Our first “Theatre in Community” interview is with Ari Roth, the former Artistic Director of Theater J and the Founder and former Artistic Director of Mosaic Theatre. In Part 1, Ari speaks eloquently about how he found the theatre bug, moving from a love for song writing to a love of playwriting to ultimately Artistic Director of Theater J at the DC Jewish Community Center. Ari describes in vivid detail the theatre’s first production under his leadership, Waiting for Lefty, Still Waiting from Clifford Odets’ seminal work. Part 2 of the interview focuses on the rise of Theater J as a dominant player in Washington’s rich theatrical landscape. Ari discusses his dismissal from Theater J and his founding of Mosaic Theatre Company on H Street Northeast shortly thereafter.
A quick note to listeners: On each episode of our “Theatre in Community” series, we include a glossary of theatre terms and names referenced in the interview.
Elizabeth: [00:00:00] Welcome to the “Theatre in Community” podcast series of Creativists in Dialogue. Happily, this project is supported by a grant from Humanities DC’s Community Culture and Heritage Program and Creativists in Dialogue is supported by a grant from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. I’m Elizabeth Bruce.
Michael: And I’m Michael Oliver.
Elizabeth: And our guest today is longtime DC and international theater professional Ari Roth. Ari Roth is an American theatrical producer, playwright, director, and educator. The son of German-born refugees of the Holocaust, Roth was born and raised in Chicago, where he graduated from the University of Chicago Laboratory High School. He studied playwriting at the University of Michigan. Based on his playwriting, he received two Avery Hopwood Awards for Drama, the first in 1981, given by Arthur Miller, a noted U alum and playwright. Ari was the Artistic Director of Theater J at the Washington, [00:01:00] DC Jewish Community Center from 1997 to 2014. Over 18 seasons at Theater J, he produced more than 129 productions and created festivals, including Locally Grown, Community Supported Art, Voices from a Changing Middle East, and Theater J’s acclaimed Beyond the Stage and Artistic Directors Roundtable Series. In 2010, Roth was named as one of the Forward 50, honoring nationally prominent men and women who are leading the American Jewish community into the 21st century. And in 2017, he was given the DC Mayor’s Arts Award for Visionary Leadership. Immediately following his departure from Theater J, Ari founded the Mosaic Theatre Company of DC in December 2014. From 2014 to 2020, he served as the Artistic Director of Mosaic Theatre. Ari is married to Kate Schecter, the CEO and President of World Neighbors, and they have two [00:02:00] daughters. Welcome, Ari.
Ari: And one granddaughter.
Elizabeth: Oh, congratulations!
Michael: Oh really?
Ari: How important is that?
Michael: Alright, so before we get into your theater history in DC, we’d like to explore a little bit of your earliest experiences of creativity, either as a witness or as a participant, and maybe how those experiences fed into your love of theater.
Ari: So you want to know, like, how I first got the theater bug?
Elizabeth: You bet.
Ari: I didn’t grow up in a theatrically engaged family. History was our milieu. The Jewish community was an, a culture of singing, a culture of prayer, as conservative Jews. Going to camp, going to American Jewish Congress events. I was president of the Junior Congregation, the Congregation Rodfei Zedek on the south side of Chicago. So I was in a very Jewish [00:03:00] environment on the south side of Chicago in the ‘60s and ‘70s, which meant that I was very involved in the drama of my neighborhood, too. And very involved in the drama of Hyde Park, University of Chicago Lab School. And still, theater didn’t figure centrally at all until my senior year of high school.
I had already gotten the songwriting bug, I was very involved in music, and I was very involved in basketball. Somehow, those two combinations led me to the band of Gods—the jazz band that supported the musical Godspell, which was my first high school theater experience. As a senior. I’m 16, 17 years old and really not involved in theater at all. And I played and sang “On The Willows” there and watched a bunch of my friends have a great time in Godspell. And I thought, “That’s nice.” It wasn’t for me.
