Theatre J’s Firing of Ari Roth Sparks Vocal Protest

by Jacob Coakley

On Dec. 18, Ari Roth was fired as artistic director of Theater J in Washington, D.C. His ousting generated a lot of controversy. In The New York Times, Michael Paulson wrote that “Under Mr. Roth’s leadership, Theater J has periodically produced work that has tested the Jewish Community Center [the parent organization of Theatre J],” and that Roth “had recently been reprimanded for speaking to the news media without permission, and that he believed the J.C.C. wanted him gone to eliminate a possible source of concern for donors during a coming capital campaign.” His firing led to a vociferous response from supporters, including an open letter from more than 90 artistic directors across the country and stated (in part) that “The actions of the JCC, in terminating him for blatantly political reasons, violate the principles of artistic freedom and free expression that have been at the heart of the non-profit theater movement for over half a century. Such actions undermine the freedom of us all.” More about the firing and the response, after the jump.

The Washington Post, reports that Roth said that his dismissal was “insubordination, violating what he called the JCC’s ‘communications protocol.’” The D.C. JCC released a statement that said Roth “will be stepping down as artistic director of Theater J,” adding that under his stewardship, the company “has become the premier Jewish theater in the country.” Peter Mark, writing for the Post, told of how Roth and Carole R. Zawatsky, chief executive officer of the DC Jewish Community Center who had started at the org in 2011, “had frequently clashed over some of Roth’s programming choices, particularly as they concerned the Middle East.” The theatre had downgraded a controversial play from a full production to a workshop production, and canceled Theater J’s Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival. Roth believes his comments to the media after the cancelation of the festival were what led to the charge of insubordination, which is what led to his firing. He will now try to create a new theatre troupe, the Mosiac Theater Company to put on the festival.

Following the Dec. 18 production of The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism, with a Key to the Scriptures by Tony Kushner at Theater J, cast members read a letter from Kushner that supported Roth and said, in part that “Ari was fired because he believes that a theatre company with a mission to explore Jewish themes and issues cannot acquiesce to a demand for uncritical acceptance of the positions of the Israeli government regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or to insistence on silence. Ari was fired because he refused to surrender to censorship. He was fired because he believes that freedom of speech and freedom of expression are both American values and Jewish values.”

Kushner’s wasn’t the only letter in support of Roth. An open letter signed by more than 90 artistic directors across the country in part read that “Ari Roth is a capable, brilliant and inspiring leader of the American non-profit theater. The actions of the JCC, in terminating him for blatantly political reasons, violate the principles of artistic freedom and free expression that have been at the heart of the non-profit theater movement for over half a century. Such actions undermine the freedom of us all.” Peter Marks of The Washington Post reports that Oscar Eustis, artistic director of The Public Theater in New York City and Tony Taccone, artistic director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley, Calif., spearheaded the letter, and quotes Eustis as saying that “The idea of an artistic director having to be afraid of being summarily dismissed for the content of their work creates an enormous chilling effect on the freedom of expression. Everybody understands this.” Press releases containing the names of the artistic directors who have signed the letters in support of Roth are below.

The theatre website HowlRound has a long interview with Roth about his dismissal and how he approached art and politics. “I can understand how the CEO felt that I had artistic and political agendas that were not in line with hers,” he told HowlRound. “So that was the bitter pill of the spring and the cancellation of that project informed the summer of trying to seek structural remediation … In the end the cancellation of the festival meant that I was going to move on. Again, I was hoping to move on in an elegant and orderly way after these world premieres were produced. There were other issues that precipitated the immediate firing, but why on earth would I have to vacate my office and remove everything and be escorted out by security guards within twenty-four hours. It was handled wrong.”

THE ARTISTIC DIRECTORS OF THE AMERICAN THEATER RELEASE LETTER IN OVERWHELMING SUPPORT OF OUSTED ARTISTIC DIRECTOR OF WASHINGTON JCC’S THEATER J ARI ROTH
LETTER CALLS JCC’S DECISION “BLATANTLY POLITICAL”

