The Playgoer: March 2006

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Friday, March 31, 2006

the AP

An AP story built around the London West End opening of "Rachel Corrie" is now widely circulating, including on the CNN and Fox News websites. Fairly bland and old-news info. But it's certainly the widest national exposure the story has yet gotten, waking even more people up to what has happened to a little play at a little downtown NYC theatre.

(Still no update on NYTW.org, by the way...)

"Corrie" in NY "this year"?

The main "news" coming out of the New York Times review of Rachel Corrie may very well be this aside:

Ewan Thomson, spokesman for the Royal Court Theater, said Thursday that a New York City premiere is still planned for this year, although a theater has not yet been chosen.
That's the most definite statement made yet by the Royal Court on the prospects for any NY production. But it's still not definite, note.

I keep hearing on this site and elsewhere that it's silly to call this censorship when the play can still get produced anywhere even if NYTW can't handle it, and that theatres mustbe chomping at the bit. Well there really is no evidence for that yet, is there? In New York, at least. (Seattle Rep next Spring may very well end up hosting the "long-delayed US premiere.")

Hey, maybe they'll announce something soon, and maybe one day we'll find out everyone really was bidding on it. But until then I'm assuming nothing. For all we know, other artistic directors are looking at this controversy and just want no part of it....As has been suggested, it may take a purely commercial B'way producer, ironically, someone independent of a board and donors, some rich individual who just believes in the play, to mount it him or herself.

As for the impact of the NYT review itself, this also may be what NYC artistic directors are waiting for. Are the enough "marquis quotes" here to sell the prestige factor to audiences here? My take on the review is it's basically a thumbs-up, with the only qualifications about the script being slight queasiness over the politics and slight impatience with the preachiness. But the production is called "powerful" and Rickman and Dodd's work clearly extolled. The quotes are certainly there.

I also wonder how many artistic directors were at last night's West End opening. Maybe it's time to call around and see which AD's took an transatlantic flight this week...

REVIEW: The Cataract

The Cataract
by Lisa D'Amour, directed by Katie Pearl
at The Women's Project (in previews)

A stuck-up Minnesota married couple takes in a pair of sultry lovers from the Bayou as farm workers and wacky things ensue. Seen that sitcom before? (Or was it a Pauly Shore movie?) Even if you haven't you can guess the Southerners, even though they talk funny and seem slow and dimwitted at first, will show those Northerners how to open up and live a little. It being "the past" to boot, sexuality is another area in need of loosening up, with one of the couples practically frigid and the other doing it like rabbits. I'll let you guess which is which.

To be fair to playwright Lisa D'Amour, her play The Cataract is written above the level of Hollywood and aspires to a more poetic insight about repressed desire and the plight of souls trapped in social roles. The culture clash of these Lutherans and "Loosianans" forces all the characters to confront issues of masculinity and femininity. But what should be a tense and tight four-way domestic power struggle diffuses into a meandering two-act script that cannot sustain interest in its predictable outcomes. D'Amour's characters are given to random wit, which makes for some laughs, but I would gladly have foregone the jokes in exchange for more psychological credibility. Naturalism is not necessarily the goal here, though, as Katie Pearl's effectively stylized direction reinforces. Then again, with this material, such abstraction and exaggeration of the characters' regional qualities ends up highlighting the play's trading in stereotypes.

D'Amour's insistence on setting up a Northern vs. Southern dynamic actually masks a much more interesting narrative of class underpinning it, and from which the regional accents and humor keep distracting. But such a focus would need to invoke the social forces of a surrounding specific world, which the script and Pearl's abstract production willfully shut out. The characters are sensitively drawn in a poetic sense, but remain sketches, fixed ideas, even as they explore their hidden desires (staged by Pearl in some visually arresting dream sequences). The Cataract displays some sensitive writing and a strong cast. But, unsatisfying as either social/historical or psychological drama, it doesn't culminate in any dramatic impact.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

NYT reviews "Corrie"!

"So the first thing worth reasserting about "My Name Is Rachel Corrie" is its right to be seen and debated: a society that won't allow that is one fearful of its extremes and, by extension, the world."

So writes Matt Wolf, London-based American critic for the NYT in tomorrow's paper. So read the NYT finally weigh in on the play itself here.

To cut to the chase: it's not an all out rave, for sure. The closer:

"Unexceptional sentiments? Perhaps, at least to anyone who has heard (or sung) any of a thousand comparable protest songs. But that doesn't diminish the singularity of Ms. Corrie's death or of this paean to her, which gives activism a necessary center stage without quite arriving at the realm of art."

Pretty much what everyone expected, right? And definitely not saying it's a piece of drek not worth fighting over.

Megan Dodds interview

The actress actually going up there and saying the controversial "Rachel's Words" every night, interviewed in the online "Official London Theatre Guide."

It's definitely a puff piece, sure. But in case you're interested who the 3rd artist involved in this is after hearing so much about Rickman and Viner.

Refreshingly, she doesn't play all diplomatic and guard her career. She's pissed!

Highlight: “What the hell is that? If you ‘postpone indefinitely’ it’s not going to happen!”

The 'C' Word

If your definition of "censorship" is limited to padlocking the doors of the theatre by government decree, then I suppose there's no censorship in America.

But ponder that statement for a second: "There is no censorship in America." Does this really square with our experience? Or, more pointedly, with the experiences of writers and artists in this country who choose to confront sacred cows or upset political and religious orthodoxies?

Because we have a First Amendment (as of today, anyway) we thankfully are spared the full Soviet-style slash and burn techniques. Also, unlike Britain, we have not had to inherit an antiquated Royal appointment like the Lord Chamberlain, who still had the power in London to license (or not) all plays until the 1960s!

But, of course, artists at all times in all places have been free to create whatever they wanted. Getting your work shown is where censors get interested. And I would argue there are still in our society plenty of potential factors that have the power to function as de facto Lord Chamberlains, First Amendment or not. In other words--the experience on the artist's end is sometimes not much different.

Some might say we are blessed not to have a "state theatre" because such institutions are prey to overt government censorship. No doubt, if we had a true "National Theatre" in this country it would be painfully prone to the same controversies our meager NEA has to deal with whenever they give, say, an openly gay artist a thousand-dollar grant. Cries of "taxpayer money" would trump all. So that leaves the American artist is at the whim of private and corporate sector dollars. (Small grants do their part, but always make up less than half the pie of any theatre or arts institution's budget.)

The good news about that system is that if you're a billionaire with money to waste, you can write or produce a play about any subject you choose. If not, you are dependent (I do not use the word lightly) upon the willingness of people with money to take a chance. So, no, it's not just about the money in the end. It's about guts.

In other words, the steadfastness and commitment of arts institutions (and, if we expand the circle into commercial entertainment, publishing houses, movie studios, communications conglomerates....) are all that's keeping us from true censorship. When they fail in that department--when they abrogate their inevitable responsibilities as guardians and exemplars of free speech--don't we get at least a taste of what living under censorship is like?

I'm open to coming up with another word, if that's what it takes to get incidents like the attempted shutdowns of plays like Corpus Christi recognized for what they are: dangerous precedents of intimidation and fear that truly threaten the freedom of our theatres.

In that spirit, here are some common objections to the use of the 'c' word to describe New York Theatre Workshop's handling of Rachel Corrie, along with my attempts to rebut them:

Why does a theatre have to do a play they don't want to do?
They don't. The problem here is that NYTW has repeatedly (to this day) insisted they do want to produce it! So ask them what's stopping them. Please. We all really want to know.

Theatres reject plays for all kinds of reasons. Is that always censorship?
No, of course not. We can probably all think of cases of plays people would like to do, out of support for the political beliefs stated, but drop it when they decide the play just isn't any good. What's funny is that NYTW has done exactly the opposite. By Jim Nicola's own account, he fell in love with the script first only for the abstract themes of its story (idealism, etc) and the aesthetic quality of Rachel Corrie's writing. It's the politics (Corrie's actually positions, both true and alleged) that then got him concerned.
So how's this for a "rule": Censorship involves the withdrawing of a work for its political content alone.

NYTW's only sin was in letting this get out. They never publicly announced the play in the first place, so what's wrong with privately considering the play and then deciding against it? It's not fair to interfere in their decision making process.
True, if they kept a tighter lid on this we would never know. But considering there was another party in this affair, the Royal Court Theatre, as well as a movie star (Alan Rickman), what were the odds of that? Also, the play was a known quantity--in London, at least, a pretty important epicenter of the English-speaking theatre. Sooner or later people would wonder (as did even Alan Rickman fans obsessively on their websites) when it was coming to New York, as people do with all London hits.

Now if you think that all this is fine as long as it happens privately, then I suppose you also think it's fine for a President's staff to go around exposing and trashing the name of a CIA agent for political purposes--just as long as it doesn't get in the papers?

The exposure of this story is worth paying attention to since it provides a window on an important kind of decision making process. While NYTW may be a private institution, I think we in the theatre community think of such theatres as having a "public trust" and do owe their wider audience and artists some transparency and openness about how they operate. After all, they're the only "national theatre" we've got!

