MJTC play looks at art, politics and Leni Riefenstahl

Drama written by Tom Smith is a look at the tensions between art and politics
By Doris Rubenstein
American Jewish World
October 19, 2016

Twin Cities theater-goers too often take the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company for granted. Its performing space is modest. Its presentations don’t have the glitz and pizzazz that are the regular fare at the Guthrie or at Broadway road-shows at the Orpheum or the Ordway Center. But the little-Jewish-theater-that-could consistently delivers productions of high quality that are regularly reviewed in national publications and consistently win praise and even awards.

As a result, expectations are high when MJTC Artistic Director Barbara Brooks chooses a play that will be making its professional theater debut on her stage. Such is the case with Aunt Raini by Tom Smith. The show has made the rounds of several universities across the country, with its first showing at New Mexico State University — an outpost even more surprising than St. Paul, since neither locale regularly registers more than a blip on the radar screens of Jewish communities on either coast. Smith has recently moved his writing desk up to the Seattle area where he continues to write intriguing dramas.

Smith was inspired to write Aunt Raini after seeing a documentary on the life and work of Nazi film director Leni Riefenstahl on television. Inspired by that biography, Aunt Raini is Smith’s incisive look at the tensions between art and politics, family legacy and personal identity: During a visit from her great-aunt Raini (Maggie Bearmon Pistner), successful gallery owner Katharine (Heidi Fellner) struggles to keep her family’s past buried. The threat of exposure intensifies when she introduces Raini to her Jewish boyfriend Joel (Michael Torsch), a struggling photographer exploring Judaism in his work.

When Katharine inherits her great-aunt’s original film reels that document Adolf Hitler and the rise of the Nazi Party, Joel and Raini’s companion Horst (Dan Hopman) force her to confront the truth: whether Raini’s art is inextricably tied to its subject matter or can be judged for its artistic merit alone.

“I was fascinated with how Riefenstahl navigated between the truth and her truth,” playwright Smith admits.

It was 12 years ago that he wrote the play, and he sent out copies of an early draft to theaters across the country. One of them was the MJTC. He was shocked when he received a call from Brooks earlier this year, expressing her interest in staging the play. Consequently, Smith held workshops on the script with the entire cast and company at the MJTC through the miracles of 21st century technology, i.e. Skype. From those workshops, he was able “to get valuable insights, ways of how he could phrase some dialogue more effectively and shape the action better.”

Why did it take so long for the MJTC to pick up on this intriguing piece of theater?

According to artistic director Brooks, “We get dozens of scripts for consideration every year and they generally get put in a stack on my desk in the order I receive them. Well, I finally got around to Aunt Raini and I was highly impressed with the premise and how Tom Smith handled it.”

Once the script was accepted for production, little did Smith know that there would be a strong personal link between the character of Katharine and the actress playing her at the MJTC. Heidi Fellner, appearing at the MJTC for the first time, grew up under the influence of a great-aunt who survived Auschwitz and lived to forgive the nation and culture that caused her suffering and continued trauma.

Fellner reflected on the connection between her great-aunt, herself and her character.

“How do all of these things in my life influence how I feel about this former Nazi propagandist? Well, I always make a point of absolutely taking my character’s ‘side’ — hook, line and sinker! But in this play, I’ve been given a little bit of a gift. Because I do take my character’s side. I forgive this filmmaker her humanity, and thus, I forgive the Nazi within her, because I believe they are one and the same. To some degree, we are all part Nazi, and we are also all their victims.”

The subject of Aunt Raini is historical. The MJTC makes history with the premiere of this show. Be part of theater history and buy your ticket early. They are bound to be in demand.

***

The Minnesota Jewish Theatre Production (MJTC) of Aunt Raini opens Oct. 29 at the Highland Park Community Center Theater, 1978 Ford Parkway, St. Paul. Ticket prices range from $20-$34. Student and group discounts are also available. To order, visit www.mnjewishtheatre.org or call 651-647-4315.

