• Mosaic Theater

Ari Roth: Planting a Flag

A trusted colleague recently described playwright-producer-educator Ari Roth as a “gentle ninja.” It’s a description that fits him well. Thoughtful and kind, Roth is also an artist who gets things done, and who fights for what he believes in. He’ll draw on all those qualities as he tackles the tough business of launching a new theatre in the nation’s capital. We caught up over lunch at the Phillips Collection café, surrounded by weekday art lovers who had wandered down from the galleries upstairs.

“Independent,” Roth says, when asked to describe his new Mosaic Theater Company. He quickly adds, “And intercultural and inflected with a bit of a Jewish lens.” Roth is determined that his new company will tackle the complex and controversial issues that lie at the center of conflict. “We’re interested in bringing different communities together so that they can encounter each other,” he says. “Different faiths, different races. Our point is not to dwell in the conflict but to explore it. It’s a celebratory process, and it’s an exploratory process.”

So far, Mosaic Theater is largely a one-man operation. “When I say ‘we,’” Roth explains, “I’m speaking in the future tense. I’m going to recruit the ‘we’ that will help me create this company. We’re raising money to hire staff right now, and we’ll raise money to hire artists.” The company has already received significant grants from the Share Fund and the Eugene M. Lang Foundation, and 60 individual donors have purchased $50 memberships. “I’m talking about bringing different communities together,” Roth points out. “It would be stupid to dream that all by myself.”

His tenure as Artistic Director at Theatre J ended under highly public and highly controversial circumstances. (Coverage can be found at American Theatremagazine’s web site, and from Peter Marks at The Washington Post.) After 18 years at a theatre housed in the Jewish Community Center near the Dupont and Logan Circle neighborhoods, Roth faces new challenges as he establishes a home for Mosaic at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in North-East. “Theatre is local, national, and global,” he explains. “You have to be aware of what’s happening on the block. You have to walk around the neighborhood and learn what resonates with the people who live a block away, and with the people who live in another state. How do you welcome them? And where do they park?”

Roth is eager to engage in a local theatre movement that increasingly emphasizes the building of bridges. “There is a laudable track record here in D.C.,” he says. “The area’s biggest and smallest theatres are interested in multi-culturalizing the canon, in bringing questions of ethnicity, of identity and race onto the stage. There’s a very local component but it extends into national and international issues.”

Mosaic Theater will contribute to that effort through its presentation of the annual Voices from a Changing Middle East festival, a program that proved controversial when hosted by Theatre J. “It brings in pioneering work from across the country,” Roth explains. “And it will be more robust than ever. It won’t define Mosaic, but the value that informed that festival will shape how we explore, how we treat these encounters in the community, and how we look at our dramas and our comedies.”

The emphasis, for Roth, seems always on the theatre’s communal power. “I believe in art as a catalyst for creating community,” he says. “I feel that sense of community across the city, and I also feel the overlapping of communities that have kindred interests.” It’s a conviction that has shaped his work from the beginning. “I went into the theatre arts because it is a collaborative medium that also honors individual expression,” he says. “Theatre is personal and public, it’s shared and it’s private. I really like that double-ness to it.”

If Roth has his way, Mosaic Theatre Company will thrive on that dual nature. “I have to build a new home for myself,” he says. “I want it to be a place where issues can take root, where you can plant a flag – a flag that’s not just for those who walk by but that can be seen by those very far away.”

As we conclude our conversation, an elderly woman at the next table catches Roth’s eye and reaches across to offer some words of encouragement. “I’ve always loved what you do,” she says. “But it’s going to be hard for me to get to North-East.” Roth smiles his gentle-ninja smile and says, “I’m going to get you an Uber membership. It’s all going to work out.”

Original Post: http://theatrewashington.org/content/ari-roth-planting-flag


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