Town Hall Meetings I & II (a recap)

Our notes from the the first Town Hall Meeting (on August 31 – on Themes for a New Season and Reflections from a Season Past) got filed onto a shared drive at the office and never made it out into the world. So we’ll share these bullet points in a moment. And then we’ll post a shorter summary and appreciation of this past Thursday night’s second meeting on the subject “Pushing the Envelope: How Far and to What End?”

Remember that on back on that last Monday in August, we opened with a 50 minute long Season Sneak Preview (see all the wonderful pictures here) that set the table for a ranging discussion about themes for the new season. Let’s begin the recap with an introduction to that first evening.

Welcome to our first-ever Town Hall Meeting/Season Sneak Preview:

As suggested in the very title, it’s an evening of two highly inter-related parts. We welcome subscribers, friends, brand new audience, artists, Council and staff to this GLIMPSE OF THE ARTISTIC FUTURE – what we’ll be talking about and working hard to realize in the most authentic and galvanizing way possible over the coming months – It’s a season born out of on-going conversations, with our audience, with our Council, within staff, within ourselves.

It’s a season born out of Great National Recession in the economy, and simultaneous sense Renewal and reinvention in the same sphere; of a profound new Hope in the White House; and of a new government in Israel as well, with a recognition that we as a theater sit on the seams of a friendly, yet sometimes uncomfortably growing division between the two. Our season was born out of a recognition that we live in a more starkly partisan society than ever, and that we crave unity, and healing, and common footing as a community more than ever.

It’s a season that was forged by asking a series of simple questions: Why do we go to the theater? Why do we need to now? Do we? How much is it worth to us and to our consumers? What are the stories that will bring us together? What are the stories that we need to hear when we’re blue? Or when we can’t see the light. Or when we can’t see other people’s suffering because we’re so wrapped up in our own?

If times of affluence and ascendancy, what is the theater’s function?
In times of anxiety and descent, what is our purpose then?

Clearly, we need a theater that lifts us up. How?
Tonight you’ll see our answer.

While we may talk about relevant themes—meaningful and frightening and cautionary periods in history—the watchword for our season is character. We’ve invested in big characters, long on resilience, and moxie, and wit, grit, good humor, and a sense of size. And what better way to kick off our season than with ZERO MOSTEL?

To reveal portions of the rest of our new season, I call on Shirley Sertorsky. And we express our gratitude to a great group of actors presenting for you tonight. (You should know, to avoid any surprises, that, due to scheduling concerns, they are not, in all cases, the same great actors you’ll be seeing in our actual productions. Some are , some arent’. We’re mixing it up. They’re all wonderful friends of our theater, new and old.)

Steve Spotswood, our terrific literary associate last season and now an MFA graduate from Catholic U and a strong, award winning playwright in his own right, penned this introduction to the scenes that were to then unfold:

While many modern plays choose to focus on the alienation of the main characters from society –highlighting the ways in which individuals or groups are different from one another–we’ve chosen plays for our 2009/2010 season that go against that grain. These plays feature characters separated by age and circumstance, by race and religion, who are trying to forge unions with people different from them.

These characters search within themselves for the courage and strength of will to not only speak up for what they believe in, but to find ways to pass those beliefs on to others. To make them understand that, whatever our differences, we are united by the simple, common bond of being human.

And sometimes they succeed. And sometimes they fail. But, as you’ll discover, these stories are less about the outcome, and more about the importance of simply making the attempt.

Following the presentation of scenes, we heard from our audience, for the next 75 minutes. Here’s running summary of what got voiced during our Town Hall Meeting devoted, only in part to the theme of “Why These Plays and Why Now?”

• Dan Raviv: Do we want more plays set in Israel. This year we’ve got 1 out of, let’s say 6. Do we want 1/3 instead of 1/6?

• Mimi Conway: There will also be other readings, presentations, etc. as part of the Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival this year.

