Robert Dorfman reflects on his Jewish Experience

KATIE: Robert, would you mind telling me a little about yourself? 

ROBERT I am a Jewish actor born and raised in New York City and spent most of my adult life living in New York and Southern California. I moved to the Twin Cities almost five years ago. I've performed in The Lion King and Social Security on Broadway, and locally, I've been in at least a dozen productions at Guthrie Theater.  

  Robert Dorfman in a solo performance of via dolorosa

  Robert Dorfman in a solo performance of via dolorosa

KATIE: Thank youI'm curious, has working on Via Dolorosa deepened your personal faith or enriched your Jewish experience? 

ROBERT: Here in the Midwest I feel my otherness--meeting Barbara Brooks and working with the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company on Via Dolorosa and We Are the Levinsons has greatly enhanced my sense of self as an artist and as a man of faith. In this theater, I get to commune with an audience and a group of artists that are interested in life affirming plays about the human experience and the Jewish experience. I greatly look forward to the dialogue that is sparked by Via Dolorosa.

KATIE: Me too! I am especially blown away by the narrative. There is so much rich content-- and very strong storytelling. How would you describe Via?  

ROBERTVia Dolorosa is written by David Hare, of course. He, himself, was the solo actor in the original iterations of this fine play. A poet and an intellectual, he touches on themes of politics and faith set against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian condition. 

KATIE: I like that. Were there any particular elements of the play that you found challenging to work on?

ROBERT: Taking on this role for the MJTC production, I have been forced to question what I ever thought about the subject, whatever allegiances I may have for one side or the other, and have found a greater understanding and compassion for the lives of the Israeli and the Palestinian people who are putting themselves on the line everyday to protect their citizens and find a peaceable continuity to their own historical stories.

KATIE: Wow. I look forward to seeing all the work you've put into the show. Oh! And I almost forgot--how's working with director Raye Birk? 

ROBERT: I love working with Mr. Raye Birk. He is in every sense “a man of the theater”. A consummate actor himself, I feel very fortunate to have him help me shape this performance, [and] represent the great themes of the play in an honest and focused manner.

KATIE: Thank you, Robert. I'm so excited to see what the two of you created with this incredible script!

Via Dolorosa runs August 19th-27th. All are welcome to join in on the dialogue for our post-show Doorways Programs following the August 20th 1:00pm performance and August 24th 7:30 performance. 

CLICK HERE FOR TICKETS. 

On Stage: We Are the Levinsons

On Stage is a new audience development program that is sponsored by Springboard for the Arts. It brings local actors to college classrooms in an effort to involve a young and non-traditional audience with theater in the Twin Cities. MJTC's 2017 world premiere comedy, We Are the Levinsons, was featured in several classroom workshops, involving artists of the production, including playwright Wendy Kout and actress Alyssa DiVirgilio.

We Are the Levinsons runs through May 14, 2017. More information can be found HERE.

More information for On Stage can be found HERE

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Wendy Kout, Playwright

Wendy Kout has a vast array of credits, including stage, film, TV, and print. She serves on the Board of Directors of the Skylight Theatre Company in Los Angeles and has co-produced fundraisers for The Nation, People for the American Way, National Women’s Law Center and Acid Survivors Trust International.  She is based in Santa Barbara, California, Wendy considers home to be on the road with her beshert, Dennis Koenig.

You currently reside in Santa Barbara, CA.  Is this your hometown, or did you grow up elsewhere?

I was born in Chicago, and since then I have been a wandering Jew.  The world is my home.   My darling mate and favorite male writer, Dennis Koenig, and I try to spend at least a month at a time in a new place so we can live like locals and delve deeper into the culture and the people. Every destination has been rewarding and enriching.  However, it is most gratifying to go where I have family and friends.  I’m thrilled that many of them from around the country will be joining me in the Twin Cities for this world premiere.

Was there a defining moment when you thought or felt, “I want to be a writer!”

I was blessed with having the world’s most supportive parents and brother.  They saw this imaginative child, and encouraged me to express myself, and not just in writing.  My folks even hung my artwork on the wall as if it were the Louvre… and I am a terrible artist.  I didn’t have that “aha!” moment of wanting to be a writer.  Thanks to my family, I felt I was born a writer.  They honored my gift long before the world did.

Your works tend to be comedic in nature.  Is this your style of writing?

It’s more than my style – it’s who I am and how I see the world.   I was raised in a family where humor was as important as food on the table.  As I began to find my voice as a writer, the humor was already there.   So, the challenge has been the weaving of what is dramatic and tragic into my work.  We Are the Levinsons, like life, is laughter and tears.

How did Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company come to be producing We Are the Levinsons?

I have Ralph Meranto, Artistic Director of JCC CenterStage Theatre in Rochester, NY, to thank for that.  Ralph produced the world premiere of my first solo written play, Naked in Encino, and has been a champion and friend ever since.  When I completed my first draft of We Are the Levinsons, I sent it to Ralph for his feedback and then wrote the next draft – which had a private reading in Los Angeles, thanks to another champion and friend, Tony Abatemarco, Interim Artistic Director of Skylight Theatre Company.  That reading led to another, much closer, draft, which I sent back to Ralph.  Some writers call this "development hell".  For me, it was "development heaven".  I was finding my play with the guidance of very experienced and supportive theater artists.   On June 20, 2016, Ralph sent me an email.  His colleague, Barbara Brooks, the Artistic Director of Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, had written to him seeking a play to complete her upcoming season.  Ralph suggested she read We Are the Levinsons.  Barbara read the play, and that very day she expressed interest – that’s how fast things can happen!  (But usually don't.)   The development journey continued with Barbara's guidance.  She brought in dramaturg, Hayley Finn, to work with me, and Kurt Schweickhardt to direct; they have both brought clarity and contribution.  It takes a village to raise a child... and a new play.   Or, in the case of We Are the Levinsons, it takes a shtetl.   My gratitude to all who have brought my “child” home, and to my parents and brother, who encouraged this child to write... and laugh.