I wanted to be a songwriter. [00:04:00] And so I took my songwriting very seriously and did open mic nights at Earl of Old Town and Somebody Else’s Troubles and Holstein’s and went off to University of Michigan and took my songwriting very seriously as a political science major. It wasn’t until my sophomore year where creative writing began to take over as a poetry concentrator. And I, I was overseas at Hebrew University in Jerusalem working under the tutelage of a great poet named Shirley Kaufman and I began to take writing seriously. Went back to the University of Michigan for my second year in Ann Arbor, my junior year, and I was closed out of every creative writing class I could find. And yet I stumbled into an open creative writing class which was playwriting, a 400-level playwriting seminar with graduate students who were serving the class as actors to the [00:05:00] undergraduate writers. People were smoking in class, that seemed very cool at the time.
And I remembered, no, I actually love theater because I read Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman in a rowboat at one of those American Jewish Congress camp weekends. And it affected me like no other piece of literature in my high school career. So, I, so all of a sudden, I’m remembering, wow, drama. And here is this University of Michigan alum, Milan Stitt, who wrote The Runner Stumbles, who was coming back because he was a judge for the Avery Hoffman Awards that you’ve mentioned, and the year before had said, “There are no worthy plays here. I will come back and teach playwriting because I see that the tradition of playwriting that started at Michigan with Kenneth Thorpe Rowe, who was Eugene O’Neill’s script doctor, and then Arthur Miller, and Edmund Ralston, and Dennis McIntyre, and a lot of [00:06:00] excellent playwrights coming out of Michigan.” Milan said, “I will help create a new emphasis on dramatic writing there.”
And I was untested. I didn’t know the form, but I fell in love with the seminar. And I wound up staying for four semesters in that class, and then advanced playwriting, and it got me launched. I wrote a few one act plays. I wrote a full-length play. Arthur Miller was there, too, on the 50th anniversary of the Hopwood Awards. I met him. My father was in the audience. That was symbolic and significant to get a handshake from Miller, to have my dad witness that, to learn about Miller’s summer jobs while going to the University of Michigan as a shipping clerk.
I became a shipping clerk on the south side of Chicago at a pipe manufacturing company, a steel pipe, piling pipes and foundational [00:07:00] pipes. It was a company that my father represented, my father’s a lawyer, and he represented a place called Naylor Pipe Company. And he wound up getting me introduced to the head of Naylor Pipe and I got a job there for the summer. And then I worked there a second summer both in the sales department, then in the shipping department, then I did a little things.
And it was all about imitating Miller. I didn’t know to carve my own path, I only knew what resonated for me, and then to walk in those footsteps. And Miller became an important figure for me When I saw John Malkovich, who was a Chicago actor, who of course played Biff in a radically reinterpreted kind of performance of Vic, of Biff alongside Dustin Hoffman’s Willie in the Broadway production of Death of a Salesman.
Michael: And was that still when you were an undergrad?
Ari: No, that was, I had graduated, I had moved to New York, I followed Milan Stitt to Circle Repertory [00:08:00] Company where he got me a $50 a week literary internship. I stayed there as Associate Literary Manager, as Literary Manager. I graduated into the Playwrights Lab there. Along the way at Circle Repertory Company, a great company founded by Lanford Wilson and Tanya Berezin and Marshall Mason, where Milan was a company writer. Steppenwolf Theatre formed a powerful alliance and partnership with Circle Rep to do a few different productions. And Balm in Gilead, directed by John Malkovich, written by Lanford Wilson, was a seminal production there too. So I got to see John Malkovich a lot and went, and I got to see his True West. It just deepened my adoration for edgy theatre, edgy performance. And it was a transformative experience to see a definitive Death of a Salesman, too. Again, having models, having people to look up to as a young [00:09:00] artist was important for me. Milan was a mentor and Arthur Miller was the godhead.
Michael: And was there a particular moment where you shifted from playwright as your passion? Because you went from the lyric writing, song writing, and then to playwriting, seeing these great actors, great productions. At some moment, you always said, I’m going to produce.