• Ari Roth: Also might be useful to have more plays that relate to the Peace Café, instead of just one clutch of plays per year during a “Festival.” More Middle East play readings during the season itself.

• Stephen Stern: Would like to see a festival with 2 to 3 mainstage plays set in or about Israel in dialogue with each other.

• Elaine Reuben: Would like to see plays from third and fourth countries, not just dealing with the Jewry in the US and Israel.

• Paul Mason: Theater J constantly struggles to find a season with the broadest appeal to all – wth Jewish values that permeate without overly stressing plays of Israel.

• Jessica Lefkow: With Theater J’s growing reputation, can Theater J start commissioning work to tell the stories that Jews around the world want and need to hear on a high artistic level consistent with the work we do here?

• Ari Roth: Yes – the strategic planning commission is looking into that. To follow in the footsteps of the folks at Signature Theatre, who have done a great job commissioning, we would just need the support of really dedicated underwriters helping to fund the long-term commissioning, workshopping, and production of new work by young accomplished and established writers.

• Patricia Jenson: Yes – that is one of our long term goals. We c an also combine many smaller funding sources to support that dream.

• This is a really well balanced season that gives a good overview of the vibrancy of Jewish culture and where Jewish culture is focused. A survey course of sorts. But agrees, Jews in all parts of the world should be portrayed.

• Ari Roth: Funny. I was just approached by the International Theatre Institute to fly to Bulgaria this November. Wasn’t sure why I should go. I think I just got the reason why I should!

• Jews are often defined by the other – by the Nazis in Germany, by the Spanish during the Inqusition. Need to show that kind of relationship to the rest of the world. Need a wider viewpoint.

• Michelle King: have we thought about doing a young theater club or offering discounts to young theater goers?

• Joel Markowitz: Ever thought of an exchange with the Yiddish Theater? There is an older segment of the Jewish population that’s not coming (regularly enough) to Theater J because they want the old Yiddish classics.

• Ari Roth: We have done some plays with a Yiddish influence – Sholom Aleichem & Shlemiel The First. If you love that kind of thing than you loved it. But if not, you don’t.

• The Yiddish Theater in Romania is alive and well. Performed by non Yiddish actors to large audiences. Theater J also isn’t addressing Jews from Africa – the Siffardim.

• Stephen Stern: Theater J is a theater that prides itself on covering a wide variety of Jewish perspectives but it’s not his feeling that Yiddish theater is one of them.

• Commend Theater J on the broadness of the season and for trying to educate the community about these characters from Mikveh and New Jerusalem and their generalness. Doesn’t look at it as a Jewish play.

• Dan Raviv: Does a good review in the Washington Post shatter the barrier of the “J”?

• Jessica Karp: Is concerned about the barrier among theater goers who think that’s not for me. She’s not Jewish and doesn’t feel it’s a barrier.

• Dennis Houlihan: It’s like the Rosen’s Ryebread campaign – “You don’t have to be Jewish to eat Rosen’s Ryebread.” Does hear from Jews that Theater J is “too Jewish.”

• Jessica Lefkowitz: Is Solas Nua too Irish or is it just Jewish theater that gets pidgenholed?

• Dennis Houlihan: No, it’s too depressing.

• More power to Theater J for doing plays that touch on the Jewish heart. Doesn’t have kids or a family and so doesn’t pay dues at or feel comfortable in a temple setting, but she comes here to feel like she’s connecting to her Jewishness and to appreciate being Jewish.

• Betsy Karmin: The season has a huge breath. Adding Neil Simon could help break down some of those barriers because it’s familiar and has name recognition.

• Dori Fox: The comedy realm in cinema is dominated by Jews often making fun of their own Judaism like Adam Sandler and Woody Allen. Use Jewish comedy to also break down the barriers of theater.

• Great to have a Town Hall meeting to help audiences better understand the season – to see over-arching themes and connections between the plays. She will use this info to help sell her friends of coming to certain shows based on what she now knows about them. Also loved seeing the Camerie Theater perform at Signature.

