The Playgoer: NYTW Panel #3 notes

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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

NYTW Panel #3 notes

First, let me bring to your attention a brand new statement from Jim Nicola and NYTW's Managing Director Lynn Moffat on NYTW.org, posted, I presume, earlier today. (It is undated.) It seems intended to clarify statements made during last week's panels and to prepare for this week's. Basically, their defense at this point is still to fight. To point the finger at the Royal Court, at Rickman and Viner, at their opponents, the "press" (presumably not the Times), and, yes, even "the blogs."


Given the nature of this theater, its long commitment to putting ideas and visions forward for its community to engage with, and the public discussion that effort has engendered, we are disheartened that NYTW has been so badly misrepresented in the press, and criticized by others looking to further their own political or personal agendas.
So if its repentance and mea culpa you're hoping to see at tomorrow's next and last panel, don't count on it. They're still swinging. While their opponents are criticized for "rush[ing] to judgment and criticiz[ing] the workshop without knowing what had actually transpired," this statement actually adds little to the facts as we already knew them. The defense is still that they wanted more time to fulfill the artists' vision (which apparently entailed months of research on a play already successfully produced) and that everything would have been fine if only these ungrateful Brits hadn't hung up the phone on them and not gone tattling to the press.

Nicola was on tonight's panel, but his remarks don't add much to the statement, so I will simply refer you to that for his current views. Plus, I heard a lot tonight about how nitpickers like myself shouldn't spend so much time "flogging" the poor man, so, very well, enough.

Tonight didn't end up enlightening us much on the quandry of political theatre in America either. Most refreshing and valuable was the presence of a true Palestinian perspective--actually two perspectives: young theatre artists Betty Shamieh and Najla Said. Between them and Alisa Solomon it was refreshing (and overdue) for these panels to actually address the specific political issue of this play (Israel), rather than avoid it. Shamieh came the closest to being confrontational in her prepared statement accusing some of hiding behind the "euphemism" of "political theatre" as a "white lie,"the tactic of a "bullshitter." She expressed embarrassment for a New York theatre which so lags beyond literature and even movies in taking on the problems of the Middle East . But she also was outraged that the two hottest political properties in the NYC theatre--Corrie and Stuff Happens--are not only by white people but are British imports!

Both Shamieh and Said reminded us and testified to, repeatedly, the obstacles to representing authentically Palestinian voices on stage. ("If we did a play about humus, there would be cries of, Where is the Israeli perspective," Said said.) Someone in the audience later accused them of "whining" about "identity politics" as opposed to real politics and real political theatre. Like Hair. But that was something of a whine itself. The fact is, when your identity labels you (and your play) "terrorist," then that's as political as it gets.

In a moment symptomatic of how the panel was not really designed to tackle the issues at hand, this comment led to a ten-minute discussion of what was good or bad about Hair.

Meanwhile, Alisa Solomon gave a presentation similar to what she said at the Barnard panel a few weeks back, documenting the efforts of the right-wing Israel "attack machine" in shouting down (if not shutting down) all art and discourse not blindly loyal to Likud. LABrynth Theatre literary manager Andrea Ciannavei wasn't afraid to talk about how pissed off she was about the whole affair and about political cowardice in our theatres. (She was one of the organizers of the March 22 downtown reading of Corrie's writings.) When the corporate media cannot be trusted to give us the truth, to give us all sides, our theatres must be independent and do so, she argued. Especially the smaller theatres, if not larger institutions like Manhattan Theatre Club.

Downtown playwright/director Josh Fox, on the other hand, called on everyone to especially demand the same political commitment from our bigger theatres. "Tell Lincoln Center that it is your theatre, too." But was he saying we should go about changing every theatre's mission statement? Fox praised Nicola's history of challenging work, but is it not fair--and more constructive--to hold a theatre like NYTW to their own profile of an edgy institution, rather than yelling at the Roundabout for just being the Roundabout?