What was the inspiration or impetus for We Are the Levinsons?

The inspiration was my parents’ final chapter.  I had moved back to LA to be there and was there when they each took their last breath.   I knew even when living those three challenging years that someday I would write about it – and so did my parents.  An example from my mom:  “Ok, the bad news is I fell and broke my arm.  The good news is it’ll make a great story for you someday.” 

How did you develop the character of Grace, the transgender woman caregiver?

Everyone adored my father.  He was so kind, funny and generous, but he was a flawed mensch.  He was ironically a closet homophobe.  Never mean or hurtful to a soul, but Pop had his prejudices. After my mom died, his first caregiver was a Filipino gay man.   I watched the friendship that ultimately developed between them and how my father, in the final months, was growing.  The capacity for change, even as an elder in the face of death, was something I wanted to share.

What do you hope the MJTC, and future audiences, takes away from We Are the Levinsons?

When we come to any kind of art – we bring our own prism.   In theater, some may relate more to a particular character or resonate with a particular theme.   So future audience members will take away what they each individually experience.   But if there is anything I hope everyone feels after this play, it’s the celebration and preciousness of life… and laughter.

If you could only have one meal for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Veggie pizza and an excellent gin martini, straight up with three olives.  Recommendations for where I can get both in the Twin Cities are greatly appreciated, as is the opportunity to launch this new work at MJTC.

I would like the MJTC audience and supporters to understand how important it is, and how grateful I am, that Barbara took on a new play.  It is much safer to produce an established hit that everyone is excited to see.  To take on a new work is an act of courage and true patronage of the arts.   As a people we honor our past, but we also need our new stories told from our living writers.   

20s & 30s Night for The Whipping Man

Join Us for An Exclusive Event

One of the best things about going to the theater is meeting other theater lovers.  Even better when they're your peers! Join the MJTC 20s & 30s crowd for an evening of theater, drinks & apps, and camaraderie.

The evening is sure to be a hit, starting off with a fantastic show, followed by great discussions and mingling.  Make sure to get your tickets in advance, and we'll see ya there!  

When:          Thursday, February 9
                      Curtain Time: 7:30
Where:         Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company
                      Highland Park Community Center
                      1978 Ford Parkway in St. Paul
How Much: Tickets are $15
Tickets must be purchased by Thursday, February 2
Included: ticket for show, drink ticket, and appetizers

For more info about the show, head over to its page.
Can’t make the 20s & 30s event, but still want to see the show? 
Get tickets online.

See you at the Highland Grill after the show!
771 Cleveland Avenue S.

Q & A with Sally Wingert

You have been an actor on many stages throughout the Twin Cities and nationally. Most recently at MJTC, you performed as Marjorie Taub in The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife.  Now, you are on the other side of the fourth wall, as the Director; how does that appeal to you?

I had never intended to be a director; but, in the last few years I’ve found myself observing a rehearsal like a director.  I am hoping that having participated in rehearsals where the room felt like it was a place where true creativity can live that I can make that happen for us.  There is no happier place on earth than to be in a space where all of the artists are coming to it with their best selves, where they can be fragile, and foolish, and fulsome, and funny.  All of it.  And the best rehearsals processes let the artists do that.

What has been the most challenging aspect with the project thus far?

I hope I can be patient as a director, and that I can meet the actors through their process. 

And the most rewarding?

I sat in on auditions, and I was awestruck at how prepared the auditioners were – awestruck.  I was really humbled by that.  And then, meeting with designers and seeing how thoughtful they are about this process.  I just finished looking at Michael Hoover’s set. 

You had mentioned that there was a voice in your head leaning toward directing.  So, why this play?

Barbara Brooks asked me to read the script.  It is an astonishing story – the notion of Confederate Jews owning and raising slaves as Jews.

Barbara is a huge champion of a number of artists.  She has been profoundly supportive of me, as an actor, an artist, a woman in this [theater] business, as a neighbor, and as a friend.  And, between those two things – between the encouragement of Barbara and my thinking about directing for quite some time – I’m going to give it a go.

You were awarded a McKnight Fellowship in 2014 for Theatre Artists.  How do you feel this affected your career and your life?

First of all, it was a large financial support that allowed me to work on a project in a style that is not my “mother tongue”.  I was able to work with Transatlantic Love Affair – to dip my toe into their world – it was really fabulous.  Being awarded a McKnight Fellowship felt validating as an actor.  It reiterates that you are an Artist, and that you have something to offer the community.

Have you had any experiences – as an actor, director, or audience member – that were pivotal in your career or life?

Yes.  Years and years ago, I was in a production that was directed by Robert Woodruff, The Skin of our Teeth by Thorton Wilder, where I played Sabina.  His methodology, his style of rehearsal, was so different than anything I had ever been a part of that it took me out of myself in the best possible way.  It made me take chances early on while I was on the Guthrie stage, and it cracked that space for me – and cracked my feelings of not being good enough.  As a local actor, I came into it with a bit of an inferiority complex, and that experience cracked it open.  Garland Wright’s entire tenure at the Guthrie (1986-1995) propelled me into thinking of myself as an Artist, with a capital A.  Peter Rothstein directed me in Masterclass at Theatre Latté Da.  I also hold dear the reminder of Maria Callas’ mantra about the beauty of art and how we as artists are always trying to express the world, and all of its dimensions, through art.

