The Playgoer: "Punishment"

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Wednesday, April 12, 2006


Reader Damien asks in a comment, "at what point do you decide that the punishment has been sufficient?"

Yes, I realize it must often seem I'm beating a dead horse. (And not a dead theatre, hopefully.)And some might also suspect I have some irrational vendetta against Nicola or NYTW. Which I don't. I just don't consider it "punishment" to keep asking questions that have not been answered.

Let me also try to clarify what I mean by "calling out" artists working at NYTW... What's at stake here is influence. The decision to not do "Rachel Corrie" reflected a giving in to one influential constituency. Notice I'm not saying "Jews" or "rich board members" since I honestly don't believe there was a sinister conspiracy of ethnic stereotypes here. And we also just don't know who had the biggest say. One of those nagging questions worth keeping after.

But because one constituency--the constituency of "not upsetting the audience" let's say--has won out here, it is now crucial that we who do believe in free speech, in politically challenging theatre, become an equally powerful constituency. So that next time this happens, an Artistic Director will think of the offense caused by backing down, in addition to the supposed offense of the play itself.

A theatre like New York Theatre Workshop depends on notable artists not just for its product but for its cachet. Such artists, then, have the opportunity for influence, whether they also happen to be donors or not. (When they're not donating a check, they're lending their talent and name.) So my hope is not that these artists be shamed-- but that they be inspired to use their clout to get NYTW to acknowledge their mistakes to get behind unconditional free speech in the theatre again. This doesn't even have to be a public display. But if even one donor said privately, "I am withdrawing my $1500 annual gift to protest your uncertain commitment to freedom of expression"--or one artist turned down a gig for this reason--that would be a valuable action.

Unfortunately, so few theatre artists have spoken out against this at all, which has lent a kind of indirect legitimacy to NYTW's actions. With "Corpus Christi," the united uproar ended up helping Manhattan Theatre Club in the long run by resolving the situation and influencing them to make amends. Without such closure and reconciliation, NYTW will only go punishing itself.


Anonymous said...

Damien's question is an entirely fair one, and he deserves answers from those of us who want pressure to continue to be applied to Nicola and NYTW.

My feeling, six weeks into this fiasco, is that Nicola needs to apologize for allowing his artistic judgment to be trumped by the desire to avoid offense. Or he needs to step down.

My strong preference would be for him to apologize. But until one or the other of these things happen, my view is that we need to continue to talk about this story. And, when possible, we need to enlist powerful members of the theatre community to demonstrate to Nicola and NYTW that caving to critics carries a high price.

Otherwise, if Nicola and NYTW are able to ride this out without conceding error, think of the message that is sent to other theatre companies. The lesson is: The cost of backing down in the face of criticism is lower than the cost of standing by your principles.

Is that the kind of theatre scene we want? Where that message is internalized by artistic directors all over town?

The non-profits are stodgy enough already. The last thing we need is for their conservatism to be taken to a whole new level.

Anonymous said...

Well said, Cashmere.

Playgoer said...

I might also add: my wish for others to speak out and take action is largely a wish for the outrage to go beyond blogs!

If NYTW feels "punished" from merely the daily rants of a little uncredentialed website like mine, then they've got other problems.

freespeechlover said...

I agree with both of you. I do think something is at stake when a major theater that markets itself as offering "challenging" programming behaves the way that the NYTW did. I think the theater community as well as academics, artists, etc. need to share information about these events as well, because there is a pattern here. I've said this before. We had an incident like this happen on my university campus over a Palestinian-American art exhibit by an internationally reknown artist. The exact same rhetoric and moves were made, literally the same terms. The artist triumphed here, but only after the university figured out that what they were doing was self-destructive. The institution had to get egg on its face to reverse itself.

I don't expect the NYTW to do that. That's their choice, but it's important to document these events, so there is an archive and so that those who value the theater, art, culture, intellectual life can learn from these incidents and be better prepared and organized the next time around.

In addition, the brouhaha means that whichever NY theater does the production, there should be a lot of bodies going to the theater. We should support with our bodies, minds and speech those who exercise freedom of expression in a robust manner.

The key lesson here seems to me that next time around it may not be a production about an American activist killed in Gaza but you and your expression that someone wants to if not censor then massage, manage, contextualize, put into the proper framework. I could go on, but I think I've made my point.

I'm not interested in provoking people for the sake of provoking people, necessarily, although not just theater but the entire U.S. cultural scene with the exception of the margins, has gotten kind of dull.

I'm interested in people not pulling shenanigans like this theater or my university did and then when they get caught with their hand in the cookie jar, owning up to it and being accountable to more than just "the potentially upset."

It's also about wanting to be included in "the community" they claim to care about.

Anonymous said...

Let me amend, slightly, my earlier comment. The use of the word "apologize" was sloppy.

I could care less if Nicola apologizes. The key thing is for him and NYTW to concede error: To concede A) that the theatre allowed artistic judgments to be trumped by the desire to avoid offense in this instance and B) that this was a mistake.

This may just be semantics. But I don't want to leave the impression that I believe the real issue here is getting NYTW to show an appropriate level of remorse. Remorse is not the issue. The issue is something much more basic than that.

Playgoer said...

A reader has privately written me the following challenge, which I post with his permission:

"What can you POSSIBLY mean by "politically challenging theater?" In what sense is theater, as an institution, "politically challenging?" It is utterly compromised, totally obsolete, and culturally irrelevant. And therefore it doesn¹t MATTER what you put onstage, because it's all neutered by the institution itself. What difference could it possibly make to the culture at large if "Rachel Corrie" were put onstage?

There is a bigger question that needs to be asked here, beyond "should the workshop stage Rachel Corrie." And that is: *what* do you expect "political
theater" to be, and what do you expect it to accomplish?"

My response: Hey, even if *I* may not think "Rachel Corrie" is challenging...SOMEone does. The perception of its "challenging" status here is very much the point.

I appreciate the bigger question, though, and welcome more discussion about the possibilities of political challenge at all in the institutional structure we find ourselves in.

freespeechlover said...

The difference it could make to the public at large is the following--when controversial speech is aired, whether it is in the academy or theater or art museum, and I might add, not just in newspaper cartoons about which everyone was up in arms, it creates more freedom of speech. When it is suppressed, it makes it less possible to do it the next time.

That's not exactly revolutionary, but then I don't expect a revolution in America around freedom of speech about anything remotely related to Israeli policy. I expect a slow convalescence of which the NYTW fiasco is one chapter.

On that note, I have to also say that while everyone has gone after Nicola, due to his position, at least he was the most open of everyone at the theater. Ms. Moffat is obviously the public relations person of the two. She keeps treating interested parties as if things have not already been said. That's human, but it's not very smart public relations, but I do think she's counting on longterm connections between the NYTW and the theater community and hoping that people forget in a kind of memorial to the NYTW.