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.

The Chanukah Guest: An Interview with Playwright Jenna Zark

By Bradley Machov, TC Jewfolk 

December 14, 2014

TC Jewfolk sat down with playwright and TC Jewfolk writer Jenna Zark to talk about her new play, The Chanukah Guest, now being performed at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company.

TC Jewfolk: What drew you to adapting The Chanukah Guest, a children’s book into a play for the MJTC?

Jenna Zark: Well, first because Barbara Brooks (the artistic director of the company) asked me. She had two possible stories; one was a book called The Flying Latke and the other was The Chanukah Guest by Eric Kimmel. I had already adapted Kimmel’s book The Magic Dreidels and love the way he writes—and was immediately taken with The Chanukah Guest as soon as I read it.

TCJ: What’s so special about Eric Kimmel’s writing?

JZ: He writes for children, but he doesn’t write down to them. When my son was in pre-school I discovered Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblinsand thought, this is what a children’s book should be! My son was captivated by the story and wanted me to read it over and over again. I think we both loved it because Kimmel puts the story first–and then creates such full-bodied characters. Even and especially the goblins are fully realized and alive—which isn’t something you see in most children’s picture books.

TCJ: What interested you most about this particular story?

JZ: I’d have to say it was the woman at the heart of the story, Bubba Brayna. She’s not blind or deaf, but she can’t see or hear as well as she used to. Yet the entire village is still descending on her every Chanukah because she makes the most delicious latkes they ever tasted.

I love that an older adult is the lead character, because I don’t think we value older adults as much as we should. They are generous, tolerant listeners, great storytellers and they give us the benefit of their talent and experience every day.

TCJ: Who’s the Chanukah Guest?

JZ: Let’s just say it’s a surprise visitor that is the very last thing anyone would expect on the first night of Chanukah. And the visit itself reveals a lot about who Bubba Brayna is, what she wants, and how her community sees her. And of course, how Chanukah can bring people together.

Q: Who are the other characters, besides the Chanukah guest?

JZ: A rabbi and Bubba Brayna’s grandson. The relationship between him and Bubba Brayna is my favorite part of the play.

TCJ: Anything else you’re working on, now this play is finished?

JZ: If You Don’t Weaken (which I wrote about for TC Jewfolk) is a play for adults that will go up at Freshwater Theatre this spring. Combines a pole dancer, 1930s porn, feisty friends, a crumbling synagogue populated by older adults, a Jewish day school and a young woman trying to say Kaddish for her grandfather.

Reflections on New Jerusalem

By Katharine Kline, MJTC Communications Manager

Most of us dread opening the newspaper these days. The weight of world events often seems unbearable. Violence. Discrimination. Hate. Persecution. With escalating tension both nationally and around the world, a growing fear and uncertainty pervades our thoughts. Is there an end in sight? Will justice be served? What is the meaning of freedom? To what lengths will we go to preserve our communities? Are we safe? Unfortunately, although times seem particularly dire right now, these questions are not new. In New Jerusalem, The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656,  David Ives tackles these themes head on. The play takes place within the context of the Catholic Inquisition, but the issues it examines are both timely and relevant to today.

In Ives's production, the Jews have fled to Amsterdam to escape the mass conversions and public executions of the Catholic Inquisition. In exchange for safe haven, they have agreed to police their own community for unorthodox beliefs. This agreement is put to its test when Spinoza, heir apparent to the chief rabbi, is placed on trial for suspected atheism. The consequences to a guilty ruling are grave: permanent exile from the Jewish community. Also at great risk is the safety and survival of the entire Jewish community in Amsterdam. Either the Jews expel Spinoza as a heretic or Amsterdam expels the Jews. Yet, even when facing these known consequences, Spinoza stands steadfast in his beliefs. He remains adamantly true to his personal and philosophical principles. 

Is it courageous for him to do so? Or is it simply the boastful rebellion of youth? Ives challenges us to seriously ponder these questions. As human beings, we are frequently asked to choose between our principles and our safety or comfort. If it came down to it, would you risk the loss of your loved ones in the name of your principles? Would you fight for what you believe to be right and moral at the risk of your personal safety? To what lengths would you go to preserve your community? And where do you draw that line? For Spinoza, the answer is clear and resolute: there is no consequence that justifies backing down from one's principles. For most of us, this is not such a simple choice. Perhaps we vote for the "safe" candidate instead of the one who truly, deep down, aligns with our belief system. Or perhaps we lack mindfulness in our places of worship, valuing community and tradition above our intrinsic beliefs. Most of us yearn to protect the freedoms of oppressed people, but how many of us are motivated to personally sacrifice for this yearning? The vast majority of us watch (horrified) from afar, doing little because the risk of action is too high. But what is the risk of inaction? Should we judge ourselves or others for these choices? What is the human cost for our ideals? 