For those of whom are beginning their career in theater, especially in the Twin Cities, what advice do you have for them?

You just need to remain curious.  You need to work really hard.  Figure out how to protect your fragile ego self and abandon it.  I think you need to go forward with a kind of fearlessness in the rehearsal room.  I think you need to listen more than you speak.  And, I think you need to watch and absorb. 

What’s next?  More Directing? Acting?

I’m doing Six Degrees of Separation as soon as The Whipping Man opens, as an actor, and I have acting work until May.  And then things are a little bit more open.

Is there anything else you’d like the audience to know?

I think that this is a remarkable play that combines both a rather searing look at post-Civil War and issues of slavery, and a rather heartbreaking look at family dynamics and the way that slavery has dismantled almost everything civil about society.  The legacy of slavery continues to live on, and it is beautifully articulated in The Whipping Man.  There is also a great deal of humor in the play as well, so it’s not just a rocket straight to depression. It’s pretty thrilling.

Q & A with Heidi Fellner

Heidi is a theater, film, television and commercial talent. She appears at MJTC for the first time as Katherine in Aunt Raini, opening October 29.

1) I learned you’re originally from South Dakota. How long have you been in the Twin Cities? What parts of your hometown do you miss as a transplant?
I've been living in the Twin Cities long enough to have put down roots and bought a house, but I suspect no matter how long I'll be here, the Black Hills will always feel like my real home.  The Twin Cities have been kind to me as an actor, so I do feel guilty about saying that. But I miss aspects of the western cowboy culture, the smell of pine and sage, and those old, old mountains. Whenever I'm able to get back, my shoulders relax and I breathe more deeply.  My old bedroom looks out onto Bear Butte (aka Mato Paha), and I miss that view. You know, I never felt particularly Western when I lived out there, and I never knew how much I'd miss it until I left. 

2) What has been your most memorable acting role and why?
There's a gig I have right now that I'm enjoying: CIT (Crisis Intervention Team) training for police and corrections officers. We actors research various mental health issues, substance abuse symptoms, etc., then use our craft to help teach non-violent approaches to de-escalate a situation. It's all improvised, as we're reacting largely to what we're given by the officer, and I think it's made me a much more daring performer. I spent part of a recent training with one hand thrust straight up in the air, screaming, "I am a vessel!" As you can imagine, this was quite terrifying for the officer, but they got to practice talking me down and figuring out how to get my character into the squad car without the first thought being to use a taser or worse. From the feedback we've gotten, they've already used this training to save people in their communities. It's not glamorous work, but it is one of the rare opportunities I have to use my weird bag of tricks to do something real and helpful.

3) In Aunt Raini, you play Katherine, the fictionalized grand-niece of Leni Riefenstahl. Can you talk a little about your own family’s experience during the Holocaust? What is it like performing this character with whom you have an opposite family history?
My grandfather, his brother, and one cousin got out after the Austrian border closed, and it was quite touch and go for a while, trying to find safe places, food, and resources. Here and there they were helped by several organizations throughout France, until they were eventually sponsored by Rabbi Isaac Alcalay (a relative) to come to the United States. They lived with multiple families in a small Brooklyn apartment, sending all of their extra money to try to get everyone else out.  

My great-aunt and her husband were put on a train to Auschwitz, where he was gassed immediately, if memory serves, for his refusal to work for the Nazis. She was determined to stay alive, however, and through a combination of sheer will, luck and miracles, she survived until the camp was eventually liberated by the Russians. I was so fortunate to know my great-aunt, and to be able to spend time with her while she was alive. While many members of my family were understandably very angry about what had happened to them, she had really come to be at peace with herself, with her past, and with Germany. She did not blame the Germans for what happened to her, but instead would say that their ability to have such hatred for those they perceived to be "the other" was a very sad, but universal part of human nature.

I think many people would agree with the statement that the world would be better off if there were some way of just getting rid of the "bad" people, so only good people were left.  Simple, right?  But I agree with Anne Frank, that people are really good at heart, and it is their circumstances, the way they are taught, or perhaps our universal capacity to get caught up in quite dangerous, but simple-sounding, too-good-to-be-true promises that lead us to commit atrocities. I think it would be unfair to blame many (although not all) Germans for succumbing to it. They, too, were really good at heart. They just got caught up in believing a hideous myth about how to make everything better for their country. And I think instead of villainizing the Germans (which, in a way, applies the same kind of thinking they had about the Jews), we should learn a different lesson about how similar we all are, and how easily we can be seduced. 

4) Are there any lines from the play that you find really striking or any epiphanies you’ve had about the other characters?
Yes, there are lines from the play that I find very important for my character, but they're often small moments. Probably nothing that an audience would pick up on, or even find that interesting! When I take on a role, I usually try to take my character’s side, even when she's wrong, and only try to know what she knows. So while I am enjoying what the other cast is doing, I feel bad about withholding as much information as I do about Katherine.  But I want the others to misunderstand her sometimes, because I think that is natural and human. When I see these moments of confusion and hurt reflected in their eyes, it helps me feel Katherine's isolation and frustration at being perpetually misunderstood, and by those whom she loves most.  

