A Founding Artistic Director Resigns
Ari Roth Public Statement, November 18, 2020
It is with profound sadness that I announce my resignation from Mosaic Theater Company of DC, the company I founded on December 24, 2014 to be a home for socially relevant drama and cross-cultural discourse. It is a company I still care very much for; a company that finds itself in the throes of cascading crises, like so many institutions; navigating valiantly, but — in Mosaic’s case — with depleting trust in the structural leadership role that a Founding Artistic Director can provide in a time like this; a radical inflection point, some might say; on the threshold of cultural revolution, others might.
Even as Mosaic has achieved so much over its short five-and-a-half seasons — three dozen powerful productions, nine of which were world premieres, with more in the pipeline; a wide range of public programs; a vibrant community from all walks of the city and beyond; uniquely situated on H Street in Northeast DC; with local, national, and international resonance — philosophical and practical differences about the direction of the company, along with escalating, long-running management tensions, have led to a leadership crisis, with no solution in sight.
Three weeks ago, I informed Mosaic’s Executive Committee of my intent to give six months’ notice (per my contract) and resign if we could not undo fundamental shifts to Mosaic’s internal culture that were summarily instituted while I went on a mandated sabbatical this summer. Because my misconceived re-entry was marked by a period of coldness to the point of shunning, I offered to step down as early as November 18, the morning after Mosaic’s next board meeting, if no alternate path forward was found. Indeed, no path has been found, and so I leave behind a theater that promised so much.
As you may recall, Mosaic was founded after pressures to quash the vital expression of the “Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival” forced the DC Jewish Community Center — the parent company of Theater J (which I had run for 18 years) — to cancel the Festival in November of 2014. I fought the decision and was dismissed a month later for “insubordination.” With a supportive letter of protest penned by Tony Kushner and Oskar Eustis, and signed by 120 artistic directors across the country, along with Israeli and Palestinian artists from the region writing on behalf of the festival’s vision and multiplicity of narratives, Mosaic was launched almost immediately to become a new home for the Festival, extending the theater’s mission to pursue a broader social justice agenda with a focus on racial equity and dialogue across difficult lines of difference. Mosaic achieved success early and in every season thanks to a hugely devoted board, staff, artists, and patrons, as we lived up to many of our aspirations, even while recognizing that there remained crucial work before us in becoming a truly equitable theater company.
Internally, we hit many of the benchmarks for our Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility (IDEA) goals, as formulated during a 3-year Diversity in Theatre Initiative (underwritten by the Weissberg Foundation). The work pushed us to enhance and maintain significant representation in all realms — governance, staffing, artistic, and audience composition. But a recent, year-long independent evaluation of the initiative recognized that, in the estimation of at least one former Mosaic staff member, there was “collateral damage along the way,” reflecting real human cost in working so hard on such difficult terrain.
Our internal tensions reflect that toll, and I take the lion’s share of responsibility for driving staff so hard — too hard, perhaps — building our Big Tent. That reflection, along with other personal shortcomings expressed in a Statement of Contrition I wrote at the beginning of October, was summoned after staff complaints of “White Supremacist Culture and Management Practices” exampled by the Managing Director and Artistic Director prompted the Executive Committee to ask me to go on sabbatical — a time to reflect, read, write, and process, through executive coaching, responses to a Leadership Circle Profile evaluation. The critique let me see that in driving as hard as I did, I could seem impervious to stress caused to others. Qualities like curiosity, compassion, and concern were not showing up, as some instead saw an arrogant executive who micromanages and over-programs. It was painful to realize that as my more generous impulses were obscured, the joy of collaboration was dissipated for others. In this respect, the sabbatical was eye-opening and cathartic.
It is only a shame I couldn’t have put these epiphanies to use upon returning. My Statement of Contrition went unacknowledged. Reconciliation was never broached. “Your words don’t matter; only actions,” it was suggested by the Managing Director. “People still think you’re an autocrat, and that you’re going to ruin everything, now that you’re back.” This was shared during our first one-on-one on my first day of re-entry.
Perhaps it is useful to put the temper of our times — and the fury of assorted staff — into a larger context, as this summer’s Racial Reckoning, following the murder of George Floyd, presented platforms for uprising, not just on American streets, but in many American cultural sectors. The nation-wide theater community — on Broadway, Off Broadway, and Regionally — experienced its own harsh calling-out, which awakened debate and posed critical, philosophical questions:
- If we were all said to “be swimming in a sea of racism,” how do we navigate the enormity of these churning, contaminated institutional waters? Do we — to switch elemental metaphors — BurnItDown, as was tweeted, so often with a trending hashtag? There has been a zeal to destroy, at least rhetorically, in the disrupting and dismantling of racism, and the damage has suggested something merciless in the revolt. Or is Creative Destruction the only way to grow back justly?
- More pointedly for theaters that have been trying to become a truer reflection of their diverse communities: How do we manifest a new Anti-Racist ethos meant to disrupt and reduce harm, while not abandoning foundational commitments to the values of IDEA that have been achieved, with palpable significance, and have created much more good than harm? Can a conjoining of paradigms [my emphasis] be made without disqualifying, or fatally denigrating, the work (and workers) that have come before, and that remain the binding agents in our crucial, multi-racial alliances and common cause?
These debates are healthy — and right up Mosaic’s alley — if convened with an open-heart and willingness to probe, with respect and forbearance, as we continue along a path of painful progress. But such has not been the environment I have experienced at Mosaic of late.
