Ari Roth, whose Mosaic Theater Company was one of D.C.’s best theaters for new Black plays, queer works, Israeli works, and Arab works. One former staffer said Roth’s ‘leadership style embodied white supremacist culture.’

Andre Chung for The Washington Post via Getty Images

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The Toxic Gentleness of the American Theater

Woke Bolsheviks are destroying a once-great art form from within

Clayton Fox
September 06, 2023
Ari Roth, whose Mosaic Theater Company was one of D.C.’s best theaters for new Black plays, queer works, Israeli works, and Arab works. One former staffer said Roth’s ‘leadership style embodied white supremacist culture.’

Andre Chung for The Washington Post via Getty Images

I recently saw a new musical at Chicago’s famed Lookingglass Theater, Lucy and Charlie’s Honeymoon, about two young Asian Americans who run off together, searching for trouble, challenging the narrative that they need to be responsible and studious. The music was great, as were the performances. The cast—led by Aurora Adachi-Winter as Lucy and Matthew C. Yee, who also wrote the show, as Charlie, was undeniably special.

But about every 15 minutes, the script would suddenly veer into moralizing about policing, or stereotypes, or revenge porn. For example, the “security officer” who becomes a central part of the story proudly proclaims that their town has supplanted traditional police with “self-policing” and does so in a manner which suggests the line ought to receive supportive applause. It did. Each time one of these “correct” lines was uttered, what ought to have been a fun night at the theater, watching a legitimately creative new take on an old story, became stale and uncomfortable. One wanted to shout, Who is making you do this? Blink once if you need help. Just weeks later, Lookingglass announced that it was pausing all production until late spring 2024, and laying off about half of its staff. Similar stories can be found across the industry.

Things have been changing for a long time now, but the changes were accelerated by the pandemic, with the power shifting heavily in favor of ambitious, angry, younger members of the community. The pandemic shut America’s theater doors. Then, while everyone was on Zoom trying to figure out how the show would go on, the principles of the Black Lives Matter movement—including the idea that “show must go on” culture is “driven by fear” and disproportionately harms nonwhite artists—became the new religion. If theaters couldn’t put on shows, they could certainly change their mission statements, promise to cull white staff and creatives to achieve diversity quotas, and scare off any wrong thinkers who might still be lingering in the wings, including unvaccinated artists.

Much of the revolution has been led by youthful millennial Bolsheviks with little to no experience starting a theater, producing a play, or fundraising at scale. (Forget about focusing a light, sewing a dress, or building a backdrop.) What they do have are extremely strict ideas about how to enact “justice” in their industry, a desire to maintain a bourgeois lifestyle in a profession that requires some degree of lack, and a mission to fundamentally change the purpose of theater, from being dedicated to the goal of sharing some transcendence with their audience to making everyone involved in the production feel “seen.” They are proponents of what I call “toxic gentleness.” The reality now, as one perceptive theater-maker pointed out to Tablet, is that most of the younger generation coming up in the industry are far more interested in activism than art. The elders, meanwhile, have been under such unrelenting pressure to prove their loyalty to the cause of progressive goodness that they would rather retire than attempt to guide the kinderlach on their mission. And many have.

As a result, the American theater is in the process of committing suicide by a thousand cuts. Playwrights are pulling the rights to their shows over all manner of perceived shortcomings, sometimes while the show is already in rehearsal, forcing theater leadership to pay actors even if they can’t sell tickets. To get a play produced by a major theater is an extremely rare accomplishment, so the fact that playwrights are willing to cancel their own shows in order to further “the cause” lends credence to the theory that they are primarily activists, not artists. Artists know the most important thing is to share their work with an audience. “The play’s the thing,” some white guy once said. For activists, however, the show is secondary to the revolution.

Once capable of producing moments of explosive, life-giving humanity, the American theater is now a confused, flattened, and fearful shadow of its former self, teeming with excuses and finger-pointing and on the verge of bankruptcy. It has been hollowed out by mismanagement, grim economic realities, a lobotomized audience, and in recent years, a sometimes noble and sometimes disastrous attempt to right past wrongs by enacting current wrongs, following the method of Ibram X. Kendi. In this way, it is the perfect microcosm of our entire culture.

As always, the story starts with money. While Broadway gets most of the big press, the American theater world is much larger, encompassing a “regional” theater movement unlike any in the history of the world. (Well, except perhaps ancient Greece.) Regional theaters like Minneapolis’ Guthrie, Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum, Atlanta’s Alliance, and Chicago’s Goodman have spent decades developing plays and talent and creating an ecosystem of unprecedented opportunity.

