Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Good Morning

Sunlight. Amazing.

How's it going? I've been keeping track of the My Name Is Rachel Corrie controversy up at New York Theatre Workshop as best I can through George and Garret's vigilant blogging. The whole circus seems to have run its course for the moment -- which has only given way to a double-bitter undertow: "Why aren't people in the streets protesting the Machine!" I don't know. My copy of the play was supposed to arrive sometime last week, but alas. I'd like to think this debate could happen without a serious examination of the play in question (there's plenty to chew on pure principle) but in the meantime, people are citing the play's accumulated praise and its plot/content summary to make their case. And I think we're missing something.

On the surface, it would seem the play's absence has done more to stoke community-wide discussion than its presence ever could. That's an unfair conclusion, of course, since we'll never know what its regularly-scheduled NYC debut would have accomplished -- and I don't think MNIRC's criticism-to-date gives us any clue to how NYC audiences will react. I've seen too many plays rock the world only to be panned out of spite in NYC. Sorry, it's true. And now ... people are prepared to be edified out of spite! If you haven't read Walter Davis's essay, please do. And then try to add another layer of meta-rage, if you can. I can't.

But something else bothers me about the whole catastrophe, something quite apart from the blunt injustice of NYTW's original decision. I'm terrified that we (as artists, as activists, as Americans) can only process injustice through a first amendment filter. Rather than expand the definition of censorship to include the present disaster, I'm going to let censorship and free speech remain issues of the State. For the moment. Here are the other questions I have:
  1. Are free speech battles the only ones we're confident we can win?
    1. Because both the American Left and Right have a common stake in its sustenance -- meaning there's a good chance we'll win?
  2. Do we believe the first amendment provides the axis for every other human right we can imagine? (would like to explore this at length, regardless)
  3. Are we over-eager for free speech battles because they lend themselves to instantaneous courtroom dramas in our heads?
  4. Is it possible that Nicola's crime is something categorically different from censorship? Something, possibly, much worse?
  5. If I wrote something nasty on this blog and then someone retaliated by impaling my dog with a rusty lawn dart, would that be an assault on my freedom of speech? Is it possible that this would-be dog-killer was actually responding very specifically to the content of my blog, not my right to write it?
I'm reminded of a story my mom used to tell me. One of her seminary professors pointed out that the special stigma attached to Lust was absent for the other Deadly Sins. Turns out, we have St. Augustine to thank for that. But he put it to my mom's class like this:

"If Augustine had obsessed over Greed the way he obsessed over Lust, you'd have to buy your Wall Street Journal in a brown paper bag. And Hustler would be available on every street corner."

I think about that and I wonder if the artistic temperament is prone to a similar fixation -- not w/r/t Lust of course, but a tendency to conflate all sins with some form of censorship.


Just before the MNiRC scandal started to bloom, I got an e-mail from PJ asking if I'd like to resume my part as Eric Harris in columbinus. At NYTW. I was ecstatic at first, but too bogged down in Elsinore to notice. Rehearsals were to start today -- April 11. 36 hours after closing Hamlet. Not much time to orchestrate a move from DC to NYC, but I went to work. I had to back out of The Monument at Theatre Alliance. So I called Jeremy (about six weeks before rehearsals were to start at H Street) and told him the story.

In the intervening weeks, he and I tried to get a more definitive confirmation from NYTW's casting folk and from PJ. And as late as two weeks ago, the offer still stood. Before offering my part in The Monument to another actor, Jeremy and I made one last round of calls to PJ & Co. to confirm that a) the project was still going ahead and b) I was still involved. After one final assurance from PJ that this was the case ... Jeremy offered my part to someone else. And then a couple days later PJ offered my part to someone else. Somewhere in the middle, I opened Hamlet. And now that it's over, I can finally come up for air and look at everything that's happened.

Since I suddenly have a lot of free time.

To PJ's credit, he did "own" the choice. Sure, he cited pressure from the NYTW staff to find a Name for the lead. After all, NYTW has a lot riding on their next show. But PJ made it clear that this was his choice at the end of the day. So if anyone wonders why I'm not appearing in either The Monument or columbinus as previously announced, that's why. I've had to explain this whole story to a lot of people in the past couple weeks; better to tell the rest of you now.

Here's what I'm stuck with: I gave up a show for nothing. Two shows, actually, since I had to bow out of The Violet Hour last fall just to come to NYTW and re-audition for my part in a backer's presentation. So that's two lead parts and four months of work -- half of which I gave up willingly and the other half ... well, what do you call that? It's not censorship.

My point. From the outside, the last-minute MNiRC cancellation looks like a clear-cut censorship issue. And I can certainly understand why Viner and Rickman (as writers) feel that way. But as an actor dealing with my own last-minute cancellation, I'm too overwhelmed with trying to re-arrange my life for the next three months. So it's not my freedom of expression that's been violated. It's my trust. I can make art in a police state. We've been doing that since 9/11, right? Or trying to. Or failing that, we have a gazillion stories to inform the battle against censorship. But I can't make art with artists I don't trust. And there's no court for this particular crime.

For anyone who's interested, columbinus is not an attempt to Romanize that tragedy. I've spent the better part of three years developing the play and, frankly, scrupulous contextualization was a huge part of that. In the end, I believe we made something more challenging (and honest) than Bowling for Columbine ... and something more daring (and honest) than, say, Elephant or Bingo Boys. I wish I could be there to share it. But since everyone's eager to pounce on NYTW's next move -- almost completely certain that it'll be a bad one -- I didn't want to say anything without having the time to actually join the discussion. Now that my show's over, I can.