22 Years And Still Going Strong

by Kit Bix
TC Jewfolk
September 8, 2016

Now in its 22nd year, Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company is the nation’s longest-running independent Jewish theater. A fixture in both the Twin Cities’ Jewish and theater communities, the theater has received an Ivey award and a host of other accolades. Last week, Barbara Brooks, the theater’s founder and Producing Artistic Director, sat down with us to discuss the theater’s exciting and provocative 2016-2017 season.

TC Jewfolk: I was struck – and pleased – by the fact that 3 out of the 5 plays you’re producing this season were written by women.

Barbara Brooks: Were they? I didn’t notice.

TCJ: Iris Bahr, Jenna Zark, and Wendy Kouts. So it wasn’t intentional? That’s so progressive! I guess that’s the ideal, isn’t it? To get to a time where …

BB: Where it just happens?

TCJ: Yes! Now you’ve just wrapped up “Dai” (Enough) and your next show is “Aunt Raini,” by Tom Smith. It’s a play that is concerned with the Leni Riefenstahl controversy, is that right? Riefenstahl was German film director who was solicited by Adolf Hitler to produce Nazi propaganda films.

BB: Well, she would say that she was asked to film what he was doing and that she wanted to be a filmmaker and a director and that there were not a lot of opportunities for women, so she did it.

TCJ: From the press materials, it seems like the play raises interesting questions about art and morality – or whether artistic achievement should ever be weighed against or even outweigh moral obligations. Can you tell us about the story and how the play approaches these themes?

BB: Well, the play is inspired by her life but it’s put in a context in which she’s very ill and she comes to New York to visit her great niece. And the great niece runs an art gallery and she has a boyfriend who is Jewish. And he’s a photographer who shoots Jewish people out of their context. In other words, he might take an Orthodox man and pose him in a setting that is not really appropriate for an Orthodox person. So when he finds out about Leni and the films she’s made, he confronts his girlfriend. But then the play raises the question about the work he’s doing. He’s playing with the reality of Jewishness. And so, in that case, is the content tied to the pictures you’re taking or are you just doing it for art’s sake. Also, is there a moral obligation for Catherine, the great niece, to do something with the original films or by just keeping them out there and let people see them, is she promoting racism? Even though her great aunt was a famous director and film-maker.

TCJ: How did you find the play?

BB: It was an unsolicited submission. I came to me in 2005 and when I saw it I pulled it out because it sounded interesting and I set it aside. But then it got buried because we get a lot of plays. And when I was trying to choose the season I came across it again and read it and I thought, “oh my God!” I had to find the playwright and I called and said, “Okay, sit down. You sent me a play a decade ago!”

TCJ: In February, you’re staging “The Whipping Man” which was produced in 2009 by Penumbra and is by the gay, mixed-race Puerto Rican playwright Mathew Lopez. Can you tell us something about the play and why you chose it?

BB: I think it’s very beautifully written play and it’s set the day after the Civil War in Virginia. And this young Jewish guy comes home to devastation and the destruction of the family plantation and there’s two former slaves there. And it’s the first night of Passover and one of the ex-slaves insists on doing the Seder.

TCJ: Because he was Jewish.

BB: He’s part of the family and he wanted to honor being Jewish. So the play looks at freedom and enslavement and what that does to a person. And it also exposes something I never thought about being from the North – Jewish families as slave holders.

TCJ: You have Sally Wingert directing and she’s usually one of your star actresses.

BB: She’s never directed before.

TCJ: Really? So how did it come to pass that she’s directing for you rather than acting for you this season?

BB: Well, I talked to her and I thought she would be a great director because she’s so smart, she’s worked with so many major directors, and she’s a wonderful actress. I think that directors –if they can get in the head of the actors –it can be a plus. So I talked to her and I said, I think you would be a great director and her first reaction was, “are you kidding me?” And I said no. So we talked about it again over time.

TCJ: “We Are the Levinsons” is the last show of the season. It’s by Wendy Kout and it’s a comedy in which one of the major characters dies in the first act and it features a trans character. Can you tell us something about the writer?

BB: Wendy Kout – this is her third play –but for many years she wrote for TV and film. So I think her writing is very funny but it’s a little different for us. So I brought in Haley Finn to be dramaturge to help flesh out some of the characters. Wendy told me she was really excited because she’d never worked with a dramaturg before.

