The Playgoer: NYTW Panel #1 Notes

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Thursday, April 20, 2006

NYTW Panel #1 Notes

The Headline: "Nicola Says, No Mistake"

As much as tonight’s panel discussion at NYTW tried to broaden the topic beyond “Rachel Corrie,” and despite some structural measures taken to fend it off or minimize it, there was no avoiding it in the end.

As for questions, they were allowed—but only as submitted on index cards. (92nd St Y style, for those of you who have been to one of those super-controlled evenings.) The moderator seemed to make the effort to read all of the cards, but I must say it was hard to formulate a good question that way—especially since they began collecting them just 30 minutes into the speakers, which was before Jim Nicola spoke, by the way. (I got one in after he began.)

The panel was arranged so that Nicola went last, after the rest—Joanne Akalaitis, Bill T. Jones, Irene Lewis, and Ari Roth—all told of their own experiences with controversy in the theatre, usually ones where hostile or fearful reactions to their work took them by surprise. By putting aside the NYTW case (i.e. the reason people were showing up to this thing) alongside and after others, perhaps the hope was to make Nicola’s actions less exceptional? (Even though no one else's situation was really analagous to him. No one had postponed or cancelled a controversial show. In fact, most were the ones being protested against!) One message that clearly came from all the opening statements was, in a phrase often used, “you never know what’s going to be controversial.” While it may not have been coordinated, it had the effect of excusing how Nicola did not foresee the risks of putting on “Rachel Corrie.”

It was odd we had to wait 45 minutes to hear what most of us had come to hear. Not that Akalaitis & co. were not engaging speakers. They were. But they had little if any connection to the case at hand, and their examples were tangential at best. When Nicola took the mic, though, he did, to his credit, address the issue head on, and once again recount the story. He reasserted his admiration for the play itself (“I completely fell in love with it”) and its “powerful image of an idealistic person committing to give their own life.” “It never occurred to me people wouldn’t see it as I saw it.” Acknowledging this sounds naive now, Nicolas cites in his defense statements by “Corrie” “co-editors” Rickman and Viner playing up the piece’s emotional appeal transcending political partisanship. Much was made of a piece of paper with a Viner quote to that effect—even though Nicola admitted never meeting with Viner in person during the process. Was the point here to imply the authors misled him? (As was the scuttlebutt coming out of a recent powwow Nicola held with NYTW’s “Usual Suspects.”) I would counter, of course you should expect a clever pitch from a movie star like Alan Rickman! Plus, Rickman probably does believe in the emotional appeal over the political—as the script itself shows. So, in short, big deal. It’s still clear that no matter what the playwright thinks, an Artistic Director is obliged to think independently as well, right?

Well maybe not, Nicola maintained. He claims his number one priority is always to serve the playwright’s vision. And if Alan Rickman wanted a non-political environment for the play (“a comfortable situation in which the audience could set aside preconceptions” and “allow them to be neutral”) that’s what he wanted to give him. Problem was—he found out a little later that was going to be hard. He found that out by speaking to “individuals in the Jewish community”—and he now stresses “private individuals,” “Conversations between board members and friends, between staff and friends.” (Funny, but it did sound like “Let’s find some Jews!” I had no idea it was so goy over there.) It’s clear Nicola still has no intention of revealing any names, under the protection of “private conversations.” Also: "No outside group pressured us. They gave us opinions, but no pressure." Maybe I didn't get that quote right, but there does still seem to be some muddiness over the distinction between "individuals" and "organizations."

So, “because I love this play,” he says, “I asked the Royal Court and the co-editors for more time.” He still sticks to the point that the original opening date of March 22 felt too “rushed” and was only “due to the availability of the director, Alan Rickman, and the star.” I had no idea Megan Dodds, who after relative obscurity has now found the role of her life, was equally busy! This call he made to the Royal Court (I assume on February 17) in his mind was “starting a conversation” about a new opening date. This is why he still claims he was shocked to read in the Guardian days later that the play was censored by his theatre. It seems he didn’t realize how badly that February 17 phone call went.

I’m actually inclined to believe he’s not lying about that. About his perception, at least. But he certainly seems to have made a bad call on what the Royal Court’s reaction would be to postponement without a date. He claims that he wanted to talk dates, but that Royal Court didn’t get back to him on that, and instead went to the media. In other words, the Court flipped out. They’re nuts!

