The Playgoer: January 2004

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Thursday, January 01, 2004

NYTR "Corrie" Essay

This essay was published in the 2007 New York Theatre Review, edited by Brook Stowe. It was written in December, 2006 and is posted here for readers of Playgoer.

[Apologies for the pre-dated, 2004, time-stamp here, but I did so to file this longer post directly into the blog's archives. I am in fact posting this on August 7, 2007]

Copies of the complete NYTR--which includes this and other essays, as well as three complete scripts from acclaimed downtown plays--can be purchased at Amazon.


In Praise of Controversy:

What the “Corrie” Conflict Taught Us About Theatre in a Post 9/11 World

by Garrett Eisler

When My Name is Rachel Corrie ended its Off-Broadway run at the Minetta Lane Theatre on December 17, 2006, a question was at last answered that had been hotly debated all year: can you stage a play in New York City that is critical of the Israeli government and live to tell about it? The answer – which should have been unsurprising – turned out to be, “yes.” While Corrie, when it finally opened, could hardly be called a resounding hit (it received mixed notices and reportedly middling box office after an initial surge of interest), it survived. It even outlasted its initially announced limited run by four weeks. This may ultimately have been less significant as a vindication of the real Rachel Corrie’s own advocacy than a repudiation of those who would back off such a play out of fear that if a theater exercised its right to free speech on an unpopular issue, the sky would fall.

Thus ended a bitter and at times confusing chapter in the troubled story of political theater in America. The announcement on February 28, 2006 by the New York Theatre Workshop that they would not be presenting Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner’s play, My Name is Rachel Corrie that March, as planned, raised many questions about many different aspects of our current theater culture, especially in our cherished world of non-profit institutions that we have assumed are our last bastion of free expression in an ever more conservative country and restrictive corporatized marketplace.

Now that Corrie has come and gone, we can reflect a little less passionately and defensively on what some of us were fighting about back in March and April. I myself take away two larger lessons.

One is that controversy can actually be good for the theater. More than one commentator at the time complained of “more light than heat” in the uproar. But that cliché in all its hollowness missed the point. People were excited to engage with important global issues in the theater. Yet such passion was counted as part of the problem.

Fear of either “light” or “heat” – fear of argument, of honest and open debate – was the culprit here all along. Why else would the NYTW cancel a play its Artistic Director James Nicola actually claimed to believe in? Playwright Tony Kushner put his finger on it with his comments to Philip Weiss in The Nation: “Never having gotten a clear answer about why Nicola put off the play, Kushner ascribes it to panic: Nicola didn't know what he was getting into, and only later became aware of how much opposition there was to Corrie, how much confusion the right has created around the facts. Nicola felt he was taking on ‘a really big, scary brawl and not a play.’”

I actually take the position, perhaps unpopular, that we need more “brawling” in the theater, not less. A brawl is at least a sign of life, as opposed to the “deadly theater” (to use Peter Brook’s still-apt phrase from forty years ago) we see all around us. When we study theater history, we measure the significance of theater to a given era by the intensity of the trouble it got into. Even the Astor Place riots of 1849 signaled a deep connection between audience and performer that today we consider enviable. Not that I think we need to suffer that episode’s scores of casualties to foster a similar engagement. But theater does have to live with both the nice and not-nice effects of that passion.

This is why out of all the things said by the New York Theatre Workshop, what offended me most was their seeming resentment that its decision attracted interest and comment from outside the theater world. In a statement posted on the NYTW website April 25, Nicola and his Managing Director Lynn Moffat declared, “we are disheartened that NYTW has been so badly misrepresented in the press, and criticized by others looking to further their own political or personal agendas.” They continued:

      The censorship charge, though unfounded, ignited a fierce, media-driven “controversy” that was quickly fueled by political groups and others who rushed to judgment and criticized the workshop without knowing what had actually transpired. And because the play itself is framed by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the story attracted international attention from journalists and others writing about larger issues such as the Middle East crisis, freedom of speech, and the nature of political theater.

In other words, how dare people engaged with other issues care what is going on Off-Broadway! Personally, I thought we should only be so lucky in the theatre. Too bad it took a censorship charge to finally attract some political attention.

The hypocrisy of this statement, though, was immediately apparent when one realized that NYTW has openly admitted that the play’s postponement was due exactly to such “others” with “agenda”—namely, those opposing Corrie’s politics (identified in the initial Times article as “Jewish religious and community leaders”). Only those who supported Corrie– like Weiss in The Nation – were branded meddling interlopers. And when asked by the New York Observer’s John Heilpern whether he had spoken with Arab-American groups in addition to Jewish activists, Nicola admitted passively, "We haven't heard from anyone in that community, and I can't speculate as to their reactions."

Such head-in-the-sand insularity is what got the Workshop into this mess in the first place. What else explains the apparent fact that it couldn’t predict that a pro-Palestinian play would be controversial in New York City as soon as Alan Rickman pitched it? What else explains how the Workshop could be swayed more by random Google searches and nutty propaganda about Rachel Corrie fronting for Hamas than by more objective news accounts? What else explains why the Workshop claimed it needed an entire season to “prepare” a “context” for an Israel-Palestinian conflict that is in the papers every day?

