A December Note: Small Steps & Gestures

December 14, 2020

Only posting now what went out to friends three and four weeks ago. It’s up belatedly to more fully document the trajectory of pain, slow healing, and the beginnings of my moving forward; doing so honestly and thoroughly. I’ll keep posting at least once a month.

I’m writing this holiday season to share a more qualitative update and to answer the simple question posed by a friend with whom I consulted in the midst of my sabbatical, who wrote this weekend after his wife asked, “I wonder how’s Ari doing?” The friend realized he didn’t know, and so was prompted to ask — And I realized I hadn’t fully communicated with the well over two hundred important folks who’d reached out since the news of my stepping down from Mosaic. How am I doing and what the heck’s been going on?

It was news indeed ­– big news for a moment, though maybe not as big as six years ago, when news of my departure from Theater J unfolded in a different political and global context — and yet the response to the NY Times piece that came out over Thanksgiving weekend evoked even more passion and controversy than their coverage in 2014. There has been a flurry of Letters To The Editor (sent to me, none published yet), pushing back against the bias of the journalist who posted problematic re-frames of her article on Facebook and Twitter asserting claims that her Times editors had apparently edited out. The media blitz has died down — it always does — and I’ve been left with the reality of a cleared-out office, an obsolete email account, the loss of one formalized community, but the re-strengthening of a circle of friends, family, and believers, along with new horizons for creativity, continuity, reinvention, and the time — lucky as we are in this otherwise wrenching Covid moment — to reformulate afresh.

Still I appreciated my friends’ question. There is a response to the initial jolt, that you are “walking away from a baby” (as friends have said to me over and over), and that the baby was largely taken away over the course of a gradual process of it becoming the province of many, and now a symbol of our moment. Who owns this Mosaic that bespeaks the fragments and tensions of our time? Whose theater was it? Is it? How did its identity change so quickly?

Mosaic was born from a place deeply personal and resonant. And how Mosaic was able to grow and become something bigger than any one person — for that I remain proud and grateful, always cognizant of what an effort — indeed what a battle — it was to build it from the very beginning.

It’s the stuff of a book, really, and I’ve been thinking of writing one; a book about those 24 seasons — or what I’d alternately call “After-Action Reports from the Producing Wars,” or — choosing between a slew of sub-titles — “The Resilience Artist,” or “Riding the Third Rail of Race, Privilege, Progressive Zionism, Palestine, and Gender Politics in 21st Century American Theater.” A whole lot of mouthfuls, to be cut down, for sure, but that’s the iterating that a literary agent is now having me organize into a more formal 5 page, non-fiction book proposal.

From the very beginning at both Theater J and Mosaic, inaugural productions for me turned out to be telling triumphs with mixed reviews; a dollop of moxie mixed and strong community interchange along with creative and internal controversy; world premieres of ambition referencing history, and both with 14 person casts (isn’t that a crazy coincidence?)! I’m remembering Waiting For Lefty/Still Waiting in 1998 at Theater J and Unexplored Interior (This is Rwanda) in 2015 at Mosaic — both in the news again courtesy of the Times piece and Theater J’s 30th anniversary Gala and the video tribute they invited me back to contribute to. The issues at play in both still carry implications today. Unexplored Interior was referenced (but unnamed) by the NY Times because of an intricate backstage drama that casts a shadow to this day, while Still Waiting was invoked as the history of Theater J was recently updated for donors, and then updated again in a post-Gala booklet that received new edits after announcement of my resignation and the controversy went public. Never a dull moment in monitoring how history gets retold depending on who’s doing the retelling!

These reflections are just a sampling of intense memories I’ve been unpacking in clearing out my office from the Atlas — along with boxes still unsorted from the 2 hours I had to clear my office from the J 6 years before then. Any book project will take 2nd priority, to the new play I’m committed to finishing, even as events have compelled me to rethink the play’s framing and core learnings. So many suppositions have been challenged by the reckonings of the past months that put the spotlight on privilege and power and the way the zeitgeist has pushed everyone to ask how creative work is centered; how insights are canvassed, and participation gets enlisted from a bigger circle of contributors. In leaving Mosaic, it’s important I not step into creative isolation, or become cut off from the imperative of being brutally honest by seeing reality through the eyes of others, as well through my own unflinching expression.

The play is called My Brief Affair With The Minister but, like the proposed book title, that may get altered. It’s a theatrical meditation on the life of a theater company — An Artistic Director/Adapter on thin ice; an Executive Director for External Affairs reporting back to her board; international creatives pursuing their own expression in a collapsing collaboration that had aspired to bridge difference and create synthesis from warring political factions. The play, set in the present, is the “remembrance of a fracture” — a compound fracture about how dreams (personal, political and artistic) can go astray. An original one-act about censorship in the Israeli theater was to be expanded for its American premiere, transformed into a full-length dramatization with the addition of an infamous Minister of Culture and Sport for the State of Israel responsible for shutting down Palestinian-centered offerings said to “de-legitimize the state.” Through flashbacks we see the happy beginnings of this idealistic project, as rehearsals unfold auspiciously, but take a turn for the terrible pretty quickly.

The Palestinian actor refuses to share the stage with the American playing an Israeli. Anti-Normalization confronts the sentiment of Co-Existence. Fractures resurface as present-tense reckonings expose the mission of the theater — its visions of ally-ship, bridge building and shared narratives — rendering them vulnerable. It is only in the resilience of those embattled artistic partnerships — that require revisiting a year later — through which a viable future can emerge, with the hope that art — fired through the crucible of change — can attain its original, though humbler, aspiration.