Also, don't forget, the story has mostly been self-exposed. Jim Nicola may still be withholding key details, but he has given plenty of interviews and openly admitted backing down from this play due to displeasure from others over its political content. Again, that's his story.

This isn't censorship. Just a bad PR problem. They were concerned about the play for legitimate reasons but bungled how they announced it and fell into merely a rhetorical trap.
I will admit this: if Jim Nicola told the New York Times on February 28 that while he had been making preparations to produce the play in a month's time, after more research and learning about the play's issues he no longer believes as strongly in it...I would actually somewhat respect that. Especially if he really made clear that he personally changed his mind and could not commit to the play any longer, or that he had either misread it originally or just educated himself in the process. We could all then yell at him for changing his mind. Or we could debate with him the finer points of the " '73 Borders" and whether the International Solidarity Movement is a front for Hamas. But at least that's open and honest debate.

Note that neither Jim Nicola nor anyone representing NYTW has ever made such a statement. Instead they have continued to say they believe in the play and that it is only others who object. Implicitly, then, it's anxiety over these others that's stopping them from producing it. And the objections are expressly over political content. Smell like censorship yet?

What difference does it make whether a theatre changes its mind about a play or never chose it to begin with? Would you have shut up, Playgoer, if Jim Nicola just never sat down with Alan Rickman in the first place and led him on? Is that all this is about?
Simple point: what distinguishes all classic censorship cases is that the work is clearly intended and headed for production/publication and then stopped. No, I don't think it's censorship when a writer sends off a manuscript accusing the government of war crimes and it is simply not accepted for publication, for whatever reason. The publisher in that case even has the right to say "we don't publish controversial material."

But I do think it's a quite different scenario--with much more disturbing implications--when the publisher's first response is "Yes! We want to publish this" and then some other force intervenes and pulls the plug. And not because they don't like the writing style, or don't like the author personally, but expressly over political content.

Doesn't it make a difference that this has been voluntary. Again, doesn't NYTW have the right to have this debate privately and internally amongst themselves. If the objection is coming from within the institution, then where's the sinister outside censorship?
Indeed, who is functioning as the "Lord Chamberlain" here? That's actually one of the last remaining mysteries surrounding the case. A powerful board member? A "generous" donor? Jim Nicola's Jewish childhood friend from summer camp? There simply is not enough information to make this claim. Of course, NYTW could help--maybe even help themselves!--by filling us in on this.

I suppose you could let Nicola off the hook by saying the buck stops with him, that no matter who he may have consulted, he has the right to decide, "voluntarily"not to do the play. In that case, I ask you to comb the transcripts of all his interviews and show me, where does he take such authoritative responsibility? Or do his words sound more like those of a man in a corner?

And lastly..."Postponement" does not equal "cancellation."
Oh please. We're four weeks into this already.

That's all I have in me for now. I welcome more challenges in Comments. And perhaps readers can offer more rebuttals there as well.

Brando's almost-debut

Some of you might have already known Brando was the original pick for Rebel Without A Cause. But did you know he screen-tested for it? And that it survives???


It's included in the new deluxe Streetcar DVD release coming May 2. Most notable: it was done in 1947. Yes, eight years before Rebel finally got made with James Dean. But also the same year as the Broadway Streetcar. Thus, this will be the first recorded film of Brando the actor at the very time he did that role.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

on NYTW.org...

You still won't find information on a new production, which they said they would announce last week.

You also won't find any new updates of when they intend to produce My Name is Rachel Corrie.

But you will read about Rent. "A one-time only gala performance featuring the entire original cast." With tickets "from $1000 - $2000 each."

See for yourself. (As of 5:00pm Wednesday)

dissing "Allegory"

Not to pick on Times critic Andrea Stevens over semantics, but just the opening of this sentence in her review of the Ma-Yi company's Trial by Water caught my attention:

More an allegory than a play, the production...

Since when can't a play be an allegory as well?

The review goes on to be balanced and even supportive. But the phasing there reveals a noteworthy bias in modern theatre discourse. While for some the word may be derisive shorthand for simplistic propaganda, isn't allegory actually one of the most enduring of all genres, in both literature and drama?

Just ask the author of the anonymous Everyman, one of the most perfectly written and moving plays ever. (Even to an atheist half-Jew like myself.)

"Gangsterism" and the Arts: Shanley on the record

I've finally transcribed the full quote from the Brian Lehrer show.

"The motives of the people who were going to produce this play Off-Broadway in New York are not adequately known and I think that they should be aired...But it highlights a larger phenomenon which is an international gangsterism towards the arts at this time. I consider the New York Times not publishing the cartoons about Mohammed to be an act of editorial cowardice and inappropriate--obviously it was major news--and this idea of it being 'sensitive' to religion, respectful to religion, not to air differences, not to air slurs, not to air slights, is just giving into intimidation of different kinds. Now the theatre in New York may not have been afraid that they were going to be killed, they may have been afraid they were going to lose funding from somebody, that I don't know. But I do know there is intimidation across this country in the arts, where plays like Grease are being vetoed by local organizations as being too racy and cartoons are being called unworthy of publication because the sensitivities of people of a certain religion trumps the need of people of every persuasion to know. And I think it has to be looked at. There's a certain degree of cowardice involved and I think people are going to have to get used to the idea that doing these things--like what happened to [documentary film maker Theo] Van Gogh in the Netherlands--may lead to them being killed."

-John Patrick Shanley, author of the Tony-winning Doubt, which deals with scandals rocking the Catholic Church, and Dirty Story, an allegory of the Arab-Israeli conflict. From an interview on the Brian Lehrer show, WNYC, March 22. (Transcribed as excerpted on the March 24 broadcast.)

Needless to say, the closing words are not a threat. And in the full context, the chilling statement is not made glibly. It's a challenge to the artist: are you willing to go ahead saying what you have to say even though others may want to go as far as killing you for it.

If you agree with this quote, please circulate it widely. Shanley should be thanked for speaking out when so many of his peers still remain silent. Maybe he can inspire such relevant artists to this story as Doug Wright and Terrence McNally to finally let us know whether they think political intimidation of a play is ok.

PS: To be fair, I should also here credit Tony ("Where's Tony?") Kushner for indeed speaking out even before Shanley, even if not immediately, given my initial disappointment with him on this blog.

PPS: For Andrew Sullivan readers, welcome to The Playgoer! If you're into theatre, the arts in general, and the larger cultural/political issues that occasionally factor into them, please continue to drop by. Links to my theatre reviews are to your right. And the comments box below is always open on every post, so please do join the conversation.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Israel speaks

This just in from the AP on today's Israeli elections:

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israel's three main TV stations predicted that acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's centrist Kadima Party would win Tuesday's election but would get fewer seats than expected.

The polls indicated that Kadima, founded by Ariel Sharon before his debilitating stroke, would not be able to rule on its own and would need partners to form a center-left coalition. The party has said it would act on its own if necessary to establish Israel's final borders by 2010.In Gaza, Hamas said it would resist Olmert's plan to draw the borders.

The Labor Party, which favors a negotiated settlement with the Arabs, came in a strong second. The hard-line Likud, which dominated Israeli politics for three decades and opposes Olmert's plan to withdraw from much of the West Bank, came in a distant third, according to polls broadcast immediately after voting ended.

In sum: the somewhat more liberal direction taken by Ariel Sharon in his final pre-coma days has apparently been endorsed by the Israeli people. The only other party to gain more votes was the Labor party to the left "which favors a negotiated settlement with the Arabs." The party of no-negotiation looks to be "a distant third."

In other words: the ultimate "Jewish Community" has now been "polled." And even they say: let's rethink this Gaza thing.

What are the odds tomorrow, do you think, of Jim Nicola announcing: "In light of recent headlines from the Middle East--the triumph of a Labor-Kadima coalition, the vindication of Sharon's more pragmatic turn-- it is inappropriate not to produce My Name is Rachel Corrie and so it will open here next month."

(Again, Playgoer is not a licensed MidEast blogger. I report, you decide.)

B'Way Demographics

The League of American Theaters and Producers has released its latest annual study of Broadway audiences.

The headline, naturally, is all about "Broadway is back!" "Pre-9/11 business," etc. And good for them, on those fronts.

But for anyone still holding out hope Broadway could provide fertile (even habitable) ground for serious theatre, the clues are there.

From one summary:

The average age for a musical theatregoer was 41.1 years, compared to 49.7 years for those attending plays. International visitors to Broadway were the youngest overall (36.9 years), while theatregoers from New York City were 43.1 years on average and those from the suburbs of the city averaged 44 years of age.

So let's get this straight. People who attend plays as opposed to musical are more likely to be older, and anyone under 40 at all is very likely to be foreign!

more Lehrer rebuttals

To their credit, the Brian Lehrer show "blog" has posted a bunch of listener responses ("we're drowning here, actually" says their webmaster) against his "plague on both your houses" stance, and especially against his misinformed arguments against Katherine Viner and the Royal Court Rachel Corrie team. So if any of those were you, coming from this site--good going!

I especially applaud the self-identified dramaturg "KB" (who has worked at NYTW, to boot*) for demistifying once and for all this babble about what "contextualization" really means in a working theatre. NYTW has got some people fooled that they were going to set up some Middle East thinktank or something. Let's get real.

