The Playgoer: Barnard Panel notes

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Friday, April 07, 2006

Barnard Panel notes

A very engaging panel at Barnard today, if a bit under-attended. The six panelists ultimately all took a clear stand against New York Theatre Workshop’s actions. The theatre declined to send a panelist but two individuals with some affiliation were in the audience and offered some words in defense of the company toward the end.

Here are some quick notes I took on the panel’s opening statements:

-Theatre historian Marvin Carlson spoke eloquently on the feeling of “betrayal” resulting from NYTW’s actions and statements, considering its very reputation and contract with the New York audiences has been one of a theatre of risk-taking and provocation. He also read from some correspondence he’s had with playwright Paula Vogel, who appears to be as outraged as anyone, especially over what it means for the prospects of an American political theatre that isn’t imported from the UK.

-Critic Alisa Solomon did the service of laying out just how great the obstacles are in our culture to open dialogue re: Palestine. And such opposition, she rightly concluded, is exactly why we need to “preserve the space of the theatre for debate.” She cites some of the sicker anti-Corrie propaganda on the internet and rightly deemed it unworthy of any further “contextualization” in presenting the play.

-John Heilpern, critic of the NY Observer, was the most blunt. He is still as appalled as he was when he first wrote about this four weeks ago that this could happen in “the largest democracy on earth.” He admitted to some resentment, as a journalist, over the brush-off he received from NYTW when he began calling for comment and clarification (as in misleading response, or none at all). As if answering to the press wasn’t necessary in a case like this. He accused the New York Theatre of political cowardice in general—pointing out Stuff Happens at the Public, for example, would have been braver to produce in New York two years ago, when it was first written and the Iraq war was still more popular. (Now it is “safe, smug, and supported by the New York Times.”) Best of all, he hit the nail right on the head by reminding us that “our nonprofit theatres are held in public trust,” and should therefore be held accountable as such. (As I have said here before, such theatres are our de facto “National Theatre.”)

-Gregory Mosher (director and producer, former head of the Goodman and Lincoln Center Theatre) was tentative at first, expressing empathy for NYTW’s Jim Nicola as a fellow producer. But he said it was clear that Nicola had not calmed down enough during the decision making to think clearly. As the conversation went on, Mosher kept drawing attention to how the pieces of NYTW’s defense just don’t add up and that it was glaringly obvious Nicola needed to at least admit to making a mistake before moving on. (Comparing it to Clinton and Monica!)

-At last, the playwrights: Christopher Shinn put it well in warning of the fear of “feelings” evident. How amazing that this would happen to a play all because of the “feelings” it might evoke in the audience. (Especially at a time when we’re lucky to get feelings out of audiences at all!) Kelly Stuart (Demonology) movingly testified about her own experiences being cancelled by the Guthrie over a politically challenging play after 9/11, and also of being accused of lacking “balance” after researching a play about Turkey firsthand on location. Most depressing statement of the day might have been her admission that she just bought herself a set of DV camera equipment since film may now provide her with more political freedom than most theatre companies will allow.

The ensuing discussion also touched upon the problems inherent in nonprofit theatre structures (board-dominated, corporate influenced) in general. But there was debate over playwrights and theatre artists have to throw in the towel and start their own companies from the ground up—or just not stay silent and keep goading our existing institutions to stand for something.

The unofficial representatives of NYTW heard from mostly repeated familiar defenses: the need for “context,” the misunderstanding of “postponement,” that the rushed schedule was unfairly dictated by Alan Rickman’s film commitments. But also some new arguments that were apparently circulating at an internal meeting this week Nicola held with NYTW’s “Usual Suspects” of young artists. Such as: that the show couldn’t open by March 22 due to difficulties with set and light designs (even though the London design was already done and was, I assume, being imported!); that the NYTW Board stood firmly behind the decision to go ahead with the play (so they didn’t yank it or apply pressure); but also some more negative implications about Rickman misleading them about the play’s politics in his initial pitch, and about Vanessa (“zionist hooligan” hatah) Redgrave’s backing of the London production somehow tainting the whole thing all along. (Or that they weren’t fully informed up front of her involvement. Something like that. As if it mattered.)

Maybe it didn’t seem like a fair fight with the six panelists pouncing on the two defenders, but pounce they did, leading to a “lively exchange” as moderators like to say. I’m afraid NYTW will have to make a much more proactive effort—like showing up to an event in a more official capacity—to “mollify” the community they have now offended, in the service of mollifying another.

Any of you who were there, please help fill out some of the rest. A lot else was said. (It went on over two hours.) I also plan to ask at least the panelists who prepared written opening statements to share with me for posting. So stay tuned.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the account. I'd like to have attended, but I had to work.

One or two questions occur to me. Is there reason to believe that things will be better in the future? That Stuff Happens took its time coming to New York and Rachel Corrie has for now been turned away--these are not promising signs.

Is there something that hopeful and concerned individuals can do to help prepare the ground for other plays of this kind? It's not particularly easy to say what went wrong in the Rachel Corrie case, beyond saying "Jim Nicola made a mistake," so it's not easy to see what anyone can do to improve the situation. But there ought to be something...

