‘Talking Shop and Taking Stock With Ari Roth’ by John Stoltenberg and David Siegel

Mosaic Theater Company of DC's Artistic Director Ari Roth.

Ari Roth.

There was a buzz of high energy as we walked into Ari Roth’s office at the Atlas Performing Arts Center to meet with the Founding Artistic Director of Mosaic Theater Company of DC. We wanted to talk about Mosaic’s first season and what to expect for its second. And we meant to look toward the future of Mosaic rather than back at the past in which it was conceived.

Now settled in at its new location in the burgeoning H Street corridor—with the new trolley now operating six-days a week—Mosaic as a producing theater company is thriving. It recently announced its second season  and a $1 million grant for the next three years from the Reva and David Logan Foundation. As John wrote in his review of Unexplored Interior, the company’s first production, “Mosaic dared. And Mosaic did.”

Jennifer L. Nelson.

Jennifer L. Nelson.

Our conversation was open and wide-ranging, encompassing issues that any new theater company must deal with to survive in a tough market for any arts organization. Roth offered a clear and strong testament to the resilience of the original vision for Mosaic with his colleagues Managing Director Serge Seiden and Resident Director of Artistic Development Jennifer L. Nelson, along with Mosaic’s Board of Directors. Roth also reflected on the need to move beyond Mosaic’s inaugural season with its major component of the Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival

Managing Director and Producer Serge Seiden. Photo courtesy of theatreWashington.

Managing Director and Producer Serge Seiden. Photo courtesy of theatreWashington.

Roth spoke with eloquence and passion about Mosaic’s commitment to produce shows that would meet the needs of underserved populations who may not often have stage productions that will be of relevance to them.

The second season would reflect the large vision and mission of Mosaic, he promised. (In another setting, introducing a performance of After the War, Roth said the second season would also be “less grim.”)

Here are highlights from what he told us. 

          On what he looks for in scripts

I never look for healing. I never look for reconciliation. I’m looking for a trenchant argument. I’m looking for conflict that grabs you by the lapels.

On how he thinks as a producer

My background is as a playwright, and having taken time out from being a full-time playwright to learn how to be a producer, I’ve brought my playwright’s sense of provocation and asking the most important inciting question—the premise and the reason for being for a production—the same way a playwright asks him or herself, What is this play trying to do? What question are you going to grapple with? I ask that as a producer, and I bring my creative playwright’s impulse to script a journey during a season, to look at the continuity of the journey: What’s the relationship between one play and the next? They’re all experiences, just like scenes. How do the scenes, the acts, relate to each other and develop a premise?

On the Voices of a Changing Middle East Festival

Aaron Davidman in 'Wrestling Jerusalem.' Photo by Teddy Wolff

Aaron Davidman in ‘Wrestling Jerusalem.’ Photo by Teddy Wolff

The festival is its own dialectic, its own argument with itself, about the very simple question that Playwright David Hare posed in the very first play we did at Theater J, Via Dolorosa [in 2000]: What is the way forward? In the thicket of conflict, in the tapestry of the tragedies, and all the different interweaving complexities, there’s still a driving question: What is the way forward?

I deeply identify with what the playwrights are trying to grapple with. In Wrestling Jerusalem the American Jew Aaron Davidman is wrestling with his own guilt and distance and confusion, and he goes and does something about it. He tries to step into the shoes of the stranger. He’s a man losing his religion, and how does he gain back his religion? And that’s just step one of the audience’s journey.

Izzeldin Abuelaish’s I Shall Not Hate is the Palestinian Muslim perspective of someone who knows and loves the other; then that other kills three of his daughters and saves another daughter.

You put those two experiences together and guess who we haven’t heard from? We haven’t heard from the Israeli Motti Lerner, who in After the War is talking about the divided Israeli family, and this cleavage that politics has created.

We opened the season with Unexplored Interior, a play about Rwanda, and in Promised Land we had other African refugees asking, “What is this Israel, this democracy, that’s going to put us in detention centers as we’re seeking refuge?”

So it’s a very whole journey. We’re sculpting a mixed audience’s journey through these very formidable artistic landscapes. The conversation that is the festival is in how the plays relate to each other, building on Via Dolorosa.

On the Festival’s point of view

At the DCJCC I created a framework called “Narratives of Nation Building”—and both The Admission and Golda’s Balcony were about nation building—but the controversy hijacked the theme. The organic festival was actually peace-movement building. There is an editorial point of view: There’s a social-justice consciousness that by definition is anti-occupation, anti-dehumanization. It is pro mutual recognition. It is pro peace.