Later I submitted a question asking “Why did you need a year of extra time?” and Nicola actually denied he needed that long. Only Rickman’s film commitments, he says, would have made them have to wait till next season. So presumably Rickman has movies shooting from April through the end of the year? Possible. (And verifiable...) But why not say! Nicola could help himself if he were able to say, “Hey, I wanted to do it just a month or two later, but Rickman had Harry Potter Part Ten to do.” Nicola’s inability, still, to spell out which future dates he was considering is a wall I keep coming up against. You can’t deny “indefinitely postponing” without offering a very specific counter-narrative of “definite” postponement.

At least he said nothing about lighting plot problems or travel visas. As for Rickman’s film schedule, though, I can’t help wondering how much time he even really needed to rehearse a one-woman show he had already directed with the same actress. Yes, there would have had to be some scenic adjustments and such. In an idea world, maybe a two-week rehearsal “pick-up” process. But I wonder if he would have been amenable to just putting in one week and sending an assistant? Whatever the particulars, doesn’t there seem to be a lot of room for negotiation here? That is, if Nicola was offering a production soon. But again, Nicola claims the Royal Court were the ones to abruptly cut off negotiations.

In other news, Nicola acknowledged for the first time publicly that NYTW did not have the rights to “Rachel Corrie” anymore--indeed that they never had! In saying he hopes it “will be seen” he also finally came close to admitting it will never be done at his theatre. Hopefully that can go some way toward closing this chapter.

When Nicola was asked if he thought his decision was a mistake he indeed said, “No, I don’t,” adding: “If the producer is not confident and committed that is a bad collaborator.” (He did admit at other times to misjudgments in handling the controversy afterwards, though.) This brought home his main appeal throughout the evening regarding “context.” From his point of view, once he became aware of how much some people were going to attack this play he wanted to be best prepared to defend it—and, presumably, defend his theatre company. While he proceeded to prepare this defense (aka “context”) in late January-early February, somewhere around mid-February he decided he needed more time, but not sure how much more time. (Notable that there was no mention at all tonight of Hamas or Sharon’s coma.)

That’s the essence of Nicola’s story tonight, as fairly as I can represent it. After he spoke, there could finally be more dialogue. Not, unfortunately, directly with the audience but amongst the panel! It was fascinating to watch who ventured to come to Nicola’s side, who stayed out of it, and who took him on directly. The last of these was roles was played by Irene Lewis who squarely admonished him for not sticking to his passion for the play and trusting his audience. (Or trusting the new audience that would come out for this.) That she said this after recounting her own efforts to bring a controversial Israeli play about the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin ("The Murder of Isaac") to her Center Stage in Baltimore, gave her some credibility. (She endorsed all kinds of outreach and context—but only after the play is committed to, not as part of a vetting process.) Bill T. Jones was less confrontational, but asked Nicola probing questions about his decision making process, general info that didn’t reveal much to the informed, but at least someone was there to get answers!

Nicola’s main defender turned out to be Ari Roth, head of DC’s “Theatre J” (that’s J for Jewish). Roth—in recounting his own theatre’s work—seemed to present the case Nicola wishes he could present. Roth displayed great fluency in middle east issues and took pride in the very aggressive outreach efforts he makes amongst his relatively small audience. (He opened a “Peace Cafe” for post-show discussion between Jews and Muslims.) Roth insisted “Rachel Corrie”--while an “effective” play—presented a special challenge to a theatre because it’s one-sided and therefore demanded “filling in the blanks.” It became clear, though, that Roth would have spotted that in the play from the moment he picked it up.

I’ll try to follow up with some more notes tomorrow, but that seems plenty to digest for now. For those of you who were there, please fill out the picture. For those who were not, and you want to know more, ask away!

In short—nothing really changed in our knowledge of this story. As a discussion on controversy and theatre, it was fine in that we heard some good anecdotes from a very cool panel. But not everyone seemed to be there for the same purpose. It was kind of like a limited Jim Nicola press conference, with four other dignitaries along for the ride.


Anonymous said...

That's really what these artistic directors want -- "peace cafes" in the lobby of every theatre. Good Lord.

freespeechlover said...

Thanks anonymous, you said exactly what I was thinking. Let's all hold hands and eat hummos and have the epiphany that we're all human. Wow, that's truly a challenging, progressive act that I have to put down on my calendar.

I'm glad that Irene Lewis, at least, did not let the NYTW get away with this nonsense. Ditto Katherine Lewis. Ditto Megan Dodds. Do I see a pattern here of Jewish and gentile women pushing the boundaries of acceptable speech? hmmmm.

Larissa said...