My point is not to harass the NYTW in particular. The time is over for that. But it is worth asking ourselves if this behavior was symptomatic of an entire non-profit theater culture that is “out of touch” with the world, or at least stuck in a stifling cocoon of safeness. When Nicola told the New York Times that he realized “the fantasy that we could present the work of this writer simply as a work of art without appearing to take a position was just that, a fantasy,” the “fantasy” he’s really talking about is the delusion that one can present plays to a living audience as if there is no outside world. Or that you can just block out the parts too complex or volatile to leave to chance.

Has it become too selective a slice of the world we see on our stages now? When our theatres claim to be “political” are they really venturing any further than the limits of the Democratic Party Platform? Sadly, New York theater needed a play like My Name is Rachel Corrie – as imperfect a work of art as it may be – to remind us there are issues out there in that real world we’re too easily avoiding, issues way out of our “comfort zones” both to the right and further left than we’re usually exposed to.

Another alarming legacy of the Corrie debate was the appropriation of such worthy ideals as “context,” “balance,” “research” – in short, dramaturgy – as a cover for damage control. I was puzzled throughout the spat by the NYTW’s constant invocation of some mystical dramaturgical process which it claimed was uniquely its own – some dense research and audience outreach that accompanied all its projects. The time it needed for Corrie, the Workshop claimed, was in no way unusual.

I found this odd since the NYTW was not a theater I ever associated with such efforts. It boasted of its work supporting Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul, for instance, but the only “context” I remember from my experience of that show was a photocopied insert in my slim program with some dates about Afghanistan history—something I could have found in a library, or online, in minutes. I’m sure the Workshop did have talkbacks, as it said, but not the night I was there. I have seen talkbacks at other NYTW shows, but like the Five Lesbian Brothers chit-chatting about their process for Oedipus at Palm Springs, they were no different than the usual “meet the artists” Q & As at other theaters – “celebrity series,” as the Roundabout Theatre now calls them. That’s the funny thing about talkbacks as a cure-all. Theaters rarely have them every night. And even then, nothing compels the audience to stay.

All of which brings up another point about the sanctifying of “outreach” and other ways to pacify audience response. You can never reach all the audience all the time. “[O]ur responsibility was not just to produce it,” Nicola said about Corrie, “but to produce it in such a way as to prevent false and tangential back-and-forth arguments from interfering with Rachel's voice.” To which I can only respond – good luck! And why should a theater want to “prevent” some in the audience from having their natural response?

One low point in the whole debate was when radio talk show host Brian Lehrer—an icon of NPR liberalism—weighed in, seemingly uninformed by the complete facts. In a piece posted on his show’s website, tellingly entitled “How to Avoid a Controversy,” Lehrer wagged his finger at London’s Royal Court Theatre (the original producers of Corrie) for resisting NYTW’s purported efforts at audience outreach. Bizarrely he offered as a counter-model a small Westchester symphony concert he took part in of an oratorio about Israel-Palestine; Lehrer was so proud that the orchestra published materials, held pre- and post-show lectures/discussions, etc. But in comparing this to an Off-Broadway run of a play, Lehrer downplayed two major differences: the concert played only one night, and the audience was small and relatively homogenous. In other words, Lehrer’s example had nothing to do with the life of the theater, where controversy can’t be so easily contained because the theater is – or should be – part of the give-and-take of the everyday life of a large city.

Again, in the theater, you can’t reach all the audience all the time.

As a former practicing dramaturge myself, I have no problem with more research and more discussion. I think it is an embarrassment, in fact, that New York’s non-profit theaters don’t have big meaty program notes on a par with the best European theaters. But I would also be ashamed as a dramaturge if my work was being used primarily to soften dissent and contain disparate views.

In the post-9/11 era, we are going to have to find a way to be OK with staging controversial work. If our theater is going to remain relevant, that is. Artists are going to want to perform it. We’re going to have to find the courage to stage such work even if it hurts some people’s feelings. We’re going to have to prepare ourselves for angry emails and phone calls, for cancelled subscriptions and revoked donations. If our theater is going to be effective, all of this is going to happen.

(Is it revealing that the only way My Name is Rachel Corrie could open in New York was under the auspices of a commercial producer, with no one to answer to but her accountant?)

In trying so desperately to avoid a nasty brawl, look what happened to the New York Theatre Workshop. It was sidetracked for two months, with a dark theater, and here we are, still talking about it a full year later. It was hardly a vindication that every single review of the play when it finally opened at the Minetta Lane had to include some variation of the phrase, “controversially cancelled or postponed by the New York Theatre Workshop.”

In sum, it was important that this “brawl” happened, partly because it shined a light onto the decision-making process in our non-profit theaters (which are – for all practical purposes – our de facto National Theater). But also because it restored equilibrium. A decision was made under pressure from one side – the side of, “let’s not talk about this right now.” So it was only right that the other side – those saying “Yes, let’s talk about this, and now!” – applied some pressure of its own.

Now that’s fair and balanced.