When the Group Theater or the Steppenwolf kids or the Atlantic kids or Wynn Handman at the American Place, or Ellen Stewart at La MaMa in the East Village started their outfits, they understood themselves to be part of a tradition of suffering: of hanging the lights and sweeping the stage and cleaning the toilets, and then and only then getting onstage and hoping against hope that people would show up. The idea that theater was a business that could provide a safe bourgeois lifestyle to its participants was not on the radar. In fact, when Zelda Fichandler, founder of Arena Stage and godmother of the regional theater movement, started Arena Stage, she says, “we scraped the chewing gum off the seats, hung the lights, laid the carpet, painted the walls, scrubbed the johns, and on a budget of $800 a week set out to achieve our goals.”

But her success, and that of the theaters she inspired, intersected with the boom years of the Pax Americana, attracting wealthy donors who were happy to give—with strings attached. “We added the concept of associate directors and literary managers as the theaters grew and artistic directors got still more involved in fundraising and the like; we created development departments … and, in general, we poured a lot of money away from art and into making more money in order to make art.” As David Mamet told Tablet last year, “I’ve started a couple theaters. Had the time of my life. And at some point if a theater is successful the bean counters come in and … in any business there’s a situation where the bean counter drives the other guy [the artist] out and that’s what happened in the regional theater.”

The theaters built fancy new spaces and hired more administrators and their executive leadership got bigger and bigger paychecks. Eventually all the kids coming out of NYU and Northwestern and all the theater industrial complex boot camps started thinking about getting a piece of that pie.

No one told them that there weren’t enough jobs to go around, and that the fancy new buildings and marketing budgets were all a mirage; that right under the surface, theater was still a terrible business, and it was only the donors who kept the lights on. There is no serious allocation of public money for the arts in the United States. In 2019, the total budget of the National Endowment for the Arts was $155 million. That’s 47 cents per American allocated by the federal government for the arts. Approximately 28% of that is allocated to theater. So that’s $43 million divided by 1,953 theaters. $22,017 per theater. There are also no jobs.

Just using numbers from the Actors Equity Association (which doesn’t account for nonunion workers), in 2018-19, out of a membership of 51,938, only 19,369 were employed for an average of 17 weeks. So if you’re a theater actor, chances are, you’re not going to work at all, and if you do, you might work for one-third of the year. The same more or less goes for designers, writers, directors, and aspiring administrators. The industry cannot support tens of thousands of energetic young “theater professionals.” And so there is an entire generation primed to direct their rage at the system they’d always wanted to join.

Enter “We See You White American Theater.” On June 8, 2020, this organization of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) artists released an introductory letter, stating:

“We have watched you exploit us, shame us, diminish us, and exclude us. We see you. We have always seen you. And now you will see us … We will wrap the least privileged among us in protection, and fearlessly share our many truths. About theaters, executive leaders, critics, casting directors, agents, unions, commercial producers, universities, and training programs. You are all a part of this house of cards built on white fragility and supremacy. And this is a house that will not stand.”

The letter was signed by stars including Tony winner Cynthia Erivo, Emmy winner Billy Porter, Golden Globe winner Sandra Oh, Oscar winner Viola Davis, and many more.

On July 8, 2020, WSYWAT released a 30-page “BIPOC Demands For White American Theater.” The list, which I highly recommend reading in full, perfectly demonstrates not only the revolution in the theater but also gives incredible insight into the novel application of critical race theory as expressed in workplace anti-racism practices. It includes a series of truly extraordinary demands, including quotas for every position in the theater and its adjacent industries, requiring that over 50% of all positions be filled with nonwhite people on account of the fact that whites only comprise “11.5% of the global population.” Watch out kulaks! The document also suggests, among other things, that asking visiting artists to engage with donors at a fundraiser is akin to slavery, and that the rehearsal schedules must be reduced because, “for Indigenous artists and other peoples recovering from genocide, these practices are extremely detrimental.”

The implication, of course, is that in addition to the theater’s economic dysfunctions, it is also a brutally racist institution. And to be sure, there are some racially insensitive assholes in the industry. An article in the Los Angeles Times chronicles 40 different Black artists’ experiences dealing with racism in the theater, detailing some awful stuff, and some that’s just clueless. Here are four more similar stories in The New York Times.

But many disagree. “It’s ludicrous,” says Broadway actor Clifton Duncan, who is Black, and now persona non grata in the business due to his public advocacy for keeping theaters open during COVID and opposition to vaccine mandates. “There has never been one moment where I’ve felt excluded or discriminated against in theater, not once, and to see these people pretend, and I’m just going to say that they’re pretending, that they have been excluded or locked out of the industry somehow, I’m calling bullshit.”