Ari: No, the producing came later. I was an itinerant playwright from, on staff at Theater J as an intern, and then graduating to playwright in the Lab, ‘82, ‘84. And then toiled away at it with readings and workshops. I got a break in 1990 when my comedy Oh, The Innocents was produced at GeVa Theater in Rochester, directed by the great director, on Broadway director now, Joe Mantello, who was a Circle Rep kid with me at the time. And right about that same time I got commissioned by Zelda Fichandler to adapt a book called Born Guilty, interviews with [00:10:00] children of Nazis, for Arena Stage in Washington, DC. From 1990 to ‘91, I was in Arena working on that play. We did it twice, first in the scene shop and then in the Arena, it was called then, then 880 seats, much bigger than the Fichandler is today, at the same space, downsized a bit. Through that period, through 1997, I was a playwright first, playwright second, and an educator third. I took Milan’s old gig. And when Milan moved to Yale, I started teaching beginning playwriting at University of Michigan, and I expanded to do dramatic literature and cross-cultural collaboration.
So it wasn’t until basically the job ran out at University of Michigan in 1997, we had two kids, my wife and I looked at each other, we were both making our money from teaching, but none, neither of us were tenure track. She was the PhD, but she [00:11:00] was disgusted by academia for its treatment of non-tenure track good people. And we said, let’s figure out where we’re going to move to next. And we had a little competition. I wanted to move back to New York. Whoever had the job with the most money would make it back, would win. She had plenty of better offers. I strung together three jobs totaling $20,000. Didn’t amount to much. So I got the booby prize to move to Washington. And I got a very small job at the Jewish Community Center as a researcher in the Ann Loeb Bronfman Gallery for a gallery exhibit. They were going to present called Banned, Censored, and Suppressed: The 50th Anniversary of the Hollywood Blacklist. Began researching that and found out that their artistic director Randye Hoeflick, at the time, was taking her maternity leave and never coming back. And they had a very difficult season. In 1997, [00:12:00] doing three shows in the brand-new Goldman Theater, they were averaging 14 or 15 people a night in a 240-seat theater.And the board seized upon the maternity leave to cap the budget at $90,000 for the year. And they didn’t have leadership. I was the—they had done a reading of a play of mine, Oh, The Innocents, in 1992. And because I knew one of the major board members at Theater J, Lee Rubenstein, who was president of the board of Arena Stage as well, from Born Guilty days, it got me an audience and a meeting with the chief executive officer and before a week or two, they offered me the job at, with a $90,000 budget and a $25,000 a year salary. And I thought about it, [00:13:00] and I thought, “I need a gig. I need context. I’ve never produced before.” I’d been involved in the production of my own work at University of Michigan and in Ann Arbor, so I knew a little bit about fundraising and writing grants, but Washington in ‘97 was a big experiment for me. And the way I thought I’d learn is by partnering with people who knew how to produce better than I did. So very early on in my tenure, I said yes to, first, Leslie Jacobson at Horizon Theatre, and then Jim Petosa at Olney Theatre, and Andrei Malaev-Babel at Stanislavsky Theatre Studio, and then Howard Shalwitz at Woolly Mammoth, and on and on, just kept adding partnerships to help lift my game as a producer. And that $90,000 budget turned into $150,000, turned into $250,000, and [00:14:00] each year we were basically allowed through a smart growth system, overseen by the JCC, to add $80,000 a year to the budget. And over 17 years, 18 seasons, that became a $1.7 million dollar budget.
Elizabeth: Speaking of the Jewish Community Center and this remarkable history that you’ve had there and that others have had, I want to step back and take a bit of a historical look. Clearly, even a cursory look at theater—of performance, of comedy, certainly in the U. S.—reveals this incredibly rich history within Jewish communities. From the Yiddish Theater to vaudeville to musical theater and film and stand-up and et cetera, et cetera, and beyond. So, can you speak about this cultural embrace of performance within Jewish communities? Are there unique characteristics within Judaism that align with the performative process? With this sharing of narrative and humor and music?