• Does Theater J have discussion after shows and panelists to tall about the issues raised in the plays?

• This is an American Jewish theater. Agrees with Elaine Reuben. The ad campaign of “You don’t have to be Jewish” would really work. And thrilled with what we’re doing tonight.

• This is Theater J, not Theater Israel. Should include the world and Israel, but not just Israel.

• Ari Roth: How do you feel about Festival programming in general (grouping plays together by theme)?

• Josh Fixler: While he sees the intellectual power one exploring one idea from multiple angels, it doesn’t work for young theater goers because there are too many options out there and they will pick one or two thing in the festival to see and not go on the whole journey.

• A Subscriber at Studio during the Russsian season – hated it! Depends on the individual plays. Although other Artistic Directors are Jewish (Zinnoman and Shalowitz) the theaters aren’t perceived as jewish theaters.

• Gerry Gleason: He hustles Theater J to theater goers who have 80 theaters to pick from. And there’s too much competition for people to commit to a festival. They go for two reasons – to go to new places with the content and because of the artistic quality. There is a negative perception of the Jewish Community Center and how it relates to the level of artistic quality.

• The audience is drawn to questions of Jewish identity. But how to overcome that as a barrier. It’s a paradoxical question.

• Stephen Stern: That is the central tension in programming. He would put the emphasis on community and multiple community identities as much as on being Jewish.

• Jessica Lefkow: Festivals allow for readings and speakers and smaller budget events that provide intimate encounters to further examine the plays on the main stage. Keep doing them as long as it’s financially viable.

* * * *

Our September 10 Town Hall Meeting was a more intimate affair. For the August 31 night, 140 people came to the Sneak Preview and about 110 stayed for the 9 pm meeting. On Sept 10, 80 or so people (a voluble but too intimate a house from a box office point of view–for a hit show, that is) came to ZERO HOUR and 50 stayed (induced by free refreshments too, no doubt) for a spirited 75 minute discussion. I was joined on stage by Council members Stephen Stern, Myrna Fawcett, Mimi Conway and Council Co-Chair Irene Wurtzel. Staff members on stage included Shirley Serotsky and Patricia Jenson. 19 students from the University of Michigan and California at Berkeley stayed for the discussion as well. Here’s one student’s appreciation:

I admire Theater J for the same reasons that many of the participants in the town hall meeting mentioned. There is a need for dialogue and it was an honor to be a part of last night’s dialogue with the play “Zero Hour” and an insightful theater community. I was especially impressed by a whole community that seemed ready and willing to challenge themselves with more provoking material.

The evening found its traction in discussion about our past engagement with the controversial plays MY NAME IS RACHEL CORRIE (about the young 23 year old American’s death in Gaza in 2003) and SEVEN JEWISH CHILDREN (A PLAY FOR GAZA) about which MUCH has been written in these blog-o-pages. There was a need to recapitulate the events surrounding our engagement and discussion of both stories, and we heard with fascination from our Toronto colleague, Esther Arbeid, about her JCC’s attempts to hold a community discussion on the RACHEL CORRIE play a year and a half ago and the tremendous pressures that were brought to bear on the JCC from a larger Jewish institution. The event, well publicized and documented by a film crew, went forward, but was a less than successful event in the programmer’s eyes and left their initiatives a bit crippled in its wake. We listened appreciatively and the audience weighed in their perceptions of how Theater J acquitted itself.

Another student that night voiced a less than completely pleased assessment of the audience feedback:

“The overarching theme of the meeting was: “Pushing the Envelope – How Far and to What End”. It was meant to be an analysis and commentary on the direction of the controversial plays performed at Theater J, a discussion of the theater’s place within the Jewish and Washington community, and suggestions about where to go in the future and why. I believe, however, that the discussion, rather than directly tackling these hard but vital questions, remained at best tangential to the issues at hand.

