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 ...