Dear Brian:

Thank you for readdressing this issue. I listened to it later on Friday because I had boycotted your show that morning.

I think that first of all, what education and outreach constitutes is misunderstood. My perception of it is a separate department specializing in educating the surrounding community with classes and workshops on theatre. They also work closely with the literary and dramaturgy staffs on study guides, usually for classes coming to see the show. The outreach component extends to expanding contact in the community beyond the standard subscriber base - i.e. low income families. NYTW, like most theatres in New York, does not have an Education and Outreach staff member, let alone a department. To refer to what they are doing with Rachel Corrie as "education and outreach" to me, is misleading and cynical.

I'm a theatre dramaturg and a great deal of what I do is write program notes, articles for the newsletter, give pre-show lectures and post show discussions. I have never thought of this work, though fun and rewarding, as education and outreach - it's mainly marketing where the point is to advertise the play, spark interest, and make the audiences feel included and like members of the theatre community. I don't mean to belittle this interaction, which I really enjoy and I have worked on plays where it has seemed very valuable to have some sort of dialogue after the show because the experience has been so powerful for the cast and the audience. But I've never seen the case where having experts diffuse the play afterward has been necessary- and certainly not worth postponing to the next season. Unless they're flying these people in from Israel, it shouldn't take that long to book them.

In terms of NYTW losing valuable patrons and fundraisers- I completely reject the idea offered by your caller that patrons should have any sway over a theatre's artistic choices. That is just wrong and dangerous. That leads to safe programming and a "giving the people what they want" ethos, which is not what non-profit theatre should ever aspire to, certainly not a theatre like New York Theatre Workshop. Theatres are fluid and they change with their leaders and times. Patrons and subscribers constantly leave for various reasons, be it financial or aesthetic and they get replaced by new ones. They are probably wreaking more financial damage on themselves by having a theatre dark for two months than programming a play that not all of their patrons approve of. I also think that NYTW does a tremendous disservice to their subscribers and patrons in thinking that they are neither smart nor loyal enough to go with them on this risk.

Of course everything I offer up here is speculation because NYTW has not been forthcoming at all with the reasons why they are not doing this play. Every time they speak in public they contradict themselves and sound just plain ignorant - i.e. Jim Nicola citing his source for Rachel Corrie being a member of Hamas as "the internet." I am so shocked by this behavior and really disappointed. I've always admired this theatre as they do some of the most theatrically daring and exciting work in New York. I'm even one of their script readers and I'm very proud of that. But I guess it is easier to get away with a modernized Hedda Gabler than a "politically incorrect" play, which whether or not you agree with its politics, is actually relevant and current. Thank you for your time. Looking forward to MondayMorning Politics.

-KB

As this debate widens outside of theatre circles, we will hear increasing comments from commentators like Lehrer who are not theatre-literate. So let's keep them on their toes and set them straight when they reveal their knowledge gaps.

*Amended. I overdid it by calling KB an NYTW "insider".

O'Neill feedback?

Thanks to those who logged on here and commented right after the PBS O'Neill broadcast last night. I myself had to tape it and might not catch up till this weekend. But please continue to share comments in this box as well. I enjoy the teasers!

Meanwhile, here's Jonathan Kalb's NYT review of the doc.

Both Sides

Ok, I'm a theatre person. Not a MidEast expert. So I will admit I am unqualified to evaluate the claims on the real-life Rachel Corrie story being made by both sides of that struggle. I am unable to give you the final word on the significance of bulldozers, tunnels, human shields, and borders from '49, '67, or '73. But such doubts do not dissuade me one bit from defending a theatre's right to put on this play if they want to. (And I suppose that "if" is the whole question here.)

But at least here's a sampling of views on Rachel Corrie, on stage and off, from an Israeli hardliner, an Israeli moderate, an Arab-American moderate and Al-Jazeera. A slight and random sampling, admittedly. But in this day and age one can get some "context" in even 1o minutes!

Anyway, good to know what some of these political issues floating around the play are.

Billy Bragg chimes in

You know it's a "movement" when there's even a protest song.

From Brit bolshi balladeer Billy Bragg (via a tune by Dylan).

Everybody all together now!

The artistic director of a New York theatre
Cancelled a play based on Rachel's writings
But she wasn't a bomber or a killer or fighter
But one who acted in the spirit of the Freedom Riders
Is there no place for a voice in America
That doesn't conform to the Fox News agenda?

Link courtesy of the Guardian, who printed the lyrics to coincide with the West End opening. Talk about marketing the controversy! I wonder if Billy will play outside of the Playhouse theatre there on opening night.... or down here on East 4th Street?

Alec Baldwin's finest performance?

...except for the walking off the air part, that is.

Baldwin vs Hannity! As recounted in the Fox-friendly NY Post.

At least it had more life in it than his turn in Entertaining Mr. Sloane. (review forthcoming)

Monday, March 27, 2006

I Laughed...I Cried...I Ork'd?

Blogger "Rocco" has done the service of providing us with highlights from the best/bad reviews of Lord Of The Rings the musical (aka Hobbits! I'm told) which just opened in Toronto.

And think: this is probably what the rest of the world thinks is the theatre story of the moment...

O'Neill on PBS

Tonight on most PBS stations is the premiere of the new "American Experience" bio of O'Neill.

I've been mighty disappointed in the obvious dumbing-down and sentimentalizing of recent AE shows on Fitzgerald and Hemmingway. So I'm afraid I expect the same.

Then again, it's by Ric (Ken's brother) Burns. Plus interviews/footage of Robards and Pacino. So there should be someworthwhile viewing in this two-hour condensation.

One not-encouraging sign, though, is this already hackneyed statement by Ken's-brother (sorry, Ric!):

"There was no American theater before Eugene O'Neill. American culture itself was of fairly recent provenance by the early 20th century. American theater was bowdlerlized Shakespeare, comedies of manners borrowed from Europe, and distinctly terrible American melodramas."
That's fine for an "American Theatre for Idiots" volume. But I would have hoped PBS would provide more nuance.

Bukowski + Musical Theatre = ?

Yes, Bukowsical!

Just something I ran across in the LA Times. So, in a lighter mood, I offer you this fun blurb.

(An "uproarious romp," they say!)

About Katherine Viner...

For what it's worth, I keep hearing, though I have not yet seen her say this...she's Jewish.

That's even cited here, even in an openly critical article about the play on the (not disinterested) website "All About Jewish Theatre."

I hope Brian Lehrer knows. She should know that pr-wise it's not bad to point that out.

Again, for what it's worth.

Right Wing Theatre II

More from the UK on the question of where are the right wing playwrights?

I must say, skewer the arguments as we may, how refreshing to have the debate itself and hear that there are some working theatre people who don't self-identify as liberal.

It all comes down to...

...CREDIBILITY.

Either you believe New York Theatre Workshop when they keep saying they've only "postponed" the show not canceled.

Or you don't.

The different views on this controversy have come down to those two sides.

What I've tried to do here is show why there's serious reason to doubt their credibility on that claim. Fine, maybe they're not lying, only self-deluded. But why, when after 4 weeks of what must be agonizing controversy for them, would they not by now say Ok, we are ready to produce the who on this date. Sure Royal Court may not be answering calls and maybe they're waiting for their confirmation. But have they even proposed a date to them? By this point, wouldn't it be worth announcing the proposal publicly just to force a response? (They do want to move on, don't they?)

My bet is NYTW's strategy now is to keep saying they want to do the show until Royal Court announces it's going with someone else. Then Jim Nicola will get to do the unseemly thing of saying the Royal Court reneged. That way they think they're not at fault in the public eye.

Pathetic, no?

Why Brian Lehrer is Wrong

ADDENDUM: I only just realized how appropriate Lehrer's title is: "How to Avoid a Controversy." Yes, "avoid" is definitely the operative word here...

For one thing, because of this--the extensive Royal Court Theatre education packet for their run of My Name is Rachel Corrie last year. I shall explain...

Ever the Solomon of "Sensitivity," Lehrer--in this statement here and on the air on his popular local NPR broadcast--offers the conforting judgment that the controversy over New York Theatre Workshop's pulling out of producing the play is equally the fault of the Royal Court for supposedly insisting on no "audience outreach" at all.

This is a demonstrably false statement, and Lehrer should do some actually research on this story and take it back.

Granted, he seems to have formed (if not predetermined) this impression in his on-air interview with Corrie co-creator Katherine Viner, by goading her into taking the classic defense of the artist: My work speaks for itself. Under fire, it is not surprising she would invoke such a defense. Especially when asked why she did not feel comfortable about her play being shown around to pro-Likud partisans for pre-approval.

But, look: Viner may be now designated by Royal Court as the play's only spokesman (the top brass and her partner Alan Rickman apparently want to stay above the fray), but she frankly is not the right spokesperson for them in this story. Mainly because she was not party to the direct negotiations between the two theatres in bringing the play to New York.

More importantly, as Philip Weiss's reporting in The Nation shows (as does the Playgoer timeline), the Royal Court were not the ones to walk away from opening the play here on March 22. They were not the ones to call it off on February 17. That was Jim Nicola of NYTW. Nicola called them to say NYTW was not doing the play as scheduled--outreach or not outreach.