I referred already to audience members speaking. Yes, gone were the cards. Here here. And not surprisingly, NYTW's worst nightmare started to come true. That some people in the audience were angry and wanted to say so. One man stood up and invoked that "elephant in the room" again. "Why can't you talk about what we're all thinking. That certain patrons of yours, who are wealthy, who are Jewish, didn't want this play to go on. And the press is beholden to the same issue. We have to call out those patrons." It was a tense moment. Alisa Solomon fairly cautioned against invoking the spectre of The Jews. (She also later reminded Nicola that he himself fed such feelings, albeit unintentionally, in his initial press statements on the affair.) But with such blunt--albeit potentially offensive--things being said, it finally started to feel like and open and honest discussion. Which was surprisingly less tense than the weird spectacle you get in an auditorium when the audience is thinking about one thing and the people on stage are talking about something totally different. (Like Hair.)

Needless to say, once real back-and-forth and airing of long repressed sentiments started bursting out... out came the cards!

Finally, I'll mention the question of "action" and "solutions." Alisa Solomon more than once seemed to express disappointment over a lack of activism or "creative solutions" to the problems presented by NYTW and "Rachel Corrie." Instead of making things better, she complained, we have just argued and, yes, blogged. As an example of such preferable "action" she suggested getting other New York theatres to collaborate on staging some other example of Palestinian theatre.

However one can critique ideas one by one (when was the last time our theatres collaborated on anything?), point taken. But I do think debate has been a necessary component here. It's hard to work toward solutions if we don't at least start by arguing. Some complain about the "shrillness" but I say there hasn't been enough genuine back-and-forth arguing. We got a glimpse tonight. Otherwise, all the other "public forums" have been rigidly controlled. If some have "retreated" to the blogosphere maybe it's been to find some place to freely convene and talk. And some place to share information when our usual source--the New York Times--has remained mostly silent.

And not to be defensive, but...

Forget about the pathetic bloggers. Obviously we all sit around in dirty pajamas all day and are too lazy or impotent to accomplish anything real. And it is charitable for responsible adults to even acknowledge us in civil discourse. But why have we seen no "action" from those most empowered and influential to do something? Why haven't Tony Kushner, NYTW board member Doug ("Quills") Wright, and Terence ("Corpus Christi") McNally combined forces to commission a new Betty Shamieh play? They can. Kushner indeed spoke to The Nation and The Observer, and it made some more people sit up and take notice. Has anyone else of that stature submitted an op-ed to the Times? Then again, if certain artists just don't feel that outraged, then I guess it's not fair to expect such things of them.

But why don't they care, then? Solomon dismissed comparisons between the "Corrie" and "Corpus Christi" controversies, citing the different levels of activism and reaction in the theatre community and--as documented on this blog--in the NY Times. To which I say, exactly! Why has the reaction been different, even though the fates suffered by both plays is so similar? Why did these same theatre people care more then than now to "do something"? Is it as simple as homophobia trumping Palestinian rights? Is Jim Nicola just more beloved than Lynn Meadow? Did Manhattan Theatre Club make an easier target than NYTW since no one expects to ever work there anyway but everyone wants too badly to be a "Usual Suspect"?

Some of us only have a blog. But others have a theatre. Or a newspaper. Call it passing the buck, but I see no problem in asking them what they can do to make everything better. As for ground-up solutions, I salute Theatres Against War (THAW) and other low-rent "guerilla" organizations who have been doing plenty. Have they made no dent at all?

Would NYTW even be having such "constructive" public forums were it not for the sustained outcry of those who have no other power than their voices? I guess it's led to something at least.

10 comments:

JP said...

I have been following the discussion on this blog about Rachel Corrie with great interest but held back commenting till I'd seen the play. Having now at last doine so I'd say its clearly a case of NY's loss is London's gain, as its a gripping and moving piece of theatre.

While it did raise issues about how the Palestinians are treated by Israel, it should be pointed out that this is the reality for them. Furthermore, the play remained focussed on the key subject - which is Rachel herself, and her complex reactions to her experiences. An overtly political play would have included more background - for example dispelling the most common myths and explain how how its the Palestinians that are prepared to accept a two state solution based upon the 1967 border and its Israel that rejects this.

So why was its production stopped? I don't think we should beat about the bush. When putting on plays about guantanamo bay was the Pentagon contacted to see if they would have any issues? And would it have been stopped if they did? No, Rache Corrie is a problem because it is about Israel and the Palestinians and the US as a country is unable to discuss this subject openly. When even an off-broadway theatre is unable to put on a harmless play about an American woman's experieances, then things are bad indeed.

