Ian Thal is a playwright, performer and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. Formerly the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled From The Journals of Ian Thal. He is a senior contributor to The Arts Fuse, Boston’s online arts magazine, in which this column originally appeared.
Ironically, those who smeared former Theater J artistic director Ari Roth with allegations that he is “anti-Israel” accomplished a feat that anti-Israeli activists could only dream of doing: making a Jewish Community Center boycott Israeli culture.
Over the past few weeks, the American theater world has been in an uproar over the December 18 firing of Ari Roth from Theater J, where he had served as artistic director for 18 years. Roth’s dismissal by the Washington, DC. Jewish Community Center (DCJCC), under whose auspices (and roof) Theater J operates, has triggered letters of protest from many of his fellow artistic directors, as well as from a number of prominent Jewish-American artists and intellectuals. Even the cast and crew of Theater J’s production of Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to The Scriptures voiced their protest from the stage by reading a statement of support from Kushner.

(Note: I recently argued in The Arts Fuse that The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide was too intellectually and politically challenging to be staged by any of Boston’s major companies. Apparently, our city’s artistic directors also found signing a letter protesting the firing of Roth to be too risky a move. This lack of support is particularly vexing given how many Boston-based artistic directors previously plied their craft in Washington, D.C.)
The campaign against Roth had been building for some time: an ad-hoc group calling itself Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art (COPMA) had been formed primarily to target Theater J, its programming, and its artistic director. The five members of COPMA are experienced activists (three of whom are also board members of EyeOnThePost, Inc. a media watchdog group that monitors The Washington Post‘s coverage of the Israeli-Arab conflict). Earlier in 2014, they exerted enough pressure on the DCJCC that it forced Theater J to scale back its production of Israeli playwright Motti Lerner’s The Admission to a “workshop presentation.” Of course, COPMA did not stop at that compromise. COPMA and its supporters’ most satisfying victory — before the ouster of Roth — must have been in an October 29, 2014 meeting with Carole Zawatsky, the CEO of the DCJCC. The group’s request for the permanent cancelation of Theater J’s annual Voices From A Changing Middle East Festival was granted.
Internal documents regarding the end of the festival were leaked to The Jewish Daily Forward and subsequently reported on November 25. While speaking at the Association for Jewish Theater (AJT) conference (essentially hosted by Theater J) on December 9, Roth and his staff had yet to craft a public statement on the decision. They could only confirm what The Forward had already reported: that Roth had proposed several alternatives that would insulate the DCJCC from further pressure from outside groups while also preserving Theater J’s artistic independence. One of the possibilities floated was to hand the festival off to another organization. This was the situation as it stood when, at the AJT general meeting, the membership unanimously voted, with no abstentions, to approve a draft letter of support for Roth’s continued leadership at Theater J. (Disclosure: I am a member of the AJT and was present at both the panel and meeting in question.) After the announcement of Roth’s firing, an entirely different letter had to be drafted.
In an interview given to The Washingtonian (the day after The Forward published its article), Roth did little more than confirm what had been reported. But giving out that information made all the difference: the fact that Roth had spoken to the press without clearance from the DCJCC communications department would be deemed an act of insubordination, as would his stating publicly that “I’m committed, whether at Theater J or anywhere else, to keep the ‘Voices’ Festival going.” The latter statement would be cited by DCJCC CEO Zawatsky as evidence that “[h]e had begun to work on a new venture, while still employed by DCJCC” in her open letter to The Israel Arts Community.
Indeed, soon after his firing Roth announced that he would begin work on a new venture, The Mosaic Theater Company, which will be based at The Atlas Performing Arts Center. In a Facebook post Stephen Stern, Co-Vice Chair of the Theater J Council, took issue with Zawatsky’s characterization of the artistic director as insubordinate, citing Roth’s efforts to arrive at a satisfactory compromise. He also noted that Roth’s firing coincided with the Council’s issuance of a letter to Zawatsky suggesting some ways out of the impasse.
Read the full article at Arts Fuse, then come back here and discuss it in the comments.