Ari: [00:15:00] I think that’s a great point. As I mentioned, I grew up very closely identified with the Jewish community in many different ways. As the child of Holocaust refugees, there was not a lot of theater, but there was a lot of congregating. And to think about how Jews would congregate around cause and celebration of their own lives takes us back to remembering the immigrant experience on the Lower East Side and the advent of the Yiddish Theater. And the Yiddish Theater becomes a precursor to Broadway. The Lower East Side moves uptown. And the vaudeville, the minstrel shows, the comedies move uptown through a series of productions that become so successful and so celebrated in a small community, in a, in a particularist community and [00:16:00] then there is more mass appeal or more commercial appeal uptown.
I taught Jewish American Theatre at American University—I’m sorry, at the University of Michigan. But I want to just refer to some great authors who write about this subject. My buddy Larry Maslon, Professor Larry Maslon from New York University, was an intern at Circle Rep with me. He’s the reason I got the gig at Arena Stage because he moved from Circle Rep down to Arena. He knew that I had written a comedy about growing up one, a child in a, children of a survivor family. And he thought that would be a good match for Zelda on the book Born Guilty. Zelda brought Larry up to NYU, and Larry began to nurture his love of Broadway and has written great books about [00:17:00] Broadway to Main Street: How Show Music Enchanted America. And I point to him to even amplify that legacy of the influence of Yiddish theater on the culture that became Broadway and the Broadway musical today.
Michael: Going back to, so Theater J, when you started it with what, 14 people in the audience, they were averaging $90,000 a year budget.
Ari: Yeah, it was small.
Michael: And then over the 17 years, you clearly, not only, you increased the budget, but obviously you increased the audience. And part of that must have been the vision of the theatre, cause you’re building a community of theater goers at Theater J. And obviously it evolved. So could you just speak about what that vision for theater at Theater J was at the beginning and how it evolved over the years? It sounds like it, it was truly, whatever the vision was, it was successful, it was dynamic, and it appealed to an audience and a community.
Ari: When I walked into that [00:18:00] Jewish Community Center, which of course was a refurbished theater from a Jewish community center that had been shuttered, shuttered for 20 years at least, from seven, six, somewhere in there, the advent of white flight that hit not only Chicago, but hit Washington, DC even earlier. Shut down the JCC. The JCC re-enfranchised out in Rockville. And it took a long time for the DC, the District Jewish Community Center to reincorporate, re-galvanize, and eventually buy back and refurbish that building.
When I walked into that theater, I could feel the sense of a meeting hall. That it was not just, it didn’t feel like a regular theater. It didn’t feel like it—it felt like a gathering space for us. And I thought, “Oh, what a perfect place to stage a play like Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty.” [00:19:00] And I just want to share with you the very first play that I did was called Waiting for Lefty, Still Waiting.
Ari: And the “still waiting” punchline came of course, from What about now? Let wither the labor movement at the end of the 20th century. And I enlisted the director Shira Piven and her soon to be husband, Adam McKay, now an Academy Award winning director and writer—he was a head writer for Saturday Night Live at the time. And we co-wrote Still Waiting alongside of it. And I… it was very important for me to have a mission that spoke to the sense of gathering and I wanted to share that mission with you the very, before I did, picked any plays and it was a mission ratified by staff and ratified by a committee that would grow to become a council. We called ourselves the New Theater J. And we were reclaiming a distinctive urban voice and [00:20:00] social vision that are part of our cultural Jewish legacy. And that Jewish cultural legacy had at its core an identity, a set of values, and Miller comes to mind, but so do many other practitioners of the form, and Clifford Odets.
Michael: And Clifford Odets.
Ari: Clifford Odets is a, prefigures Miller in, in the chronology. And when I wrote for the program about Lefty I wrote, “Why Waiting for Lefty now? Because we all struggle. Because we all lost jobs. Because people are being left behind, even as many more forge ahead. Because of the group theater. Because we’ve all, we’re starting a new theater company, and we’ve assembled a pool of talented, generous artists, committed to a group ideal, dedicated to celebrating theater as a place where truth is spoken, questions are raised, passions rekindled, and lives revealed.” [00:21:00] So that was the first kind of mission thing I ever wrote, and it resonated, and it spoke to an animating passion about that brand, the character of theater that we would be doing there.