I hope the playgoer does get a chance to see Rachel Corrie and that helps get a true debate going in the US on this crucial topic. Good luck with the blogging this issue!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the report, Playgoer, which, as an audience member I think is mostly fair (if defensive). But I think there are two places where you are unfair:

1. "In a moment symptomatic of how the panel was not really designed to tackle the issues at hand, this comment led to a ten-minute discussion of what was good or bad about Hair."

What do you mean not designed to tackle the issues at hand? It DID tackle the issues at hand. Most of the panelists -- Shamieh, Said, Ciannavei and Solomon -- very directly criticized NTWY over its handling of MNIRC in their opening statements, and then more during the Q&A. They were invited to say whatever they wanted and I thought they did an excellent job of both pressing the issue of MNIRC and of talking about challenges for political theater more generally in NYC. You are exaggerating -- the discussion of 'Hair' was not 10 minutes. And anyway, you can't have it both ways: You want the audience to be heard and then if you don't like the questions they raise (ie some audience members just aren't as riled up about MNIRC as you, or maybe haven't paid attention at all, in which case they heard A LOT at the panel, or just have obsession of their own: hello?), then you blame the panel

2. "Needless to say, once real back-and-forth and airing of long repressed sentiments started bursting out... out came the cards!"
This is totally misleading. The moderator announced at the beginning of the Q&A that people could speak OR submit cards: their choice. And people from the audience spoke from the audience until the very end. You make it sound like there was an effort to shut down the audience. I don't agree with NYTW on its handling of MNIRC at all -- that is why I came. But I did not feel in this panel that the audience was stifled or that any attempt was made to make us shut up. You are twisitng the facts for your own agenda.

yrpal said...

I was there too and I agree with Anonymous.

Also, Solomon didn't say that there shouldn't have been sustained outcry. She applauded that. She just said it's not enough and made a distinction between criticizing and organizing. I agree with that.

And Nicola did say one new thing that is important: He committed to doing a Palestinian work in the next year.

The Playgoer said...

Reply to Anonymous's arguments against my account:

1) Let me be clearer about what I meant by "the panel" not being "designed" to address the MNIRC issue. I certainly didn't mean the individuals ON the panel didn't want to talk about it. But the overall composition of the panel bufferred that. And the moderator clearly took opportunities to change the subject. As with "Hair." The moderator took time to expound upon his own views of "Hair" and then, I believe, asked the panel about it.

No, I din't have a stopwatch. But I really don't think "10 minutes" is that much an exaggeration. Perhaps a "high-end" estimate. I promise the readers that all the comments on "Hair" together took at least 5 minutes. If I said 5-10 minutes would I be more covered?

So if I'm "blaming" anyone, it's the organzier and moderator of the panel, not the participants.

Talking about "Hair" is of course not a crime. And some people wanted to talk about "bigger" political theatre issues, and that's indeed what the panel seemed designed for. I maintain my own--yes--agenda that NYTW needed to spend that 2 hours mostly on the issue on everyone's mind.

I wasn't the only one. The angry comment in the audience came out of a clear frustration with the "Hair" discussion, in the spirit of "Shut up, already, and let's talk about what we came to talk about."

2) About "the cards" I'm simply reporting a sheer empirical observation. I saw no ushers in the aisle offering to dispense/collect index cards till AFTER the fracas in the audience. Adding to the impression, I thought I distinctly heard some ruckus in the back of the house right before this moment, as if these ushers were being urged to do so at that moment.

You have to admit at least that the moderator neither received nor read any questions from card till after the shout-outs from the audience, right? Yes, agreed, he announced from the start there could be both cards and verbal questions. But I saw no sign of card activity before these exchanges, did you?

As with anyone, my perceptions might be skewed sometimes. But I really do try not to make things up on the blog. Promise.

Quickly, "Yrpal"--Yes, agreed. Solomon's focus was "distinction" between criticizing and organizing, and she did not aggressively dis & dismiss the blogosphere. I do think there's a further discussion, though, that communcal online exchanges ARE a kind of organizing, or at least the start of something new. Not "marching in the streets" yes. But is that all that counts?

In olden times they had pamphlets, you know. "Circulars" that "circulated". Some started revolutions, even.

