Updated Dec. 19, 2014
Ari Roth ended his 18 year run as artistic director of Theater J Thursday by being fired and escorted out of the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center by security, according to an email he sent to friends and supporters, a copy of which was obtained by Washington Jewish Week.
Roth’s programming choices proved controversial. This year, a scheduled play about a fictional massacre of Palestinians by Israelis, Motti Lerner’s “The Admission,” sparked protests and put pressure on the DCJCC, which runs Theater J. More recently, the JCC cancelled the theater’s annual Voices from a Changing Middle East series, which often challenged long-held views of Israel.
“I was summoned to a 9:30 a.m. meeting this morning by [Executive Director] Carole Zawatsky at which … I was read the preamble to a letter dictating the terms of an immediate separation between myself and the Washington DCJCC,” Roth wrote in the email. “I have until 10 a.m. tomorrow to sign the separation agreement letter which outlines confidential terms including a severance package.”
Roth refused to sign any separation agreement, according to a source familiar with the situation.
Zawatsky wrote in a statement to DCJCC staff on Thursday tonight: “I am writing to let you know that Ari Roth has stepped down as artistic director of Theater J immediately.… While we wish Ari well on his future endeavors, it has become increasingly clear in recent months that this change in leadership is appropriate.”
She continued, “We are committed to continuing Theater J’s mission of presenting thought-provoking theater.”
Asked in an interview whether she anticipated any backlash in the Jewish community from Ari Roth’s supporters, Zawatsky said, “We are part of a Jewish community with no shortage of dissent.”
Earlier this month, Roth spoke about the cancellation of the Changing Middle East series to a group of colleagues at the conference of the International Association for Jewish Theatre in a performance space at Georgetown University.
In a panel discussion titled “Difficult Themed Theatre,” Roth said a play he wanted to produce a play about Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Gaza doctor who worked in Israel and whose three children died during the 2009 war with Hamas.
He said the title of a play, “I Shall Not Hate,” which was produced in Israel, “became a red flag” to JCC’s brass.
Roth said Zawatsky told him the play “would not be a conversation starter. The title tipped the decision-making process.”
Zawatsky then cancelled the series, he said.
“This fabulous JCC is in a profound identity crisis,” he told his fellow Jewish theater directors at the conference. “I held up a mirror to this crisis and tried to work toward some kind of catharsis.”
In his email Thursday, Roth said, “I’ll be announcing the formation of [a] new theatrical entity very soon.” At the Jewish theater conference he said, “there will be a [Changing Middle East] festival.”
The earlier clash over “The Admission,” about the legacy of a fictional massacre of Palestinians, was carried out in public by a group that thought the play was harmful to Israel. The group pressured the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, which contributes funding to the DCJCC, to end its support for Theater J.
The campaign failed, but the pressure was enough to force Theater J to scale back the production and reduce the number of performances in its March run.
In September, Roth wrote to Theater J’s executive committee: “Increasingly, Theater J is being kept from programming as freely, as fiercely, and expressing itself as fully as it needs. We find the culture of open discourse and dissent within our Jewish Community Center to be evaporating,” he said in an internal document obtained by the Forward.
David Chack, president of the Association for Jewish Theatre, said the Roth story is part of the zeitgeist and not unique to the DCJCC or the Jewish community in general. Instead, said Chack, Roth’s firing reflects an increasingly small world that is growing defensive.
Update: On Monday, 61 artistic directors of U.S. theater companies denounced Roth’s firing. In an open letter, the directors, including leaders of New York’s Lincoln Center Theater and Public Theater, Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre and Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company, wrote that “it is absolutely clear that Roth was fired because of the content of the work he has so thoughtfully and ably championed for the last two decades.”
But a source close to the DCJCC said that Roth’s “insubordination,” dating back prior to Zawatsky’s arrival, was the cause of his termination, not his artistic choices. “Everyone recognizes Ari’s talent. DCJCC was standing by Ari in taking artistic risks, as in ‘The Admission.’ DCJCC was willing to put on controversial plays, but they wanted to have a dialogue with him about what is appropriate and inappropriate.
“What Ari somehow didn’t recognize,” said the source, “is that you can’t trash people you work for and continue to work for them. It became increasingly clear of late, as he was giving interviews, like in Washingtonian, that [his position] needed to come to an end. The sexy story is that he has been sacrificed on the altar of artistic freedom. But that’s not the real story.
“This has to do with the fact that he is not a team player. You can’t have employees publicly trashing the institution supporting and nurturing them.”
Roth departed as Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures nears the end of its run. Four more productions are scheduled for Theater J’s 2014-15 season.
On Friday, cast members read to the audience a statement from Kushner, who wrote that “this decision is of grave concern to theater artists and audiences alike.”
Zawatsky in her statement said that a search is underway for a new director. Meanwhile managing director Rebecca Ende and associate director Shirley Serotsky will run the theater.
“Theater J existed before Ari Roth, and it will continue to thrive and be a strong and important theater for years to come,” she told WJW.
Editor-in-Chief Geoffrey W. Melada contributed to this article.