Michael: Oh, it sounds like the perfect—Waiting for Lefty is like the perfect sort of iconic show, then to rewrite it—
Ari: Well, what we did—
Michael: —or in a sense to make it immediate, and it’s, that’s perfect.
Ari: We did the whole play, but interspersed and framing it were new scenes, and so it was my, my old—some people say less is more and I generally say more is more. When there’s an hour long Waiting for Lefty, you’ve got, okay, you’ve got another hour to fill, and we filled it.
Michael: And you filled it. Do you have any memories of the, the audience response to that show?
Ari: It was intense. It was a good show, and we did a lot of partnering with unions. I met people who I’m still close to today from the Service Employees International Union, from the AFL CIO, from the Jewish Labor Committee. There was a lot of [00:22:00] partnering that went into it to ensure that there was a good audience. Labor Heritage Foundation was there. And we interviewed a lot of people. We interviewed Justice for Janitors, activists, and their story got incorporated into the play. And so we did a lot of important talkbacks afterwards.
But some of them were provocative. The play had provocative material in it because, for example there was a labor action against the JCC itself. Because one of its primary benefactors was the grandson of Charles E. Smith, who was a great builder in town. And SEIU was picketing Charles E. Smith because they wanted better wages for their janitors. And they threatened to picket a cultural arts event where Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary was performing. And [00:23:00] that picket—and Mary Travers would refuse to cross the picket line in her contract—and so there was this whole debate, was the event going to happen? And I thought, “How perfect, let’s put that in the play.” I put it in the play as a speech, and it was complex, because the negotiating to allow the show to go on included allowing them to hand out pamphlets, leaflets, to audience members coming in. But the leaflets had caricatures on them that were borderline problematic. At least that’s how I extrapolated.
And so it became this whole event where who’s right, who’s wrong. If they were accusing the, the benefactor and charging him in a way that seemed unseemly and possibly anti-Semitic and that infused itself into a labor dispute, wouldn’t that [00:24:00] be interesting to share?
Ari: And so that’s exactly where we started. And so I had to read this out loud to the executive director, this touchy subject matter. And she was like taking it all in and she said, “Oh, you just have to change one word. Because it would be too identifiable about who the widow of this benefactor was. So take out the word ‘fragile.’” I just remembered there was a word note, so there would be a little bit of distance from the well-known person there.
Ari: And I thought, I can live with that one word, compromise, and do—The play got bad reviews in The Washington Post. It’s important to know that they thought they smelled a pro-labor rat in the writing. And at the… it was a writer who never would write another theater review again then. But there was something like they didn’t like all the pro labor sentiment in there, maybe. But we had something [00:25:00] special there. We had 14 actors all together, and it got us launched with a sense of provocation.
You asked about the audience. There was Spartacist Youth League in the back. Real communists in the back. And they were hissing a neoconservative commentator.
Elizabeth: Oh, in the show.
Ari: Yeah. A panelist. In the show there was, there was, again, this was provocative in ways that was probably a little bit too much. I had invited work, The New York Times columnist now, David Brooks, who, in fact, was then with the The Weekly Standard. And he was a parent with me at Adas Israel’s congregation’s nursery school. We both had children in nursery school at the time. And I wanted to find out what the right wing thought about labor. And the future of labor. And what was the critique? And we had an in-depth interview, and it was a good interview and there was a lot of crazy and [00:26:00] funny, interesting provocations that he had. And I put them into a scene. And so then David got to see him himself on stage. And the spin on it was a little satirical and he may not have loved that part, but what he really didn’t love was getting hissed by the Spartacist Youth League in the, from the back of the Goldman Theater, and that made him feel like a stranger in his own Jewish community center.
Ari: So I couldn’t control that crowd. I couldn’t control everything there and the artwork. So it wasn’t, it wasn’t—I didn’t take good care of him as a participating subject, because I didn’t agree with him, but I probably should have done a better job of minding David Brooks’ care for even bothering to have an interview and allowing his words to be used on stage.