As we learn of tragic events in Syria, Gaza, and Ferguson, we are forced to confront our morality directly. We bear witness to oppression and persecution both around the world and within our own communities. Voices are silenced, violence is rampant, rights are denied, and lives are lost. Therefore, we are confronted with a considerable choice. Do we choose Spinoza's path of steadfast commitment to principle? Or, do we stand more closely aligned with his mentor, Rabbi Montera, who places the safety, preservation, and survival of his cherished community above all else? As we, the audience, watch Spinoza’s trial unfold onstage, we also serve as his jury. And it is not just Spinoza, but our very own ideals, awaiting a final verdict.

Welcome to Our New Communications Manager

Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company is pleased to welcome Katharine Kline as our new Communications Manager. Katharine brings a wealth of arts experience to MJTC. Formerly, she was the Director of The Morris Cafritz Center for the Arts in Washington, DC where she oversaw Theater J, The Ann Loeb Bronfman Gallery, The Screening Room Film Series, and The Washington Jewish Film Festival.  Additionally, Katharine directed the Department of Literary and Music Programs at the Arts Center where she oversaw the annual literary festival, founded and directed The Washington Jewish Music Festival, and curated a year-round author and concert series. Katharine holds a BA in Religion and an MA in Jewish Studies from the University of Chicago.

“I’m very excited to welcome Katie” says Barbara Brooks, MJTC’s producing artistic director.  “The part-time communications manager position was established two years ago as part of MJTC's long-range strategic plan to increase organizational capacity by enlarging staff.  Katie brings not only an extensive background in arts administration, but an enthusiasm for and commitment to the work of MJTC.  She’s a perfect fit for the position and our plans for growth.”

Truth and Justice: Not Always the American Way

Superman is an enduring cultural icon who has thrilled us over the past 76 years with stories of superhuman heroics and integrity. He has been referred to as the world’s biggest Boy Scout, striving to do the right thing in the face of adversity and always fighting for truth, justice, and the American Way. However, the true story of Superman’s journey into popular imagination stands in stark contrast to his famous ideals.

In 1920, a fast-talking clothing salesman named Harry Donenfeld was watching his clothing store go broke in Newark, New Jersey. Try as he might, his well known, skillful flattery couldn’t help him talk his way out of losing the business he had procured with a loan from his wife’s family. He ended up joining his brothers’ printing company, Martin Press, as salesman and part owner. The child of Romanian immigrants, he had spent his childhood in and out of school, and gangs, in the Lower East Side of New York during the early 1900s, and it’s speculated that while working at Martin Press during prohibition, Harry was helping the mob move liquor across the Canadian border inside pulp paper shipments for the plant. It is also thought that it was perhaps these same mob contacts that help him procure a windfall printing deal with Hearst Publications for millions of Cosmopolitan and Good Housekeeping leaflets. With the new surge in business, Harry took majority control of the business, forcing out two of his brothers from ownership and even changing the name of the company to Donny Press.

Around this same time, a man named Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson was pioneering the first American comic book. Wheeler-Nicholson grew up in an intellectual household whose dinner guests included Theodore Roosevelt and Rudyard Kipling. His mother was a journalist, and so it was not unexpected that he too became an accomplished writer. In 1935 his new company, National Allied Publication, created the first comic book of all new, original material called New Fun: The Big Comic Magazine. Up until this point, comics had simply been a compilation of successful and popular strips from the newspapers. Sales were brisk and more issues were made, but reluctant newsstands along with an inconsistent cash flow meant financial troubles continually plagued Wheeler-Nicholson’s endeavors. He soon found himself in serious debt to a printing magnate by the name of Harry Donenfeld. 

In order to keep publishing new titles, National Allied partnered with Donenfeld to form Detective Comics, Inc. and in March of 1937 they produced their first work together as Detective Comics #1. Less than a year later, Wheeler-Nicholson found himself forced out of the business all together. According to comic historian Gerard Jones:

In early 1938, Harry Donenfeld send [Wheeler-Nicholson] and his wife on a cruise to Cuba to 'work up new ideas'. When they came home, [Wheeler-Nicholson] found the lock to his office door changed. In his absence, Harry had sued him for nonpayment and pushed Detective Comics, Inc. into bankruptcy court. There a judge named Abe Mennen, one of Harry's old Tammany buddies, had been appointed interim president of the firm and arranged a quick sale of its assets to [Donenfeld].

When Superman debuted in June of 1938 on the now iconic cover of Action Comics #1 it marked a turning point in the careers of young comic creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. For almost 6 years, the duo had been trying to get a publishing house to accept their proposal about the Man of Steel from another planet, but no one was interested. One publisher who had criticized Siegel’s earlier scripts as “not fantastical enough” turned around a year later and criticized the Superman proposal as being “too fantastical.” Finally, National Allied Publication (now under ownership of Donenfeld) accepted their idea and hired Siegel and Shuster for $130 and a contract to supply more material.

This would be some of the only money they saw from their original creation over the next 40 years.

Siegel filed several lawsuits over the following years to regain the rights to the character, but it wasn’t until 1975 that he made any meaningful headway. That year, Siegel sued Warner Communications to protest DC Comics’ treatment of himself and co-creator Shuster. Eventually, Warner guaranteed that all comics, TV episodes, films, and later, video games starring Superman would be required to carry the credit that Superman was “created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster” and that each of them would be awarded $20,000 a year each for the rest of their lives. It would seem like a victory, until one considers that in 1977, the first Superman film grossed $300,000,000 in worldwide release and that there have been five blockbuster sequels of the franchise to date.