So that’s a blurb. I’ve also been iterating the history and future vision for the “Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival,” working with an attorney to incorporate in DC as a small not-for-profit, though the formal name of the 501-C-3 is still in final iterating phase. It’s looking to be a mash-up of the two initiatives I championed at Mosaic and Theater J; the “Voices Festival” and “Locally Grown: Community Supported Art.” Once again, as I did six years ago, I’m learning so much from the same brand strategist who’s consulted with organizations big and small, bringing her years of experience to help me scaffold a course of action and locate the essence of my offering — the true marriage of personal and public; of incubating and nurturing the works of others alongside my own.

A branding consultant is not the only professional who’s been helping me out for a second time in six years. I’ve also been fortunate to work with the powerhouse press rep, Steve Rabinowitz at Bluelight Strategies. Steve helped me navigate over the past month in so many ways, and his associate, Matt Landini, has made an awesome logo that we’re using for the time being, along with the first draft of a new website with photos I’ve dumped into individual page slide shows. There’s a link to press clippings on the website — though hardly any reviews of my own work are up yet — but there’s still a full story of my producing that’s been well documented in the local and national press.

In aggregating these clippings, one can see how reactions to my resignation have run the gamut. But I’m letting the fracas go, as I am some of the more problematic language that’s recently come from Mosaic as friends have shared responses from the theater after asking to be removed from the mailing list. It’s been difficult to read those aspersions, as it’s been sad to lose good relationships with board members, as their efforts to display a show of unity (hashtag #unity) have taken priority during this critical, criticized transition for the theater. I’ve been in touch with only one or two board members, though I miss a great many.

I’ll close by reflecting on the holiday season we’re all entering and how moving the start of Chanukah was, as we celebrated our oldest daughter Isabel’s birthday (via zoom). I had a poignant experience buying gifts that afternoon for Sophie and Katie at Middle C Music (right near our house). It’s run by Mosaic board member Myrna Sislen who’s a powerhouse store owner and concert artist to roundly admire. She shared with me how all the businesses along Wisconsin Avenue are struggling — hers less than others, but still this holiday season was off to a very slow start — and I was moved to buy some gifts near the register — tinker toy music boxes, and earring loops made from classical guitar string — as I ordered an electronic Midi keyboard for Sophie. We talked about my leaving Mosaic in little fits and starts — it was awkward but earnest — and then she said quietly, “I just think you’re brilliant,” and moved onto other business in the back of the shop. It was a bittersweet visit, but I came home with “You Are My Sunshine” and “Over The Rainbow” music boxes to give to two women who loved them. It reminded me that my task now is to be creative in organizing myself, and generous in giving back — supporting local business and uplifting local artists as much as the family I love, and myself.

I’m driving out to Chicago in a week to be with my mom; give the caregivers a break over Christmas day; and spend time writing in Michiana next to a cold Lake Michigan. I’m feeling grateful for the slower motion of this pandemic pace. We’re all adjusting, and suffering, and making plans anew, as we soon move into a dark-stark stretch of winter, leavened by the promise of vaccination and a modified spring training, with much brighter light in sight.

Experience is a great teacher. It’s taught me that these transitions are wrenching but profound and can lead to rich new opportunities in the not-so-distant future.

I’ll close with this: I’ve got a few places where I write reflections, both online and in old blank books (college ruled, of course). I call one “The Worry Journal;” another, more recently, has been an oversized “Sabbatical/ Resignation Diary.” Both have their share of To Do lists. On Friday night, I started a third journal, at midnight, and because I was feeling good about my writing, my session with Carole, about some wonderful emails, and about Chanukah, I decided to call it “The Hope Notebook.” And I wrote and wrote as I visualized the future. It’s just the right size, this notebook, and I found it unpacking a pile I’d brought home from the Atlas. I opened it for that first time and out dropped an index card with a note left by Mosaic’s first General Manager/Associate Producer, Lorna Mulvaney. It read:

“Ari, I noticed that you use a notebook to write down your thoughts and ideas, so I wanted to add one to your collection! I hope this book can be a place where the seeds of amazing Mosaic future projects begin. All the best in the future, Lorna — 6.17.16”

Lorna was a brilliant staff member for Mosaic before moving to New York to work for a Broadway production company — she’s still doing much the same work today. Having only just started the journal, I won’t be able to record future “Mosaic dreams” in it — but it will be a place now for exclusively positive feelings that fuel the fortitude for new projects; a repository for confidence which, as we all know, requires a sustaining flame. Lorna’s gift is standing the test of time. And I thank her for all she gave, which is now re-gifting itself this holiday season, and beyond.

Thank you and stay close. Go to the website and like the new Facebook page. Oh, and one last tidbit: I’ve been offered three speaking engagements — two virtual and one live for late next fall — all from Jewish organizations, wouldn’t ya know!? They are welcoming me back to the fold with open arms! Along with an offer to partner from the Washington Arts Club — secular, traditional, hoping to diversify, and deeply respectful — and so I, in turn, am deeply appreciative.

Peace to you and have a very happy, healthy, restorative New Year.

Ari Roth is an award winning playwright, producer, and winner of the 2017 DC Mayor's Arts Award for Visionary Leadership.