5) This is your first show at MJTC. How is working with MJTC veteran Kurt Schweickhardt?
Kurt and I actually are very much aligned in how we approach things. We both feel that humans are flawed, that we don't always make sense, and we're full of contradictions. We also both use sensory experiences to kick start our creative journeys...with one key difference. I use music and imagery, in a solitary exploration. Kurt uses movement and touch, in a group. Now, remember that I grew up in a cowboy culture. One aspect of that culture is that casual touch just isn't done. My extended family also has a trait that finds casual touch from anyone we don't know very strange. As we kept moving in this direction of physical exploration in rehearsal, I started feeling more and more like an over-stimulated cat at a toddler's birthday party. Once I finally blurted out that I was hitting a wall and feeling more defensive instead of receptive, Kurt was very accommodating and kind about it. I am so grateful that Kurt was understanding, so I hope he doesn't mind my sharing this story. 

As we continue to work through this process, it's been very collaborative. I feel a great deal of freedom to explore moments with my character, which is always fun. And it's also been very interesting to work with a director who is so keen to explore early character work. I think we are making something we will be proud of.

It's raffle time once again!

 
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For only $25, you can enter MJTC's annual raffle to win big while supporting the theater you love! This year's prizes are:
 

1st Prize: A personalized theater week-end in NYC for 2
includes flight, hotel, 1 Broadway & 1 off-Broadway show of the winner’s choosing
 
2nd Prize: A St. Paul Theater Night for 2

includes dinner, History Theater tickets and a hotel stay
 
3rd Prize: A $250 gift certificate for Continental Diamond
 
4th Prize: A season subscription for 2 to MJTC’s 2017-2018 season

 

To purchase your raffle tickets, call the box office:
651-647-4315


Drawing will be held on November 20th, 2016 following the 1:00 p.m. performance of Aunt Raini. You do not need to be present to win. Must be 18 years of age or older to purchase a ticket or win prize. A maximum of 500 tickets will be sold.

Q & A with Hayley Finn


Hayley Finn is the Associate Artistic Director at the Playwrights’ Center. She has directed several shows at MJTC, most recently 2014's Ivey-award winning play Rose, and joins us this spring as director of Bad Jews.


As Associate Artistic Director at the Playwright’s Center, do you see themes emerging in the new work you encounter these days?
Playwrights write on a variety of topic and in myriad styles. Sometimes common themes emerge and they usually reflect the zeitgeist of the culture. I don't know of other plays that are tackling the themes in Bad Jews and in the way in which Joshua Harmon is doing here so I think this play is unique. 
 
At the read-through of Bad Jews, you said, “There’s a lot of antagonism [between characters] but there’s also a sense that this is a family that can do this.” Can you say more about that?
I think I was talking about the culture of this particular family. You get the sense from the text that this family is comfortable arguing. Arguing (in the classic sense of setting up arguments to prove a point) is something Liam and Daphna excel at. Their brains work quickly and they have facility with language and using language to prove their points. I also think that the culture of this family is that they say what they're thinking. They don't hold back.
 
I also liked when you said, “The Holocaust is looming in this play.” The idea of “looming” really struck me: looming confrontations, looming adulthood. Do other kinds of "looming" tensions stand out to you?
What's also looming in the play is the fate of Jewish culture and religion. All of the characters address this in the play, from very different perspectives. Some of the greatest moments of tension in the play arise from Daphna and Liam's opposite views on this topic. 
 
Daphna and Liam have a lot to get off their chests! As a director, how do you navigate the actors through their monologues?
It is a fun challenge to navigate the long monologues in the play. I work with the actors to tackle them from a couple of angles. The first is understanding what's being said, why it's being said and the logic between all the twists and turns that the characters are saying.  The second is a very technical approach. It involves understanding rhythm. Essentially we score the text.

Q & A with Warren C. Bowles

Warren C. Bowles has more than 40 years of experience as an actor, director, choreographer, and playwright at theaters across the country. He previously directed Jericho and Photograph 51 at MJTC and has joined us once more as director of The Tale of the Allergist's Wife.

I know you recently finished a run at Park Square Theatre in My Children! My Africa! What challenges do you confront when “changing hats” from actor to director?
The sports analogy works here. It's like moving from player to coach. You must still do very detailed work in both cases but the breadth of your responsibilities is much wider as director.

Allergist’s Wife has a lot going on. What should people know about this show?
Firstly, if audience members saw or are aware of Charles Busch's original play written in 1999, be aware that Mr. Busch rewrote and updated that piece which gives us this current version. Secondly, if audience members are familiar with Mr. Busch's past work and aesthetic, i.e. Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and his camp style, don't come in with those expectations. Prompted by a generous offer from Lynn Meadow at the Manhattan Theatre Club he explores here a new, for him, direction in theatre.

So you don't see much of Busch's drag/campy aesthetic in  your vision for the production or for Marjorie? 
I certainly see no need to impose it and I think it would be an imposition.

What do you think is particularly Jewish about Allergist’s Wife and/or particularly universal?
Mr. Busch said that his vision for this tale comes from the fact that he was raised in a matriarchal family of intelligent, verbal, and funny women. Those are his roots, and, we cannot deny or not be influenced by our roots. That is essential to this play being universal. For this particular family, their Jewish roots are a big part of who they are now, what subsequent generations will be. That is what makes it particularly Jewish.

Is this Tale a cautionary tale or a fairy tale?
Great question. When the play opens be sure you ask audience members on their way out of the theatre.

Q & A with Candace Barrett Birk

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Candace Barrett Birk is an actor, teaching-artist and director. She made her Twin Cities directorial debut as director of the sold-out world premiere of The Chanukah Guest in 2014. She returns as director for the production at MJTC this December. 