Siegel and Shuster created Superman as a hero for the everyman, keeping a constant vigil in the fight for social justice. Perhaps that early rejection letter was right; Superman might be a little too fantastical for our world.

Guest Post: Audience Member Jeff Strate

By Jeff Strate
Originally posted on facebook February 10, 2014

The Last Five Years is smartly cast with Matt Rein and Sarah Shervy as two twenty-something New Yorkers and a superb cello, bass, guitar and piano ensemble "orchestra" directed by Kevin Dutcher. The intimate musical is poignant and captivating. I would see Jason Brown's diamond again at the Hillcrest Center's theater (Ford Parkway, St. Paul) and recommend that my friends see it.

Last night, smack dab in the middle of a long, very cold Minnesota winter, seeing this small play was like, say, discovering Sondheim musicals for the first time. Brown's musical confessional is perceptive and original with words and arrangements, orchestration and performance, artistically woven together to reveal how a young man and a young woman fall in love and then grow apart during marriage as their lives and careers arc upwards and apart. This, of course, is familiar territory, but on a reverse chronological track for Miss Shervy's character. In tone and book, The Last Five Years is as accomplished and compelling as the scenes between Dot and George in Sunday in the Park with George or the musical narrative of the film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. This said even though most of the songs in The Last Five Years do not call for direct dialogue between the couple --- I suspect a lot of troubled marriages are the same - there are lots of "inner conversations." Mr. Rein and Miss Shervy look, move, dress and vocalize in true pitch with their characters set in New York during the 1990's. My turn in The City includes part of that decade.

And a tip of my metaphorical fedora to the Minnesota Jewish Theater Company greeter/usher who stowed my billowy, arctic jacket at his lobby table. After the show, the gent revealed that he knows a thing or two about Don't Tell Mama on Restaurant Row in NY, and lots about theater. So do I. I actually mounted a few shows at Don't Tell Mama in the late 1980's. For me, The Last Five Years and our post show gab was a reunion with times of which I remain very fond.

Intimate Musical Theater: "The Last Five Years"

Back in the early 1990s, composer Jason Robert Brown found himself playing at piano bars in New York City’s Greenwich Village, hoping that someone would notice his talents. He had studied composition in college, and once said that he thought he would end up as “an egghead composer with the horn-rimmed glasses and the pencil behind the ear.” He grew up on the music of the singer-songwriters of the 1970s such as Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon, and dreamed of following in the footsteps of Billy Joel who he described as “a rock star that played the piano and who chicks threw their underwear at.” Yet somehow, he always found himself pulled back to the theater, and after becoming friends with director Daisy Prince, he created his first stage production, a song cycle titled Songs for a New World. This led to working for Daisy’s father, legendary Broadway director Harold “Hal” Prince, who invited him to compose the music for Parade. The show premiered on Broadway in 1998 to critical success, and the next year, Brown took home the Tony Award for Best Original Score. His career was on a roll, but behind the scenes, his personal life had hit a rough patch.

Brown’s first marriage ended in a bitter divorce, and he had spent five years of his life working on the Tony Award-winning Parade, only to see it play just 83 performances.

“my response to [Parade] was, well, ‘Hell, this is no way to make a living.’ It was too exhausting and too hard and the therapy cost more than the royalties… So I started thinking: ‘I’ll just write a song cycle… the anti-Parade. It’s not a huge musical with 35 people and 20 people in the orchestra. It’s just going to be small and intimate and maybe it’ll be a theater song cycle… But in writing it… everything I wanted to do and say breathed in a very theatrical way. I said: ‘You know what? I think it’s a show and I didn’t mean to be doing that, but I guess I am now."

His theatrical song-cycle became The Last Five Years. The show premiered in 2001 at Chicago's Northlight Theatre to rave reviews. Time Magazine referred to the show as “better than The Producers,The Sun-Times hailed it as “poignant, richly dramatic and piercingly honest,” and The Chicago Tribune proclaimed “exhilaration, so intense that it brings tears of joy.” The production was slated to premiere the next year in New York at Lincoln Center, but Brown’s ex-wife brought a lawsuit against the show saying that the story of two aspiring artists falling in and out of love again too closely resembled their own doomed marriage, and Lincoln Center dropped the project.  After some script and score revisions to lessen the similarities, The Last Five Years premiered in March of 2002 at the Minetta Lane Theatre Off Broadway, and won Drama Desk Awards for Best Lyrics and Best Score. Mixed reviews and low attendance (the show was one of the first to open in lower Manhattan following 9/11) caused the show to run for only two months. Many critics wrote off the show, but fans thought otherwise.

Following the 2001 production, the show quietly developed a cult following, and in 2013, it was again produced in New York at Second Stage Theatre, directed by Jason Robert Brown himself.  Audiences are inexorably drawn to the tragic story of the two flawed characters on the stage. When asked back in 2001 about why she wanted to direct the piece in the first place, Daisy Prince may have unknowingly predicted the reason for the show’s staying power: “It’s about a loving relationship that didn’t work out and everybody I know has been in one of those.”

