• Mosaic Theater

The June-July Pivot - Independence Day Weekend Reflections

The Fiscal Year is restarting. Time for some assessing, some appreciating, and some giving of thanks. And more.

I'm in the Midwest on this 5th of July—Lanford Wilson Day for us old Circle Reppers—and we're visiting my folks at our familiar family getaway three blocks up from Lake Michigan, straddling state lines ("Michiana," of course). The water is higher and colder than any summer in memory, so there's less beach to walk on, and the steps leading down from Stop 41 have been rerouted to a side landing so as not to wind up in the water. Still, the rains have brought rich foliage—the ravines are lush and the weekend weather is temperate and this seems to be a peaceful perch from which to appreciate this Mosaic moment.

It's six and a half months since the birth of our company and we are in the midst of a number of joyful artistic dialogues on several new works that are expanding our consciousness. Most prominently, there are the daily dialogues over email with Unexplored Interior playwright, Jay O. Sanders. We've never quite had an artistic exchange like this. Perhaps it's the scale of the play—in a word, "huge," in another word, "epic,' in a third, "massive," and a fourth, thank God, "lithe"—a play full of beauty and deft turns and deep knowledge and terribly tragic history. Our actor-turned-playwright has taken the energy and inspiration from our June 22-25 workshop and allowed it to propel him through 10 more days of intensive rewriting, with updates coming over the transom in regular intervals. Jay is loquacious in real life and a voluble correspondent on email, so the dialogue has gone deep and passionate in a hurry.

(L to R) Founding Artistic Director Ari Roth, director Derek Goldman, Producing Director Serge Seiden and playwright Jay O. Sanders at the workshop for Unexplored Interior at Mosaic Theater Company of DC on June 22, 2015.

The three days of actors convening were well-captured on Facebook and on our website as well; photos aplenty as we welcomed our first dozen ensemble members to the Atlas for deep script probing. There are things that go without saying in these photos; the meaning of such a first gathering, and the bringing together of some of the finest actors in our city—eight union actors joined by some of our hottest young talent. It's a true fusion with so many connecting to a story of deep division in Africa—a land of beauty and brutality; a land that holds a legacy key to racial identity and communion for a great many in our company, yet can feel just as alienating when confronted with the spasms of genocidal violence the likes of which we have hardly known in our time.

“It’s a true fusion with so many connecting to a story of deep division in Africa—a land of beauty and brutality; a land that holds a legacy key to racial identity and communion for a great many in our company, yet can feel just as alienating when confronted with the spasms of genocidal violence, the likes of which we have hardly known in our time.”

(L to R) Actor Michael Anthony Williams with playwright Jay O. Sanders at the workshop for Unexplored Interior at Mosaic Theater Company of DC on June 22, 2015.

Just as memorable as the workshop for me was sitting in the New York Public Library four days later, reading the latest hot-off-the-press draft of Unexplored Interior featuring a restructured fusing of Acts I & II into a singular Opening Act... to finally feel the exhilaration of a rising tension line toward the communal retelling of the shoot-down of the President's plane—the night that triggered three months of madness in Rwanda. Our playwright had done so much cutting, shaping and reinventing of material in such a sort time, and there I was in the Public Library, breathlessly taking it in. As though talking directly to Jay in the notes...loving this passage...questioning that line...finally understanding this strand of the play after weeks in the dark. What was under-informed seemed suddenly clear in this play's brilliant latticework of overlapping plot lines. It was a dialogue of notes - appreciating and pushing - all in preparation for a playwright-producer meeting later that day that wound up being superfluous as we met at the home of Jay's great friend and co-conspirator, Daniel Neiden, joining his enterprising partner, Gayle Waxenberg of The Telling Company; a gathering in Daniel's West Village backyard for producers, activists and supports of theater who could make a difference in helping us produce a world-premiere epic for our debut. We're hoping to bring additional muscle (and support) on board for this inaugural production for Mosaic, which also marks the culmination of 8 years worth of writing, more years of research, and endless revisions for the playwright to find the spine and central pulse of his highly ambitious play.

This is both a familiar and yet rare experience for me as a producer/dramaturg; to fall more in love with a play the more I work on it and to find more and more faith in the author. In this case, there was a leapof faith and a knowledge that there was a "there, there"—that the theme and scale and the nature of the ensemble and the setting for our inquiry all felt very right—the elements were in alignment for a commitment to be made for a grand opening, save one crucial component: would the massive play be ready?

Or at least, with respect to what I felt was necessary for it to completely hold and cohere?