How did you first get involved in theater as an actor and as a director?
I’ve been involved in theater ever since I was a little girl. My mother loved the theater and I grew up in Des Moines where I had wonderful, wonderful teachers. Theater is an ensemble art form – lots of different people doing lots of different jobs – and I was, and still am, fascinated by them all.  Acting was one way in.  I also jumped into directing and teaching. 

What was it like directing the Children’s Museum in LA and how does that experience feed into your directing work in theater?
I’ve worked with children and stories since I was in high school. I love to tell stories, hear stories, make up stories. How we hold stories and change stories is of interest to me as well. And kids are so good at playing with their stories. When we moved to Los Angeles, our son was 8 and I took him to the Children’s Museum and fell in love. It just turned out they needed someone at that time. I started as the volunteer coordinator and eventually became the director. It was one of those gifts from the universe. The Children’s Museum was really like a big experiential theater. The exhibits are built around experience and telling stories. That was my focus while I was the director there.

How did the path of your career lead to the intersection of arts and wellness?
A few years ago, I was a part of developing a connection between the Guthrie Theater’s Education Department  and the healing community. That work resulted in the creation of the Theater and the Healing Arts program at the Guthrie.  Also I went to the University of Minnesota to explore the crossover between arts and wellness. At the U of M's Center for Spirituality and Healing, there was a program for health coaching. The program was a perfect fit. I worked with the Guthrie to create and facilitate workshops for health practitioners, and worked with the health coaching program at the U of M to bring the power of story to the healing arts community. I also have a private health coaching practice.

What did you learn from your first experience directing The Chanukah Guest that you will bring to the return run? 
I love the story – and this year we have the opportunity to find even more in it. Like any good story, there is always more to learn from it. So we’ll build on what we know from before and discover new delights as we continue to work. It’s a different cast so it’s a completely different show. What this new ensemble of actors brings to the show will make it new and different, give it a fresh look.  Again it's not a remount, so I’ll be mindful of that. Our primary attention is to the small, young ones in the audience for whom this may be their the first theater experience. I’m seeing our play as a kind of transition between having one of their grown-ups read them a story, and going to a big formal theater. I have enjoyed learning about the Jewish traditions around Hanukkah. Part of what makes theater so compelling  is learning about different people, places, cultures, and different ways of being in the world.

Q & A with Craig Johnson

Becoming Dr. Ruth marks the third time you've worked with MJTC. What attracts you to this theater company?

My two previous shows with MJTC were in the 1990's so they feel like a millennium ago. Hahaha. Seriously, as a freelance actor and director I love the flexibility of being able to work on different shows at different theaters with different people. We are so lucky to have such a rich variety in the Twin Cities. I love MJTC because the mission is so clear and specific - so for this Lutheran it's an opportunity to take a deep dive into another culture that I admire so much. 

How did you prepare to direct Becoming Dr. Ruth?

Goodness, I've been watching lots of videos of Dr. Ruth from the 1980’s and 90’s! How crazy to be able to access the character so directly. Beyond that, I always let the script lead me, so continually re-reading gets me into the world of the play -- the style, tone shifts, emotional transitions, and arc of the story. The page is black and white, but on stage everything transforms into living color.

What are some of the challenges in portraying a known, living personality onstage? 

There is always the ongoing decisions about what to mimic and what to loosely "suggest." We're just heading into that process with Miriam Schwartz in Becoming Dr. Ruth. Miriam is an excellent actor as MJTC audiences well know, and she'll bring the mannerisms, dialect, and inner life. She's a little taller than Dr. Ruth's tiny stature and younger than the character is on stage, so that's where the physical production will support the storytelling: costumes, wigs, make-up are our friends, and we'll scale some of the furniture larger than life so we can see what it's like to be a short person in the world.   

How do you relate to Dr. Ruth's life story?

I love the title Becoming Dr. Ruth because it allows us to experience how one specific, extraordinary life was created and developed over time. It allows all of us to reflect on the touchstones and events that shape and define us. When do we "wander" and how do we create a home? What do we share and what do we keep private? Dr. Ruth's public life is very important to her identity, but her personal history will certainly surprise many.   

Any favorite lines from this show?

Late in the play Dr. Ruth quotes philosopher Hannah Arendt: "Education is the point at which we decide we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it." That resonates deeply with me. 

Who or what inspires you?

Dr. Ruth's story of course comes to mind immediately: lives that triumph over adversity without losing hope. I'm inspired by her optimism, humor, and focus on listening to and helping others without judging them. Good qualities to nurture throughout any life!

What do you love most about the Twin Cities?

The quality of life -- for me that includes the theater and arts scene, the museums, the quality of education, the attention on health and wellness, progressive interfaith organizations, the magnificent parks system and attention to the natural environment, strong civic engagement, and quiet modesty.

What is your dream show to direct?

Becoming Dr. Ruth. Yesterday it was Spamalot. Two weeks ago it was The Matchmaker. On the horizon lie Clybourne Park and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. How lucky am I? I like immersing myself in a show and falling in love with the characters and story - and with the wonderful people who commit themselves so fully to caring to tell the wild, crazy, tragic, and ridiculous stories about being human. 

Q & A with Miriam Schwartz

Becoming Dr. Ruth marks your third production for MJTC. What attracts you to this theater company?

Every time I receive an email from Barbara or a flier from MJTC, I see the theater's mission statement: "Telling Stories of Our Common Search for Identity." It continues to strike me as one of the elements I love most about my purpose as an actor, and is clearly one of MJTC's top priorities when creating its seasons. I feel so fortunate to have the opportunity to work for a company so aligned with my own personal and artistic values. Each of the productions I have been a part of has been unique in its story-telling, but what remains consistent is the integrity of the work, the generosity of the artists and collaborators, and the intelligence and eagerness of the audience. What's not to love?

