Jews – than they were in having the play seen and more widely understood. The cause of theater, and the cause of peace, are both the worse for their actions.
If other producers and theatres (in the West End, at least, we'll see about the US) are knocking on the door...why should they wait for NYTW to get its sorry act together? "Picking a fight"??? How about, making sure your play gets on and not relying on a cowering Artistic Director who's shown no backbone in supporting you?

Another important fact Lehrer is ignorant of (or willfully ignores) is that the Royal Court did talkbacks during the London run. And, along with their producing partners, will continue to do so on the West End. Maybe they didn't personally visit Jewish community centers in advance, but... what's the precedent for that, anywhere?

And, again, there's this, the Royal Court education packet. Most damning to Lehrer is the fact that NYTW's Lynn Moffat herself, on her "Democracy Now" interview praised this--and all the Court's supporting materials--to the skies. (She seems bizarrely impressed that the Court could amass a simple chronology of the Arab-Israeli conflict. No wonder NYTW needs a year!) This led to the very weird moment of Viner (via satellite) chiming in, Well why didn't you go ahead and use our contextualization then? Leading to the even weirder moment of Jim Nicola admitting (now), It's one of my great regrets not to have let Katherine in on this process.

Weird, weird, weird.

If you care about this, please email Brian Lehrer (his show, at least) and tell him to read up on this before going on the air about this again, further misrepresenting the facts anembarrassingng himself.

Update: "The Official Blog of the Brian Lehrer Show" to their credit, I suppose, does feature some oppositing lister views. Add yours!


Anonymous said...

What these facts show is that Nicola hid behind rationalizations to cover up the deeper reasons for cancelling the play. What would those reasons be? Well, this is why we need the poets. To tell us about the psyche. But the simplest answer would be, Jim Nicola got scared that if he did this play, he might anger some people, who would use his doing the play as an excuse to get rid of him. Nicola decided to please those people, and therefore keep his job, rather than make the correct choice of producing a play he had committed to.

freespeechlover said...

I did email Brian Lehrer, but for some reason, they didn't post my message, so here it is:

Dear Brian Lehrer:

Well at least you came out of your thinly veiled political closet in your online, "How to Avoid a Political Controversy." It may surprise you to realize that outside of your version of New York, there are places in the U.S. that have similar values to London regarding theater. My Name is Rachel Corrie is being produced in Seattle next March, and I'm betting it will go to other cities sans prophylactics.

Is there not any other way to make yourself seem more important than to fall into a rather paranoid reading of Viner's motives? Wanting to stick it to the "pro-right" wing Jewish community in New York? That's projection, Brian, and it shows you didn't hear the entire Democracy Now! interview. Moffat acknowledged in that interview that she approved of the literature that the Royal Court Theater handed on to accompany the production. Clearly Viner is not against ANY fostering of community dialogue or the Royal Court would not have been handing out literature.

What Viner seemed nervous about was "talkback" sessions. I don't blame her. People can read books if they want to learn more about the political conflict. The theater is not required to provide political education. If the NYTW is a model, I wouldn't go anywhere near any theater who appoints itself as the last word on "context" or meaning of its production. Moffat and Nicola cannot even get their p.r. story straight, so why would I ever want them to remind me that some people in New York don't like Palestinians. As if knowing that were rocket science!

Your column boils down to this--you think a sector of the Jewish community in New York has rights that exceed others. That's pathetic and anachronistic.

We're supposed to be living in a democracy, not an ethnocracy. One would hope that at least among some people in the theater, in a city that used to have an image of cosmopolitanism and open mindedness, citizenship would not be tiered by proximity to the Sharon administration's policies. When did the New York theater scene, at least in your version, come to ressemble the U.S. Congress? And more to the point, when did an NPR theater reporter join the liberal Israeli intelligentsia's public relations team? Oops, I forgot. After the second intifada started.

I'm curious as to why you would take Ms. Viner's laughter at the theater as civic nanny so personally. Just because you were involved in a play that did polling to prepare the overly sensitive minds of your New Yorkers to go to the theater without having their prejudices upset, that doesn't mean that you have to be Ms. Viner's role model.

Some other theater in New York that doesn't have the luxury of ignoring ticket sales, now that the NYTW has clarified its role as fostering political manners, either will or won't pick up My Name is Rachel Corrie. It either will or won't go to other theaters where there are fewer apologists for self-censorship and fewer egos that get bruised when people differ from them in point of view.

Anonymous said...

After reading the interviews included in the Royal Court Young Writers document, it's obvious that Viner was chosen as the spokesperson because she's a clear, organized speaker and can detail chronology with context without getting lost in either. It would be helpful, although not entirely necessary, for Rickman to answer these questions:

1. When you met with NYTW, did they indicate that they did not know who Rachel Corrie was?

2. If they did ask you who she was, what did you tell them? (If not, note to Nicola: don't wait two months to do the Google search.)

Other than making the initial contact, he doesn't seem to have played any role in the later discussions.

Aside from Viner's debating skills, both Rickman and the Royal Court have positions to protect--the Royal Court because it might want (don't laugh) to work with NYTW in future, and Rickman he's an actor and probably thinks, rightly, that playing a central role in the debate is not a good career move.