Am I totally gullible to have found Nicola's defense of his actions sound? Or was I disarmed by his nervous fidgeting and high-pitched voice? One question he didn't attempt to answer (since no one asked) was, why he didn't give such a clear explanation immediately after he made the decision--tonight's explanation didn't admit to any fears the NYTW wouldn't do right by any one group (as his original statement did), but rather a fear he wouldn't do right by, well, history, accuracy, balance... Someone also brought up the idea, and I wish they had taken it further as it seems quite relevant to Rachel Corrie, that a play doesn't always have to be balanced--it can assume a clear and extreme bias
and even display factual inaccuracies and still be legit if it is says something compelling and if its basic themes ring true. But then why didn't he treat Rachel Corrie as one of those types of pieces if he couldn't be sure of its balance? Plus, it was already a full production in London; I wonder what further research he wanted to do before he felt justified in mounting the show--did he not trust the London dramaturgs to have created a show that would fly in New York? and I wish I had better idea of what those potential changes would be (someone asked him that question and he couldn't or wouldn't answer it with specifics). Either the play is one which attempts a balanced argument and succeeds or fails, orit's one that adamantly expresses one side and does it well or poorly. It seems this is the latter, and that it does it well, which leads me to think we've swung around to your original complaint or NYTW's, or Nicola's, pussyism. arrgh! so complicated.

freespeechlover said...

Again, I find myself in agreement with Larissa. I almost posted the exact same point--there are plenty of plays that have a point of view, even a tendacious one, and there no one rushes for prophylactics to "contextualize" them.

And why does the practice of submitting questions on little white cards not surprise me. Is there anything that doesn't smack of high school in panel discussion #1?

Besides, the intrepid Irene Lewis.

Anonymous said...

Stop -- we shouldn't have this discussion till we have all entered the peace cafe.

Anonymous said...

I'm astonished by some of the willful misrepresentations here. First, nobody put forward the idea of a "peace cafe" as something all artistic directors should have or should want. It was described as one project by one director in one specific place: a Jewish theater based in a Jewish Community Center, where they are bravely and admirably doing some work that squarely challenges the happy Zionist mythologies that presumably many in their audience cling to. They DO THE PLAYS without apology or "balance" and then create opportunities for the audience to keep talking about them, and to have conversations with people who might have different points of view from their own, in a congenial setting with food. This is also a project that the theater developed over time in collaboration with folks from the Arab-American community. In the context of Israel-Palestine plays at Ari Roth's theater, this strikes me not only as sensible, but smart and courageous. Why the cynicism?

Second, Roth's "defense" of Nicola was nuanced and more complex than Playgoer gives him credit for, imho. He DID say that he defended Nicola's right to postpone a production he didn't feel he was ready for, that an artistic director shouldn't put on a show that he feels unprepared for. But he also made it clear that he, himelf, would have gone ahead with the play and that Nicola SHOULD have done his homework and been prepared.

Finally, the person referred to by a previous poster, who said that plays with strong viewpoints hardly need to be balanced, and ought to be done was, yes, Ari Roth. He said he found MNIRC to be exactly that: a compelling, powerful play with a distinct point of view, well worth doing, even as producers should be aware of (NOT FRIGHTENED OFF BY NOR APOLOGIZE FOR) what its biases are and what gaps or inaccuracies it may have.

Since all this may come off sounding like a defense of Roth, I should say I never met him or even heard of him before last night and have never seen anything at his theater.

freespeechlover said...

Okay, I'm confused. Anonymous, you made a joke about peace cafes in every theater. I was reacting to your joke. I didn't attend the panel, I don't know Ari Roth, nor do I care what he does at his theater. I do think the idea of peace cafes in every theater is hilarious, but not for the reasons you think.

There are running jokes among Palestinians in the West Bank and in New York about "partying for peace" and "dialogue." There is a perspective, rightly or wrongly, that says these dialogues make people feel good while Palestinians are being imprisoned on their own land.

I am sceptical about "dialogues" between Israelis and Palestinians that have many different kinds of strings attached to them, but I am intelligent enough to see the disinction between those activities and what Roth does at his theater. What Roth does is smart and a good idea, and I don't hear you defending him. I guess I'm puzzled by what you're defending.

And just when I thought you could bring the falafel and I could order the debke dancers for the peace cafe. Sigh.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, freespeechlover. Two different anonymouses here. I was reacting to the first one, who made the joke. I was simply wondering why people were being so cynical about Roth's effort. Thanks for clarifying.