The company and creative team Unexplored Interior at Mosaic Theater Company of DC on June 25, 2015.

Would this new work, after years of workshops in New York's finest theaters, finally have found its true shape for us in D.C.? Could we transform our probing conversations of the winter into a summer of clarity and shapeliness—for starters, reshaping the work from three acts to two and shedding pages in the process, while adding more singularity and centrality for the protagonist? Thrillingly, the answer is a powerful, ratifying yes! We have made artistic breakthrough after breakthrough, and this is why we are involved in this business—for the power and agency that is before us; to effect people through art—so long as we continue to conduct our work with an open mind and heart and a lot of smarts and endless renewable energy coming from all parts of the creative circle. We're experiencing a summer's joy of creativity, and that really is the take-away here, as we move from June to July; from Fiscal Year 15 to 16.

We're a theater on the move, still approaching the starting gate, but what we're accomplishing with just one play—our first in development—from the casting, to the convening of the workshop, and now its intensive follow up, more than justifies our reason for being. We are doing what we love and what we feel is so crucially important for our community; our society; excavating the roots of enmity and making powerful appeals and connections to our singular humanity.

“We are doing what we love and what we feel is so crucially important for our community; our society; excavating the roots of enmity and making powerful appeals and connections to our singular humanity.”

I felt this same reason-for-being and ratifying of our purpose when I traveled to Tel Aviv at the end of May for another 3 day workshop of Motti Lerner's new play, After the War, which will have its world-premiere staging at Mosaic Theater next spring. That workshop also got Facebook coverage, pre-blog, and we'll return to that endeavor soon enough. Suffice to say, the art is providing the best reason of all for why we're working so hard to launch this new theater. As well it should.

Playwright Motti Lerner and actor Hadar Galron at the workshop for After the War in Israel, on May 27, 2015.

After the War was workshopped in Israel with Israeli actors. But it will performed in Washington by D.C. actors. We go into auditions later this month to select the rest of the cast, which already features two all-stars—Paul Morella and Michael Tolaydo, already on board.

(L to R) Actor Bill Grimmette with NSL fellow Sivan Atzmon at the workshop for Unexplored Interior at Mosaic Theater Company of DC on June 25, 2015

And before After the War, we'll be holding auditions for Eretz Chadasha: The Promised Land; another part of our Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival. That festival is another animating core of Mosaic and what led to its founding. We prepare ourselves for the festival on Tuesday with a day of learning and interactions as we partake in informational workshops with the fellows from New Story Leadership—a program that's brought us one of our interns, Sivan Atzmon from Israel. She's working with director Michael Bloom on The Promised Land and she's bringing 9 of her Palestinian and Israeli fellows with her for her presentation on Tuesday. This will be a full day of Middle East immersion for our staff (as well as a handful of Mosaic actors who will be attending as well). The dynamic confluence of Middle East art and politics will be upon us very shortly as Mosaic Theater charts its own path—one independent, intercultural, entertaining and uncensored—into deep and genuine engagement in the Middle East Drama. The home of the Voices from a Changing Middle East.

One bittersweet grace note to all our preparations for the festival; both After the War's director, Sinai Peter, and playwright, Motti Lerner, lost their fathers over the past two weeks. Motti's father's funeral is tomorrow. Sinai's father's was a week ago. These men are artists of a certain age now—we all are, come to think of it—and we are experiencing loss, feeling the tugs of mortality on our parents, and beyond. So that marks this company as mature in every sense of the word. Our exhilaration is tinged with sadness.

That might be the hallmark of this poignant feeling I'm experiencing as the fiscal year reboots. The milestones of the last month tell of achievements aplently:

Under a separate posting, we'll talk more about the now completed casting process for our other mainstage shows; the poignant, ever timely, urban tone-poem-chamber epic, The Gospel of Lovingkindness, and the Off-Broadway hit comedy about unexpected ethnic liaisons, When January Feels Like Summer. Those auditions have been just as intensive as for Unexplored Interior, even as the casts for both shows are significantly smaller. We're equally thrilled with the range of talent we've assembled. As I said, more on the process of bringing those into being soon.

And we'll keep you apprised of the status of our 501(c)(3) application, officially submitted, after much fine-tuning, a month ago. We're saluting the great work of our attorney, Joseph Sandler, who's seen Mosaic Theater from our opening incorporation on December 24, 2015, through the formulation of bylaws and the swearing in of our Mosaic Theater Company board of directors. There's been deep appreciation for all the ways in which our board, and our attorney, have given us official standing and institutional ballast as we professionalize our enterprise.