Lehrer's scenario implies that when NYTW made its vague proposal to do the play sometime in the future--supposedly because a whole year of "outreach" was needed--the Court said "Outreach? Talkbacks? No way!" In fact, what the Court had to respond to was: a) the unreliability of NYTW as a negotiating partner so far--esp. not fully including them in discussions of "mollifying the Jewish community" concerns; b) the lack of any firm date in the future, while the creators of the piece were understandably eager to get the show on sooner than later; and c) the clear implication that NYTW was effectively giving opposing constituencies not "outreach" but a veto-power.

Lehrer says the Royal Court's giving up on NYTW's empty promises:
indicates to me that the playwrights were more interested in picking a fight and creating a public issue – creating another grievance against pro-Israel Jews – than they were in having the play seen and more widely understood. The cause of theater, and the cause of peace, are both the worse for their actions.
If other producers and theatres (in the West End, at least, we'll see about the US) are knocking on the door...why should they wait for NYTW to get its sorry act together? "Picking a fight"??? How about, making sure your play gets on and not relying on a cowering Artistic Director who's shown no backbone in supporting you?

Another important fact Lehrer is ignorant of (or willfully ignores) is that the Royal Court did talkbacks during the London run. And, along with their producing partners, will continue to do so on the West End. Maybe they didn't personally visit Jewish community centers in advance, but... what's the precedent for that, anywhere?

And, again, there's this, the Royal Court education packet. Most damning to Lehrer is the fact that NYTW's Lynn Moffat herself, on her "Democracy Now" interview praised this--and all the Court's supporting materials--to the skies. (She seems bizarrely impressed that the Court could amass a simple chronology of the Arab-Israeli conflict. No wonder NYTW needs a year!) This led to the very weird moment of Viner (via satellite) chiming in, Well why didn't you go ahead and use our contextualization then? Leading to the even weirder moment of Jim Nicola admitting (now), It's one of my great regrets not to have let Katherine in on this process.

Weird, weird, weird.

If you care about this, please email Brian Lehrer (his show, at least) and tell him to read up on this before going on the air about this again, further misrepresenting the facts anembarrassingng himself.

Update: "The Official Blog of the Brian Lehrer Show" to their credit, I suppose, does feature some oppositing lister views. Add yours!

another anology?

Under humorous approaches to the controversy, file the following contribution from a reader:

January 28, 1949:

A potential Broadway production of "Death of a Salesman" an acclaimed drama about the dark side of the American dream, has been postponed because of concerns about the show's political content.The production had been tentatively scheduled to start performances at the Morosco Theatre on February 10. But yesterday, Elia Kazan, the play's director, said he had decided to postpone the show after polling local Republican party and community leaders as to their feelings about the work."The uniform answer we got was that 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," he said.

In particular, the recent atomic test by the USSR and the upset victory of President Harry Truman had made "this community very defensive and very edgy," Mr. Kazan said, "and that seemed reasonable to me."The play follows the story of Willy Loman, an aging salesman who is beginning to lose his grip on reality.

The play was written by playwright Arthur Miller. And while the show had not been formally announced, Mr. Miller said yesterday that he had already arranged for relatives to fly in for the production."I was devastated and really surprised," Mr. Miller said in a telephone interview. "And in my view, I think they're misjudging the New York audience. It's a piece of art, not a piece of agitprop."But Mr. Kazan said he was less worried about those who saw the show than those who simply heard about it."I don't think we were worried about the audience," he said. "I think we were more worried that those who had never encountered his writing, never encountered the piece, would be using this as an opportunity to position their arguments."

Mr. Kazan said that he still hoped to produce the play during the 1950-51 season but that he hadn't heard back from Miller."It seemed as though if we proceeded, we would be taking a stand we didn't want to take," Kazan said.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

The Show Will Go On... in Seattle!

Kudos to David Esbjornson, the new AD of Seattle Rep, for beating any other NY theatre to committing to Rachel Corrie. It may have to wait a year--March, 2007--but it is scheduled, announced, and has a date.

Meanwhile the Royal Court production opens on London's West End this Tuesday, March 28. Ben Brantley was sent to Toronto to review this disaster. Will he travel to London for the far more newsworthy story?

Lehrer: "creators equally at fault"???

In case you thought WNYC's Brian Lehrer was just musing off-the-cuff about blaming the Royal Court Theatre for not wanting any "outreach" for Rachel Corrie at all, he has confirmed this opininion in a written piece on the station's website. So he can now be held to that, and corrected on his misinformation.

Still looking for an email contact for Lehrer, so please let us know if you find it. I do trust the man makes himself available to listeners?

Money quote:

But I think the play’s creators are equally at fault. It’s one thing to take an uncompromising stand against bulldozing homes when people’s lives might be at
risk. It’s another to take an uncompromising stand against outreach to the Jewish community. It indicates to me that the playwrights were more interested in picking a fight and creating a public issue – creating another grievance against pro-Israel Jews – than they were in having the play seen and more widely understood. The cause of theater, and the cause of peace, are both the worse for their actions.

I think the implication is clear: Lehrer (a major local NPR talk show host for the NYC region) is more concerned about the feelings of "pro-Israel Jews" than the value of free speech and open debate.
And, by the way, I think it's time we (myself included) stopped describing all pro-bulldozing positions as "pro-Israel". I suggest "pro-Likud." There are plenty of Israelis opposed to the more aggressive policies of the Sharon government.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

International Perspectives

"Great, a theatre reluctant to trigger vociferous public debate. Apparently, New Yorkers are too naive to decide for themselves whether Corrie was a hero or a pawn, or whether the play is propaganda or effective social theatre, without a whole lot of carefully planned handholding. In Britain, a culture that enjoys intellectual debate as a kind of blood sport, audiences were allowed to make up their own minds; they were trusted to be grownups."

- from one of our neighbors to the north at the Toronto Globe & Mail. The headline gets it right: "The condescension is what offends."

Also, here's a slightly informative update from London's Independent. Did you know Michael Moore has financially supported the West End production?

Which illuminates an already evident schism developing amongst liberals over this issue: those strongly against the censorship (The Nation, Democracy Now) and those taking notice of the story but not alarmed (NY Times, NPR)--or, in the case of NPR, more concerned about offense to Jews than free speech.

Who knew it would be only be the activist "progressives" who would care? Yet again we ask... wither liberalism?

Friday, March 24, 2006

new Walter Davis essay

I heartily recommend Walter Davis's new essay (a follow-up to his earlier Counterpunch piece) "Mendacity: The Prospects of Progressive Theater Under Capitalism" available here. It is a thorough political analysis of all that has transpired in the last month in the battle for accountability and political courage in our corporate-funded theatres (profit and non-, alike).

Plus, Davis has read, and cites, the play!

To those who doubt the significance of this story I suggest that it is one of the first "test cases" of free speech in the American theatre in the post-9/11 world. (If not the test case?)

fisking Lehrer

I've just listened (here) to Brian Lehrer's 25-minute call in segment on the "Rachel Corrie" story. And I'm disturbed by this supposedly "liberal" bastion being so: a) clueless about the basic facts of the story, and b) so wishywashy in the freedom of speech and censorship issues involved.

Here's some running commentary:
Caveat lector: all quotes are paraphrases, but pretty accurate.

-NYTW didn't "see" the play, as Lehrer, in passing, maintains they did. (They read it.)

-He plays an excerpt from an interview he did yesterday (news to me) he did with co-author Katherine Viner. He goes after Viner for questioning the whole idea community outreach! Lehrer wants to take her complaints out of context to make her sound unreasonable... Viner makes a simple, obvious, and essential point to Lehrer: "If they want Rachel's voice 'heard' they should put on the play." Lehrer's response: "(pause)...Uh, yeah. But does that mean you're against context, against outreach?" Admittedly, Viner comes off a little harsh in the sound bite. But it's out of context, plus Lehrer has boxed her in.

Remember--the Royal Court did plenty of talkbacks. And a whole Education Packet which is easy to get a hold of. (I will try to link or at least post excerpts.) In fact, even Nicola and Moffat acknowledged on Democracy Now they admired the RC's outreach/educational efforts. (Begging the question of course, why didn't you just use theirs???)

-Then Lehrer opens the phones with the very limited question: "So what about people involved in the theatre. Do you do outreach?" What??? So he's fallen for the NYTW line that they're the only ones that do this mysterious thing called "program notes" and "talkbacks". And if only these fussy artists understood! This has been a smokescreen all along.

-Highlight: Lehrer interviewed John Patrick Shanley recently, too, and got him on the record (a first!). Some snippets: NYTW's "motives not adequately known" but there's an "international gangsterism toward the arts at this time." Like with the Mohammed cartoons, where the Times showed "editorial cowardice" in not printing them. Disturbing not to air differences on religion "giving into intimidation." And no matter what happened at NYTW: "A certain degree of cowardice was involved." Good for Shanley! Especially since he himself wrote a play about Israel-Palestine, Dirty Story. But because that was an "allegory" it seemed to escape controversy. (If someone can take the time to more accurately transcribe Shanley's full statement I would really, really appreciate it. Post in Comments or email me. It's a statement that should be widely circulated. It happens about 7 minutes in.)