Holiday Season Reflections

From Barbara Brooks, Producing Artistic Director

The holiday season is a busy time at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company.  We’re closing up and completing behind the scenes work on our fall show, and readying and running our holiday production.  Amidst this frenetic pace, I find joy in reflecting on the positive things that take place here at MJTC, and feel grateful and thankful for opportunities I have: working with the wonderful artists who graciously give so much time and talent to MJTC and make the theater what it is, and meeting and getting to know our generous and supportive audience members.  Our holiday production allows me to observe the reactions of the young children who come with their school classes to the show.  The excitement they display is so rewarding, and makes the hard work worth it all! On behalf of the Board of Directors and staff at MJTC, I wish you good health and happiness in the new year, and hope that you, too, will have rewarding and joyful experiences at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company in 2014.

Creating a Jewish Woman – Even if You’re Not Jewish

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.

Meet the Actor: Kate Fuglei

Next week Rachel Calof opens starring Kate Fuglei.  We caught up with her to talk about her midwestern roots, her favorite roles, and projects she's looking forward to:

MJTCRACHEL CALOF was a project you worked on for 8 years; can you tell us about the development of this memoir turned musical?

KF:  In 2004, a friend who was a docent at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage here in Los Angeles told me about an amazing memoir she had come across in her time working in the museum bookstore.  She brought it to me knowing I was an actress and with the thought that it would make a great one person show.  I read the book in one sitting, staying up until 4am one night.  I was totally captivated by not only the story but by the very specific voice contained therein.  She had a great sense of humor, irony, humanity, and intelligence that came across in every sentence.  I think I fell in love with Rachel herself first and then with her captivating story.  I asked my dearly beloved father-in-law, Jack LaZebnik, a talented playwright, to adapt the memoir.  It was his last work before he succumbed to prostate cancer in 2005. Raising children intervened but, when I was rehearsing for a national Broadway tour in NYC, I brought the material to a dear friend and immensely talented composer, Leslie Steinweiss.  We talked about how music for the show could express Rachel's inner thoughts and deepest desires.  He wrote the first song, a sweeping, epic song about the trip to America on a boat, and I knew that music would be an integral aspect of the piece.  My husband, Ken LaZebnik, re-imagined the adaptation using some of his father's imagery and adding his own poetic and specific insights.  On tour, I was able to meet one of Rachel's relatives, David Calof, and actually hold the original manuscript.  Finally, a dear friend and honored colleague, Ellen Pressman, came on board as the director of the piece after offering to hold a reading in her own home.  Rachel Calof: A Memoir With Music was originally seen at the Ensemble Studio Theater/LA as part of their Winterfest, Pepperdine University, the New York International Fringe Festival.  At one of the performances at Pepperdine's Raitt Hall, twenty members of the Calof family were in attendance, including her granddaughter, Joyce Aronson.  When Joyce gave us her seal of approval, it was a joyous feeling; our sole purpose has been to honor this woman, and to tell her story with specificity and honesty.

MJTC:  You lived in Minnesota for a period of time.  What's it like returning to the area for RACHEL CALOF?

KF:  I always feel as though the Twin Cities is the place that healed me, made me who I am, influenced me as an artist beyond all measure.  I have never seen anything to match The Festival of Our Lady of the Ships at the Children's Theatre, directed by John Clark Donahue, or The Three Sisters directed by Liviu Ciulei or The Seagull directed by Lucien Pintilie or Camille, directed by Garland Wright...I could go on and on.  The innovations and artistic individuality of theaters like Illusion, Theatre de la Juene Lune, and Mixed Blood fired my imagination and gave me an education in theatricality, boldness, and vision like no other.  Involvement with the Playwrights' Center introduced me to writers and artists who are still my friends and colleagues.  I have a deep respect for the artists and artistic innovators in this community and incredible, lifelong gratitude for their influence on my life.  I met my husband and the theater colleagues that formed my life for the next ten years and beyond, in my time in New York, while at the Guthrie.  So I am excited, humbled and not a little intimidated to come back to this amazing and highly sophisticated artistic community.

MJTC:  Do you have a favorite character that you've played?

KF:   I would have to say that, hands down, the favorite character I have played was Blanche from A Streetcar Named Desire.  I had great advice from one of America's premiere actresses, Helen Carey, who, by the way, got her start working with Tyrone Guthrie at the Guthrie Theater.  We were doing Crime and Punishment together at Arena Stage and she had just finished playing the role.  I remember Helen talking about how smart, persistent, funny and ingenious Blanche was.  Most people don't perceive her in this way.  But it makes a whole lot of sense.  I never forgot this interpretation and when I was offered the chance to play it years later, I made great use of Helen Carey's advice.  I love the construction of the play and the fact that once you get on the train, Tennessee Williams just takes you right down the road.  I love the fact that in every scene in the play, something very physical happens and this physicality acts on the actors in the play in a very very visceral way.  Everything about the play is, to me, perfection in playwriting and character construction.  One of my most favorite, and surprising, theater experiences, was touring with Spring Awakening.  I had expected the masses of kids on the tour to be a big headache, or at least that is what all of my adult actor friends expected.  Instead, I found a group of the kindest, most amazingly dedicated, passionate young people I have ever known.  They all became like my children and we keep in touch to this day.  They never went out onstage and gave anything less than 100%. When I think of their dedication at such a young age, it humbles and inspires me.