And the biggest news, which in so many ways, has been about fundraising over the past 6 months, is that we made our Logan Foundation match - in just over two month's time, we were able to realize the ambitious goal set by the Reva and David Logan Foundation of a $250,000 challenge grant with an outpouring of gifts large and small, so that by fiscal year's end, we were able to smash through all projections and end the launch period with the capacity to hire and sustain a 6-person staff. This early and invigorating success has given us the mandate to become a mid-sized Equity theater company, and we now stand poised to fully invest in our artistic and community outreach visions for the coming fiscal year.

Including three October readings at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, as part of the city-wide Women's Voices Theater Festival, where Mosaic Theater will have the opportunity to present the work of three powerful female playwrights. That, too, will be its own separate posting, as we prepare with excitement to give voice to these three new works that resonate so profoundly with our mission, and speak to the vibrancy of women's voices that will be heard throughout our city come September and October in this incredible festival.

And so we get to make the case all over—with a new year and a new budget, and plays to pay for. We've launched our company and brought together a staff. We've planned a season and built a calendar. Now come the shows and the conversations, and the gathering of artists from all over the world to help Mosaic Theater Company soar.

And so why the bittersweet?

It's a moment of recollection for me, on this day after the close of the Theater J season...to remember how we got to this moment; to this divide in the road; to the leaving behind of a great body of work, an investment in artistic vision, and the loss of a lot of significant working relationships.

On July 4, Independence Day, I dream (yes, an actual dream I'm about to relate) inexplicably of attending one more Theater J Council meeting. I dream that I am invited back to attend a meeting outdoors—in a park—near a stone cave and a huge university swimming pool, like the one at Tel Aviv University where we used to swim with our daughter, Isabel, 22 years ago. I dream I am invited back for some kind of commemoration, it seems—one that never wound up happening—as two new members of the Council whom I recognize by their strong Jewish backgrounds are now much more interested in new subject matter looking forward; and not very interested in looking back to what was near and dear to me. In short, I'm observing the theater moving forward in its business without me, and here I'd been looking forward to the reconnection with people I've missed—people who, to a large part, made our achievements at Theater J possible. But now I find myself next to one of the new members, teaching the Council an Israeli religious folk song that I remember from Solomon Schecter Jewish Day School, "Yesh Li Yom Yom Chag, Yesh Li Chag Yom Yom, Yesh Li Yom You Chag, Halelujah!" Needless to say this is a culture warp for me. I recognize the culture but it is recast and has shifted in tone and focus.

Or I am missing what is no longer there for me.

That is the pain and poignancy of the divorce from Theater J—a division which wants to be mended, even as we both nurse hurt feelings. Even anger.

And I ask myself, how did I contribute to the stresses? How hard-driving is too hard-driving? "What did you do to piss ….. off?," asked a council member who's remained close to me at Mosaic. She's referring to a winter meeting where staff got a lot of pent-up frustration expressed and needed to demystify the notion that we were simply a happy, productive staff doing our work in a highly pressurized environment. What I heard reported certainly hurt. Was I too readily short-tempered? Impatient? Bellicose? Inappreciative? Paranoid?

And connected to the one; just how radically imperfect I am as a family member—callow son, snarky sibling, neglectful husband, distracted dad. All those things are true, in part. We are littered with performance potholes and deficits of the heart, head and mouth. We say things that hurt. We have an edge. We are driven by a throbbing chip on the shoulder and stop short of offering the same magnanimity to others that we so crave for ourselves from those in our orbit. We use the word "we" when we mean to say "I" but distance and deflect in order not to take ownership. Or to disguise the ego.

Who knew this would come out the way it has? This 4th of July weekend reflection—On Artistic Independence—could have has us simply boasting and crowing and displaying the fabulous new facts that speak to who we are, what we've raised, how privileged we are to be in this position. But this weekend behooves us to think more incisively, and to remember our shortcomings—as a nation, as a company, and as individuals. We touch upon the unfinished business and the strained relations in our ongoing project that is still in need of perfecting; still in need of addressing; still in search of repair.

This is the true reckoning of the June-July pivot. Having achieved so much, with all that we're grateful for, and with so many people yet to thank, there remains a still-deeper expression to articulate and a more profound course to pursue; a course of truer unity, mutual support and respect, and the forging of deeper ties that will stand the tests and the trials of pressured times surely to come.

Exciting and challenging. Let us meet this moment with perspective and generosity.


Atlas Performing Arts Center

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