WASHINGTON, D.C.: In a piece of news that shook the D.C.-area theatre world on Thursday night, Ari Roth, longtime artistic director of Theater J, has been let go. Roth told the Washington Post that he was “terminated abruptly” for refusing to sign a severance agreement. This would have allowed the theatre to characterize Roth’s departure as a resignation.
Theater J, which specializes in Jewish theatre, is housed within the DCJCC. Roth’s firing after 18 years of leadership seems to be a case of artistic freedom versus institutional pressures. In November, DCJCC announced that it would cancel future iterations of Theater J’s Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival, which programs new plays about Israel.
In past years, previous festival productions have come under fire. A group calling itself Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art protested Return to Haifa in 2011 and The Admission in early 2014.
The decision was met by some in the DC community as tantamount to censorship (with one board member resigning in protest). In an internal document obtained by the Jewish Daily Forward, Roth wrote, “Increasingly, Theater J is being kept from programming as freely, as fiercely, and expressing itself as fully as it needs…. We find the culture of open discourse and dissent within our Jewish Community Center to be evaporating.”
A search is currently underway at Theater J for Roth’s replacement. In the interim, the theatre will operate under managing director Rebecca Ende and associate artistic director Shirley Serotsky. In a statement released by the DCJCC, chief executive officer Carole R. Zawatsky said, “Ari Roth has had an incredible 18-year tenure leading Theater J, and we know there will be great opportunities ahead for him. Ari leaves us with a vibrant thatre that will continue to thrive.”
But this is not the end for Roth. In fall 2015, he will launch the inaugural season of a new theatre company, Mosaic Theater Company, which will be housed at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. The season will include the Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival.
American Theatre has reached out to Roth for a comment.