MJTC:  What do you find is the most rewarding part of your work? 

KF:   The most rewarding part of my work is to have the chance to try to understand how another human being thinks and behaves and to represent that as truthfully as I can.  Also to tell stories that try to get to the truth about what it is to be human in all its mystery and complexity. Doing this kind of work ultimately makes us all so vulnerable at various times.  I am constantly humbled and amazed by meeting and working with colleagues in this business who put so much heart and soul into what they are doing, whether it is an actor or a make-up person or a grip on a set who is meticulously taking care of his equipment, setting up for the next shot at 2am after a fourteen hour day. Ultimately, it is a profession of people who care about what they do passionately and I feel one of the greatest rewards is coming into contact with these kinds of people.  When I am not working, I miss them terribly.  When I am working again, I feel like I am with my "tribe."  This is a great reward.

 MJTC:  What upcoming projects are you currently working on?

KF:  I have been studying with a brilliant teacher and singer, Karen Morrow, and she has encouraged me to work in the form of cabaret.  So, I am working on a cabaret performance piece.  I also have two indie films that will be premiering this fall; one, a comedy, entitled Muffin-Top: A Love Story and the other, decidedly a drama, called Escape from Polygamy.  I will have a guest appearance on a new Showtime series premiering this fall about the sex researchers Masters and Johnson entitled Masters of Sex.  Finally Ellen Pressman and I are in the beginning stages of producing an indie film comedy entitled Mom/Dom written by Ken LaZebnik, in which I will play a widowed single woman searching for love in the San Fernando Valley.

MJTC:  What fills your time apart from acting? 

KF:  I work in the theater, creating my own pieces and also doing plays written and created by others.  I am also a part of the television, film and commercial community in Los Angeles, which is an entirely different beast.  The business side of the business in Los Angeles takes up a fair amount of time and is both rewarding, curious and full of driven, fascinating people.  I am the mother of two sons, and have been very much a part of their lives.  My eldest just graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point and is beginning his military career currently at Ft. Benning, GA.  He and I just completed two cross country road trips; one from West Point to Los Angeles, and the other from Los Angeles to Ft. Benning, GA.  My younger son is very interested in politics and just helped get Eric Garcetti, the new mayor in Los Angeles, elected.  I have loved supporting them in their lives and I enjoy just being around them.  They make me laugh.


Jewish Theater in the 21st Century

By Hayley Finn

When I was asked to speak at the Association for Jewish Theatre conference, I thought: Jewish Theatre in the 21st Century, what a daunting subject for me to tackle.  I am humbled to stand before you and address this topic.

I am certain that each of us in this room would have a different sense of what Jewish Theatre is in the 21st century and perhaps even more to the point, what we would like it to become as we move forward through this century. Yesterday we had the chance to hear from Emily Mann about how she defines Jewish Theatre. Her definition was broad and inclusive – any play that is either written by a Jewish playwright or has Jewish themes. She made a point of saying she didn’t see Jewish Theatre as being written for a Jewish audience exclusively. I imagine other people in the room may have different definitions of Jewish Theatre. And one of the things I love about Jewish culture is that we are open and good at seeing an issue from all sides, so if we polled this room we could probably get several definitions of Jewish Theatre.  Our beliefs and desires stem from our history, aesthetic sensibilities and the communities in which we live. So I am mindful that my perspective is only one perspective based on my experience. And what is my experience?

I am speaking to you through the vantage point of someone who is a theatre practitioner, a director of primarily new work and the Associate Artistic Director of the Playwrights’ Center. As you might imagine, I read a substantial number of plays, and I am deeply invested in new work, new stories, so I will be speaking to you about some of the trends I’ve seen as of late.

But before I talk about plays, it might be helpful to get a sense of my background, how I grew up, since it impacts my perspective and my own impulses to create Jewish theatre.

I was born in New York City in the 1970’s. I was raised Jewish, although I came from an interfaith marriage. My dad is Irish Catholic and my mother is Jewish. When I was growing up two of my closest friends also had Jewish mothers and Irish fathers. I mention this because many people of my generation, and certainly those younger than I, come from interfaith marriages. In the last third of the 20th century, half the Jewish people in the US who married married outside of their faith. The face of Judaism has shifted in recent years, and this has impacted the Jewish-American narrative. It has changed the stories we tell, and perhaps also why we tell them. When we think of a Jewish person’s identity now, we must take into account that for many people their identity is rich with cultural influences.

Going back to my personal narrative, growing up in New York City, going to school at Brown University and returning to work in theatre in New York, I never thought of myself as a minority because I was Jewish. Maybe it’s because so many theatre people in New York are Jewish. Maybe it’s because New Yorkers have adapted Jewish culture and Yiddish words, so that everyone seems “a little Jewish.”

