The Playgoer: More Reporting on Wiesel v Theatre J

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Friday, May 28, 2010

More Reporting on Wiesel v Theatre J

Ted Scheinman and Jonathan L. Fischer in this week's Washington City Paper give an exhaustive account of what went down between playwright Deb Margolin, Theatre J, and Elie Wiesel.  Including many excerpts from the play itself!

Basically, the theatre initially ok'd the play which was structured around an ongoing fictional dialogue between characters representing Madoff and Wiesel--a dialogue that nobody (aside from Wiesel) characterizes as anything but respectful of the Nobel laureate.  Since the Artistic Director, Ari Roth, knew Wiesel personally and knew his philanthropic foundation (which the article does not link to Theatre J financially), he sent the foundation a copy of the script as a "heads up."  When the script got to Wiesel himself, the man was furious and immediately threatened to sue.  Roth and Margolin conferred and mutually agreed to rename the character; but when Roth wanted to show even the rewrite to the Wiesel people, the playwright drew the line and refused to grant any more "veto power."

These events were well known and reported before.  The question the article tackles is did not just Elie Wiesel overreact but Ari Roth, too?  Was it ok to put his personal relationship with a play's subject ahead of the playwright?  (While few AD's may have ever found themselves in this exact scenario, I'm sure many relate to that general question.)

And is a company like Theatre J that expressly serves a distinctly defined community--it is not only housed in but basically subsidized by the Washington, DC Jewish Community Center--right to put such personal connections and "good relations" first?  (A fight with Wiesel over his good name and reputation, Roth says plainly, is "not a fight we want to have.")

Despite references in the article and some blogs comparing this fight with the 2003 My Name is Rachel Corrie controversy, I don't see them as parallel politically.  (One key difference is here the playwright herself withdrew the play and the theatre seemed more genuinely interested in going forward with at least the revised version.)  However, both tales, I think, do contain a good lesson for Artistic Directors everywhere.  Both Roth here and James Nicola of New York Theatre Workshop back then made the fatal mistake of first committing to the play, then hedging in the face of controversy, lawsuit, what have you.  But in both cases, surely, these unpleasant reactions could not have been surprising, right? Why did they not see this coming and make up their minds ahead of time how much stomach for a fight they had?

It's not just a fact of public relations that it looks worse to first greenlight and then waver on a play than to have never committed to it at all.  After all, any AD has a right to choose to do or not do plays for whatever reason.  But to renege on an artistic commitment (i.e. commitment to other artists) out of sudden fear is a damaging move and sends all kinds of bad signals throughout the theatrical community.  The question comes down to are you deciding whether or not to do this play, or is your board?  or your powerful friends?  or the press? 

In other words, we wouldn't be having this discussion if Roth talked with Wiesel as soon as he read the script.  And, I believe, rightfully so.

Roth basically argues he did right by his theatre's greater community, a community that values Elie Wiesel's reputation and good will above the expressive needs of a Deb Margolin.  It would indeed be a trial for a company called Theatre J to have a standoff in court against Elie Wiesel, of all people.  But I guess therein lies the difference between being a producing professional theatre and being a kind of "community center."  And thus is the downside to even thinking of a theatre as being more "responsible" to its community than to its artists.

9 comments:

Mr. Cantrell Roberson said...

I can't imagine what legal response Wiesel could make in this situation. It reminds me of a case a few years back, in which a rabbi sued a street photographer for using his picture in an exhibit, along the grounds that it went against the rabbi's faith. The courts ruled in favor of the photographer. Perhaps in Europe the issue of slander could arise, but I don't think the playwright would have much chance of losing that one here. I'd love to hear a legal opinion for this one. Perhaps if the writer changed the name to Elie Weasel....

Parabasis said...

I think the thing that joins this to My Name Is Rachel Corrie is the idea that these theaters want to have it both ways. They want to claim that they do challenging, provocative, conversation-starting work, but when someone actually reacts to the work involved, they end up having a glass jaw.

In my mind, I understand what Roth and Margolin were trying to do, the point where Roth fucked up is agreeing to show the script to the foundation for their approval without getting approval from Margolin. That's just so obviously a no-no that I don't really understand why Roth is defending it. Why can't he just admit he fucked up? This whole thing'd just go away if he'd publicly apologize to Margolin. I think he was trying to do right by the careful juggling act he has to do and made an understandable mistake.

This is the thing that is weird about it though:
If Ari Roth is family friends with Elie Wiesel, why was he going to submit the script to Wiesel's foundation instead of to the man himself?
Also... is the Wiesel foundation a funder of the DCJCC? Isn't that a relevant piece of info to know here?

Edward said...

OK, I think this question is being framed incorrectly. Elie Wiesel is not simply a funder for Theater J (I don't believe his foundation is a funder at all though I may be wrong), and he is not just a Nobel laureate expressing an objection to the content of a play.

The question is, does Elie Wiesel have any moral ownership of the character which is himself. Let's put aside legal ownership, which is a matter that would have to be decided in a court, and won't be. Let's assume, in fact, that Wiesel has no legal rights whatsoever in the case.

As an artist, does one have a special obligation when writing about a living person?

I recently wrote a piece called the Velvet Oratorio, which had as its main character Vanek, Vaclav Havel's stand-in in many of his own plays. Now, since this stand-in character was called Vanek, rather than Havel, perhaps it can be argued that Havel had greater legal rights over it. But I think the moral issues are similar.

