By Elena Giannetti
Sandra Bullock plays a convincing astronaut in the current movie “Gravity.” No one asks her how she can play an astronaut when she isn’t one in real life. Apparently, I make a convincing Jew on stage even though I’m not one. But it never fails that every time I play a Jewish character, an audience member is surprised to learn that I’m not Jewish. As though it should be a prerequisite for playing a Jewish role, or for working at a Jewish theater. But I’ve never thought it was odd, because that is my job as an actor: to embody a character as fully as possible, including their particular experience and culture. Every role is a challenge, Jewish or not. And for every role, I do the research, play and explore in the rehearsal room, and hopefully, in the end, bring a believable person to the stage, complete with their unique heritage, history and culture.
When we started rehearsals for A Strange & Separate People, I trusted that even though I wasn’t Orthodox, a third generation Jew, nor the mother of an autistic son, there were ways that I would connect to the role of Phyllis. It wasn’t an easy or comfortable process because it challenged me to face some of my worst fears, flaws and demons – Phyllis is far from perfect. And working through many of the Orthodox components of the script added another unique layer to the discovery process we explored together in the rehearsal room. But I was also challenged as an actor – more than almost any other character I’ve played before. All of which left me in a vulnerable state through much of the rehearsal process. But I knew two things: first, that I could trust my fellow actors and the director, no matter where we went, or where we ended up. And secondly, like Phyllis, I would have no choice but to go forward through this journey of self-discovery in order to survive all of these challenges.
As with many of the plays at MJTC that I’ve been a part of, the roles and stories we tell are not exclusive to Jewish experiences – the struggles, pain, joys, triumphs are common to each of us. The challenges of having an autistic son, the pain of a collapsing marriage, the difficulty in embracing compassion in times of conflict: all of these are subjects we can all relate to, even if we have never experienced them directly in our own lives. And if I do my job right, then the audience will have their mind ignited by touching their heart, even if they’re not Jewish – because these experiences are universal. They are human. They are part of our own humanity. And we are all part of a human collective. Being a part of this production, and a part of MJTC, has taught me a lesson that is valuable to all of living, on and off the stage: When we can connect from our heart, we tap into a more authentic and receptive self, which allows us to be “ignited”... mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Jewish or not.