Thanks for the reminder about Nicola's commitment to a Palestinian play. Yes, some small news there.

freespeechlover said...

I read the statement by Nicola and Moffat. I'm not the least bit surprised. Here's what I think is going on--the NYTW is able to appropriate its mission statement when it suits them. This does not mean that they don't believe in their mission. They do. It's a statement that sounds like every mission public institution today invokes which uses nice sounding terms to finesse (not cover up, not mask) the historical condition in which they find themselves--completely gutted "public" space as a result of privatization, an admittedly quick and dirty term for talking about more complex dynamics. Privitization forces you to depend more heavily on "friends," and friends are in essence about having access to a range of resources--media, financial, and connections to specific communities that "matter" to the theater. Each aspects feads off the other--i.e. you can't fund-raise easily if you're theater causes a scandal among some who really matter to you.

As far as "the Jews," I don't think Nicola mentioned all of two people--a friend and a Rabbi. Now I have to admit, I find asking a Rabbi to be a curious act, because I have my doubts that the theater would consult a priest or an imam about the contents of a production, but who knows. But the Rabbi was no doubt selected as a "representative" of "the Jewish community," and to be fair, he or she may not have offered anything to contradict the "role" into which he was cast.

How two Jews can represent "edginess" in the Jewish community over the fact that Ariel Sharon, a man found guilty of war crimes by his own government, was in a coma is being me, but it wasn't just anti-Semitism but something more complicated having to do with gentile fear--not of being labeled "anti-Semitic," but of injuring one's literal friends and maybe more importantly one's fantasized relationship to the meaning of "Israel" to "the Jews" in New York city. THAT'S where I think one cylinder of the engine driving the theater's behavior is located. That fear is one reason why they do not GET being associated with "censorship."

What no doubt surprised the theater was that their postponement would unleash the public image of Jews in the theater world contesting that fantasy as well as their "mission." That's thrown them for a loop, because it's their identity that is at stake.

Their "mission" statement is the second engine which is somewhat less emotional but to which they are deeply attached. They would want to pull conversation away from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because that's where their knowledge is weak--to be fair, that's true of most Americans. For people who see themselves in the somewhat grandiose terms that they do, they are not going to want to have conversations in which they are out of it.

I think Rickman and Viner were naive about the differences between American and British discourse on Israeli policy and on the role of the discourse of "civil society" in U.S. domestic discourse. They assumed that if there was a "controversy" that the NYTW would handle it in the same way they did. Wrong.

Nicola in my mind is not the main culprit here. He has been honest, if bumbling. I don't like his decisions, but he's been more transparent than Moffatt. She seems to be driving the pr strategy, which boils down to scapegoating Katherine Viner. She has played the role of the "business end" of the relationship, even though Nicola and her sign off on the public relations efforts. The NYTW certainly isn't going to try and scapegoat Rickman. He's too powerful within theater to target. Viner's a Brit, a journalist, and no nonsense. She's got her paper behind her, etc. She fired the first shot across the Atlantic, etc. It's also very typical for men in leadership positions to help make decisions and then stand back and let women fight them out.

As to why more VIPs didn't organize--that's indeed the question.

Without the VIPs organizing, I am unsure who could organize what without being appropriated by the "civil society" model that the NYTW employed--a strategy that I'm not completely opposed to.

The white cards--I think some at the NYTW suffer, and I mean suffer, from a sense of being overly responsible for civil society in New York city. What a task to assign to oneself in a city as big and heterogeneous as New York and in the age of the internet!

I think blogging is organizing, and powerful at that. The NYTW would have taken the pr steps it did without the blogs. The NY Times would have tried to ignore the meaning of the "postponement," without blogs and the internet--i.e. www.rachelswords.org

I think that like so many others who mainly use the internet for personal email, the NYTW is just getting up to speed on the fact that blogs are pulling the mass media toward them and not the other way around. Rightly or wrongly. This is also why the print media sniped at playgoer, etc. The sniping is resentment that they don't want to read blogs but they have to to find out what's going on.

Maybe, a demonstration in front of the NYTW would have produced some other effect, which may not have been appropriated by Moffat, et. al, but probably not unless it included Kushner, etc. and Kushner is not going to demonstrate against "friends." Not in an age of right-wing control of so much of public life.