For the record, I am deeply familiar with -- and agree with -- the critique of "dialogue" for the reasons you mention, especially within Isr/Pal. (Jewish-Arab dialogue within the US may have more uses or at least take place within less dire asymmetries, but I have strong doubts about those, too.)

In any case, I'd be glad to eat hummus with you any time, peace cafe or no. (I can recommend a joint in Ramallah.)

Playgoer said...

While I have to admit the very phrase "Peace Cafe" is just too hard to resist having some laughs over, I will concede Ari Roth seems like a smart, dedicated guy and worthy of a hearing. And I'm sorry if I made him sound like some apologist in my notes. He did certainly defend Nicola by standing up for the idea of context and with this particular play. But it was clear to everyone in the audience that this is the man who should be producing the play, not Nicola.

Ben Kessler said...

Peace cafes suck. The presence of such a thing as an ancillary element to a theater production is a sure sign that the play so "contextualized" is utterly worthless. Behind this Rachel Corrie fracas is the urgent question: What is the purpose of political theater? Is it to promote the sort of "productive dialogue" that emerges in a peace cafe, which exploits people's personal investment in political issues while promoting laughably naive notions of "community healing"? One question at the panel last night asked how "sentient people who read the New York Times" could be dumb enough to find Rachel Corrie uncontroversial. The phrase is revealing: "Sentient people who read the New York Times" and, presumably, go to the theater, should KNOW what's going on, whereas others do not, and shouldn't have to. The lack of humility--the straight-up narcissism--implied in that phrase was clearly shared by the members of last night's panel. Instead of the humility theater requires of its audience and its community, these people bring arrogance and hubris, the kind of bad-liberal non-thinking that belches out a brainchild like Ari Roth's peace cafe.

Just as John Patrick Shanley found it okay to "provoke dialogue" by abandoning his audience to perpetual Doubt about the most important actions of his characters, the peace cafe lulls audiences by assuring them that they are indeed the center of the universe. Their prejudices, aired over grape leaves, falafel, or whatever-the-hell, become food for a pointless debate, and the endpoint of the artistic experience. A real work of art should make such a debate impossible. The airing of truths shocks, stuns, destroys preconceived notions and reflex prejudices.

The purpose of any real play should be to blow up the peace cafe.

Anonymous said...

I find this attack on the, admittedly badly named "peace cafe" in Washington's AJT bizarre given that nobody here seems ever to have gone to it. Roth didn't say that much about it except to describe it as a cafe space for people to talk in outside the formal setting of the theater (and also to tell an anecdote about how a right-wing woman intimidated Arab-Americans there.) The name may imply coddling and mollifying, but that's not what Roth described.

Also, I took the "sentient people who read the Times" phrase/question to be saying: HOW COULD NICOLA HAVE BEEN SO OUT OF IT NOT TO KNOW WHO RACHEL CORRIE WAS? I understood it completely to be a dig at Nicola, not a comment on audiences.

freespeechlover said...

Okay, I can't resist. How about the following panel for the NYTW? A panel of experts discusses the political complexities of contests over Israeli and Palestinian claims to falafel as indigenous food. Oh, wait. It could end up in a food fight. Now THAT would be some peace cafe wouldn't it.

I'd be happy to eat hummos with anyone anytime.

PeonInChief said...

A couple of comments, in no particular order of importance:

1. The February 17th call was, so far as I can glean, the culmination of a process that apparently made the RC nervous about the intentions of NYTW. Philip Weiss reports that Elyse Dodgson (RC international director), sensing hesitation on NYTW's part, came to New York in January to confer with NYTW. If that is true, RC might rightfully have construed the February 17 call as the final decision, no matter that NYTW thought the RC overreacted.

2. That Rickman/Viner would have made a presentation intended to sell their play is not a surprise. Indeed I think that's what they were supposed to do. Nicola should not be allowed to hide behind the supposedly midleading presentation that Alan Rickman made. If he wants to claim that, he needs to offer specifics--what the man said, how it was misleading etc.

And, of course, Nicola still had an obligation to do the simple checking necessary to find out what the issues were. Go to Google, type in "rachel corrie", click on Search. Not difficult.

3. And he should, having decided to talk to a few Jews, have picked a representative sample. All of us who are Jewish have relatives who, while entirely rational on all other subjects, go into the Twilight Zone when the issue of the Palestinians comes up for discussion. It's almost as bad as having a relative who wants you to read articles from "Human Events" or the "Weekly Standard."