I sent the script to Havel, of course, before we performed it (by the way, although I have a personal connection to Havel, when I sent the script, it went to his assistant, not him directly, in reference to your question about Wiesel). And I asked Havel for permission to write the piece before I began.

But let us suppose Havel had read the piece and, much to my surprise, was deeply offended. And let us suppose further that, for whatever reason, I was reasonably sure (but not positive) that I had a legal right to produce it anyway.

Would I have felt comfortable going forward with the project? Would I have even wanted to go forward with it, in such a circumstance?

Probably not. I definitely would have tried to change it, and then shown him the changes before moving forward.

Let me give another example briefly to compare. I wrote a found text play about myself and my family, Drs. Jane & Alexander, which had family members as characters. I gave every family member who was a character the play in advance, so that they could see how they were portrayed. Most portrayals were sympathetic (perhaps the exception being my brother, whom I knew would be amused more than offended).

One uncle of mine was offended. Deeply, deeply offended.

I did not remove my uncle from the play. I changed names, changed dialogue, showed it to my uncle again.

My uncle was still offended. But reluctantly gave an OK.

Would I have removed my uncle altogether, as a last resort? Or had I fulfilled my obligation. Even now, I am obscuring the story a little, for my uncle's sake. For example, this person wasn't my uncle. No uncle appears in the play.

I do feel my uncle had a certain right over himself as a character. Which is why I made the changes I did.

By the way, after the show was performed, my uncle changed his mind again and was offended. He did not speak to me for a while. So was it worth the trouble? I still think so, because, morally, i felt the obligation.

It's a struggle, to find the answers. But not a simplistic struggle that can be reduced to talk about censorship or comparisons to Rachel Corrie (which itself, I though, was discussed in an overly simplistic manner).

Parabasis said...

Well, like the article said, margolin agreed to change his name, she didn't want to offend him and wanted to honor his wishes. that makes sense, i think that's totally fine. the issue is simply whether or not there's a context in which it's appropriate for an artistic director to submit a script to a foundation for approval.

I have yet to hear of a context in which it is, and this certainly ain't it.

Edward said...

Well, Ari Roth didn't exactly propose submitting it to the foundation, as I understand it, he was submitting it to Wiesel, just reaching him through the foundation.

And since the character was basically Wiesel, just under a different name now, I can understand the impulse. I'm not sure what the right thing to do was, or whether there was one single right thing rather than different options depending on one's take, but phrasing it as if he was simply submitting it to a foundation obscures the issue, which I think is an intriguing and thorny one: what moral rights does a living person have over their own portrayal onstage? Do those rights simply end when one uses a different name but the character is still very identifiable?

The Playgoer said...

I think both Isaac and Edward are raising very pertinent questions here. First, Isaac--I share your frustration that the City Paper article still could not nail down for us the relation (if any) between the Wiesel Foundation and Theatre J. As well as the question of why Roth went through the Foundation instead of to Wiesel directly. (Yes, I suppose maybe it's just like calling his "office" but it'd be nice to see that spelled out.) Maybe City Paper will clarify in subsequent letters or answer our questions directly?

I share Edward's moral quandry about artists still having, well, feelings (for lack of a better word) about offending people they know and/or respect. My opinion is every artists has to decide that for him or herself without the rest of us imposing rules on that.

While artists have the RIGHT to offend, I would say it's an OBLIGATION, exactly. And what about the difference between WRITING the play and going ahead and PRODUCING it?

That difference between writing and producing is exactly the split we have here. There are really two artists involved--and they disagreed on how far they were willing to go to offend.

As playwright, Margolin clearly wanted to avoid offense to Wiesel by agreeing to change the name. But her own sense of integrity mandated that she volunteer that and not have it dictated to her. (In other words, she offered it and was prepared to go ahead even if that didn't placate Wiesel.)

As producer, Roth is of course a collaborator in this play. And ultimately he didn't want to take responsibility for any controversy (and/or litigation) Margolin's play might provoke, not to mention the alienating of a major figure in the American Jewish community.

But just imagine how much less disappointed or outraged people would be if Margolin bowed to Wiesel's approval instead of Roth. So maybe the issue is not the artist's own dilemma about whether to offend... but rather the producer's taking on that dilemma for himself.

Edward said...

I agree with your analysis of the question, Garrett. I'm not sure I have the answer, but well phrased. In my examples above I worked as both playwright and producer, but to put on my producer's hat, I would say say that a producer does bear partial moral responsibility for anything produced. So I would feel a similar moral quandry--complicated of course by the knowledge that the writer may have a different perspective.

Edward said...

By the way--on a similar topic, I read an article in the times about the question of what to do with the Gary Coleman character in Ave Q now that Coleman has died. According to the article, they made the performance a tearful tribute to him on that night.

Of course, that ignores reports that Coleman was highly offended by the portrayal and wanted to sue. And thought on the morality issues there?

The Playgoer said...

Ari Roth responds (by way of Parabasis) to some questions raised above. He says:

"- I do not consider Elie Wiesel to be a "good friend" or a "personal friend." I haven't seen him since the 70s.
- The Wiesel Foundation has never given a penny to Theater J or the DCJCC."

Duly noted.