Ari here (typing in from the border of Michigan and Indiana, a fine place to wake up, with one half of the bed in an Eastern Time Zone, the other half in Central Time. Fortunately no alarm clock confusion; we just don’t use one).
In the Town Hall press release Shirley refers to, it goes on to suggest why we’ve decided to open up this forum with our audience, not to sell the season so much as to have the season plant seeds for discussion about the larger meaning of Theater J in the minds (hearts/souls/lives) of our audience.
Notes Theater J artistic director Ari Roth, “back in February and March of 2009, we conducted our first extensive mid-season survey and learned a lot about what our audiences seemed to be responding to, both positively and sometimes less than positively. We think it might be nice to not just have a survey mediate our interaction with our audience — we’d love to hear more and more about what people want, hope and expect from us. We’ve had our share of thought-provoking fare at Theater J over the past year — from Sandra Bernhard to Caryl Churchill to pot-smoking musical theater composers and Israeli characters who run away from the scene of a crime. We’ve presented unflinching portraits and reflections of our times, both in America and in the Middle East. We ask questions about our ethnic and secular identities all the time. We want to make that soul-searching process a more collective experience to start this most unique season.”
Shirley refers to the current rash of “Town Hall Meetings Gone Wild” linking to a Wall Street Journal article authored by a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Another take on the bellicose brouhahas can be found in The New York Times from Paul Krugman. Hard to definitively characterize the reaction to “Obamacare” as the WSJ calls it in these recent Town Hall gatherings (having not been present for any myself) but it does tell you something about the kind of discourse we’ve got in our country now. We’ve all experienced this on the web — the phenomenon of the viral — which is to say, the vitriolic response gone rapidly global, as an issue blooms into a distorted version of itself. The Town Hall Meeting, in general, should be the place where important issues — hot topics even — can be discussed in a manner most civil, even while allowing for passionate opinions to be expressed. I think of our Peace Cafe discussions over the years where we’ve responded to literally hundreds upon hundreds of speakers, films, theatrical presentations, emergency meetings after traumatic events (or every so often, after wonderful news like, I seem to recall, a party at Mimi’s American Bistro for the signing of the Geneva Accords), and the hallmark of these discussions has been their civility, even as people from wildly different backgrounds have passionately disagreed with each other. The Peace Cafe, which brings together Muslims, Jews, Christians, Quakers, non-believers and existential questioners of all sorts, trades in candid conversation about the Middle East Conflict and thrives because the basis of the conversation is not a point-making debate but a sharing of personal narrative and deep feeling (informed by fact and experience, of course) in an effort to bring light to the issue in question.
As we’ve demonstrated before, we’re comfortable talking about difficult subject matter at Theater J and perhaps that’s so because the Peace Cafe has paved the way. But so have our Sunday Artistic Director Round Table discussions as well as our Thursday Night Talk-Backs. We talk with our audience all the time about plays that work and don’t work and why the audience comes to feel a certain way about a moment, a character, or a director’s choice. Talking about a new play in production during previews is pretty sensitive subject fare all by itself. Emotions (and nerves) on the creative team run high. But the audience is rarely aggrieved coming into the theater. Some were, of course, during the recent Churchill controversy; most others, as it turned out, were curious, skeptical, hungry or just plain interested. The real difference between people who participate in the phenomenon of “viral vitriol” adding fuel to the fire about an issue gone wild on the web, and those who show up to a theater to take in a play (of whatever length) and then care to share their response with an audience, is that those who show up invariably demonstrate respect for the forum, the theater, the artists, and even the art they’ve experienced by allowing it to be presented. A hot response is surely allowed thereafter.
Such is the thinking (at least in so far as we hope for the best but still plan for the worst) in convening our own Town Hall Meetings. We do so with confidence, knowing that our audience has a lot of interesting things to say, to share; much of it, we imagine, will be supportive of Theater J’s agenda and its programming over the years. But even those (to whom we’re reaching out) who have been critical of Theater J for whatever reasons are invited to come to theater, engage in real discussion with us and the rest of the audience, say their piece (or is it peace?), and know that a heard voice makes an impact and contributes to the richness of the tapestry we’re weaving, holding up a reflection of who we are as a community.
Well, that’s our first morning riff on the subject of these upcoming Town Hall gatherings. It’s placid these days at the theater, and here overlooking Lake Michigan it’s a calm picture too. But we all know things are seething in the land. We know that the Obama administration and the Israeli government have been moving in fitfully different directions this year on a few subjects, though there are also subtle signs of hope and coordinated movement. We know that the Jewish community is divided on the subject of supporting the President’s Middle East agenda, but again, there are signs that that might change, just as the allegedly divided Jewish community wound up voting overwhelmingly for Obama in the recent election (thanks to Madoff, Palin, and Sarah Silverman, no doubt). In short, it’s a moving target, our discomfort and our concern. Who knows what’s real and where it’s going? Good reason to talk about it… in a lively (but respectful) Town Hall Meeting.