How did you prepare for the role of Dr. Ruth?

Aside from memorizing like a mad-woman, I have been watching clips of Dr. Ruth nonstop. She has such unique mannerisms, and such humor-- it's been so fun!

What are some of the challenges in portraying a known personality? 

As she IS such a unique and well-known person, part of my job is to capture those mannerisms, expressions, and gestures, and ground them in the deeper Dr. Ruth. I'm working to capture her essence, her heart, so that it doesn't just feel like mimicry. This play isn't simply Dr. Ruth as the TV/radio personality familiar to many of us, it's Dr. Ruth sharing her incredible life story. The text is so personal, and I feel like I want to honor that by creating a character that is not only recognizable by appearance or by voice, but by spirit.

How do you, as a younger woman, relate to Dr. Ruth's life story?

My age was a serious concern of mine when I was first offered the part. I simply don't have the years of life experience Dr. Ruth has. I found myself dwelling on markers of her age-- her grandchildren, her three marriages, the wisdom she possesses as a result of her personal journey and time on this earth. As I've continued working on the script, though, it has become increasingly clear to me that there are SO many ways I relate to her as a person. Her love for her family, her cultural identity, her desire to give back to the world, her positive outlook. As an actor, I am constantly challenged to portray characters with life experiences outside my own. That's part of the work!

Any favorite lines from this show?

One of my favorites is "Today I belong to two [synagogues]. When one asks where I was last week, I can say I was at the other." Such sharp wit.

Who or what inspires you?

I find inspiration in many things. For this project, I am inspired by my artistic mentors who I look to for support, guidance, and examples of dedication to the craft. I am inspired by the people in my life who take huge risks and undertake enormous challenges with grace and perseverance. It inspires me to do the same. 

What do you love most about the Twin Cities?

I love the vibrancy of the Twin Cities during the summer. The number of festivals and music events and activities to partake in... we certainly don't take our months of warmth for granted. 

What would be your dream role to play?

I'd be hard-pressed to come up with a single dream role. I read a LOT of plays, and frequently find characters I connect with and would love a chance to work on. Sarah Ruhl's Eurydice has been high on my list for years, though.

Reflections on Jericho from Barbara Brooks

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I have a vivid memory of my first reading of this play. For hours, then days, the lives of the characters remained indelibly planted in me. While I have my own personal recollection of the events that transpired on September 11th,– a friend of 40 years was on the 67th floor of the second tower hit, but thankfully got out alive– I kept asking myself, “what about this play was really at the heart of how it was penetrating my soul?” I came to realize that it was the universality of the emotional challenges that all the characters faced. I felt for each one of them. I wanted each one to find peace. If only life were easy; but it’s not. At some point, we all have to deal with pain, and then figure out how to move forward, and in a most pointed and poignant way, this play shows us that we are not alone. 

Actor Spotlight: Jericho's Maggie Bearmon Pistner

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What attracts you to MJTC?

I love the idea of working at a theatre whose mission is to produce “new plays that are rooted in the Jewish experience but illuminate the common humanity among us all.”  This is my third time working for MJTC; I am impressed with the theater’s professionalism– from the rehearsal process to the production support.  Barbara Brooks also takes really good care of her actors – not only paying them but feeding them! 

How did you prepare for the role of Rachel in Jericho

I start by reading and re-reading the script many times.  I annotate and make connections during these readings. However, I don’t “get the character” until I am off book and have my lines memorized.  And that process, of running and working lines, I do with my mom, Jeanne Bearmon.   We go line by line and begin to figure out who the character is.  Then, I bring the work I’ve done at home into rehearsal.  The director, Warren Bowles, would give direction and say things to lead me in the direction he needed me to take to tell the whole story of the play – not just my part. And, even though I would write down his notes, it was usually a couple days before I understood and could assimilate his direction into action.  I also sought to find a “Rachel” in my own life – someone who could serve as a model for my Rachel. 

Jericho explores both personal and collective catastrophe, but it contains a lot of humor and irony as well. Is it challenging to navigate this juxtaposition?  

 I think finding humor in life’s events is what keeps us sane.  So, no, I don’t think it is challenging to marry catastrophe and humor. Imagine how truly horrible things would be if we couldn’t laugh.    

Is there one line or scene in this show that you particularly relate to or appreciate?

I love it that Ethan isn’t happy with Rachel’s decision to sell the house.  I don’t care how old the children get, they really don’t want things to change.  Case in point, when he expresses his dismay at her decision, Rachel responds, “I understand that, Ethan.  I raised my family here.  But I…I’m not a curator. This isn’t a museum.”    

Any roles you're dying to play?

Medea, Lady Macbeth, Claire Zachanassian (from Durrenmatt’s The Visit), and Martha (from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf). There seems to be a theme!  

Who or what inspires you?

My mom. Two years ago, I performed a one-woman show written for The Fringe.  It was my mom’s story, adapted from her memoir, of her time as a Captain in the Army during WWII.  The play, called “They Called Her Captain,” sold-out at The Fringe and won the encore performance.  The JCC just agreed to produce the play as a full-length one-woman show. Very exciting. Yup, my mom, Jeanne Bearmon inspires me.  

What's the best part about living in the Twin Cities?

I have to say the best part of living in the Twin Cities is that my family – husband, mother, sisters and brother -- all live here. Then, of course, my friends, the lakes, the outdoors, the theatre, the arts, etc.