When I moved to Minneapolis 7 years ago, for the first time I did feel like a minority. It wasn’t because I was discriminated against; it was just that the Jewish culture wasn’t embedded in the fabric of the city in the way that it is in New York. When I used the word “schlep” or the expression “oy vey,” I stood out. Not every bakery sold challah, and when September rolled around I found myself wondering about how I would observe the High Holidays. It was at that time that I started to crave a connection with other Jewish people and with a sense of community – a community which for me came from a sense of shared history. In addition to reaching out to some temples, I approached Barbara Brooks at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, because I really wanted to direct plays with her company, and admired her mission to tell contemporary Jewish stories. I liked the theatre’s tag line, too - “Igniting your mind by touching your heart. (Even if you’re not Jewish).” I appreciated that sense of inclusion, perhaps because my father is Catholic, and perhaps because that sense of inclusion is a primary value for my generation – the generation that grew up watching Sesame Street. It’s also been a big part of Reform Judaism, which is my religious background.

Having lived and grown up in New York, I never thought about Jewish theatre and didn’t seek it out. However, I saw plays with Jewish themes that were produced at prominent, but not culturally specific theatres. I’ve begun to wonder if Jewish Theatre in the 21st century is more relevant outside of New York where people are in need of a sense of community? Is there more of a need for Jewish theatres in other communities because plays with Jewish themes aren’t being programmed at other theatres? Or,  is it that they are not being produced in ways that seem authentic? What motivates us to create Jewish theatre and what motivates audiences to go to Jewish theatres in the 21st century?

When I speak to my contemporaries who belong to temples or are thinking about joining a temple, it’s often because either they are looking for a sense of community, or they want their children to learn about Judaism – they want that history carried out through the generations. I know there is a resurgence of Orthodox Jews; however, speaking from my experience, most of the Jews I know see themselves as secular. They say things like “I’m Jewish but I’m not very religious.” Many of them even admit to me that they don’t believe in G-d. They identify with the culture of Judaism. They see Judaism as connecting them to their families, their history, and a sense of community.

When I consider Jewish Theatre in the 21st century, I consider what Jewish American playwrights are writing about. The themes that rise to the top are plays about family, particularly intergenerational plays, and plays that examine or celebrate history. I think it’s interesting that those themes parallel what many people identify as their connection to Judaism.

Intergenerational stories are on the rise in theatres in general, and I have seen an even greater number with Jewish characters at the center of the story. In Adam Kraar’s The Karpovsky Variations, Julia (the main character) takes a journey through memory to find a connection to her father. She’s searching for her identity and tries to piece together her family narrative in order to discover herself. Her mother (who is absent from the play and her life) is not Jewish and she has a difficult time connecting with her father who has abandoned not only the religion but also the culture of Judaism. She conjures up memories of her Grandma Rose and imagines the clarinet her grandma heard in the streets of Krakow. She looks to her uncles and memories of her father, and she starts to piece together her history, a history that had for many years eluded her. In so doing, she finds a more complete sense of her identity.

In the last play I directed, Handle With Care, a young Israeli woman, Ayelet, visits the U.S. with her grandmother. Through a series of events (the most significant being her grandmother dies) she meets a man, Josh, who is half Jewish/ half Catholic. Josh jokes about celebrating Hanamas, a mash-up of Christmas and Hannukah, with his family, and he can barely remember a line or two of Hebrew from his Bar Mitzvah. Through the play the couple come together romantically when Ayelet prepares an impromptu Shabbos meal. She evokes the memory of her grandmother and explains that her grandmother loved Shabbat because it’s about bringing people together and about family. Josh and Ayelet connect literally and perhaps spiritually because of the grandmother, and in addition to falling in love with Ayelet, Josh learns to appreciate the Shabbat rituals, and discovers that he really likes what Shabbat represents.

Anther play I’ve recently read is about a family that comes together around the ritual of the Seder. In Lila Rose Kaplan’s play We All Fall Down, a secular Jewish family meet up for Passover. It’s a holiday that they haven’t  celebrated for a long time. In fact, they are more consistent in their celebration of Christmas than Passover. The matriarch of the family insists on calling Passover “Jewish Easter.” The person at the table who knows the most about Passover, and the one who can speak Hebrew, is an African American friend who recently converted to Judaism. Through the course of the play you discover that the father is suffering from Alzheimer’s and his wife thinks that performing this ritual (the Passover Seder) will help her husband remember his childhood and his mother, and hopefully, bring him closer to remembering his identity.

These intergenerational plays are exploring our connection to Judaism through our families. In these plays, the characters are searching for and exploring their identity. Yesterday we talked about how Jewish identity has in the past been (at times) associated with victimology.  However, in these plays, Jewish identity is not being viewed in relationship to an oppressor. Rather the characters are trying to find their Jewish identity and they are looking back to their families, to abandoned practices to find it. The struggle to “be Jewish” is not an EXTERNAL struggle. It’s an INTERNAL struggle.

