The Playgoer: "Corrie" Kerfuffle in Canada!

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Friday, December 22, 2006

"Corrie" Kerfuffle in Canada!

Yes, just when we thought "My Name is Rachel Corrie" had come and gone without incident, and proved New York Theatre Workshop wrong for canceling it, the CanStage company in Toronto has now nixed it off their season.

No ambiguity here, though about "cancel" vs postponed, or over whether they were ever really going to do it.

Martin Bragg, artistic producer of Canstage, said in a phone interview yesterday that he has changed his mind and decided not to make the controversial play the centrepiece of the theatre's 2007/2008 subscription series as he was publicly suggesting only a month ago.....

And just as there is more than one version of just who Rachel Corrie was and why she died, there also appears to be more than one version of why her story will not be coming soon to a stage near you.

Bragg's version: When he read the script (based on Corrie's journals) he had an emotional reaction and was "absolutely reduced to tears" as he told the Star's Richard Ouzounian five weeks ago. But later when he went to see it on stage at the Minetta Lane Theatre in New York's Greenwich Village (where it recently closed) it fell flat. The theatre was half-empty, and there was no standing ovation at the end. "The truth is it just didn't seem as powerful on stage as it did on the page – and the audience wasn't buying it."
See? Now that's smart. If only NYTW's Jim Nicola had come out and said, "I'm not doing it 'cause it sucks," there would have been nothing more to talk about.

Ah, but wait:
The alternate version being told among CanStage insiders: Members of Bragg's board were alarmed by negative response from influential supporters of the theatre, especially in Toronto's Jewish community, who were canvassed for their opinion. Many were dismayed and openly critical when confronted with the prospect of the city's flagship not-for-profit theatre producing a play that could be construed as anti-Semitic propaganda, especially during a frightening period when Israel's existence is threatened by Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.
Sound familiar?
"I was asked what I thought, and I told them I would react very badly to a
play that was offensive to Jews," says veteran cultural activist Bluma Appel, whose name is affixed to the theatre where CanStage presents its mainstage productions. "I would react just as badly to a play that was offensive to blacks or Muslims or white Christians," Appel said from her winter home in Florida.
There's a bit of a sneer in the Florida remark, but I love it all the same. (The article is Martin Knelman's, for the Toronto Star.)

And more...

A complicating factor: CanStage posted a loss of almost $700,000 this year and has seen its audience dwindle. This is no time to alienate subscribers and risk controversy.

Developer Jack Rose, a member of the CanStage board who, like Appel, has not read or seen the play, says: "I had one phone conversation about this. There was a question whether it would be a mistake to proceed with it, and my view was it would provoke a negative reaction in the Jewish community."

What's that Marx said about history the first time as tragedy, the second as farce?

While on the subject, I also want to finally reference the hatchet job The New Republic did on the play toward the end of its run. No Brustein review, but instead two "think pieces" from writers with a pro-Israel agenda. One by a young right-wing political writer, James Kirchick, the other by novelist Cynthia Ozick. (Too bad the complete articles are firewalled.) I especially appreciate this swipe from Ozick:
when the play was turned away by the New York Theater Workshop apparently because of objections from donors offended by its agitprop banalities, there sprang up, amid the foolish cries of "censorship" (as if the Constitution were being subverted), a newborn legend.
I guess Ozick's something of a strict constructionist now? If the founders didn't write it, it don't count!

I'm all for non-theatre people writing more about theatre, and I'm all for printing multiple contrasting reviews of a play. But anyone familiar with New Republic head Marty Peretz's politics on Israel will not be surprised by this slanted coverage. He could have used the play as an opportunity for debate, but no.

As Jimmy Carter's new book demonstrates, the basic views expressed in "MNIRC" can no longer be dismissed as "fringe." Oh, people are pissed at Carter, no doubt. So much so that Brandeis University has reportedly refused to allow him--a former president, mind you--to address students unless accompanied by Alan Dershowitz to debate him. (Now that's "balance".) So one would hope the way is being paved for a truly open forum--in both our universities and on our stages--to explore the incendiary issue of Palestine & Israel.

Phil Weiss has some good stuff on the Carter story, too, on his blog.


PeonInChief said...

Dear Playgoer. Marty Peretz? Israel? Balanced? In what universe?

Anonymous said...

I have written a short essay about the Corrie controversy, which will appear in the next issue of The Dramatist, the Dramatist Guild's bi-monthly magazine.
In anticipation of that, I'll just say that Jim Nicola's persistent lying about what happened with My Name Is Rachel Corrie not only robbed us all of an opportunity to really talk about self-censorship and how the American non-profit system works, but has now contributed to the even deeper institutional pathology we see playing out at Canstage. Martin Bragg learned from what happened at NYTW not to invoke My Name Is Rachel Corrie's politics in explaining his decision to cancel the play, although we know from the reporting that obviously the play was at least in part pulled because of its politics. So in addition to the institutional self-censorship we saw at NYTW, we now have an institutional deceit that seeks to cover up what would have been inevitable charges of self-censorship had Bragg, like Nicola initially did, given us the real story behind his decision.

The way so much of the New York theatre establishment rallied around Jim Nicola, or offered mild criticism before advocating understanding of, gratitude for, and forgiveness towards the Workshop, essentially validated not only NYTW's decision in cancelling the play and then lying about why they did so, but also validated their direct and unfounded attacks on those who criticized and questioned their decisions (in a letter to the New York Times, in statements on their website, and privately).