Theaters across the country jumped over one another trying to acquiesce to the WSYWAT list of demands, lest they be accused of racism. Some of the biggest advocates for nonwhite artists in the country bent over backwards to publish letters apologizing for their “blind spots.” And to be clear, the large part of the youthful Bolsheviks are white. Take Theater J in Washington, D.C., the largest and most successful Jewish theater in the country. Their “values” page (using, of course, the language of tikkun olam) is entirely devoted to anti-racism. Their commitments include “producing more plays that explore the intersections of Jewish and BIPOC lives,” requiring all employees (including artists) to “complete an anti-racism training/orientation prior to the commencement of their work,” and creating “a set of intervention protocols” for when audience members (read: annoying old Jews) make problematic comments at talkbacks after a show. They also write, “We’re immensely grateful to WeSeeYouWAT for their list of Demands for White American Theater.”

Theater J used to be known for the bold, Talmudic zestiness of its talkback program. The person responsible for this was former Artistic Director Ari Roth, known for being a relentless producer of new works, an amazing fundraiser, and also making lots of stupid faux pas. The story of his departure from the company he founded after being fired at Theater J, Mosaic Theater Company, is somewhat illuminating.

Five years into his new project at Mosaic, in June 2020, Ari’s staff read him and his producing partner Serge Seiden a letter saying that as “Cis White Male leadership” they were “damag[ing] the mental health of the staff,” “bullying,” making staff feel “dehumanized, dispensable, and disempowered,” and creating an environment “where money is put above human beings.” The mostly youthful staffers went on to say they wanted the best for Mosaic and “a safe environment free of white supremacist culture.” One staffer, who spoke with Tablet anonymously, said that they didn’t think Ari was a racist per se, just that his leadership style embodied white supremacist culture (as described by white artist educator Tema Okun). For example, “paternalism,” a quality of white supremacy, is defined as: “those with power think they are capable of making decisions for and in the interests of those without power”—otherwise known as being a CEO, which Ari was.

Ari, who was a mentee of Zelda Fichandler, isn’t good at giving up control. He’s old school in every way: artistically (work 16 hours if that’s what it takes), administratively (he’s the boss), politically (a classical left-liberal, last of his kind). I spent extensive time a few years ago interviewing many of Ari’s colleagues in the D.C. theater community, trying to figure out whether or not he was the horrible abusive monster some had intimated. He’s not, though he has certainly said things to coworkers he shouldn’t have and was not always very sensitive to burning out his staff in pursuit of his ambitious and sometimes impossible visions. What he is, as described by his friend, the Black D.C. cultural icon, poet, professor, and radio host E. Ethelbert Miller, is Jewish, chutzpadik Jewish. “When I saw people concerned about Ari’s managing style, you know Ari has a very Jewish personality. And if you’re not accustomed to that you are going to have a problem … It’s Lenny, it’s Lenny Bruce.”

For that reason, over the summer of 2020, Ari was sent on a mandatory sabbatical by the board of the theater he created to reflect on his leadership style and learn the lingo of the revolution. When he returned, he discovered that the staff, who definitely had a problem with Lenny Bruce, had essentially voted to neuter his role as leader.

What Ari built at Mosaic was one of D.C.’s best theaters for new Black plays, as well as queer works, Israeli works, and Arab works. By my count, 18 out of the first 34 productions were by writers of color, though only nine by women. Fourteen were directed by artists of color. Out of 157 total roles cast, 98, or 62.4%, were played by actors of color—the national average in union productions is 23.3%.

Serge Seiden, Ari’s white Jewish co-founder, frequent sparring partner, and managing director, is still employed at Mosaic and was not required to take a sabbatical in 2020. The reason for this tells you more about the effect of the woke revolution than anything else I could cite. Former staff described Serge as “a really solid human being,” “like a teddy bear as a human [who] really cares and will cry in front of you because he wants so badly to do it right.” In short, he’s sympathetic. Open. Not a self-described “peacock” like Ari.

The deeper change in the theater community, upstream of the political demands (which do affect the quality of scripts being produced), upstream of the debate over which words and/or actions need to be excised from old plays in order to meet Ingsoc’s standards, is the ascendance of a culture of toxic gentleness. The current crop of theater professionals, my peers, truly are snowflakes. And this is incompatible with the creation of dramatic art.