TCJ: Anything else we should know? Your hopes and plans for the future?

BB: Our audience should keep growing. We haven’t finished with this year but our subscriptions last year were up 24 percent which is against the national trend [subscriptions are going down] and our individual ticket sales are up. So we just want to keep doing what we’re doing.

Minnesota Jewish Theater Company’s next production, “Aunt Raini,” runs from Oct. 29-Nov.20. Order tickets online, or call the box office at 651-647-4315.

Schwartz takes on challenge of ‘Dai (enough)’

by Joel Rippel
American Jewish World
Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Last year, Miriam Schwartz played the most challenging role of her acting career — Dr. Ruth Westheimer in the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s production of Becoming Dr. Ruth.

Schwartz’s latest role is just as daunting. Schwartz will star in DAI (enough), the award-winning play by Israeli-American performance artist Iris Bahr. Schwartz will perform all 11 characters in the play, which takes place in a Tel Aviv café before a bombing.

“Dr. Ruth was scary, in part, because that was a one-woman show,” said Schwartz, “and it was a character outside of what I have been cast for. In this show, DAI, it’s that (scary), 11 times over. One woman, Iris Bahr, wrote all of these characters – men, women, old, young, American, Palestinian, Israeli.”

DAI (enough), which kicks off the MJTC’s 2016-2017 season and will run at the Highland Park Community Center Theater from Aug. 17 to Aug. 31, is Schwartz’s fifth production for the MJTC. The Seattle native, who got strong reviews for her performance in Becoming Dr. Ruth, has also appeared in MJTC’s Bad JewsHandle With Care and Jericho.

DAI (enough) began rehearsals in the last week of July. Schwartz started her work on memorizing the roles about a month before rehearsal began.

“I’m really excited to watch this come together,” said Schwartz, at the start of the second week of rehearsal. “I really enjoy working with Warren Bowles, the director. I feel so safe under his direction.”

Schwartz and Bowles previously worked together in the MJTC production of Jericho.

Schwartz, 26, moved to the Twin Cities in 2008 to study in the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater Actor Training Program, where she earned her B.F.A. degree.

Schwartz’s theater credits include Gabriel (Walking Shadow Theatre Company), Cinephilia(7th House Theater), Homegrown, The Hollow (Workhaus Collective), Born Yesterday(Gurthrie Theater), and The Brutes (Theatre Forever). Schwartz has also had roles in Uncle VanyaIn Game or Real, and several roles in Clandestino.

Schwartz’s TV credits include The Sealed Orders of Liv Ullman, a documentary in the HBO Masterclass series and in the PBS series, Biz Kid$.

Bowles, who has more than 40 years experience as an actor and director, has previously directed MJTC’s productions of The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, Jericho and Photograph 51.

DAI’s production team includes Liz Josheff Busa (costume design), Jennifer Cha (stage manager), Paul Epton (lighting design), Michael Hoover (scenic design) and Anita Kelling (sound design).

***

DAI (enough) kicks off the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s2016-17 season on Aug. 17 and will run through Aug. 31.

The upcoming season will include performances of Aunt Raini (Oct. 29 to Nov. 20), The Magic Dreidels (Dec. 6 to Dec. 21), The Whipping Man (Feb. 4 to Feb. 26) and We Are the Levinsons (April 22 to May 14).

All performances will be held in the theater of Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Pkwy., St. Paul.

Individual tickets went on sale Aug. 1. For ticket information visit www.mnjewishtheatre.org or call 651-647-4315.

MJTC gives local premiere to ‘Bad Jews’

By Doris Rubenstein
American Jewish World
Thursday, April 21st, 2016

What, exactly, defines someone as a “bad Jew”? It depends, or so it seems, on whom you ask.

To a member of the Neturei Karta, for example, any Jew who recognizes the State of Israel is a bad Jew, since “good Jews,” like themselves, are those who are waiting for the Messiah to arrive and establish a Jewish kingdom under Hashem.