The blistering, undocumented staff complaints that came in the form of “demands” were seemingly patterned after the We See You White American Theater (WSYWAT) demands issued to the American theater community a week earlier. The WSYWAT document, and its subsequent 29 pages of more pointed demands — really strongly-worded recommendations — represent a comprehensive, specific set of critiques that I believe are worthy of real engagement and selective adoption, as a great many theaters, including Mosaic, have been working through them over the past months (I continue to participate in a national affinity space of “White Theatre-makers Acting On BIPOC Demands” sponsored by Theater Communications Group).
The staff complaints represented a mix of legitimate concern and more specious aggressions run through a White Supremacy Culture template castigating leadership for perpetuation of workplace Perfectionism, Urgency, Defensiveness, Worship of the Written Word, Either/Or Thinking, Power Hoarding, Individualism, I’m The Only One, Objectivity, Paternalism, and Tokenization. Complaints that resonated (for me and other board members) with more understandable staff frustration called for an end to excessive micromanagement, over-zealous editing, over-aggressive producing of too many shows, too many readings, and the need to enfranchise more agency to department heads. That is why my Statement of Contrition was written — To acknowledge.
We should have parsed through the issues together. But the Sabbatical terms prohibited any communication between me and the staff, board, artists, or donors, as the Managing Director and staff dismantled our Covid-impacted season (previously announced on May 1), cutting the budget in half (by over $1.2M), reassessing all producing priorities. The Managing Director and staff moved to redistribute power, reassign reporting roles, and flatten the artistic decision-making hierarchy (which last season, ironically, included a Readers Committee of 17 discussing over 80 quarter-finalist scripts for new season consideration, demonstrating my own non-siloed approach) into a newly-formed Programming Matrix Committee. All original selections for the 2021 Voices Festival, intentionally intercultural and programmed in order to work either in live or virtual performance — were thrown out in favor of an exclusively Palestinian-centered festival.
Beyond the reorganizing, program dismantling, and non-inclusive manner in which important new values were formulated, I am resigning because I have concluded that I cannot be a generative artist in the very theater that I founded. The creative obstacles — that include a contractual requirement that I receive board approval and vetting for any script of mine I might produce to ensure no “possible conflict of interest” — pertain to realization that my artistic expression has no place in a rapidly-evolving ethos committed to “seeding intersectional equity and oppression; abolishing a colonialist lens,” and — for the moment — exclusive “centering of BIPOC-authored and focused narratives to the elimination of countervailing voices or representations of ally-ship, including my new play (My Brief Affair With The Minister, and the Downfall of Our Administration) which was originally scheduled for a reading this winter during the Voices Festival — the play I was working to complete over sabbatical — but was canceled by staff during the summer.
I had hoped to play a meaningful role at Mosaic for years to come. It is this losing of an Artistic Home — as so many artists are experiencing around the world during this time of Covid — which pains me most. I am in ample company, I know. All the same, creative health and renewal are key, and I must seek it.
I offered to the board — and will continue — to remain open to returning to Mosaic in a leadership capacity if course correction and other internal changes are enacted. I would return to a warmer, more reflective Mosaic that accepts my continued learning trajectory, as we embark on new learning together. I would return to a theater that does away with this summer’s fixation of artistic-direction-by-committee, with its smashed artistic hierarchy and towering managerial authority embodied in one person; where a primary relationship between Artistic Director and funders is encouraged, not departmentally blocked; where committee participation and staff buy-in are always sought, as we intuit the meaning of the collective stories we are telling.
We were not far away from achieving our ideals. Mosaic remains well positioned to respond to this fraught and perilous moment — if only we could conjoin disruption and repair, bridging our philosophical divides with respect. New Hope Can Emerge.
I am personally inspired by the innovations emerging from this period of liminal, indeterminate production. We are all, in a sense, experiencing a difficult sabbatical. It is how productively we generate; how deeply we reflect; and how intentionally constructive our return from exile is that will determine our long-term health, as we reunite, differently configured, holding true to the best of our sustaining visions.
I have been through institutional leave-taking before, as I shared at the outset, and the separation did not breed downfall nor destruction, neither for the institution I left, nor for me, the individual doing the leaving. Theater J has stayed strong under two different artistic leaderships, and grown back to become vibrant once more, celebrating its 30th anniversary today with a gala event. I was invited to partake in the celebration and touched to be written back into the company history and interviewed for a gala tribute video. It is a meaningful reunion; a measured, mutually appreciative rapprochement.
I know the Mosaic leave-taking will be differently bittersweet. But Washington, DC has proven itself to be a cultural ecology that can absorb and nurture a new production company that splits from its progenitor. Even during a difficult economy or challenging environment, our experience points in the direction of long-term health. There is artistry to go around, teeming with diversity, and diverse audiences and spaces and support.
How will we tell the personal stories we need to share in public? Stay tuned. Stay supportive. We’ve created a beautiful, powerful collective expression in DC, adding to an age-old art-form. It is evolving. So are our institutions. And we are individuating, as we must. Maybe “third time’s a charm” for me. Maybe that’s the name of my new production company! For now, stay in touch through my rudimentary new site, soon to go live, and my new joint, Ari Roth Productions: Locally & Globally Grown, with updates on a new installment of the Voices From A Changing Middle East Festival which Mosaic has graciously allowed me to take with. As my daughter the doctor and yoga instructor might say, “Namaste.” Thank you for this privilege of helping to produce art that matters. I’ll be back in touch.