Playwright's Notes: Jericho

I think one of the biggest problems human beings have is relationships. 9/11, the strictures of fundamental religion, and the conflict in the Middle East propelled the question behind the writing of Jericho: How do people who’ve spent their entire lives suspicious of sincerity, civility, and community, find these things? Jericho is a serious play; it’s also a funny play. Characters crack jokes; that’s a sign they’re still alive and kicking. I’m looking to see if it’s possible to break out of the paralysis and polarization that’s inflicted us. 

- Playwright Jack Canfora 

Director's Notes: Jericho

My wife and I spent nine hours touring the September 11 National Memorial and Museum last September. We both came away overwhelmed by the hundreds of stories we encountered and by the depths of emotions that the memorial made us explore. It was an overwhelming experience. We left with an understanding that neither of us had really had before of how much that event affected New York City and all its citizens. I was drawn to this play because Jack Canfora has given us a story that goes beyond a ‘victims story’ or an attempt to pull at our heartstrings. The longer we live, the more milestones and momentous events we experience. Each is so important that it is hard to imagine that anything more significant could follow. VE Day, the Kennedy assassination, the assassination of Dr. King, the Challenger disaster, and, of course, the horrible, horrible crime that was 9/11. When they occur we are closely drawn together with our families and friends, as a nation, and even globally. What happens to that feeling of closeness and unity? Why does that feeling of connection and community dissipate? What is community?

- Warren C. Bowles 

"9/11 Remembered" by A. Strakey

"9/11 Remembered" by A. Strakey

Actor Spotlight: Jericho's Anna Sutheim

What attracts you to MJTC?

I appreciate theater companies that combine a strong, focused mission with high artistic standards, and MJTC is definitely one of them. As a (somewhat lapsed) Jew myself, it's also been a wonderful experience to be involved with a company that explores the many aspects of Jewish history, culture and politics through a theatrical lens. It's led me to reconsider the extent to which my Jewish upbringing really does inform my sense of identity, including my identity as an artist.

How did you prepare for the role of Beth in Jericho?

In part, Jericho is about how the victims of tragedy and violence can be dogged by the experience long after everyone around them expects them to have moved on. I was a child when the WTC attack happened, so my memories of it are hazy and impersonal. I spent some time researching it, finding things that would haunt me the way that Beth is haunted. Needless to say, the internet delivered, and now my browser history is a bit of a trauma minefield. 

Jericho explores both personal and collective catastrophe, but it contains a lot of humor and irony as well. Is it challenging to navigate this juxtaposition?

Surprisingly, no. I think humor - especially the ironic, observational kind present in Jericho - is such an important part of how human beings cope with pain, that its presence in this play feels very natural and right.   

Is there one line or scene in this show that you particularly relate to or appreciate?

I like Jessica's line: "No one, anywhere, at any time, has ever corrected someone else's grammar in order to be helpful."

Any roles you're dying to play?

I'd love to be in something by Liz Duffy Adams - I really enjoy her plays. I'd also love to do something really movement-heavy, with a lot of dance or slapstick or clowning, just because I haven't done much of that yet. 

Who or what inspires you?

I have a private, ever-growing list of "Female Badasses From History" that I look to sometimes for inspiration. Someday I want to write a web comic where they all fight injustice as a very anachronistic superhero team. 

What's the best part about living in the Twin Cities?

All the warm-hearted, creative, practical, intelligent, multi-talented, compassionate people. I keep thinking I'll move back home to Los Angeles, where I grew up and where my family still lives, but the wonderful friends and communities I've found here are too hard to leave. It must be something in the drinking water, which there's also more of here than in L.A., incidentally.   

Director Spotlight: Jericho's Warren C. Bowles

What attracts you to MJTC?

I like MJTC because it has a really supportive audience; Barbara is great to work with and she offers great support because her standards are high; and, I think she makes very interesting choices when she puts her season together.

How did you prepare to direct Jericho?

I was able to spend some time via the internet chatting with the playwright (who has been very generous with his time and insights). I took advantage of a trip to New York to spend nine incredible hours in the National September 11 Memorial & Museum which gave me a whole new insight on how that crime affected the survivors, families of victims and survivors, and New Yorkers in general. A quick train trip out to Jericho on Long Island was also an interesting prep for the piece.

Jericho explores both personal and collective catastrophe, but it contains a lot of humor and irony as well. Is it challenging to navigate this juxtaposition?

The humor in this play is essential. However, I think it would be easy to become maudlin and wring all the humor out of the production. I think Barbara and I have put together a fine enough cast that they would not allow me to do that.

Is there one character in this show that you particularly relate to?

That's a bit like asking who's your favorite child!

Who or what inspires you?

I had a wonderful instructor/mentor in college, Dr. Reginald Bain. It's comforting how his advice, vision, and encouragement keep coming back to me as I direct.

If you could direct any play, which would it be and why?

If I could direct any play...I would!

Telling Our Stories

By Katharine Kline, MJTC Communications Manager

My September 11th story takes place on a clear, crisp day in Washington, DC. The sky was particularly brilliant that morning, a stunning shade of periwinkle blue. The cool air was invigorating and energizing, containing that uniquely September blend of possibility and promise. I walked into my classroom at H.D. Cooke Elementary, hung up my coat, and began preparing for my students’ arrival. As always, I began my day by composing the morning greeting onto the faded green chalkboard in my neatest teacher handwriting:

Good morning, third graders!

Today is Tuesday, September 11, 2001.

