Ari Roth says conflict is “the coin of the realm” in theater. So theater is naturally effective at giving voice to conflict regions.
“When you're in a conflict region and you care about the people involved. You want to see healing. You want to see repair. You want to see bridges being built,” Roth told KGOU World Views.
Roth is the founding artistic director of Mosaic Theatre in Washington, D.C. The theater’s mission is to be “independent, intercultural, entertaining and uncensored.”
Mosaic Theater also works with authors from conflict zones, such as the Palestinian play Return to Haifa. The play tells the story from opposing perspectives of Israelis and Palestinians following World War II.
“It became a kind of landmark where we could see the narratives of Palestinians and Israelis interwoven to create a very, very poignant drama,” Roth said.
In addition, Roth's theater presented the play I Shall Not Hate, based on the memoir by Gazan doctor Izzeldin Abuelaish, who delivered babies in an Israeli hospital. A father of eight, Dr. Abuelaish lost three of his daughters in a missile strike.
“But he remained close to Israeli colleagues [and] journalists, and remains to this day committed to a vision of coexistence in spite of the grief the loss,” Roth said.
In addition to being the nation’s capital, Roth calls Washington a local and regional capital as well. It’s a city that’s dealing with issues of segregation, revitalization and segregation.
“I think having your eyes open in an urban center means you're attuned to how politics and race identity all mash up with each other,” Roth said.
The Mosaic Theater is only two years old and it has a producing budget of $1.5 billion. Roth says he can transform these resources into a “big tent” for what he calls “politically urgent” representation.
“We need gender parity in the arts. We need representation from communities that have been written about, but never allowed to tell their own stories,” Roth said.
Roth was fired from Theater J in 2014 after serving as the artistic director at Theater J for 17 years. His dismissal drew protests from 120 playwrights. Roth’s termination has been called “an act of political censorship” by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner.
Ari Roth is the child of Holocaust refugees. After arriving in the United States, his father worked as an attorney and his mother as a psychologist. His mother’s experience of World War II included being saved by Christian nuns.
“You look at how people were compelled to step out of themselves and help save people. And so you're compelled to create work that saves souls and that's what I think theater can be a part of as well,” Roth said.
Ari Roth on his mother’s World War II refugee experience
In my mother's case, who was saved by righteous gentiles, my mother was in hiding in the Alps during World War II and she was saved by Christian peasants and later by nuns who sheltered her in a convent. So when good people have saved your life, you look back at the war and you look at the good. You look at how people were compelled to step out of themselves and help save people. And so you're compelled to create work that saves souls and that's what I think theater can be a part of as well.
Ari Roth on equal representation in the arts
Every actor needs to step out of their own skin, into the shoes and the skin of another. And so whether you're white or black, what have you, you should have the tool kit to transform into somebody else's being. A writer should have the empathy and the talent to step out of her or his own experience to write about others. You recognize that there is a thousand year old tradition of stepping out of one's own experience to render the life of another. Then you pay close attention to the people who have felt underrepresented, who have seen white male writers and white male directors dominate the interpretive landscape here, and they say it's time for us to be represented as well.
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Grillot: Ari Roth welcome to World Views.
Roth: Glad to be here.
Grillot: Can you tell us kind of what took you down the path toward owning and operating a theater and becoming a playwright. Because if I understand correctly your life didn't start out that way doing that. So tell us how you got your beginning.
Roth: I think I fell in love with theater because it was a kind of artistic expression. Artistic expression became something important for me in about 7th grade when I wrote my first song on the guitar. I think for a long time in high school I wanted to be a singer/songwriter. And by the time college came around all I was doing was writing songs in University of Michigan. Then I went away. My sophomore year abroad I was singing in a nightclub overlooking the old city of Jerusalem. I was studying at Hebrew University during the day and a political science major declared because I thought that I was interested in the world but I really wanted to express my thoughts about the world and about life through art, and art for me it was music. But I began to run up against the sort limitations in expressing myself through the pop songs through the sensitive songwriter or you know jazz inflected song. I couldn't do anything about being the child of Holocaust refugees in a pop song. It just I mean I didn't know Leonard Cohen's music well enough at the time to think oh there's a more complete or complex kind of songwriting I could be doing. All I knew is that Bob Dylan did what he did and Bruce Springsteen was doing what he did. And James Taylor did what he did. And I was nowhere near that good. And so I discovered poetry overseas and by the time I got back to Michigan registering late for creative writing courses, I couldn't get into poetry. I couldn't get into fiction writing I couldn't get in anywhere.