The student was critical of audience members “who extolled the virtues of Theater J for the Jewish community without defining what these virtues were or why they were important, criticizing the controversial nature of the theater’s plays without explaining why they found the plays offensive,
destructive, or harmful, requesting variety in future performances without highlighting what new directions they wished the theater move towards.

This is not to say that there was no substantive discussion in the meeting. The suggestion that [Ionesco’s –not Mostel’s] Rhinoceros be produced in the future directly addressed what new avenues and performances Theater J may wish to pursue. Another participant emphasized what I felt was a particularly important issue: managing a theater is often a balancing act between competing forces. On the one hand, the directors wish to produce controversial, artistic, and thought-provoking performances. But on the other, the theater’s supporters and managers must consider the importance of remaining mainstream, popular, and financially viable: in other words, drawing an audience, pleasing the crowd, and keeping them coming back for more. Both forces are important to the artistic and practical viability of a contemporary
theater, and there is no easily determined proper proportion.

Unfortunately, these on-topic and substantive comments were far and few between. All too much of the conversation skirted the issues at hand and failed to address the good or bad of Theater J “pushing
the envelope”. Ultimately, I felt the post-performance discussion, like the town-hall meetings that are its namesake, fell short of offering a comprehensive debate on the topic, and fell victim to the distracting comments of many of its participants. I realize that the analogy I’m drawing may be overly-sweeping and unfair. By no means was the Theater J town hall meeting vitriolic, negative, or devoid of merit. I just wished to highlight in as respectful a way as I could the concerns that I believe many of the class’s student were feeling throughout the post-performance town-hall meeting.”

I invite those who were at either meeting to fill in the many blanks of what was discussed – questions answered – for either meeting. Our Council member Elaine Reuben, who was with us on stage for the first town hall meeting, notes that we need to address here the question of what kind of organizing offers we have for area young people / young professionals. It’s important that we let people know about the HALF PRICE TICKETS we sell at every performance for young people 35 and under. It’s important to hear about the HALF PRICE SUBSCRIPTIONS for the same target audience, and the J ON DEMAND post-show receptions for young professionals that get sprinkled throughout the season. These events pick up where our 4 year long “PLAY DATE” program left off – a monthly Thursday night reception for young professionals. In their place, we know how Thursday night talk-backs which draw on a more diverse crowd of old and young into engagement with our cast and other panelists about issues raised in the play. But I miss our “Play Date” drinking binges.

I’ll let others fill out the debate on Yiddish theater (quite a potentially controversial subject) as well as other “flashpoint” controversies.

Finally, our last Town Hall Meeting is this Sunday, September 13 at 4:45 following the 3 PM matinee of ZERO HOUR. We’ll discuss all the points raised above but focus predominantly on the question, “What does the J in Theater J really stand for and what do we mean by it?”

See you there!


2 thoughts on “Town Hall Meetings I & II (a recap)

  1. A brief expansion on a couple of the key points mentiond and will take up further with any one who wants.
    I ddidn’t mean to be prescriptive in terms of either Isreal festival or anti-Yiddish theater. The give and take of how a theater makes its season is far more interesting than (to me) false dichotomies of “balance” and “provocation”. I had a different vision of where this seaason might go — but the give and take that led to it and its coherence and depth I fully suppor — and flows from the history of the theater and its achievements.
    — Re: Israel and Yiddish theater — there are questions of both mission, the artistic director’s and his collaborators’ evolving vision and history, and comparative advantage. We have a comparative advantage (enhanced by public dialogue) of producing top flight main stage or shoestring Israel and Middle East work — some of it should be there every year, to build on what we’ve done a key PART of our identity. With Yiddish theater, we have absolutely no comparative advantage in producing it. Doesn’t mean never – but how we’d bring it together takes more in terms of resources and ‘mission mobilization”

    That’s closer to what I think, than the bullet points or how I might have been hear those evenings. And you?

  2. Pingback: At Theater J, We Get Around (We’re Talking UJC/GA, J Street, WHC, and beyond) « The Theater J Blog

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