-Lehrer keeps asserting Viner "rejected" NYTW's calls for "outreach." Guess who that description favors.

- The CALLS: Naturally if Lehrer frames the question as "Ok, callers are you pro- or con- on 'outreach'" who's going to say no???

A brave caller makes the point that the crutch of outreach only insures "no controversial play will ever be done." To which Lehrer jumps in and says--"No! That's not what the theatre said. They said first do the outreach and then do the play."

Brian Lehrer--have you done any research--dare I say "contextualization"--of this story at all??? You must at least have some kind of staff there, right? Forget about reading this measly blog. But surely an NPR flagship show like yourself must read The Nation, right? I suggest you take a look...

Christopher Shinn saves the day, though, at 15:00. (Good call, Chris!) Also, a self-proclaimed "Zionist" stands up for "courage of conviction."

Another playwright ("Daniel") calls in to dis Shinn, but calls the play only a "rough draft" and a "workshop." I think he's taking the "W" in NYTW literally! (Let alone forgetting the play was done already--complete!--in London.)

Lehrer's recurring point is such a strawman. In his mind--and now in the minds of his many NPR listeners, unfortunately--the whole spat is Royal Court's fault for being unreasonable about doing talkbacks. He never mentions NYTW said "We're not doing the play now." NYTW was not doing the play on March 22 outreach or no outreach. A real distortion.

I cannot find an email for Brian Lehrer on the WNYC website. If someone can find please tell me so we can post it here. He needs to hear what he's got flat wrong about this story.

Interesting that many calls defend "the donors"! I agree nothing's been proven about donors. (Because no one's gone on the record.) But tells you something about the NPR audience.

One last canard repeated by many on the program I really want to dispel: The play is not "postponed." With the Royal Court not talking to NYTW, and actively seeking other venues, people at this point just cannot go on saying that. No matter what you think happened in February, it is "totally non-operative" at this point. If NYTW ever does miraculously do the show, it will not be a "resuming" but obviously a whole new negotiation.

NPR cool to "Corrie"?

Apparently Brian Lehrer, NPR's favorite Easy-Listening Liberal, has just done a call-in segment on Rachel Corrie, plus a grilling of co-author Katherine Viner. Yes, good exposure. But will they end up defending NYTW?

Let's listen to it here. Reactions can be posted in this box's Comments.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Censorship in/on the Air

Call it what you want but script-writers (theatre, tv, cartoons) are feeling the chill. Or, more accurately, feeling the chilly silence from the producers who they hoped would support them. Corporate or not, this is going on. (And even in the nonprofit world, the money is corporate, right?)

Andrew Sullivan proposes his own Playgoer-style timeline about how the Scientologists got to Chef Isaac Hayes. (Wait. Now his update suggests they actually even put words in Hayes' mouth and it's all a big misunderstanding?)

Meanwhile, the Times' Bill Carter doesn't hold back from the C-word in his headline: "WB Censors Its Own Drama for Fear of F.C.C. Fines."

Believe it or not the second article is the funnier. Especially with such punch lines as this from Warner Brothers Chair Garth Ancier: "The WB takes its responsibility as a broadcast network very seriously."

Read the Transcript

Thanks to reader "Anne" for posting in Comments the link to the Democracy Now transcript.

Read it and weep...for the state of our nonprofit theatre.

Next at NYTW?

I hear that New York Theatre Workshop plans to finally announce their next show this week, and that it will open first week of May.

Remember, My Name is Rachel Corrie was supposed to open last night, March 22. Think back to four (!) weeks ago when this story broke. If you're Jim Nicola had it to do all over again, would you have gone ahead with the show, deal with the protests, etc, and be basking in some probably nice reviews this morning? Or... would you relive the past month? In hindsight, which seems worse?

And if you're the NYTW board, are you really happy about your theatre now being dark for practically two whole months over this???

Stay tuned and keep clicking here. It will be refreshing not to see Niocla's painfully out of date Macrh 14 statement up there anymore.

Ruder Finn PR washes its hands?

Somewhere on this site (according to this Technorati search) there is a story (posted yesterday) on Ruder Finn PR denying they put the kaibash on Corrie (as speculated on in The Nation article). Here's the Technorati excerpt:

Ruder Finn says it had nothing to do with the New York Theatre Workshop's decision to postpone the production of "My Name is Rachel Corrie," ... which is based on the young woman who was crushed to death in Gaza by a bulldozer operated by the Israeli army in 2003. But RF is advising the Theatre on the aftermath.

It's on "nooked.com" from "O'Dwyer's Public Relations News." So if there's anyone hooked into the PR world out there, and you can get past their firewall, maybe there's more on the story. (And if so, please share!)

NY vs London censorship

Andy Humm of Gotham Gazette has an interesting piece on "London and NYC Compared On Surveillance, Civil Liberties, Civil Rights, etc." He looks briefly at the different responses in the two cities to "Rachel Corrie"--but most interestingly in the context of all the other ways two cities have responded to increased terrorist threats and increased calls for sensitivity.

John Heilpern touched on this, too, in his Observer piece a couple of weeks ago--how while there's a perception that anti-semitism is more alive and well there than here, remember--they just (shockingly) suspended their mayor for insulting a Jewish reporter! And they had no problem with the play.

"Democracy Now"

If you still have not seen this week's "Democracy Now" broadcast and you care about the NYTW/Rachel Corrie issue, it's a must-see. You can stream it here (audio available for dial-up).

Or watch on TV. In Manhattan, looks like it's on 6:30 tonight and Friday. A complete nationwide broadcast guide can (probably) be found here.

Watch the NYTW "charm offensive" in action. (Hint: it's not working)

Anyone go to Rachels Words last night?

I didn't make it. But a quick blog search turned up this descriptive account and this one.

If anyone else out there went, please share in Comments here. I'm especially curious to hear more about what Mr. Corrie (Rachel's dad) apparently said in response to Jim Nicola's jaw-dropping admission on Democracy Now that he cancelled the show because someone told him Rachel was "a member of Hamas"--without bothering to find out if it was true.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

A Playlet

Ok, imagine this.

X and Y meet and fall in love. They date for a while and then one chilly day in--say in November/December, 2005--they discuss moving in together. X suggests Y should move in with X. Both are really into the idea! They want to show the world how much they love each other.

They agree on a date. Let's say March 22. Round about late January, Y starts picking up on strange signals from X, who keeps talking about making "preparations" for Y's arrival, but not the nice kind of preparations like cleaning the bathroom. Preparations like making sure no one X knows interprets Y's moving in as a sign that X feels Y is a great, great person in every single way and endorses all of Y's views. Meanwhile Y proceeds with the move. X seems to be telling no one about the impending co-habitation. But Y tells all Y's friends back home, goes about changing magazine subscriptions, throwing out stuff Y won't need in the new place, even turns down a sweet pad someone offered Y for nothing! Then in mid-February (let's say Valentine's Day) X makes a surprise phone call to Y...

X: Hey Y. I've been thinking about this "moving in" thing, and what do you think of postponing it?
Y: Excuse me?
X: Well, you see, I've been doing some more research on you.
Y: Research?
X: Yeah. You know, just on the internet. And I started getting concerned about some groups they said you joined, like communists or something...
Y: I did what?
X: No, don't worry. I found out that wasn't true, 'cause I hired a private investigator to track it all down.
Y: You what???
X: Yeah, can't believe everything on the internet, don't ya know. But there are still some questions people have...
Y: What people?
X: Hey, I still love you, Y. It's not me, ok? I think you're an inspiring example of passion. It's all my friends and my neighbors here. They're real suspicous of some things people are saying about you. Anyway, once I get the report from the investigator I know I'll be able to...you know, contextualize it all, so all will be cool.
Y: You hired an investigator? Why didn't you just ask me???
X: It's really no biggee. And I'm not breaking up with you. Hell, no! And I still want you to move in. Just later.
Y: Ok, when?
X: Like, later.
Y: Like next month?
X: Uh. Not sure. How 'bout next year? Yeah. Next year looks real good. I could print up some stuff, pass it around, give it to people to read. Maybe invite some folks over to, sort of, take the other side. Maybe someone else--like my friend Z, the neocon?--maybe he can, like, live with us for a while? You know, balance things out?
Y: (beat) I don't think so, X.
X: Hey: I just want you to know I'm really, really committed to this relationship. And all I care about is showing everyone how much I love you.
Y: Good bye, X.
X: Hey, hold on! So you're still moving in next year, right?
Y: (click)
X: 'Cause I am so looking forward to living with you. I mean, once everyone knows you're cool and all..... Hello? (beat) Hello???

Do you see why X would look kinda ridiculous at this moment?

Pinter & Co. II

NY Times has now printed the entire list of 21 signatories--all Bristish Jewish writers-- to "the Pinter letter" on the online version.

They are:

Gillian Slovo, Harold Pinter, Stephen Fry, Lisa Appignanesi, Ivor Dembina, Morris Farhi, Linda Grant, Michelle Hanson, Eva Hoffman, Ann Jungman, Michael Kustow, Simon Louvish, Sonja Lyndon, Susie Orbach, Jacqueline Rose, Michael Rosen, Leon Rosselson, Donald Sassoon, Alexei Sayle, Lynne Segal, Michelene Wandor.