Roth: I wandered into a playwriting class where of course they accepted an extra student. I walked into a 400 level playwriting seminar where they were smoking cigarettes in class that's how cool it was back in 1980 and I never left. I fell in love with the playwriting teacher Milan Stitt. He was a Broadway playwright who had written "The Runner Stumbles." I knew about University of Michigan because it was the alma mater of Arthur Miller that happened to be the one play that I read as an eighth grader that touched me to my core I didn't think I loved theater but I loved that play. It reminded me of something about my own family again. My father was not a salesman. He was not an all-American kind of guy. He had a refugee story but something about that sadness of dreams not quite working out. And father son relationships struck me to its core. And when I found out that playwriting was a marriage of the disciplines of jurisprudence and behavior that seemed a perfect fusion for my own family background with a mother who is a psychologist, a father who was an attorney and it resonated deeply in me. And I thought this is the art form where I will be able to express myself. And so I never left. I was making up for lost time in the theater ever since.
Grillot: I love the story and how you remind us really the importance of or at least the reality of how art and politics go together. and you've said in other interviews that I've read about you that the theater is not just about entertainment it is about education.
Roth: So how do you know that I wouldn't use the word education so much as it's about engagement it's about engaging with the world and the art too. Plugs you into the issues that matter with the politics that define people's lives. And so you just get that intersection between quality of life and the reality of political strife and they're interwoven.
Grillot: Well clearly you've been dealing with a lot of issues and your current work at your theater, Mosaic Theatre, on things that matter issues policies that matter. You focus on diversity issues you focus on social justice issues. I mean it seems like you really treat your theater productions as a form of activism. Would that be accurate as a way to address some of the very difficult issues we face today in society like race and religion and certain kinds of identity?
Roth: Well I think that's right. I think look it's the nation's capital and it's both a very local, national and international capital all at once. The issues of race are confronted with you with the reality that you're living in both a segregated city, but where Mosaic is located, you're dealing with all of the politics of urban revitalization or what you would call gentrification and how that plays itself out in inspiring ways and then in really unjust ways. I mean I think having your eyes open in an urban center means you're attuned to how politics and race identity all mash up with each other.
Grillot: But this isn't without its controversies either is it. I mean some people of course obviously think they go to the theater to just be entertained and to not have to face potentially challenging issues.Then others that, for example just the issue of who can tell who's story. You know if somebody who writes a play about a certain story and how you cast.This has been made very public recently for example and like hiring transgendered actors to play transgendered people. So I mean How do you deal with that. How do you do. What are some of the controversies.
Roth: I think you try not you understand that there is no right way to deal with it and that the many different stakeholders in the argument all have a valid point to make. So the people who say hey theater is about transforming. Every actor needs to step out of their own skin into the shoes and the skin of another. And so whether you're white or black What have you. You should have the tool kit to transform into somebody else's being. A writer should have the empathy and the talent to step out of her or his own experience to write about others. You recognize that there is a thousands year old tradition of stepping out of one's own experience to render the life of another. Then you pay close attention to the people who have felt underrepresented who have seen white male writers and white male directors dominate the interpretive landscape here and they say it's time for us to be represented as well. We need gender parity in you know in the arts we need representation from communities that have been written about but never allowed to tell their own stories. And you recognize that that has validity and political urgency as well. So you try to create a big tent.
