“I’ve got 10 things I’m not supposed to tell you but I’m going to tell you a couple,” says Ari Roth, Theater J’s artistic director, at the top of our interview. He brings up some influential parties that were pissed off by his company’s recent staging of the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv’s Return to Haifa, about an encounter between a Palestinian family and an Israeli one in the 1960s. It’s a truism that controversy sells, and Roth loves selling it.
Let me clarify: At Theater J, the in-house company of the D.C. Jewish Community Center, you’ll see lots of plays with controversial subject matter, and, from time to time, plays that generate lots of controversy. The two categories usually overlap. That focus, combined with Roth’s candor, makes him something of a gift to theater reporters.
But it’s also helped build his company’s stature in recent years. “The irony has been that in these recessionary times, in a concession to the realities of the ticket-buying market, we’ve made some of our more populist, call them safer, choices,” he says, referring to productions like this season’s The Odd Couple and The Chosen, which could both be considered part of the American Jewish cultural canon. “At the same time, we’ve been more publicly identified as the go-to theater for mixing it up, and for serious drama. That is a really great way of being able to have your cake and eat it, too.”
An incomplete recent history: Theater J drew some accusations of anti-Semitism when it hosted a reading of English playwright Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children in 2009. Its season opener last year, Something You Did, drew a nasty response from a public figure it fictionalized, the right-wing activist David Horowitz—which the theater spun into a dramatic reading of Horowitz’ letter and the playwright Willy Holtzman’s response. Return to Haifa spurred a productive public debate and a nastier private one.
The most infamous of Theater J’s recent controversies is also something of an outlier: the derailing last year of Imagining Madoff after Elie Wiesel threatened legal action over his fictionalized depiction in the play. The play will now open Theater J’s 2011-2012 season, albeit in a version that’s replaced Wiesel with another, wholly made-up character.
Imagining Madoff is a “fictional riff,” which is actually in contrast to Roth’s preferred mode of button-pushing, issues-oriented theater: As an artistic director—and more important, as a playwright—he prefers the fact-based play.
He comes from the Anna Deavere Smith school of verisimilitude, he says, employing methods of journalism in his playwriting. In the early 1990s he wrote Born Guilty, based on the book by the Austrian Jewish journalist Peter Sichrovsky about the children of Nazis. Sichrovsky was the protagonist of Roth’s play. When Sichrovsky became an ally of a far-right-wing Austrian political leader and Nazi apologist, Roth wrote a sequel exploring the revelation of Sichrovsky’s character. Sichrovsky came to the premiere of Roth’s Peter and the Wolf, and six weeks later resigned from the Austian Freedom Party.
Among his own plays, he’s had some success, but for the most part the ones he’s staged at Theater J haven’t been commercial or critical hits. “It was personally wounding to not be the savior of my own theater, to not be the golden boy writer of the theater that I so love and believe in,” he says. “I have a sense of being unrequited as a playwright…and a way to deal with that disappointment is just to be busy as shit as a producer. Making space to become healthy again as a playwright is something I seek to do for others, but it’s something I need to do for myself.”