Ari: Interesting, it was just beginning to get started with interesting theater, a desire to [00:27:00] have many voices on stage, to animate the audience, and know that there would be, fallout from it.
Michael: And you’re touching, obviously, an important issue in the community, a divisive issue, but nevertheless an important emotionally charged issue, which seems to be, for me anyway, it’s why theater exists, an important reason why.
Ari: I appreciate that. And that’s been true, whether, talking about Israel, Palestine or talking about race. We did the abortion issue on stage, play called The Argument. So, there were, like, tripwires that were good to—the theater, I thought, was a very safe place to have those conversations. And over the course of many years, there felt that there was safety there. But of course, it was safe until it wasn’t safe.
Elizabeth: Speaking of safety, Ari, anyone who’s been to Theater J can attest to the elegance of the performance space. It’s a beautiful space. The lobby, the whole building is really lovely. But what is unique about Washington, among Washington theaters, is the [00:28:00] security process for entering Theater J. There’s a metal detector and a bag check and a sign in process and it’s really not the standard theater going experience. So can you speak about this constant threat of violence and how it informs the artists and the very mission of the theater? And what does that do to the creative process?
Ari: I was very much there for the transformation of that culture of security. Beginning in 2000 when I produced David Hare’s play Via Dolorosa, my first entry into the Middle East conflict. And what was timely and unique about that play was coming out just with the unfolding of the Second Intifada, so that meant suicide bombings in Jerusalem, in Tel Aviv, a lot of fear in the Jewish community about the possibility of a suicide bombing here. And my line at the time was, “Terrorists don’t read the Arts and Leisure page.” They’re not going to [00:29:00] know about this, etc. And, but they insisted on bag checks at the time. This is before 9/11. I’m not sure if we had the bag checks or not then. It was a conversation. After 9/11, they applied for funding from what would become the Home, the Department of Homeland Security. And Jewish community centers were some of the first to get the metal detectors and all.
But throughout that, I felt that it would be a mistake for us to close the doors to the 16th Street lobby and the steps coming up that symbolically invite the community in with, where there were no metal detectors. It was a very important gestalt for me that the Jewish Community Center was welcome and open to everyone and that those steps, like the steps to the [00:30:00] Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, were, could be a gathering place. There’s something fabulous about that. We did a lot of programming on the steps. We did springtime and summer on the step, concerts. I was a huge advocate that JCC over those 18 years to keeping that entrance open. And the only time it was open was for Theater J performances through 2014.
Throughout, after 9/11, after the, the metal detectors went up, we still, we, there would be a security guard come and watch people come in, occasionally do a bag check, maybe he was doing some kind of sophisticated racial profiling or sizing people, but there was no… So, for theater performances while I was there, audiences could come up the 16th Street steps and not go through a bag check. Because I thought it was going to limit the accessibility and our openness to the stranger [00:31:00] to come in and enjoy the play. And they tolerated my insistence on that. Security concerns did not win out.
When I left the Theater J, those 16th Street doors remained closed, and nobody comes up that way except for a gala benefit, when, etc. But the theatre is not open for audience entry as far as I know, and I think that’s too bad. I think it was the right way to come up.
And your question and your observation comes with a point about how anomalous it is, how anomalous it is for a diverse audience of multiple ages to come in and have to go through a security check. It feels like you are under the watchful eye of the security apparatus administration. Indeed you are when you come into the [00:32:00] JCC. That’s not the theater that I wanted to have in residence there, and so we fought about it. It was just one of the, it’s an example of how I was not the best kind of building employee. And I, they would want you to be. The new, the new artistic staff and leaders there don’t got a choice. They’re gonna, they’re going to subscribe to what the administration of the JCC is telling them they need to do and Board would advise, everybody has to do the same thing, the theater isn’t different. And I thought the theater audience should be different and treated differently.
Michael: Right. So, going back to the, this community that you built at Theater J starting with Waiting for Lefty, so on and so forth, obviously you’re selecting scripts, there’s a script selection process that jives with this community. ‘Cause if the goal is to connect to [00:33:00] historic issues, current issues—could you talk a little bit about the process of selecting scripts, of choosing scripts for the community while you were the artistic director there?