Roth: Mosaic was formed just two years ago but not as a small startup but as a midsize theater which is to say a $1.5 billion producing budget this year. So we could have a big tent and allow for multiple ways in which to represent some of these you know up to the moment portraits and sometimes we will have assist gendered playwright writing about transgender heroes other times and that's will happen next year we will have a transgender writer of color finally telling his/her own story because there's no one way to tell that story. There needs to be multiple ways of telling that story. We do that with race as well. African-American play sometimes directed by an African-American director. Other times a white director. Sensitive to so many issues and other experiential aspects of the play can do just as credible a job. There's no one right way to have that work done. What you need is not a scarcity of slots a scarcity of resources you need to see this as a theater of abundance where there are many different ways you can address the issue. Of course on the the Middle East agenda which is what actually occasioned the beginning of Mosaic theater I've been running a festival across town at Theater J, a project called Voices from a changing Middle East, and and there was not one way to tell one perspective to tell that story there are multiple perspectives multiple narratives that taken together form a complex interlacing and a tapestry of stories that you tell in order to make a broader statement.
Grillot: Well on this issue of Middle Eastern productions I mean you seem to I mean you spent time in the region something you studied abroad there you spent other time there. And I think many of us are unfamiliar with the plays and other productions that have been written by or produced by people from the Middle East or even about the Middle East but this seems to be what you've really you know spent a good deal of time on in your theater.
Roth: It was important for me to introduce to audiences in the United States the foremost Palestinian novella play. A work called Return to Haifa. Now it happened to be adapted by an Israeli writer who created a production that the Kamari theater of Tel Aviv produced using Palestinian and Israeli actors together. I brought that show over to the United States, commissioned it to be performed in both Arabic and in Hebrew with English subtitles, and it became a kind of landmark where we could see the narratives of Palestinians and Israelis interwoven to create a very very poignant drama that happened again with another controversial but acclaimed production called "The Admission" and a project we actually hoped to bring to Oklahoma University next season if all goes well there's a play called “I Shall Not Hate” based on the memoir of a Gazan doctor Izzeldin Abuelaish. Lived in Gaza, a father of eight children, delivers babies in Israel Ateles Shamir hospital and he suffered a wrenching tragedy during the Gaza War where he lost three of his daughters. But to a missile but he remained close to Israeli colleagues journalists and remains to this day committed to a vision of coexistence. In spite of the grief and the loss and so “I Shall Not Hate” is also performed in Arabic and Hebrew is really one of the most moving Chronicles you'll ever see for the stage. So I'm really happy that we've been given the opportunity the freedom to program even when it may be controversial in some people's minds to give both narratives equal weight. We feel it's vital.
Grillot: It sounds like then that the purpose of your theater is it goes beyond just putting on a production there are bringing people together to build better relations to build community that there's like even a purpose even greater and higher than you know producing a play.
Roth: I mean I certainly believe that plays need to be entertaining and they need to be riveting and they need to work. And conflict is the coin of the realm when it comes to theater. So it's natural that theater would be effective if it's dealing with conflict regions. Now when you're in a conflict region and you care about the people involved you want to see healing. You want to see repair you want to see bridges being built so that the divides that create this enmity will shrink and that people can come closer together and theater really works to humanize to create awareness and empathy. And those are the recipes for creating something closer to harmony and moving away from you know wrenching polarization that we're all feeling right now.
Grillot: Well I have to kind of end on this note because I read and then you mentioned earlier in this discussion that your parents are refugees from Germany. How does this reflect for you now?
Roth: I think being the child of refugees from the Holocaust who were compelled to go into the healing professions. And in my mother's case who were saved by righteous gentiles. Right. My mother was in hiding in the Alps during World War II and she was saved by Christian peasants and later by nuns who sheltered her in a convent. So when people good people have saved your life you look back at the war and you look at the good. You look at how people were compelled to step out of themselves and help save people. And so you're compelled to create work that saves souls and that's what I think theater can be a part of as well.
Roth: Ari Roth, thank you so much for being here today and sharing your story and we look forward to hearing more about your theater in the future.
Roth: Thank you so much
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