If arts institutions decide that deceit and denial are effective methods of interacting with the community, then artists and audiences are in big trouble. We have to keep speaking out about these visible manifestations of deceit and denial, because for every story like this that makes it to the public sphere, there are probably dozens of others that never reach beyond institutional walls. An entire generation of American theatre artists is internalizing the self-censoring messages these institutions are sending. The impact this will have on the American theatre -- and its examination not only of politically but also psychologically fraught themes -- is immeasurable.

Anonymous said...

But later when he went to see it on stage at the Minetta Lane Theatre in New York's Greenwich Village (where it recently closed) it fell flat.

Hmmm, when he loved the script so much, why didn't he just decide to do it anyway and come up with a better production than NY did?


Anonymous said...

First, to riff off of Veradee's comment: What kind of cowardly, feckless artistic director responds to seeing what he thinks is a lackluster production of a play that reduced him to tears by reversing his decision to produce the script?

As Christopher Shinn reminds, an insincere one.

But that this is the strongest excuse Bragg can muster says a lot about how weak, morally and intellectually, his position is.

Second, I think Christopher makes some excellent points about the corrosive impact the NYTW Corrie disaster continues to have on the American theatre scene.

The point about the tacit and not-so-tacit approval Nicola's received in theatre circles is particularly incisive.

So let me ask: Last I heard, Doug Wright (Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, etc. etc.) was still on NYTW's board. And to my knowledge he's never had a public word to say about the controversy.

Does anyone know where he is on this? Anyone have an explanation for why he's been silent all along?

Anonymous said...

Part of the problem -- from the beginning and now -- is that the press (and in some instances the blogosphere) accepts the frame provided by opponents of MNIRC. Notice how the Toronto story uses "pro-Israel" when what they really mean is something more akin to "pro-Likud and right of that" and "anti-Palestinain expression"; plenty of people who might call themselves "pro-Israel" ALSO object to the occupation and to repression of pro-Palestinian views (not to mention, lives). Notice how the story repeats, without any real evidence, that the play would be "offensive to Jews" without specifying WHICH Jews, since quite a few (likely a majority) would not be offended in the least. Sources quoted in the story saying this are not pressed to provide specificity or evidence -- and thus the narrative constructed by opponents of pro-Palestinian expression frames the entire discussion, again and again.

Anonymous said...

I find this excuse disturbing:'

'I was asked what I thought, and I told them I would react very badly to a
play that was offensive to Jews," says veteran cultural activist Bluma Appel, whose name is affixed to the theatre where CanStage presents its mainstage productions. "I would react just as badly to a play that was offensive to blacks or Muslims or white Christians," Appel said from her winter home in Florida'

Offensive? and the use of black americans is a pathetic dodge...The victim was Rachel Corrie, a white christian american, who they have offended by censoring this play on her life and death. She died defending the home of a palestinian doctor and his family, yet the jewish funders of theatre (as with the media) would have us all shared their view that she was a stupid girl or terrorist...any other view is 'offensive'.

The zionists show once again that they want total control over what the american (and now canadian) public understand of the terrible situation in the occupied territories of palestine.
This is one more eg of how cowardly theatres are and how they are controlled by those who fund them.

Remember the Golden Rule: he who has the gold makes the rules!

Canberra Australia

Anonymous said...

I cant resist a parting shot: that wretched theatre should change its name from 'CanStage' to 'CanStageIfAllowed'

Anonymous said...

People like the CanStage producers and NYTW are bullied by the Zionists named in our Australian colleague's troubling "total control" Jewish conspiracy picture because they have not done their own homework and thus don't know how to stand up to bogus charges. I agree that anti-Palestinian Zionists use bullying tactics -- who can argue with that,given the abundant evidence? -- but people with all kinds of hateful (as well as admirable) views use internet smears and think tank bunk and op-ed sophistry and protests and boycotts to try to silence and impugn those whose views they abhor. I think we need to ask: why do the theaters succumb? And my (partial) answer: Our theater comrades lack the courage of their convictions because they are ignorant of the facts. The bullying wouldn't abate if they did their homework, but they would not feel they needed to bow to the bullies if they weren't under the misguided impression that the bullies might be right, any more than they would feel they had to close, say, Laramie Project if Fred Phelps were picketing in front of their theaters. They'd denounce Phelps as the nutty bigot he is -- and they should do the same with those who insist that MNIRC supports the destruction of Jews.

Anonymous said...

Didn't mean to disavow authorship of that last post -- just hit the 'anonymous' box by mistake.

Anonymous said...

alisa has said some good things here. The framing of the whole MNIRC saga in the USA has been so bizarre. alisa points to the prevailing view of what pro or anti-Israeli means being controlled by a minority of Jews. Strange, too, how many liberals have to endure continuing cognitive dissonance from their adherance to one long-lasting extreme right coalition's undue influence.

Thanks for links, playgoer, to the Toronto article and to Phil Weiss's blog essay on the greatest living American president being dissed for somehow not wanting to be in the same room with OJ Simpson's favorite lving attorney. Maybe Jimmy Carter thought it best not to try on that particular glove. In the environment at Brandeis, the glove might not fit.

Anonymous said...

Brandeis has gone completely around the bend, turning right. Remember the administration's cancellation of the art show by Palestinian children that a Brandeis student had organized there last year and the uproar by Brandeis's board (among others) over their awarding an honorary doctorate to Tony Kushner? (The president's wan defense was that they were honoring his playwriting, not his politics. Oy.) And now Carter.This is fundamentalism. Thanks to Philip for reminding us of Dershowitz's shameful claim to fame. Let's start a movement demanding that any time Dershowitz speaks, he must be debated by a feminist -- and one who received as big a speaking fee as he gets (not 71 cents on his dollar - -the prevailing wage gender differential.)

Anonymous said...

Martin Bragg? A terrible artistic producer? you people have no idea what goes on in the office day after day.