And now, when I’m here at Mosaic, I’m very conscious of art for a particular kind of progressive movement. I keep using the term fusion communities, bringing together different interest groups and points of view. I’m building a sensitivity here to the progressive Jewish, the progressive Israeli conscience. We’re firmly anti boycott, divestment, sanctions for Israel or any other cultural target, but trying to build a deep simpatico.

The sensitivity we’ve been promoting is still limited and could extend further still, opening more space for various Palestinian perspectives; for non-Jewish perspectives; for nuanced pro-Israel perspectives too; I see the Festival as still a work-in-progress and a series of expressions to be filled out

On the role of theater in movement building

Guy Kapulnik (Izzy) and Paul Morella (Joel) in A'After the War.' Photo by Stan Barouh.

Guy Kapulnik (Izzy) and Paul Morella (Joel) in ‘After the War.’ Photo by Stan Barouh.

In the arts community, within those who are fighting despair and fighting to keep society progressively minded and to keep moving forward on a social agenda, you have to work actively to keep that world spinning forward.

Our fates are in the balance now. And you see theater as a part of that energy. That’s what in part the fight with the JCC was about. I love and respect the place I came from, and I’m really interested in a powerful reconciliation with the people and with the institution. What I love about the opportunity right now is that Derek Goldman, who is a dear friend, has chosen to go back and forth between JCC and Mosaic. He directed Unexplored Interior, and has directed the new adaptation of Falling Out of Time, David Grossman’s novel about losing his son, which is running at the same time as Motti Lerner’s new play After the War. The opportunities to recognize what we, each other, are doing—we have an emotional connection.

On working with Motti Lerner

Playwright Motti Lerner. Photo courtesy of Mosaic Theater Company of DC.

Playwright Motti Lerner. Photo courtesy of Mosaic Theater Company of DC.

In November Motti and I spent eight hours on the rooftop of the Cinema Hotel in Israel arguing about the ending of After the War. I frequently get into combat with the playwrights I care most about. I’ve had a colloquy with Motti Lerner about the endings of his plays, and how bleak they’ve been, but they haven’t been bleak when they get done in Washington, DC. They change because he and I fight like cats and dogs. We have different points of view, and the most interesting thing in this whole festival is how After the War ends and how The Admission ended.

I insisted that Motti make a case for hope, make a case for some semblance of redemption. He wants people to go out feeling pulverized, feeling distraught, and go change the world as they leave the theater. And I like the Shakespearean model; I want to see the drama lead us to that point. I’m not ever saying don’t give us tragedy. But he looks at the death of Willy Loman as the end of the play and I look at Linda’s eulogy, the epilogue, as the end of the play. We have this argument all the time. And that’s the healthy way.

I said to him: Motti, your life example of not leaving Israel, of sending your children off to fight for Israel, of not cashing in your own chips— There are so many positive things you do in your life every day to affirm your Israeliness, but your art is more bleak than what you actually believe. All I’m saying is let your art have the honesty and fullness of your own life example. And so we came up with the right ending. It was one line, but it was completely transformative.

On Mosaic’s audience

ovah Feldshuh as Golda Meir in 'Golda’s Balcony.' Photograph by Aaron Epstein.

Tovah Feldshuh as Golda Meir in ‘Golda’s Balcony.’ Photograph by Aaron Epstein.

There’s 220,000 Jews in the DC Metro area and a very vested interfaith community. We’re  getting a lot of churchgoers here. We’re getting people who are very engaged in the troubling question of Israel and what to do about Israel and the Palestinians from the point of view of those who are deeply committed to their church, those who are deeply committed to their think tank. There’s an evolving profile of people who are coming that is both the old guard, people who were supportive of the work before [at Theater J], and new people coming out of the woodwork.

What makes DC unique is the example of The Admission, which in 2014 played to 16 sold-out performances with all its controversy. Cut to Arena Stage’s Camp David, a beautifully produced play with star power in it—it plays to 90 percent capacity for six weeks. We open Golda’s Balcony, it breaks box office records and wins a Helen Hayes Award for Tovah Feldshuh. The city supported three plays about Israel at the same time back to back to back. They were all variations on a theme, and they spoke to each other. We’ve cultivated an audience for it and we’re doing it better than any city in the country.