Even when I was at NYU (class of 2011), I had many classmates who felt that criticism of their work was like “being attacked.” Directors in America’s top MFA programs are being taught how not to “colonize” their actors’ bodies while directing them. Actors refuse to play certain roles, after being cast, because they discover “triggering” things in the script, or they ask to be allowed not to carry out certain stage directions if they conflict with their activist concerns about how certain types of people need to be perceived. Younger actors frequently take “mental health” days and let their understudies go on while their 60- and 70-year-old colleagues shake their heads in disbelief. As one veteran said to me, he lives for this, and these kids don’t seem to. “They work to live, they don’t live to work.”

The current crop of theater professionals, my peers, truly are snowflakes. And this is incompatible with the creation of dramatic art.

In rehearsal rooms, people are “walking on eggshells” trying not to accidentally offend anyone by disagreeing with an interpretation of a scene, a line, a moment. Accusations of “racism” get thrown around by actors who don’t like directing choices, even when the evidence is nonexistent or later proven false. In an attempt to weed out real abusive scumbags—and no doubt there have been many—all danger, all tension, all sex, has been sucked out of the room in favor of “safety.” The result is a theater that is flat. So it’s no surprise that even three years after lockdowns, theaters are hemorrhaging cash.

While theater as we conceive of it was invented by the Greeks in their great outdoor amphitheaters, in dialogue with gods, and deepened by verbose Englishmen in dialogue with kings, it was in the United States over the past 70 years that the theater took on its most elastic and vital form. In the United States, theater became the place where a fiercely independent people got to scream at the gods, tell the kings to go fuck themselves, and examine their own contradictions, hypocrisies, and lusts. Theater in America was infused with an unprecedented mélange of influences, buoyed by a curious middle class, and urged beyond its limits by the chutzpah of a nation that believed anything was possible and that limits were for suckers.

I wish my generation aspired to live up to this inheritance. But to make this kind of theater requires a willingness to engage in uncomfortable conversations, to be held to impossible standards, and to go home some days feeling awful. What’s the best play you ever saw? Something that genuinely made your stomach turn? That genuinely deserved a standing ovation? That melted your face off with palpable human truths uttered only meters away? You can tell me it’s something you’ve seen in the last seven years, since things got so stiflingly cautious, but I won’t believe you.

The legendary Broadway director Arthur Penn was interviewed in the 1990s about the state of the theater. He described going to a very mediocre professional production. Afterward he asks the director why a particular part in the play had been given to a particular actor:

‘He’s a great guy,’ was the response. ‘Prince of a fellow.’ Well, perhaps, but send him home to be a prince to his wife and children; he is a shattering mediocrity. But nice and easy counts for far too much these days. Another director told me—proudly—that he had just completed his third play in which there wasn’t one difficult player; not one distraction; not one argument. Can I add that these were among the most boring plays of our time? … All great work comes to us through various forms of friction … I keep hearing Kim Stanley was difficult. Yes she was: in the best sense of the word. She questioned everything; nailed everything down; got answers; motivated everyone to work at her demonically high standard … Is that difficult? Bring more of them on. Is Dustin Hoffman difficult? You bet. He wants it right; he wants everything right and that means you and that means me. I find it exhilarating, but in our current culture, they would prefer someone who arrived on time, shared pictures of the family, hugged everyone and reminded them of how blessed he is to be in a play, and who does whatever the director asks of him.

Perhaps it’s time for something new. Something nice and safe and communal with horizontal decision-making. Something gentle and inoffensive to the point that it might be called therapy, rather than drama.

In fact, one of Minneapolis’ famed Black theaters, Penumbra, is changing their name to the Penumbra Center for Racial Healing and expanding their mission. They wish to be a place “where the community is called in to learn, rejuvenate, and stand up in support of racial equity. The environment we envision is peaceful, inspiring, and gently provocative, providing moments of deep reflection and respite as visitors navigate the campus.”

On the other hand, says, Clifton Duncan, some of his greatest experiences in the theater were the roughest around the edges, working with no-bullshit, demanding artists like Michael Mayer and Susan Stroman—two directors that certainly know how to get audiences in the seats. “If we keep kowtowing to the most whiny, bitchy, insecure, weepy people,” says Duncan, “then that’s the level we’re going to be playing to.”

Clayton Fox writes Tablet’s daily newsletter, The Scroll, alongside Sean Cooper and Jacob Siegel. He has written independently for Tablet, Real Clear Investigations, Brownstone Institute, American Theatre magazine, Los Angeles Magazine and The American Conservative. Follow him on Twitter @clayfoxwriter