My guess is they cut it down for space and figured most readers wouldn't recognize these lesser-known playwrights. But perhaps some of you specialists do.

I'll start by saying--they didn't think anyone would know Alexei Sayle? C'mon--"Young Ones,"
anyone? Stubby bald "fat bastard" commie funny guy? Also had a anarchic hilarious show of his own once that was on PBS for about five minutes. Glad he's on board.

Viner vs Nicola: On TV!

Amy Goodman's must-see TV for Progressives, "Democracy Now," has gotten the "get"--Nicola on TV! He appears along with Managing Director Lynn Moffat. And, via satellite, Corrie co-author Katherine Viner. A regular theatre "crossfire."

Watch or listen here. Now. (March 22 show. Segment starts at "11:45" into the program. It's about 40 minutes long. Followed by 10 minutes with Rachel's parents.)

I'll try to post responses to it later. Meanwhile comment below on your reaction. From what I've watched so far, though...nothing has changed in NYTW's position. They do try to play nice with Viner (and by extension the Court). A bit weird. One highlight, though, is when Goodman reads the Pinter letter from today's NYT. Then watch Moffat try to spin it in NYTW's favor! Moffat still insists "We still want to do the play." Then Viner responds. That's when it gets interesting...

Highlights:
-Viner asks the NYTW folks point blank: "Who did you 'consult'?"
-Goodman cites The Nation article and asks them directly about the Ruder Finn PR firm.
-Goodman gets Nicola to respond (sort of) to Kushner's objections.
-Goodman asks "Do you have a date set?"

The questions, alas, are more interesting than the answers.

Also newsworthy: Moffat reveals "another theatre artist" had "his" show moved to next season to make room for Rachel Corrie. She says this actually in NYTW's defense, oddly. She also claims "50%" of all NYTW shows don't happen as scheduled.

And Jim Nicola admits to being "naive" in telling the press the reasons were Hamas, etc. Their line now is "theatrical logistics."

Also, Nicola tells us a little more about his "Jewish friend." But not who it is.

Ultimately the most insulting aspect of their defense is how stupid they make their audience sound. That without all the brilliant "contextualization"--which apparently only NYTW can do!--we'd all be totally clueless about the Middle East.

It's hard to believe we're four weeks into this. NYTW's positions have not changed one bit.

Oh, and by the way--they're "not sorry."

I applaud Nicola for going on camera, on this show. Not friendly territory, since Goodman is one of the featured guests at the Rachel's Words event tonight. Too bad he didn't take the opportunity to actually rethink his story. I also applaud Goodman for devoting air time to this! Aside from a brief account on New York 1's "On Stage" last week, and a brief local NPR spot on the Rachel's Words protests, nothing.

With The Nation and Amy Goodman on board, political progressives across the US are now aware and involved. What will it take to finally get New York theatre artists to take a stand?

Time Out's David Cote

I definitely recommend Isaac Butler's blog-exclusive 2-part (!) interview with Time Out's David Cote. (Part 2 to folllow)

Did you know that the Theatre Editor of NYC's trendiest going-out glossy once acted in a Richard Foreman play? I didn't.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Pinter et al, NYT letter

From The New York Times, March 22:

To the Editor:

Re "Theater Addresses Tension Over Play" (Arts pages, March 16):

We are Jewish writers who supported the Royal Court production of "My Name Is Rachel Corrie." We are dismayed by the decision of the New York Theater Workshop to cancel or postpone the play's production. We believe that this is an important play, particularly, perhaps, for an American audience that too rarely has an opportunity to see and judge for itself the material it contends with.

In London it played to sell-out houses. Critics praised it. Audiences found it intensely moving. So what is it about Rachel Corrie's writings, her thoughts, her feelings, her confusions, her idealism, her courage, her search for meaning in life — what is it that New York audiences must be protected from?

The various reasons given by the workshop — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's coma, the election of Hamas, the circumstances of Rachel Corrie's death, the "symbolism" of her tale — make no sense in the context of this play and the crucial issues it raises about Israeli military activity in the occupied territories.

Rachel Corrie gave her life standing up against injustice. A theater with such a fine history should have had the courage to give New York theatergoers the chance to experience her story for themselves.

Gillian Slovo
Harold Pinter
Stephen Fry
London, March 20, 2006
This letter was also signed by 18 other writers.


The opening line is important: "We are Jewish writers..." Obviously not part of the "Jewish community" consulted by NYTW. I hope Jewish playwrights on these shores, no matter what their stance on Israeli politics, will speak out as well to encourage open dialogue on our stages at any time, not just when the climate is "safe."

Maybe not news to many of us that the London theatre community is loud and clear against this. And, yes, Pinter has already spoken. But this is in the New York Times. And while maybe not everyone reads the letters section, those that do may be impressed. And wonder how this story goes on without a satisfying answer.

standstill?

As of 12:45pm today this site has not been updated and neither has its woefully out of date March 14 statement by Jim Nicola. Even after two new MSM articles, no new clarifications. No new shows, either. (No ticket sales!)

Thanks to all who suggested their own "endgames" in Comments below. Maybe NYTW is thinking them over? Or hoping the current silence means the story's over--while, in fact, it just means everyone's too busy digesting this weekend's Nation expose.

Tomorrow, Wednesday, evening will bring the story back into the news with the sizeable event planned by the Rachels Words people at that temple of lefty protest, Riverside Church on the Upper West side. So far Eve Ensler and Kathleen Chalfant are representing for the theatre community there. Let's see how it's covered.

bootlegged "Corrie"

Many thanks to commenter "Anne" for posting some excerpts from the hard-to-obtain script of My Name is Rachel Corrie in Comments below.

Imagine the pure theatrical power right now if an actress addressed these words to a New York audience from the stage of a downtown theatre:

The scariest thing for non-Jewish Americans in talking about Palestinian self-determination is the fear of being or sounding anti-Semitic. The people of Israel are suffering and Jewish people have a long history of oppression. We still have some responsibility for that, but I think it's important to draw a firm distinction between the policies of Israel as a state, and Jewish people.

That's kind of a no-brainer, but there is very strong pressure to conflate the two. I try to ask myself, whose interest does it serve to identify Israeli policy with all Jewish people?


Agree or not, such provocations are desperately needed in our drama at present.

Read more excerpts from the script here. (Scroll down to "Anne." Of course, feel free to comment yourself--but please do so here not there.)

Quote of the Day

"The insidious, hidden underbelly of official censorship is self-censorship. Our playwrights and nonprofit theaters are living in fear (and are cravenly caving in to it). Only Cromwellian despots and fools close down mere plays."

-NY Observer's John Heilpern in his review (3/20 edition) of Lieutenant of Inishmore. While Inishmore seems hardly as political as Rachel Corrie, Heilpern reminds us even this playful grusome satire was passed on by heavy hitters in the UK--including the Royal Court!

Update: Okay, now souces tell me the Royal Court had completely different problems with the play, more to do with McDonagh's contractual demands. Heilpern might be getting his info from suggestions in the recent New Yorker profile on the writer, a flattering piece to be sure...Still, I'll still stand behind Heilpern's quote above, especially taken out of context!

Bloomberg & the Arts

Here's a dirty little secret that's slipped by in recent days:

The Bloomberg administration is once again proposing a decrease in funding for the Department of Cultural Affairs next year -– a reduction of more than $37 million from the current year, to $102.2 million, according to the Independent Budget Office. This represents the largest proposed cut in two decades.

This latest budget leaves the members of the Cultural Institutions Group or CIGs (the 34 cultural groups in city owned buildings) with cash subsidies roughly equivalent to 1989. The remaining arts groups are getting funding slightly above 1987 levels.

One of the mysteries of this administration is the steady decline in cultural affairs budgets proposed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. In his first budget, he recommended $110.4 million. Some in the cultural sector have interpreted this downward pattern to mean that Mayor Bloomberg is not convinced that public dollars should be used to fund cultural programming.

(via GothamGazette, emphasis mine)

Yes. 1987 levels. If city funding is drying up at such a rate, you can imagine our "non-for-profit" theatres will be taking even fewer chances alienating...well, anyone.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Welcome, New York Theatre Review

Take a break from NYTW with NYTR! A promising new online resource brought to you by the folks at theatre2k and the Brooklyn Rail. They are also putting out a new print edition featuring some new plays by non over-exposed writers. They're doing a reading tonight at the CUNY Graduate Center. Details at NYTR.

Tragic Summer?

I have to admit to some eager anticipation over what's brewing at the Delacorte this summer for Shakespeare in the Park.

Liev Schreiber? Now, Jennifer Ehle?? Moises Kaufman directing??? Sign me up. Then again, though... it's Macbeth. Oh well.

And don't forget Mother Courage with Meryl Streep, directed by George Wolfe. (Translation by Tony Kushner.) There's all kinds of reasons that could be great, or terrible. (Brecht in the Park???) But I do hope I won't have to camp out at 4am again, like for the last Streep outing there, The Seagull. And I definitely won't if Natalie Portman is in this, too!

got tips?