Another category of play that I see a fair amount of  scripts about are history plays -- stories that deal with historical events or people. These plays often celebrate the life of a famous Jewish person. These stories connect us with our family in a larger sense – these are our people, look what they’ve accomplished.  Golda’s Balcony about Golda Meir, Woman Before A Glass about Peggy Guggenheim, Photograph 51 about Rosalind Franklin. Notice I’m listing all these plays about famous Jewish women, which may also be a trend in 21st century Jewish plays, shining some light on Jewish women’s accomplishments. Or it may be that these plays stand out to me, so I notice them. Regardless, these plays give us a sense of connection to our history, and perhaps to the accomplishments of Jewish people through time. Yesterday, when we were discussing the prominent role Jews played in the Civil Rights Movement, Emily said, “that’s something to be proud of.” We do feel proud and want to acknowledge our family members who have done remarkable things.

We also have plays about historical events that are not as celebratory. They connect us with moments in our past that are important to remember or to learn about. The Twenty-Seventh Man, based on Nathan Englander’s book and which premiered at the Public Theatre this year, tells the story of the Jewish writers that were killed during the Stalin regime.  It’s a poignant play that sheds light on an event in history that I knew little about.

And of course we have plays that deal with the Holocaust. I want to spend a moment talking a little bit about the Holocaust. We talked a bit about Holocaust plays yesterday, and there  was a strong feeling in the room that we need to remember the Holocaust but we need to be careful not to present it through the lens of victimology. I am seeing a different approach to how the Holocaust is represented in plays by a younger generation, and I think that has to do with the fact the people writing them have a different relationship to the Holocaust.

I’ll take my mother as an example. She was fortunately born in 1942 in the US, and therefore, was not directly affected, but had many friends who were survivors and later in life ended up teaching Holocaust literature. She has told me that when she was a child and made her way into her adult life, she would contemplate which of her Christian friends would save her if there was another Holocaust. She said that she has talked with many of her Jewish friends about her ruminations, and they also confess that they have had the similar thoughts. I must admit that this isn’t something that I think about, and although deeply moved and horrified by the Holocaust, I have a different relationship to it than my mother’s generation has.

Let’s take a moment to examine how the Holocaust is reflected in plays written by a younger generation. Many writers mention the Holocaust in their plays, though it’s not the main part of the story. A character may have been a survivor, and that can be an element of the story, but it is not ultimately what the story is about.

And when the Holocaust is tackled more head on, it is less frequent that the plays are based on memoirs of survivors.  Rather, you are seeing plays about Americans and how the Holocaust affected their identity. I recently directed Compulsion or the House Behind by Rinne Groff at MJTC. That play examines a character based on the author Meyer Levin. It shows how he wanted the story of Anne Frank to be told from a Jewish perspective and his frustration with the stage adaptation, which he believed was not authentic. The play also examines how the Holocaust gave him a persecution complex even though he was not in Europe at the time, and didn’t directly experience it. Although the Holocaust motivates some of the action in the play, Compulsion is not actually a story about the Holocaust.

And then there is the play by the young writer Joshua Harmon called Bad Jews, which received critical acclaim this past year. The play tells the story of how when the grandfather (who was a survivor) dies, his grandchildren fight over his chai. One granddaughter feels she has claim to it because she is the most religious, one grandson thinks that as the oldest male grandson, he should have it.

They all want to be connected to him. The one grandson who remains quiet through the fight reveals at the end of the play that he has gotten a tattoo of his grandfather’s number. So I would say that plays that  deal less with the Holocaust directly and more with its aftermath and the reverberations generationally are the type of Holocaust plays we’re seeing in the 21st century.

To bring it back to my own personal journey, I directed a play that was a very different take on a traditional Holocaust play. The play was based on an original cabaret written and performed in Terezin. The cabaret was called Laugh With Us. The adaptation, written by Kira Obolensky, is titled Why We Laugh. Using the source material, survivor interviews, and imagination, the piece examines how the prisoners of Terezin were able to laugh at the absurdity of their situation. In fact they made jokes about wearing the Yellow Star. The play illuminates how Jewish people have used humor as a survival technique, and how bringing people together to laugh and tell stories can be empowering. The angle of looking at the humor that was going on during the Holocaust is again not what you would call your traditional Holocaust play experience.

To step back from Jewish theatre specifically for a moment, and look at the direction of theatre more macroscopically, there have been trends as of late toward devised theatre – theatre created by an ensemble. Some of the leading artists in this field are Jewish, though I haven’t seen the work have particularly Jewish content. On a national level, there is also a trend toward more participatory theatre. People want to engage with the story, and not just in a traditional “talk-back” setting – they want to be involved in the experience.

Much of what is happening that is new and exciting is immersive theatre, participatory theatre, theatre that appears as an event – something not to be missed. I am sure many of you have heard about or seen Sleep No More, which has been running in NYC for over a year. The theatre company Punchdrunk has set Macbeth in an abandoned hotel. As an audience member, you wander through the hotel and are invited to open desk drawers, peek behind closed doors, and follow the story of Macbeth when you stumble upon it or seek it out. This type of immersive, participatory theatre is sparking up all over the country.

