The Playgoer: Ten Days Later: Why this Matters

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Friday, March 10, 2006

Ten Days Later: Why this Matters

Ten days ago, the New York Times published a small article announcing that New York Theatre Workshop had "postponed" a production of a British documentary play about the life of an anti-Israeli protestor. The official story has remained relatively unchanged since then, and almost nothing significant has happened yet in the theatre world as a direct consequence. (Except for a sure to be successful London West End opening for said play.)

So why are we still talking about it? Or, more precisely, why are more and more people talking about it, after relative silence in both the theatre press and theatre community at first?

For starters this is obviously a "free speech" issue. Yes, NYTW is a private organization. No, no one is "banning" the play anywhere else. But whenever a work of art is withdrawn (by whoever) from the public for reasons of political content, we are right to step up and ask questions. Especially if the work is not available for viewing elsewhere. But even so--imagine, if Barnes & Noble or removed from its stock a well-credentialed book arguing the Palestinian side of that debate, would they be questioned? Hell, yeah!

But, look, I'm a free speech absolutist, and not everyone is. Some say, hey it's Jim Nicola's theatre so let him put on what he wants. Fair point. To which I answer--it seems up until four weeks ago, this was the show he wanted to put on. And one reason we are still talking about this is that there has been no clear resolving explanation about what changed his mind. To all who suggest this play may not be worth defending--either because of its politics or its apparent sentimentalism ("Anne Frank for the intifada," as one friend imagines)--I say, that may be your call, but it sure wasn't Jim Nicola's. I would think all theatre artists would be worried about a scenario where an Artistic Director backtracks and effectively abandons a project he or she previously supported. Especially when politics are involved.

Which brings me to a potentially even bigger significance. Or two.
1) Is this what we have to look forward to in the post-9/11 New York Theatre? Obviously, now, certain political issues have become more sensitive. I will leave aside for the moment about whether the New York theatre is too uniformly or reflexively anti-Palestinian or anti-Arab. But I have a hunch the play might not have had such trouble 5 years ago. What else could Nicola have been referring to with his vague references to parties who might exploit the play for their own purposes, who "would be using this as an opportunity to position their arguments." If you're not with us you're with the terrorists?

2) Ok, forget about global politics and let's selfishly focus on the little world of serious professional (non-Broadway) theatre. Is this the kind of leadership we can look forward to in the age of not only political intimidation, but corporatization and fundraising super-dependence? Some who know Nicola are describing his behavior along the lines of "sad" lately--and I take that to reflect a certain lack of control he feels over the events, a smart guy who knows better but feels like his hands are tied. What I'm "sad" about is how this episode throws into relief how we can no longer expect our artistic leaders--even of our "nonprofit" institutions--to lead and stand up for what they believe in.


Anonymous said...

Another central issue here, I believe, is the brief window that this has opened into the decision-making process at these theaters that profess to a certain amount of social and political awareness and responsibility (as well as those that produce unconventional work of any kind). For a moment, largely because of the controversy surrounding the content of this play and the undoubted celebrity of one of its creators, we saw briefly how one institutional non-profit theater dealt with a controversial play. They did not deal with it well.

The other question here is: With what frequency do these decisions occur on this basis, and what is it about the underlying financial and administrative structure of these companies that may be examined to prevent this from happening again? Of course theater is a very expensive and risky business, and theater administrations must have a certain amount of power and influence to get things done. But not all power and influence is equal. And it is sadly the case that it is in the nature of power to be abused.

The discussions that are occurring as the result of this situation are, I hope, a step in the right direction, because these are issues that will continue to affect artists and the organizations which present their work. This is a rare moment of transparency. We should take advantage of it.

Finally, as to the "best case" scenario, I must differ somewhat with Mr. Eustis, with all due respect. It would be best if, admitting its failure to the artistic community in this case, the NYTW released the rights to the play to a different company; that it publicly supported this company's effort to produce this play at this time; and that it participated fully and honestly in the discussions that this controversy has engendered. They will have to take the bullet on this one. Short of this, the curtain will be drawn across the process again, and nothing will have changed.

Anonymous said...

Piggybacking on George's comments: While Nicola's caving to political pressure is certainly the central issue here, this story has also raised questions, at least in my mind, about the decision-making process at *other* prominent non-profits.

How many plays that artistic directors choose for production get vetoed by boards (or donors or whoever) *before* tickets go up for sale on Telecharge? And how many plays of artistic merit get screened out of play selection processes because their messages are seen as unseemly?

It strikes me that most companies in New York--even companies thought of as "adventurous"--spend very little time actively *challenging* the views of their target audiences. (I haven't seen or read STUFF HAPPENS, but it seems like a prime example of a play that purports to be edgy while instead telling a NYC audience things they want to hear.)

I always thought this was a function of the pool of stageworthy plays, the biases of artistic directors, etc. But an incident like this makes me question whether the weeding out of certain kinds of work is at times a *conscious* step.

Are there worthy plays out there that can't get a production because theatres are afraid they'll catch hell for staging them?

Alison Croggon said...

I confess I haven't seen Stuff Happens either - I actually avoided it when it was here, which is probably awful of me. But I've seen some of Hare's recent stuff, and this kind of theatre bores me rigid - and one reason is that I am suspicious of the supposed "edginess" of the work.

Yes, of course many works get screened out of consideration because they are too ...whatever. And I don't think you can run a theatre company like an accountable public service (which is what we used to have before privatisation). This is a different kind of question, and is in fact, much more complicated, and it is about the theatre culture as a whole.

Anonymous said...

I don't care for these political docu-dramas myself (to my mind there hasn't been a truly memorable drama of this sort since The Last Days of Mankind or Danton's Death, and theater about contemporary politics rarely engages me). And from what I know of Stuff Happens: if this is going to be a controversial play here in New York, I'd be much surprised. Maybe in the offices of the Heritage Foundation or the pages of the National Review, but few other places.

But yes, this is an issue about the internal political and power structures of institutional theaters and their functions and purposes in the communities in which they practice, and not about external events, however exceptional this case may be. Explicitly political work is not the only work that is at risk in this environment, as we all regrettably know.