Theater producer and playwright Ari Roth last made headlines in the fall of 2020, when he resigned from Mosaic Theater Company, which he founded in the wake of his firing from Theater J, the resident troupe at the Edlavitch D.C. Jewish Community Center.
This, his second separation as an artistic director, was, he told The Washington Post, due to “a new ideologically driven structural model to run a company. That is in conflict with the artistic foundations of the company.”
Last week, Roth revealed that he has come to terms with a “new normal” and offers contrition — along with critique — for his actions as an artistic director in a theater industry that has shifted ideologies, approaches and leadership models. And he sees parallels to rifts and shifts in society as a whole.
Washington Jewish Week spoke with Roth about where things went wrong in his work as artistic director and about Voices Festival Productions, his new production company. It will mount a series of plays this month in the District, including his own — “My Brief But Calamitous Affair with the Minister of Culture & Censorship, or Death of the Dialogic in the American Theater” — a thinly fictionalized recounting on producing collaborative theater in a politicized and leader-driven environment.
The characters — including one named “Artistic Director Until Recently” — and scenes may feel familiar to those who have followed Roth’s trajectory, but names have been changed roman a clef style. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Update us on what you’ve been doing since you left Mosaic.
It’s about 22 months since I stepped down from Mosaic in the fever of the pandemic and the cultural reckoning that was hitting many in the [theater] industry …. That was a sojourn in the wilderness. [My family] had a very charmed COVID period — my wife, [adult] daughter and I each have our own floor to do our work and we’ve been very productive. As difficult a time as it may have been professionally or artistically, I was always aware of how fortunate I was …. [We] have good health and we took care of each other.
When you left Theater J in 2014, you had the apparatus in place to begin Mosaic the next day. On resigning from Mosaic, were you ready to start another production company right away?
I would have preferred to stay at Theater J … but they had canceled the Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival. So I was looking for a place to house that festival while staying artistic director of Theater J. This time I went through the process of thinking about what I would do. Would I write a book next? Would I return to the play? Would I work on something new? It took time.
This was a productive time for me as a writer to go back, dig and document, write and reflect, and come out on the other end.
Your new play — “My Brief But Calamitous Affair …” — is specifically based on your experiences as an embattled artistic director. Why do we need this story?
That question is on the first page of the play: “I can understand why you may have needed to write it, but why do we need to hear it?” That’s the question the executive director [character] poses. She says we’ve gotten things right and a little less right in this transition. … Look at the collateral damage, at how we’ve hurt each other. We’re all in need of healing. You could say that change was appropriate. Change was imminent. We need to change in this country. We need to change in Israel, in Palestine. The status quo cannot hold.
How do we change — it’s everybody’s theme. A play I wrote some 25 years ago [“Goodnight, Irene”] asked, “How do we change to still keep a compass?”
The dilemma of the play — why Jews should come see it — asks how do we navigate and negotiate this treacherous cultural moment we’re in where there’s so much internal reckoning.
It’s appropriate for Yom Kippur as we reflect inward on what we’ve done wrong and how we’re going to change, how we’re going to address our mistakes, what does that change mean? The characters in this play who have a public identity may have been judged by the community or judged by history.
How have you changed? How are you different in how you work interact and collaborate with colleagues?
Well, I’m my own compliance officer. I fill out the insurance forms. I do the difficult work. I do the bureaucracy that I always had associates do. As a sole proprietor of an LLC, I’m my own bookkeeper. I’m accountable to a fiscal sponsor and document every single expense with a receipt, if I’m to get paid back by [fiscal agent] Fractured Atlas.
That was really not what I expected to hear.
There you go…. It stands for more: I’m not delegating to a staff of 18. I have an artistic partner, A. Lorraine Robinson, and the two of us handle the infrastructure of our company. There’s a lot to do in order to be kosher in this business. You have to follow the rules and I’m following a lot of rules.
Are you saying that you were breaking rules in prior companies?
That’s a good question. I didn’t break rules, but I could afford to be flippant about somebody else being the compliance officer …. You could say that as an artist, I didn’t keep kosher as a producer. I mixed milk and meat. Now, I have to keep kosher. … That just means that I, in order for people to do business with me [like Actors’ Equity Association or the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities] … I have to follow every step; there’s not somebody else who will do it. I have to have the certificate of clean hands myself.
That in itself is a confession: You were flippant in allowing other people to do your dirty work sometimes.
I absolutely took things for granted. That’s in the play. I don’t want to give away too much, but arrogance and entitlement are words that creep in there.
You admit to arrogance, Ari. How can we not see that putting on an entire play that’s based on your own experiences and story as an artistic director as arrogant?
I suppose it’s a fair, critical question. I feel like when you’ve experienced injury, you’ve been witness to injury and you’ve been responsible for injury, as an artist you want reflect on that. You have to do so in the most honest way possible. I don’t think the dramaturgy of the play is arrogant. There’s the desire to listen very, very carefully to other narratives and to tell other people’s stories in the context of telling your own of both centering yourself, because it’s honest, but not exclusively centering yourself, which the play deals with at the very beginning in its choice of how to tell this story.
I think you can only tell a truth by putting yourself on the line and holding yourself up for account, and to write generously and to not write with malice, but with compassion, toward others and with curiosity toward a great many.
Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival — Sep. 29-Oct. 23, at the Corner at Whitman-Walker, 1701 14th Street, NW, Washington. Tickets and information: voicesfestivalproductions.com/tickets.