More later ...


Amy E. said...

I was wondering just what the hell had happened and why I didn't see your name in an article that I read...

Well, I see no reason to see the show now... except that I heart Jim Flanagan.

But seriously... I don't see how you could POSSIBLY be replaced? Ugh. Jesus I hate people sometimes.

The Playgoer said...

I am fascinated by your account of the Columbinus pre-production schedule, and am linking to this over at Playgoer. If I'm misreading anything, will you please comment there to set the record straight?

Alison Croggon said...

It's a good point you're making, Articactor. And it's linked to the RC question, if not the same. Both stoushes are, in the end, about art being respected for its own sake, as a cultural expression that matters in a number of ways. It seems that in different ways NYTW has scant respect; looking for a "name" instead of the artist who has helped to create the show (it's common enough, but it always shocks me) is a move which demonstrates a certain cynicism, of a piece with the airbrushing of public perceptions of radicalism through careful PR. Both of course are justified by the decision makers in terms of box office, but both beg the question.

jordan said...

according to nytw's website, single tickets for columbinus go on sale april 20th...

a gal said...

First off…congratulations and a huge thanks for your incisive Hamlet.

Segue into moral action versus “words..words..words” and your question on the proclivity for first amendment scuffles. Blasphemous as it may sound to us theatre rats who survive on the written and spoken word, the truth is we don't risk as much in this country when we engage in rhetorical battles over freedom of speech as we might in other, more visceral skirmishes. However self-satisfying it is to align ourselves with censorship issues, it is also so much easier/safer to craft sound bites then be a freedom rider securing the right to vote against the angry mobs, a Ghandi committing one’s body to fasting, a soldier dodging the next suicide bomber, an activist being mowed down by the opposition’s advancing vehicle, or an angel of mercy feeding and healing the suffering third world masses. It’s not that “freedom of speech” is an axis for every other human rights issue so much as it is easier to “unpack your heart with words” about the right to spout those words than actually get one’s hands dirty in other grittier human rights issues, and so this branch of activism attracts a broader segment of the population yearning to make a mark on the world. Not that speech issues aren't extremely important to me, but other sacrifices/suffering certainly put it all in perspective.

And on a closing note, anyone who saw you in columbinus knows what a travesty of moral decency has been committed.

--a gal

Wookie said...

I wholeheartedly agree that there is a proclivity in this society to equate morality with constitutionality. Furthermore because the 1st and 2nd amendments are the ones we are most familiar with, and the latter is viewed as a call to vitriolic debate rather than as a protective device, most sins are seen as an infringement of 1st amendment rights. I wonder whether people view rights as negative or positive? i.e. is the right to free speech simply the guarantee that no one is allowed to overtly prohibit me from expressing my opinions (a negative right), or is it the guarantee that my opinions be published in some form (a positive right). A negative right to life yields the result that you can't permissibly kill me. A positive right to life yields the result that I'm entitled to the resources of others in order to keep me alive. IMHO, the Consitution was not intended to ascribe positive rights. However, perhaps it has grown to be considered that way. I will cease from waxing philosophical now and get back to work.

mldouglass said...

As someone who is currently straddling work at Round House and Theater Alliance, I am just plain sad about what has transpired with columbinus. I am honestly baffled and utterly disappointed by PJ's decision. I would think (and it was obvious to me as I watched the production)that the script is infused with your heart and soul. It will be a magnificent challenge for any actor to capture Eric the way you did. And to also lose you from The Monument is only salt in the wound. Obviously, neither production will be the same without you.

That being said, I am excited for Jimmy Flanagan and also very much admire the work of Alexander Strain. I wish the best for both of them, but felt a need to express my disappointment about all of this.

I think it will not be too long before you rock the stage again(hopefully while accepting the award at HH on Monday)!

Anonymous said...

Here's what's so disturbing about the casting thing. It can't be that this director had NO idea the Powers That Be at NYTW didn't have their own opinions about the casting. Is it really so difficult to either stand your ground or cave BEFORE you cause someone to lose work because you gave them every reason to believe that their being cast was a done deal?

The story would bother me a lot just on it's own, but the worst of it is, this is not the first time I've come across this. Not with the same director or company, and it doesn't happen all the time, but it happens. Right here in our own backyard.

your former dad said...

Your work in Columbinus was some of the best acting I have ever seen in this area. To take you out of it is just plain wrong. And the fact that you were a key contributor in the development of it is especially galling. Sorry I missed your Hamlet. I don't go to see much theatre, as I am almost always disapointed. But I really wanted to see your M. Dane.

Anonymous said...

WRONG, WRONG, WRONG!!! I am so sorry that you had to face the ugly reality of the theatre world. I truly hope you win on Monday!! Goodluck and DAMN THE MAN!

Anonymous said...

This can be such a hateful and conniving business. I think that's why I like DC. . . It seems that NYC brings out the worst and most vial of characteristics. Suddenly, people think the theare denizens of the ballpark they played in aren't worthy of the leap they somehow made. It seems almost a badge of honor to go to New York and then turn your back on the people that got you there. I am sorry you took such a hit.

Steve Reynolds said...

Karl: Sorry to hear about the columbinus casting. Totally unfair. Just know how enormously proud we at Witt Theatre are of you and everything you've accomplished in the short 5 years you've been out. There will be much more good to come. Hope to see you on stage soon in D.C., N.Y.C., or ?

East Coast Alaskan Girl, Retired said...

happy new york times article :)