Playgoer said...

RagingJess over at All the Rage was also there at Barnard and has added her reflections at:

To respond to John B.'s excellent question: I say the best way to encourage more political theatre is to... encourage more political theatre. For instance, speaking out about this case. Hopefully the result of this will not be theatre co's backing off controversy even more. But rather, hearing how badly many of us want politically challenging work and will come out to see it. We need to let to not just Nicola know--but Eustis, Bishop, and everyone uptown and downtown know we're upset about this decision. And next time they "poll" constituencies, not to leave us out!

Anonymous said...

A very good summary of the panel. The only thing I'd add: The flagrant, in-your-face disingenuousnes of the NYTW toadies was a surprise, even after everything we've seen so far.

These two women were still defending the idea that this was all just some big misunderstanding and that everything about Nicola's behavior was routine. And they smiled their way through their lies. Caryl Churchill could write a play about their doublespeak. I think she already has.

I was sorry no one asked them what companies they worked for, how much they were being paid, and what message NYTW was sending by hiding behind the dirty skirts of PR flunkies.

In that respect, the panel was a new low for NYTW. It can't admit error; it can't apologize; and its contracted out it's institutional voice to Madison Avenue.

What an embarrassment.

Anonymous said...

Ferhevensakes! We've come full circle--back to Alan Rickman's damn film schedule. Only now he also misled them with respect to the politics of the play too! Maybe he intimidated them by showing up in a stretch limo, accompanied by his entire entourage, and took them out for a really expensive dinner, as well.

It shouldn't be that difficult to admit that they didn't find out who Rachel Corrie was in the first place, and then ask for help when they ran across the (frankly, disgusting) diatribes published on the Net. Having failed to do basic research, they then panicked and canceled (yes, canceled) the production AFTER most of the arrangements had been made.

But instead of admitting that they blew it, they've spent the last five or six weeks shifting the blame to everyone from the Royal Court to the financiers to the political climate to, yes, Alan Rickman's film schedule.


Anonymous said...

I can't imagine Alan Rickman misleading them about anything since he is known to be a person of integrity, but, ummmm, wouldn't an allegation that he mislead them about its content imply that no one at the NYTW had bothered to read the goddamned play before agreeing to stage it?

Speculating from here in the boonies, this is the scenario I am piecing together:

The NYTW's local Jewish (or, as least, pro-Israeli, community-members), are probably their habitual benefactors. But they are only willing to sponsor art that depicts their own struggles, and perhaps have even threatened to withdraw future funding.

According to these "friends" of the arts, he who paints a Palestinian as a human being instead of a soulless, terrorist animals must be censored, since we all know that all Arabs are soulless, terrorist animals.

But let us not lose sight of the fact that IT'S ONLY A PLAY.

It's about one girl's ideals and opinions. She died for them, but more importantly, she truly and intensely lived for them.

I offer a new spin on some familiar words from another play:

“And what's his reason? I am a Palestinian. Hath not a Palestinian eyes? Hath not a Palestinian hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions, fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons,
subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Jew is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we
not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you
in that...”.

Heather Hayes

Anonymous said...

I love Heather Hayes's rewrite. If you prick us, we all bleed.

Anonymous said...

I did not mean to suggest that Alan Rickman was dishonorable in his meetings with NYTW. I don't know the man. I know nothing about him, particularly, and pay little attention to what celebrity publicists put out concerning their charges. I only suggested that, while it may have been that NYTW was mesmerized by Rickman's celebrity, they should have been sensible enough to find out who Rachel Corrie was and examine the issues surrounding the play BEFORE agreeing to stage it. (We are making the assumption here that they also read the play.)

In this respect, what Mr. Rickman told them was thoroughly irrelevant to the issue at hand. No matter what he said, or didn't say, NYTW was lazy and sloppy, and should not be able to hide behind either Rickman's lack of candor (if there was such) or his film schedule.

And I too like Heather Hayes's rewrite. Very nicely done!

Anonymous said...

i agree w. anonymous in that after reading these articles it was scary to witness a flunky show up and speak in a lying tone of voice. I've seen people speak this way on tv, white house press meetings, spin, etc, but never in the flesh. she had no idea what she was talking about and didn't seem to believe what she was saying. one interesting moment was when she mentioned that the Royal Court gave out background literature with the program and that it takes time to research and write this. the panel asked: "why not use the Royal Court's pamphlet?" silence... then she said "new york is different from london." she was forced to try and explain that, but couldn't...obviously because her answer is offensive.

the pressure should continue as long as possible so more and more stupid things can be said on the record.

saw a watergate show on PBS last night, very good show. reminded me that it's he-said-she-said until the tapes come out. even with obvious contradictions and stupidity. every conversation ever was recorded? okeee. imagine reading some of the NYTW's emails...

Anonymous said...

Wish I could've been there... And I wonder how many other theater people are thinking the same thing that Kelly Stuart did - and bought their own cameras. I know I've been considering it.

Thanks for keeping us all informed.