Like most academics, I've now gone on too long.

Scott Walters said...

As you know, Playgoer, I have occasionally "graced" your comments section with a defense of NYTW, or at least an attempt to calm the waters a bit. I'll admit I sympathized with Nicola somewhat. HOWEVER, there is a point (and it was long ago) when Nicola and NYTW should have said, "Sorry. Fucked up. Won't happen again. Lost my nerve there for a bit." Instead, they seem to be going on the attack in ever more aggressive fashion. At which point I have to say keep hammering them!

Philip Munger said...

freespeechlover,

You write, stating "the fact that Ariel Sharon, [was] a man found guilty of war crimes by his own government."

The Israeli government didn't find Ariel Sharon guilty of a war crime perse. They found he should have done more to monitor the activities of the Labanese Phalangist militias and para-militaries at the time of ther Sabra and Shatila refugee camp massacres. As a result of the finding, he had to resign the office he held in government at that time. Had he been found guilty of "war crimes," he would have faced trial, which he didn't.

That being said, he was let off easy by the Israeli investigating body, the Kahan Commission.

yrpal said...

munger is correct -- but still, sharon is a war criminal!

and freespeechlover is right on regarding the wider point. i think he describes very well where nicola bumbled -- in that weird fantasy space about jews, israel and his own ignorant (and maybe slightly guilt-tinged?) relationship to that. and then nytw were, indeed, thrown for a loop by jews who contested that fantasy. i liked that moment last night when solomon sort of pressed nicola on this and also when she compared his idea of having to create a neutral space for engaging the play for the sort of people excoriating rachel corrie on-line as analogous to getting advice from fred phelps when you are putting on the laramie project. nicola did admit that he was extremely naive about all this and while that is no excuse, it is at least more honest than moffat piping up from the back of the house to bring up those production issue canards again. she is shameless!

obviously nytw still doesn't get it. in that statement they posted yesterday, they say they can't understand why the royal court couldn't support their desire to do outreach and context when they themselves had reached out to a jewish organization. but the org. in question was london's jews for justice for palestinians. if nicola had contacted the parallel groups in the US (jews agains the occupation, a jewish voice for peace, even the more mainstream brit tzedek. . .) they all would have told him to go ahead and at least the first two would have offered support.

freespeechlover said...

Hi, Philip, my understanding was that he was found "personally responsible" by the Kahan commission for the crimes committed at Sabra and Shatila, because in the agreement signed between the U.S. and the PLO, Israel was supposed to be ensure the safety of the Palestinians left in the camps after the withdrawal of the PLO from Beirut. The PLO leadership, I believe, was able to negotiate this with the U.S. and Israel had promised this safety to the U.S.

The hue and outcry in Israel came after the international outcry as a result of reporters getting inside the camps in the morning following the massacres by the Phalangists.

I think this is the distinction you're getting at.

My point was not legal but political. Sharon is not Rabin; he's not that kind of "warrior turned statesman." The fact that he has been able to pass himself off in the U.S. as someone whose illness creates "edginess," at least for me, is an index of the relative narrowness in the U.S. regarding what constitutes reasonable speech about Israeli policy.

I won't get into the 1950s massacres he oversaw. Nor the problem in Israel or the U.S. of actually acknowledging war crimes when they're committed.

Anonymous said...

hi playgoer -

just want to correct a very minor error - i was not one of the organizers of the march 22nd reading, i put together a small reading of corrie's emails and letters on march 15th at the stillwater bar.

thanks for blogging about this panel discussion - i was a little wary of it because i thought we would clam up and skirt the reason for being there and just keep it general, taking the focus off of NYTW...fortunately though, I thought the audience was fantastic and brave and i also thought some of the panelists up there did a good job of being honest without the self-righteous flogging which happens sometimes and ultimately disarms an otherwise very strong argument.

i also want to say that i am pissed that this happened but i am equally as pissed with the royal court. i think that if both parties actually wanted the play to happen they would have made the good faith effort to do so and would have duked it out behind closed doors and made the right decision instead of getting into a he said / she said bitch fest. i think this is another example of how egos (individual's and group's)can lead us astray and the original reason for being here and doing the work we do get's completely lost.

all the best,
andrea ciannavei