Ari: Over the years we had Readers Committees, Readers Committees both of Theater J and then when I went over to Mosaic, we brought over this idea of having a circle of staff, artists, and board, council, read plays and respond to them. And who fed that trove of plays that would be then discussed and read? Our literary staff. It was a very important hires were working, hiring a literary director. Sometimes that literary director had a couple different hats. There was also somebody doing dramaturgical work, doing discussion work, doing group sales, they were wearing multiple hats. [00:34:00] But it was always important to have, to be open to scripts that would come in through the transom, whether it was from agents or unsolicited—we would get hundreds and hundreds of scripts submitted each year. And we would also go out of our way to find high profile authors who had plays they wanted to share with us.
One of the things that became conspicuous for us is doing world premieres by big name authors. And what on earth were they doing at a JCC? Whether it was Wendy Wasserstein, or Ariel Dorfman, or Richard Greenberg, or Thomas Keneally, or Joyce Carol Oates, to name but a few. All in pretty quick succession. Major, major authors with plays on Broadway and films, etc. And through agent submissions and what not, we were able to develop, through readings and then nurturing, new plays.
Now how does that [00:35:00] fall in with the readers committee? And ultimately deciding which plays you’re going to do? The Readers Committee was the sounding board. They were a focus group. They helped winnow things down. But they didn’t make decisions about what plays would be done. And sometimes there would be people who thought, “I don’t care what Joyce Carol Oates, I don’t like her play, The Tattooed Girl. I didn’t like the book, and I don’t like the play.” And I’m like, “I love Joyce Carol Oates. I love this play. I want to work with her.” And there would be a difference of opinion. And, and I’m not even remembering if there was a fight over that. I don’t know if there was a fight over that. But I certainly know that the Readers Committee was a feedback organ group. And they helped read a lot more plays than I could possibly read myself. But I also had a sense that what would be good for the theater was, and the particular vision and the particular ways in which I thought doing high profile world premieres alongside local world premieres by [00:36:00] authors like Jeanette Buck and authors like Renee Calarco, really great local writers, and alongside writers of distinction.
And of course, I’m a playwright too. I saw myself as a local writer who would get done from time to time. Those all didn’t get approved or go through the Readers Committee. And I’m saying that I guess I had an ambivalent feeling about how important it was, the decision-making process. I felt that it was very difficult to make decisions by committee.
Ari: Curatorially. But I felt it was really important to be in discussion about these plays, to know what people thought about them all.
Michael: And what—a particular interest of mine is how does the, the time, the right time to do a particular script. Is there, how did that factor into your decision?
Ari: You never [00:37:00] quite know. The timing…
Michael: Is everything, but you don’t ever quite know, right?
Ari: You’re not in control of that. When Tony Kushner wrote Homebody/Kabul, his follow up script to Angels in America, he wrote it before 9/11. It was produced just after 9/11, with stunning prescience. He was writing about Afghanistan right before Afghanistan came and attacked. We did the play two years later. That was an extraordinary co-production with Woolly Mammoth. It was, we did it because it was two years after 9/11. It was… it wasn’t perfect timing. It didn’t have the same sense of timing that New York Theatre Workshop had when they premiered it. You, so you can never, when you’re getting second productions or third productions, it doesn’t quite have the same timeliness as you might have before.
I think, I think of a world premiere that did have intense timeliness, and that was [00:38:00] Deb Margolin’s Imagining Madoff, a play about Bernie Madoff. We did the premiere of that. That was another highly provocative production because of the original version of it had Elie Wiesel as a character in it and Elie Wiesel didn’t appreciate it. So when he learned about the draft, he expressed a sharp warning that we not go forward with it. We took, we withdrew the play. Deb Margolin rewrote it so that Elie Wiesel was no longer in the play. There was, Solomon Galkin was instead. And we did it the next year.
Elizabeth: The Creativists in Dialogue podcast is supported in part by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities and subscribers like you. The “Theatre in Community” podcast series is supported in part by Humanities DC. Thanks.