At the moment the crowd that is coming to the Atlas is relatively self-selected, and you don’t see a lot of protesters coming here. You don’t see a lot of people wrestling and arguing back; in ticket sales they’re actually being supportive of the art. So we’re seeing buy-in; we’re not seeing a town hall meeting where people are throwing shoes at each other.

On the future of the Festival

In the years to come, if we really want to be out there with a big openness to difference, to otherness, to fusion communities, to a big mosaic, you’re not going to have too many five-play, four-month-long Middle East festivals because they won’t be as globally and racially inclusive as they could be.

What is the future of a successful incubator and a successful convener of these kinds of cultural conversations, where can we take this to next? I love a robust festival; I would like it to be full full full. But I know that there’s an even greater imperative to build the full expanse of Mosaic.

On how he programs a season

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One of the things that’s proven itself is that it’s good to have different perspectives—whether it’s Palestinian and Israeli or whether it’s female and male, whether it’s American and Middle Eastern, there is some way in which you want to see that happening. Or there’s an interest in plays that speak to each other. I love  that. I think in terms of bunches.

If you look at the history of the festival, there have been plenty of times when we’ve only done one play and then readings around it. If we’re in the business of growing new work, well you need time to cultivate the new work. And who’s had time to do new play development this year? We did a number of world premieres. We did Unexplored Interior. And After The War is a world premiere, Promised Land with its new epilog and major new prolog around it is new. Hkeelee (Talk to Me) is new. That’s been a lot of attention to unfolding drafts all during this year. We’ve had very little time to work on brand new scripts for next season.

The important thing here is the mission of presenting intercultural encounters and creating these experiences where we’re confronting ourselves with portraits of the other and that will happen both on stage and in the audience. We’re convening really important conversations, on stage and after the show in the house.

On Mosaic and the conversation on race

(L to R) Erica Chamblee (Ida B. Wells) and Manu H. Kumasi (Noel) in 'The Gospel of Lovingkindness' at Mosaic Theater. Photo by Stan Barouh.

(L to R) Erica Chamblee (Ida B. Wells) and Manu H. Kumasi (Noel) in ‘The Gospel of Lovingkindness’ at Mosaic Theater. Photo by Stan Barouh.

With Gospel of Lovingkindness we lost money but we had such buy-in from the African American community and we created such conversations on the present moment. We’re just hungry to get back to that.

When you come to the immediacy of the twentieth-century conversation on race that meets up with the movement now of Black Lives Matter, which is very twenty-first century, and the theater that it wants to articulate, reconciliation isn’t the dominant theme there. It’s about empowerment. It’s about dismantling the infrastructure of white supremacy. And you see in some healthy way our own politics of inclusion and representation and becoming a forum for stories of people who aren’t given a stage to share their stories enough.

The play we end the season with, which is When January Feels Like Summer, or The Gospel of Lovingkindness, those plays do and don’t speak of reconciliation. In playwriting structural terms, even in tragedy, with the catharsis there comes a kind of insistence on redemption as opposed to nihilism, so that our theater of activism is rooted in something very Aristotelian as opposed to Nietzschean or Euripidean. You really are trying to create a theater of healing. And healing is not the discourse of the activist movement right now. So I’m being challenged in my own impulse about what stories, what the sentiment, what the anger in the community is.

If there’s no justice in society, then there should be no healing. The plays will make the case for justice. Because they are reflections of reality, but they are also then pushing us toward a more perfect place.

LINKS:

Mosaic Theater Company of DC Announces its 2016-2017 Season Schedule.

Read DCMetroTheaterArts’ coverage and reviews of Mosaic Theater Company of DC’s first season.

Leila Buck. Photo by Meredith Zimmerman.

Leila Buck. Photo by Meredith Zimmerman.

Hkeelee (Talk to Me), written and performed by Leila Buck, is the final production in Mosaic’s 2015–2016 Voices of a Changing Middle East Festival. It plays April 30 to May 1, 2016, at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater in the Kogod Cradle – 1101 6th Street, SW, in Washington, DC. Tickets are available online.

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The final production of Mosaic’s first season, When January Feels Like Summer by Cori Thomas, runs May 19-June 12, 2016, at the Lang Theater, Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.

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About David Siegel

DCMetroTheaterArts Critic David Siegel.

DCMetroTheaterArts Critic David Siegel.

David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on DC Metro Theater Arts, ShowBiz Radio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with the American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David’s musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.
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About John Stoltenberg

John Stoltenberg.

John Stoltenberg.

Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.

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