I’m not saying that Jewish theatre will head in this direction, but it’s interesting that even in the Holocaust museum in DC, aspects of this type of interactivity are taking place. When you enter the Holocaust museum you are given an identity card of a person who lived in Europe during the Holocaust. The impetus is to help personalize the experience for the viewer, but in doing so, it, in a way, casts you as a character, providing you with a personalized entry point to the experience.

As Jews, we’re used to participating in the narrative. Every year we gather around for the Passover Seder and engage in the ritual of community story telling, so I can see that we would have something to offer in this aesthetic movement.

I also want to point out that Jewish people have always been on the forefront of creating new forms of art, new movements pushing the boundaries. We believe in asking questions, in never sticking to one answer.  Our culture is based on thinking. That is one of the reasons that I feel very optimistic about Jewish Theatre in the 21st century. Who knows what stories will emerge and what forms theatre will take? It’s up to us to decide what the future of Jewish Theatre will look like. And as we move forward, it’s up to the next generations of artists.

Some of the leaders of 21st century Jewish Theatre are yet to be born. Who knows what exciting and dynamic work awaits us.

Hayley Finn is the Associate Artistic Director, Playwrights' Center, and a freelance director.  For MJTC, she has directed Handle With Care, Compulsion or the House Behind, The Last Word, and The Gospel According to Jerry.  This season she will direct The History of Invulnerability.  

Two Exciting Events

Although our 2012-2013 production season has come to a close, MJTC has two upcoming events to be excited about!

MJTC is excited to host the Association for Jewish Theatre's 32nd annual international conference June 2-5, 2013. The conference offers playwrights, performers, artistic directors, theater educators, scholars, and theater-makers of all kinds the opportunity to meet, exchange ideas, and learn about the latest trends in theater. Two juried showcases will spotlight solo performers and playwrights of Jewish works of all kinds. Sessions will include Children's and Family Theater with a panel moderated by Peter Brosius, Artistic Director of the Tony Award-winning Children's Theatre Company; Visionaries in Contemporary Theater and application of unique ideas and programming; Arts Marketing; and Funding Sources. Emily Mann, multi-award winning director and playwright, will be the keynote speaker and will address the conference theme "Imagining Jewish Theater in the 21st Century." Ms. Mann has been the artistic director of the McCarter Theatre for the past 22 years and has garnered several Obie Awards. Under her direction, the McCarter received a Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theater. Ms. Mann is the recipient of Helen Hayes and Joseph Jefferson Awards, and has been nominated for Drama Desk and Outer Circle Awards. A special event honoring the world-renowned performer Theodore Bikel will take place on Sunday evening, June 2nd. Best known for his performances as Tevye in the film Fiddler on the Roof and Captain Von Trapp in the original stage production of The Sound of Music, Mr. Bikel is a film, recording, television, and stage performer. He is the recipient of an Emmy Award, and co-founder of the Newport Folk Festival. There will also be a tribute in memory of Tamara Brooks, Mr. Bikel's wife, who was a good friend of AJT and a talented musician.

All events are open to the public. To register for the entire conference please visit the Association For Jewish Theatre.  To register for individual events, please call MJTC at 651-647-4315.

Did you enjoy this past season and are looking forward to our next season? Please join us on Thursday, June 6 at 6pm for a special event at I Nonni Italian Restaurant as we announce our 2013-2014 season. Get to know other MJTC supporters like yourselves, feast on a delicious dinner and enjoy actor-read short readings from the 19th season's productions!

Cost per person is $100 (Forty dollars of which is considered a donation to MJTC). This fabulous dinner will include appetizers, wine, salad, choice of four entrees, bread, dessert and coffee/tea. Space is limited, please make your reservations by calling 651-647-4315. 

Celebrating a Milestone

Minnesota Jewish Theater Company is marking a major milestone – this is our 18th birthday.  In the Jewish culture, the number 18 has special significance.   You may know that the Hebrew word “chai” means “life” in English.  It also symbolizes the value of life and all the hope that accompanies it.  What is the connection between “chai” and 18?  In Hebrew, each letter has a numeric value, and the word “chai” is spelled with two Hebrew letters that equal 18. 

For these special birthdays there is a Jewish tradition of giving monetary gifts in multiples of $18 as a good omen for life.  

MJTC has accomplished so much in its first 18 years!  We’ve been recognized by our theater peers with three Ivey awards going to our artists for productions in recent years.  We’ve commissioned or presented world premieres of five plays that have been well received and gone on to productions elsewhere.  Our audiences have consistently grown.  A successful ticket subsidy fund has made it possible for thousands of young people to attend our performances.  With support from you, we can continue to offer award winning, thought provoking and touching productions with universal appeal. 

If you’d like to support this wonderful and award winning theater, and make a special contribution to celebrate MJTC’s 18th birthday, keeping tradition alive with a gift of $18 or $36 or any other multiple of 18, please send a check to MJTC.  We thank you in advance for supporting our continued success!

Laura Schindelman

Chair, Fundraising Raising Committee, Board of Directors

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