 When I think back to that day, I always return to the innocence of that greeting. I remember with absolute clarity inscribing those words onto the chalkboard, wholly unaware of the significance they would obtain as the day wore on. That message became the background image to the unfolding events of the morning. The principal taking me aside and whispering the news to me. My attempts to stay calm and positive while my heart raced with fear. The steady parade of parents who rushed into my classroom, sweeping their children up in their arms, embracing them, kissing them, taking them home.

But there was one student who didn’t get picked up early that day. His name was Adrian. He was short for his age, plump, and wore glasses. He had inquisitive eyes and a restless, gentle soul. He was exceedingly quiet. Adrian’s family had only been in the U.S. for a couple of months. He knew very limited English and I knew just a bit of Spanish so, in the absence of substantive conversation, we searched for mundane tasks to occupy the hours that seemed to hover endlessly over us. We began doing chores around the room. We washed the chalkboard, watered the plants, dusted the windowsills, and swept the coat room. It was a relief to keep our hands busy. Periodically the principal poked his head in with a hurried update on the unfolding events. The first tower had fallen. And the second. Then, much closer to home, the Pentagon.

I ached to be safely at home with my husband who was working downtown DC at the time of the attack. I checked my phone a hundred times for a message from him, but phone service was down. My mind raced and my pulse quickened as the day wore on without a word from him. I’m not sure how much Adrian absorbed that day. He was clearly nervous. He was certainly scared. We had no choice but to wait out the hours together until someone came for him. When we ran out of chores, we sat down at the child-sized table and chairs and ate our packed lunches together. We chatted a bit about our food. We chuckled at the fact that my carrots and his Cheetos were the same color. He offered to share his cookies with me.

Shortly after lunch, my husband burst into the classroom. He immediately dropped his coat and briefcase onto the floor and rushed to embrace me. In his arms, I exhaled for the first time since hearing the news. He filled me in on the unfolding events in DC. Streets closed everywhere, the Metro halted, people gathering in the streets to exchange stories and to offer up assistance. The three of us waited in that classroom together for a few more hours until Adrian’s father finally came for him, right at dismissal time. He was confused and surprised to see that he alone had waited until the end of the school day to pick up his son. He apologized for this misunderstanding. “I’m so sorry to make you wait,” he said. “I thought school was the safest place for Adrian to be today.”

I gave Adrian a hug and a high five and we parted ways. As my husband and I walked across the eerily silent schoolyard towards my car, I found myself overcome with a surge of emotion. I suddenly missed Adrian. Acutely. I felt hollow and empty and lonely. I also felt overwhelmingly grateful. I was safe. My loved ones were safe. Life, for us, would go on. Not everyone was so lucky.

It is often said that everything changed on September 11. And while it is certainly true that many things changed on that day, I found great comfort and solace in the many things that remained the same. Within days of the attack, school resumed and the schoolyard rang, just as before, with jump rope rhymes and the cacophony of kids at play. My desk remained just as cluttered with rainbow-filled drawings and love notes from my young, adoring students. There were morning meetings, bathroom breaks, and staff meetings. However, in the wake of tragedy, these mundane events were elevated to something greater. They were not only appreciated, they were revered. I would even say that they were holy.

Actor Spotlight: Jericho's Ryan M. Lindberg

What attracts you to MJTC?               The people. I've been afforded some incredible opportunities here, and it's freeing and invigorating as an artist to have that kind of trust and confidence invested in me. I've consistently worked with great directors and designers here, and audiences are always sharp and engaged. 

How did you prepare for the role of Josh in Jericho?
I tend to focus on the script almost exclusively. For Jericho, I read the script several times and picked it apart, looking for clues about how other characters saw or described Josh, and how Josh saw or described himself and others. I also did a little research on the Biblical story of Jericho, but I generally leave the abstract metaphors to the director and designers - if there are parallels between the two, those abstract ideas are harder for me to play. I just trust that they'll come through.

Jericho explores both personal and collective catastrophe, but it contains a lot of humor and irony as well. Is it challenging to navigate this juxtaposition?
I love that challenge. Laughter and tears are closer than some think, and the excitement is always in finding human extremes and peculiarities - people who respond to extreme tragedy with a macabre sense of humor being one great example.

Is there an aspect of your character in this show that you particularly relate to or appreciate?
Josh seems to struggle with being hyper-aware of himself, and unable to live his life without commenting on it or judging it. That particular behavior I strongly related to - it's always a struggle to get out of my own head and just be.

Any roles you're dying to play?
I love working on new plays. I'd love to see some of Ike Holter's work get produced here, and I did a reading of a Cory Hinkle play recently that blew me away. There are an awful lot of smart, talented writers here in town, so I'm always excited to take a stab at whatever they're cooking up.

Who or what inspires you?
Oh, this is going to get weird and cheesy here. Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, and local rapper/writer/all-around badass Dessa. These are people who both have a tremendous work ethic, and also aren't afraid to show it - they don't need you to believe that it was easy to get where they are. They had to work for it. Knowing myself and my own strengths and weaknesses, I'm inspired by the people who constantly push themselves. Reminds me to give up less readily and rest less frequently.

What's the best part about living in the Twin Cities?
There's a great alchemy here, and I think some it stems from people being more interested in collaborating than competing. I see it in the way the musicians in our tremendous music scene constantly recombine in new and interesting ways, and in how our chefs and restaurateurs cheer each other on and work together on different side projects. There's an inherent scarcity of opportunities in theater, which makes the competitive landscape somewhat more difficult, but I'm still seeing more and more people finding ways to work together - establishing producing collectives, doing self-produced work, or setting up informal reading and workshopping groups. People here within and across disciplines genuinely want to play with each other, and I think that's exhilarating.