New York (December 22, 2014) – In an unprecedented display of solidarity among a giant consortium of the American theater’s artistic directors, an open letter has been issued in support of Ari Roth, following his recent dismissal from the Jewish Community Center in Washington, D.C., where he has served as Artistic Director of Theater J for the past 18 years. The letter, released earlier today represents the views of top theater brass from coast-to-coast, who believe that his dismissal was an act of politically motivated censorship in retaliation for Roth’s choice to produce and publicly defend challenging and provocative work. The letter has been signed by approximately 60 of the most prominent theatrical Artistic Directors in America, including André Bishop (Lincoln Center Theater), Anne Bogart (SITI Company), Art Rotch (Perseverance Theatre), Barry Edelstein (The Old Globe), Bill Rauch (Oregon Shakespeare Festival), BJ Jones (Northlight Theatre), Blanka Zizka (The Wilma Theater), Braden Abraham (Seattle Repertory Theatre), Brian Kulick (Classic Stage Company), Carey Perloff (American Conservatory Theater), Charles Newell (Court Theatre), Chay Yew (Victory Gardens Theater), Chris Coleman (Portland Center Stage), Christopher Ashley (La Jolla Playhouse), Curt Columbus (Trinity Repertory Company), Darko Tresnjak (Hartford Stage), David Herskovits (Target Margin Theater), David Ira Goldstein (Arizona Theatre Company), Emily Mann (McCarter Theatre), Eric Rosen (Kansas City Repertory Theatre), Gordon Edelstein (Long Wharf Theatre), Gregory Boyd (Alley Theatre), Howard Shalwitz (Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company), James Bundy (Yale Repertory Theatre), Jamil Khoury (Founding Artistic Director, Silk Road Rising), Jasson Minadakis (Marin Theatre Company), Jeffrey Horowitz (Theatre for a New Audience), Jeremy Cohen (The Playwrights' Center), Jim Houghton (Signature Theatre), Jim Nicola (New York Theatre Workshop), Joe Dowling (Guthrie Theater), Johanna Pfaelzer (New York Stage and Film), John Eisner (Lark Play Development Center), Jonathan Moscone (California Shakespeare Theater), Joseph Haj (PlayMakers Repertory Company), Kent Thompson (Denver Center Theatre Company), Kevin Moriarty (Dallas Theater Center), Kurt Beattie (ACT Theatre), Kwame Kwei-Armah (Center Stage), Les Waters (Actors Theatre of Louisville), Martha Lavey (Steppenwolf Theatre Company), Melanie Joseph (The Foundry Theatre), Mia Katigbak (National Asian American Theatre Company), Michael Kahn (Shakespeare Theatre Company), Michael Ritchie (Center Theatre Group), Michael John Garcés (Cornerstone Theater Company), Michelle Hensley (Ten Thousand Things), Moisés Kaufman (Tectonic Theater Project), Neil Pepe (Atlantic Theater Company), Oskar Eustis (The Public Theater), Patrick Dooley (Shotgun Players), Peter Brosius (Children's Theatre Company), Raelle Myrick-Hodges (Contemporary Arts Center), Ralph Peña (Ma-Yi Theater Company), Rob Melrose (Cutting Ball Theater), Robert Falls (Goodman Theatre), Sarah Benson (Soho Rep.), Susan Booth (Woodruff Arts Center), Tim Sanford (Playwrights Horizons), Tony Taccone (Berkeley Repertory Theatre), and Wendy Goldberg (National Playwrights Conference, Eugene O'Neill Theater Center).

The contents of the letter are follows:

“We, the undersigned Artistic Directors, are outraged by the action of the JCC in Washington DC in summarily dismissing the long-serving Artistic Director of Theater J, Ari Roth, on the morning of December 18.

”The stated cause was ‘insubordination’, and it is absolutely clear that Roth was fired because of the content of the work he has so thoughtfully and ably championed for the last two decades.

“Ari Roth is a capable, brilliant and inspiring leader of the American non-profit theater. The actions of the JCC, in terminating him for blatantly political reasons, violate the principles of artistic freedom and free expression that have been at the heart of the non-profit theater movement for over half a century. Such actions undermine the freedom of us all.

”A free people need a free art; debate, dissent, and conflict are at the heart of what makes theater work, and what makes democracy possible. We deplore the actions of the JCC, offer our complete support for Ari Roth, urge the American theater community to protest these events in all possible ways, and call upon the full Board of the JCC to renounce this action of the Executive Committee of the JCC.”

Artistic Directors who wish to add their names to this letter should email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Members of the general public who wish to show their support should email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

MORE ARTISTIC DIRECTORS OF THE AMERICAN THEATER SIGN LETTER IN OVERWHELMING SUPPORT OF OUSTED ARTISTIC DIRECTOR OF WASHINGTON JCC’S THEATER J ARI ROTH
LETTER CALLS JCC’S DECISION “BLATANTLY POLITICAL”

New York (December 23, 2014) – In a continued outpouring of solidarity among a giant consortium of the American theater’s artistic directors, more than 30 additional artistic directors have signed the open letter that was issued yesterday in support of Ari Roth, following his recent dismissal from the Jewish Community Center in Washington, D.C., where he has served as Artistic Director of Theater J for the past 18 years. The letter represents the views of nearly 100 top theater brass from coast-to-coast, who believe that his dismissal was an act of politically motivated censorship in retaliation for Roth’s choice to produce and publicly defend challenging and provocative work.In addition to the more than 60 names attached to the letter yesterday, the letter has now been signed by:

Amy Mueller (Playwrights Foundation), Blake Robison (Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park), Cecilia Copeland (New York Madness), David Y. Chack (ShPIeL – Performing Identity), Deborah Randall (Venus Theatre), Donald Jordan (Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre), Eric Schaeffer (Signature Theatre), Frank Licato (Hudson Theatre Works), Freddie Ashley (Actor’s Express Theatre), Ianthe Demos (One Year Lease), Joe Stackell (Mabou Mines), John Johnston (Classical Theatre Company), Jonathan Levi (Nine Circles Chamber Theatre), Joseph Ritsch (Rep Stage), Lameece Issaq (Noor Theatre), Mark Cuddy (Geva Theatre Center), Mark Jaster (Happenstance Theater), Mark Plesent (Working Theater), Matt Ripa (Doorway Arts Theatre Company), Michael Dove (Forum Theatre), Peter DuBois (Huntington Theatre Company), Philip Himberg (Sundance Institute), Randy Reyes (Mu Performing Arts), Ryan Rilette (Round House Theatre), Sabrina Mandell (Happenstance Theater), Sean Daniels (Merrimack Repertory Theatre), Sharon Fogarty (Mabou Mines), Terry Martin (WaterTower Theatre), Thembi Duncan (African Continuum Theatre Company), Todd Olson (Columbia Festival of the Arts), Ty Jones (The Classical Theatre of Harlem), Vinny Lancisi (Everyman Theatre), W. Thompson Prewitt (WSC Avant Bard), and William Carden (Ensemble Studio Theatre)

**

The above join the following who were announced yesterday: André Bishop (Lincoln Center Theater), Anne Bogart (SITI Company), Art Rotch (Perseverance Theatre), Barry Edelstein (The Old Globe), Bill Rauch (Oregon Shakespeare Festival), BJ Jones (Northlight Theatre), Blanka Zizka (The Wilma Theater), Braden Abraham (Seattle Repertory Theatre), Brian Kulick (Classic Stage Company), Carey Perloff (American Conservatory Theater), Charles Newell (Court Theatre), Chay Yew (Victory Gardens Theater), Chris Coleman (Portland Center Stage), Christopher Ashley (La Jolla Playhouse), Curt Columbus (Trinity Repertory Company), Darko Tresnjak (Hartford Stage), David Herskovits (Target Margin Theater), David Ira Goldstein (Arizona Theatre Company), Emily Mann (McCarter Theatre), Eric Rosen (Kansas City Repertory Theatre), Gordon Edelstein (Long Wharf Theatre), Gregory Boyd (Alley Theatre), Howard Shalwitz (Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company), James Bundy (Yale Repertory Theatre), Jamil Khoury (Founding Artistic Director, Silk Road Rising), Jasson Minadakis (Marin Theatre Company), Jeffrey Horowitz (Theatre for a New Audience), Jeremy Cohen (The Playwrights' Center), Jim Houghton (Signature Theatre), Jim Nicola (New York Theatre Workshop), Joe Dowling (Guthrie Theater), Johanna Pfaelzer (New York Stage and Film), John Eisner (Lark Play Development Center), Jonathan Moscone (California Shakespeare Theater), Joseph Haj (PlayMakers Repertory Company), Kent Thompson (Denver Center Theatre Company), Kevin Moriarty (Dallas Theater Center), Kurt Beattie (ACT Theatre), Kwame Kwei-Armah (Center Stage), Les Waters (Actors Theatre of Louisville), Martha Lavey (Steppenwolf Theatre Company), Melanie Joseph (The Foundry Theatre), Mia Katigbak (National Asian American Theatre Company), Michael Kahn (Shakespeare Theatre Company), Michael Ritchie (Center Theatre Group), Michael John Garcés (Cornerstone Theater Company), Michelle Hensley (Ten Thousand Things), Moisés Kaufman (Tectonic Theater Project), Neil Pepe (Atlantic Theater Company), Oskar Eustis (The Public Theater), Patrick Dooley (Shotgun Players), Peter Brosius (Children's Theatre Company), Raelle Myrick-Hodges (Contemporary Arts Center), Ralph Peña (Ma-Yi Theater Company), Rob Melrose (Cutting Ball Theater), Robert Falls (Goodman Theatre), Sarah Benson (Soho Rep.), Susan Booth (Woodruff Arts Center), Tim Sanford (Playwrights Horizons), Tony Taccone (Berkeley Repertory Theatre), and Wendy Goldberg (National Playwrights Conference, Eugene O'Neill Theater Center).

The contents of the letter are follows:

“We, the undersigned Artistic Directors, are outraged by the action of the JCC in Washington DC in summarily dismissing the long-serving Artistic Director of Theater J, Ari Roth, on the morning of December 18.

”The stated cause was ‘insubordination’, and it is absolutely clear that Roth was fired because of the content of the work he has so thoughtfully and ably championed for the last two decades.

”Ari Roth is a capable, brilliant and inspiring leader of the American non-profit theater. The actions of the JCC, in terminating him for blatantly political reasons, violate the principles of artistic freedom and free expression that have been at the heart of the non-profit theater movement for over half a century. Such actions undermine the freedom of us all.

”A free people need a free art; debate, dissent, and conflict are at the heart of what makes theater work, and what makes democracy possible. We deplore the actions of the JCC, offer our complete support for Ari Roth, urge the American theater community to protest these events in all possible ways, and call upon the full Board of the JCC to renounce this action of the Executive Committee of the JCC.”

Artistic Directors who wish to add their names to this letter should email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Members of the general public who wish to show their support should email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..