Playgoer has been aided greatly in covering this story by those who have passed on links and inside information. So if you have "useful intelligence" please feel free to email me directly at:
playgoer [at] gmail [dot] com.

Confidentiality will certainly be honored if you wish it.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

How does the story end?

When I started this blog ten months ago, I really did not intend it only as a platform for beating up Jim Nicola every day. Honest. I have had many memorable evenings at New York Theatre Workshop and had always respected its ambition despite the occasional selling out that all nonprofits unfortunately find themselves stooping to.

I would like for the "Rachel Corrie" story to be "over" soon so I can get back to my original vision of an online theatre "column" of reviews and commentary....But what does "over" mean here? Every time I open to another NY Times piece on this, or read another Nicola defense on NYTW.org (not updated since March 14, btw) I genuinely hope things will be resolved. But they just get lead to more questions and make things worse. No matter what you thought of the original decision, you have to admit that if an organization can't put a controversy behind them after almost four (!) weeks, they're definitely doing something wrong. (The ol' "coverup worse than the crime" lesson has been lost on them.)

So let me offer two scenarios which I at least would consider "closure":

A) NYTW announces the play will go on as soon as possible--i.e. May or June, when the West End run is done. No discussions, no "companion plays," no "contextualization." Just the play. "Let the people decide"--something like that. Too late to totally heal the wound, but, hey, what ticket sales.
Aside from being desirable, these are probably the only conditions Alan Rickman and the Royal Court would agree to at this point. If Nicola still thinks he can do the play in any other way at any other time, he's living in a fantasy world.

B) Jim Nicola finally makes an unqualified, no-excuses statement admitting a big mistake, that NYTW blew it, and just lets go of the play altogether. If he's smart he adds: "I still believe in the play. And I hope some other company or producer will take it on so everyone can see it."

Then, echoes of disgruntlement in the blogosphere notwithstanding, he and the company really could move on. Providing they ever announce another show!

So let's see if either of these happens this week. If not, I'm afraid you may be tuning in for Week Five...

Other suggestions for an "endgame"? Let's hear' em. (Please comment)

Oscar-Winner supports Corrie

Philip Seymour Hoffman adds his voice, sort of. From Public Radio WNYC, via Rachel's Words:

Controversy in the theater world has been building on blogs and in public statements ever since the New York Theater Workshop announced late last month that they were postponing their production of “My Name is Rachel Corrie”.
REPORTER: ...Last night saw one of the first gatherings of members of the New York theater community concerned about the fate of the play. Members of the Labyrinth theater company met at the Lower East Side’s Stillwater bar, across the Street from the New York Theater Workshop, to read from some of Rachel Corrie’s emails in what they described as a neutral setting.
About 15 people attended the reading including actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, an artistic director at the Labyrinth Theater. He, like many other members of the dramatic community, was curious to learn more about the play at the root of the
controversy.
HOFFMAN: It would be great to actually read what the piece is. I
think that’s what a lot of us want to know exactly. Is it as inflammatory as it
seems to be? From what’s happened I guess it is, because this is happening.

Hmm. Doesn't Mr. Hoffman co-run an adventurous off-b'way theatre company of his own?

(Hat tip, reader Deborah)

Saturday, March 18, 2006

"the best theater experience we had the whole week"

Another letter to the NY Times, in Sunday's paper.

To the Editor:
Re "Theater Addresses Tension Over Play" (Arts pages, March 16):

Last fall, my wife and I spent a week in London seeing plays. We, fortunately, stumbled upon "My Name Is Rachel Corrie" at the Royal Court Theater. It was the best theater experience we had the whole week.

We still can't stop talking about the play. It was a beautifully crafted, touching story of this remarkable young woman. If any not-for-profit theater balks at
presenting this piece because its directors think it's too controversial, they should close up shop. This is exactly the kind of theater New Yorkers should see and talk about.

James Walsh

New York, March 16, 2006


The issue whether My Name is Rachel Corrie is a "good" or "bad" play is irrelevant, I continue to argue. If it were actually given a hearing in NYC, no doubt some would love it, some hate it, most in between--as per usual.

But such testimonials only ratchet up the "huh???" factor when confronting the decision by New York Theatre Workshop. In other words--doesn't sound like "controversial" political theatre, does it?

Unless the fact it is so likeable is what makes it potentially explosive?

(Why do I have a feeling the NYTW board would be more at ease with a Palestinian-themed show featuring a turbaned and bearded dark-skin man screaming at the audience. At least it would be easier to brush aside as "oh, political theatre.")

Where the story's at

To recap...

Phillip Weiss's cover story in The Nation (online last Thursday, currently getting out to subscribers, on newsstand immanently) is definitely the most thoroughly reported and comprehensive account of the whole NYTW-Rachel Corrie mess so far, informatively blending both the political and theatrical issues.

Here are the main newsbreaking highlights, even to those already familiar with the basics:

- While the main source of the pressure on Artistic Director Nicola is still a mystery, the causes of the objections are really specified here (not just the vague "edginess" Nicola previously cited). In short, it's all about the "tunnels"--the secret gun-running routes bringing ammo from Egypt to Palestinian fighters. (You may remember Rothstein citing this in his early March 6 NYT essay. It's a talking point that's been around a while, it seems.) The "tunnels" argument is supposed to justify Israel's actions in Gaza and reveal the real-life Rachel Corrie as a) dangerously naive or b) a complicit terrorist sympathizer.

- Royal Court came to New York to meet with Nicola & co (presumably the previously mentioned January 31 meeting) because they "didn't feel comfortable with what they [NYTW] was saying]."

-one of the Royal Court heads quotes a NYTW staffer as actually using the phrase "mollifying the Jewish community." Again, there's that supposedly monolithic "Jewish community" again...Theatre critic Alisa Solomon is quoted making an important cautionary point, by the way: "There's something a little too familiar about the image of Jews pulling the puppet strings behind the scenes." Here, here. Unfortunately, in this case the unfortunate image was put out there by.... Jim Nicola. As a defense! What else can one do but ask for elaboration and answers?

- Among Nicola's many considered plans for "contextualization" (i.e. "mollifying") was to commission a second "Israeli-view" documentary piece by Emily Mann--the McCarter Theatre head whose been a pioneer in the genre. (Documentary, that is, not Israel). No word from her yet...

- New York Sun printed a piece last year by Anti-Defamation League head Abraham Foxman denouncing the play after seeing it in London. (The Sun has no free online archive.) Despite a great arts section, the general editorial policy of The Sun virtually has defined itself as a right-wing, specifically pro-Israel paper. No doubt this op-ed and its talking points circulated far and wide--yet beneath the radar of the NYT and the NYTW constituencies.

-A major world-wide PR firm, Ruder Finn, was supposed to "represent the play" in New York but pulled out. (Weiss does not make explicit if they are the firm usually engaged by NYTW or whether they were brought in special.) Weiss describes this as a "fatal blow" to the project's life at the theatre....Some interesting comments about Ruder Finn in Comments below, btw.

-Weiss's interview with Tony Kushner get the playwright extensively on the record for the first time. And for that, Bravo Tony! (Weiss characterizes this post about him here as making him into a "war criminal." I actually had "missing person" in mind--or "Where's Waldo" but oh well.) Caryl Churchill's objections are also, for the first time, noted but not quoted.

In other news, the story is really spreading to all kinds of media now. James Wolcott brings it to the "legit" blogosphere. (After Andrew Sullivan dropped it after day one! I thought you were into free-speech Middle East issues, Andrew?) Also Varietyy has an interesting piece treating this in the context of many other political-intimidation cases. They do get one thing wrong, though:

The decision by the New York Theater Workshop, which was attributed to complications with the lead actors' schedules, has prompted a barrage of e-mail messages accusing the theater managers of cowardice.

It was of course Alan Rickman's schedule used by Nicola as an excuse, not the one actor's (Megan Dodds). Makes sense from Variety's perspective, though--Rickman's not in it? Why the fuss?

So, in short, read the Nation if you want the whole story to this point. The fact there are still some unanswered questions--who was the specific source of pressure, when or will the show go on--means there will unbelievably be a Week 4 now.

analogous cause?

There may be many differences between the fate of a small off-broadway play and a revenue- generating machine like South Park. But when the free speech of even such a successful show can be threatened by weaselness in the face of religious protest, then I think it's fair to stand together.

Yes, the last thing relevant to Rachel Corrie has been "religion" per se. But then again, that's also pretty irrelevant to Scientology, isn't it. (In the words of young Stan: "Sue me!") And while SP's Parker & Stone arguably intended to offend and insult more than Rachel... that very freedom is essential to a climate of freedom throughout all the arts, I would argue.

"South Park" conservative himself Andrew Sullivan is on the case here and here . (Yes, I know that's two conservative-themed links in two days, don't worry.) Sullivan is right in calling for an email campaign against Viacom and Comedy Central. So, in the name of consistency, I do urge you to write in if you care about the freedom to offend (intentionally or not) anything remotely associated with religion--legit religion or not.

Viacom: press@viacom.com
Comedy Central: go here

Friday, March 17, 2006

Put the politics back in "political theatre"

Apparently in London, Royal National Theatre head Nicholas Hytner recently stirred up some debate in venturing there may be a need for a "good, mischievous right wing play." This article follows up with reactions.

I think this is a good impulse--a little "mischievous" itself, maybe. But think about this in the context of our current controversy here. We are now asking ourselves: "How far can our 'political theatre' go if we are so petrified of causing offense? Of making the audience--or an audience--uncomfortable?"

Ask yourself--when was the last time you, your beliefs, were truly challenged by a piece of theatre? When you felt "uncomfortable" in the good way, the way that made you think and question yourself for days afterards?

My hunch is there's not a lot of that going on lately, in our prominent theatre institutions, at least. (Let alone Broadway.) And what that reveals is a very small spectrum politically of the theatregoing demographic--and of the "theatre community" itself (i.e. the artists). Most of our "political theatre" falls within a rather safe "40 yard lines" of a kind of liberalism that may be offensive in the Red states, but is brain-candy to those of us between Park Slope and Washington Heights.

Expanding the specturm means being able to do a play critical of Israel, even if some will say inevitably accuse it of aiding and abetting terrorism somehow. That expands to our left. But how about to the right? Why not? Would we equally support the "free speech" of a ruthless Waugh-like satire of entitlement programs, feckless liberals, and faux-hawk foreign policy?

Of course, I always wonder--where are these plays? Any time I hear conservatives rail against liberal domination of the arts (or the academy for that matter) I want to ask: "Well, have you submitted a play? Would you be willing to suffer ten years of debt and poverty for a grad school that doesn't guarantee you a six-figure salary?" Maybe conservatives are too smart (ok, practical) to get involved in this self-destructive business.

Still, Hytner is right. A healthy political theatre is a diverse one, not a club. The best thing to come out of the "Rachel Corrie" scandal might be to remind us how insular we've become, to all sides.

"a verbal agreement"

Reuters has Jim Nicola on the record for the first time acknowledging a "verbal agreement" with the Royal Court (but "but no formal contract") to produce My Name is Rachel Corrie.

A good question that was waiting to be asked. According to the timeline emerging from Philip Weiss's Nation cover story, that "agreement" seems to have been before late January, since that's when he claims the Court "began to sense apprehension."

Otherwise, not much other news. A little bias evident against the play (or is that just "balance") by ending with:

When it opened in London in April 2005, reviews were generally positive, although The Times newspaper said some scenes offered a one-sided portrayal of the Middle East conflict it called "unvarnished propaganda.''
What they don't mention is that The Times (of London)--the one negative review always cited--is owned by these folks.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

NYTW Going Dark?

Anyone noticed that New York Theatre Workshop has no next show?

The Seven has now closed, apparently. Rachel Corrie was supposed to open next week (March 22nd). Nothing else has been announced for this slot.

On their '05-'06 Season website they list four plays "under consideration." (BTW, I don't believe Rachel Corrie was ever on this list. Which seems to mean it effectively "bumped" these other previously announced candidates for that slot back in November-January when it was being planned.) They are:

¡El Conquistador!, by Thaddeus Phillips in collaboration with Tatiana and Victor Mallarino, directed by Tatiana Mallarino.(one of Colombia's leading television actors), centers around Polonio, a Colombian peasant who finds work in the big city as the doorman of a fancy highrise. The residents of the building (real-life famous TV actors filmed on location in Bogota, Colombia) appear via video phone and as Polonio passes his days, a crazy, dramatic "telenovelas" story unfolds involving suspense,
seduction, murder, revenge and redemption.

The Scene, by Theresa Rebeck. Charlie is an out-of-work actor just possibly past his prime and navigating the daily insults of life in modern Manhattan. Mix in Charlie’s wife, a TV producer possibly addicted to highlighters, his best friend, who may or may not have Charlie’s best interests at heart, and a not-so-wide-eyed young woman fresh off the bus from Ohio, and the stage is set for Theresa Rebeck’s (View of the Dome at NYTW, Omnium Gatherum) The Scene, a serious comedy about having and losing it all.

Things of Dry Hours, by Naomi Wallace, directed by Kenny Leon. In Depression-era Alabama, Tice Hogan, a black Sunday school teacher and Communist Party leader, lives at the edge of trouble. When a white factory worker on the run demands sanctuary, Tice and his daughter, Cali, may just be forced to cross the line. In Things of Dry Hours, playwright Naomi Wallace’s (Trestle at Pope Lick Creek at NYTW) powerful and poetic language lays bare the dangerous collision of gender, race, and ideology. Directed by Kenny Leon (Broadway’s A Raisin in the Sun).

A new work by Martha Clarke. Director/choreographer Martha Clarke thrilled NYTW audiences with Vienna: Lusthaus (revisited), a gorgeous dream of turn-of-the-last-century Vienna. Like no one else, Clarke combines dance, text, and visual imagery to create visceral, deeply intelligent works of dance-theatre that shine a clear and bright light on humanity. Expect to be dazzled.

Has anyone asked any of these artists how they would feel being the "replacement show" for what Tony Kushner has called a "censored" play? I don't begrudge playwrights the opportunity to get produced. Especially in times like these. But I do genuinely wonder if any of them would have something to say about all this.

(Interesting to see if they go with the highly political Wallace, the moderately political Rebeck, or escape into the aestheticism, albeit stunning, of Martha Clarke.)

Write NY Times

By the way, if you were just half as steamed as I was about today's NYT article then please do send them a letter. (But quickly, since they rarely look at letters on pieces more than a day old.) Important they know what people thought and that they be encouraged to dig deeper on the story.

It's also important because the Times is national, and that story was picked up by at least one other paper--Seattle Post Intelligencer. Let's make sure they get to hear the whole story.

You want "shrill"?

...then check out the civil discourse over at the Theatre page's Reader Forum at NYT.com.

I'm glad to have such a polite readership!

"Rachel's Words"

Today, March 16, is the third anniversary of the death of the real-life Rachel Corrie, and many events have been planned around the country and the world, paying tribute to her. Naturally the cancellation of the play My Name is Rachel Corrie has inevitably become a rallying point for many of these and added visibility to the movement to honor her.

I have deliberately not entered the fray on the real Rachel's story. My concern has been the right of a particular play (once it has been selected and committed to by a theatre) to not be pulled based on controversial political content--no matter what that content is. The abstract principles are important here don't require a thorough discussion of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Such a complex discussion would in fact be one of the main benefits that would ensue from producing the play.

Having said all that, I do want to pass on this info to help other get more involved on that end if they wish. As far as events in New York go, I do think it is certainly good for the cause of the play if New York Theatre Workshop has to contend with demonstrations, etc. in Rachel's name. It's important that they hear from another constituency other than those who opposed the play. It's important they know a lot of people--especially young people, an audience they have aggressively courted--care about this, for all sorts of reasons.

and now, The Nation

April 3 issue, but now online: "Too Hot for New York" by Philip Weiss.

Once again, full disclosure, Playgoer is referenced and interviewed. But hadly promotional or flattering in its characterization of my more proactive tactics. (See "Kushner", e.g.)

I haven't digested the whole article yet. But Weiss has done some really extensive reporting here. Getting a lot more people on the record, including much more from Kushner. (Heads up: he uses the word "censorship.")

More comments on it later. For now, let's read. The discussion just got even more "political."

Time Out New York

Theatre Editor David Cote of Time Out New York has now weighed in on the Rachel Corrie controversy. (Online now. Hits the streets Thursday, I think?) And for a magazine often considered a consumer guide and so associated with "the biz...it's pretty hard hitting! (Cote has done much, it must be said, to take the theatre coverage there beyond commercialism and has really embraced the entire scene, uptown and downtown.)

Tony + "TONY"= critical mass? Seemed so to me yesterday afternoon. But then, as the Times today shows, NYTW is just digging deeper trenches.

Full disclosure, of course: he does mention and credits Playgoer. I wished he had also mentioned the important reporting and commentary being done by George Hunka at Superfluities and by Jason Grote on the more activist "Rachel's Words" front. But, more important than the plug, I think we can all appreciate Cote's acknowledgment of the "theatre blogosphere" (bloggers and commenters alike) as an important factor in this story.

No doubt, in light of my criticizing of the Times story today, it will be easy to discount my praise for Time Out as self-interested. But read for yourself. Cote is writing an outright editorial, sure, so doesn't have to consider objectivity or balance as McKinley does at NYT. (However, as many of your comments bear out, even those standards seem to have dissolved in that piece.)

And here's some actual news Cote gets on the record:


Nicola, sounding defensive and dispirited over the phone, wearily acknowledges that his company uses a PR firm to test the waters for controversial plays. “People think that their voices are heard free and unfettered,” he says. “Of course, we like to create that atmosphere but that’s a perception. Do they think that happens without someone working at it carefully?”
Was this what he meant originally by "polling the community"?

Interesting to reconcile that with the theatre's mission statement:


New York Theatre Workshop produces challenging and unpredictable new theatre and fosters the creative work of artists with whom we share a vision. With a community of artists and audience members, we explore perspectives on our collective history and responses to the events and institutions that shape our lives.

Hey, what's past is past. I just hope for their sakes, they start using a good PR firm now.