There was a controversy some 20-plus years ago when incumbent Minnesota Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, an active Reform Jew up for re-election, accused his opponent, Paul Wellstone, of being a “bad Jew.” Evidently, the Jewish electorate disagreed with that opinion in a big way and helped elect the “bad Jew” to Congress.

Does being a “bad Jew” equate to being a bad person?

There’s nothing like a death in the family to bring out the worst in people. This unhappy truth is displayed with delectably savage humor in Bad Jews, a zesty play by Joshua Harmon that opens April 30 at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s regular venue in the Highland Park Community Center, St. Paul.

Artistic Director Barbara Brooks knew what she was doing when she invited director Hayley Finn — as a New York born-and-bred Jew, not to mention her position as associate artistic director at the Playwrights’ Center — to bring her perspective to address this “bad Jew” question that native Minnesotans just can’t do convincingly. Finn coaxed an Ivey Award-winning performance from Sally Wingert in Rose in MJTC’s 2014 season, so we can expect no less from her work in this new production.

Finn hasn’t seen the original New York production of Bad Jews, but she was able to have a conversation with Harmon, its privacy-seeking playwright.

“Talking with him enabled me to get his intention better, to get a feel for the style and tone of his concept of the characters,” Finn told the AJW. “This is a play that demands that the audience get into the minds and hearts of the characters so that we can understand their psychologies.”

Bad Jews allows us into a post-funeral gathering of 20-something cousins — with a non-Jewish bystander for balance and good measure — working out the future ownership of a piece of their late grandfather’s estate that is fraught with symbolism, both Jewish and material. Indeed, according to Finn, the play is all about the varying philosophies of the protagonists and how they apply them to the death of their grandfather.

Bad Jews asks, “How do Jewish traditions and the Holocaust play out in the thinking of millennial Jews? Do they see themselves as good Jews or bad?”

The Twin Cities theater community is fortunate to have a wealth of millennials who have ample stage experience to pull off a show like this with convincing performances.

Miriam Schwartz was previously seen in MJTC’s Becoming Dr. Ruth, Jericho and Handle with Care. This graduate of the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater B.F.A. Actor Training Program has performed in the Guthrie’s Uncle Vanya as Sonia, and has many other theater credits.

Michael Hanna appears at MJTC for the first time, but is no stranger to major Twin Cities stages. He recently starred as Romeo at Park Square Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet. Other recent theater credits include the Guthrie (My Fair Lady, Born Yesterday, Those Who Favor Fire) and Mixed Blood Theatre (Stars and Stripes). Hanna, too, is a graduate of the U of MN/Guthrie Theater program.

Michael Torsch returns to MJTC, having appeared there already in The Twenty-Seventh Man, Jericho and New Jerusalem. Adding to his theatrical credits, Torsch recently directed and acted in an original stage adaptation of Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game at the Bedlam Lowertown.

Adelin Phelps appears at MJTC for the first time, fresh from playing Sharon in Watermelon Hill at the History Theater, which was hot on the heels of her performance in Lullaby at Theater Latté Da. Other credits include Park Square Theatre (King Lear), Illusion Theatre/Transatlantic Love Affair (These Old Shoes, Ash Land) and Walking Shadow Theatre (Compleat Female Stage Beauty).

With Bad Jews premiering shortly after we “good Jews” have celebrated Pesach with the Four Questions at the seder, this might be a good time to ask a fifth question: “What is a bad Jew?” And see if the answer lies in this theatrical production.

Stellar cast brightens MJTC stage in ‘Allergist’s Wife’

Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s production includes Twin Cities’ favorites Sally Wingert and Linda Kelsey

Wednesday, February 10th, 2016...5:54 pm
By DORIS RUBENSTEIN

There are a lot of Jewish allergists (male and female) in the Twin Cities. You’d have to work hard not to know one. Hence, you probably know the wife of one or another of them. Is that enough reason to go to see The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife opening Feb. 13 at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company?

I doubt it, but there are many, many other reasons you should go.

Reason 1: The play itself was nominated for numerous theatrical awards, including the Tony for Best Play of 2000.

The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, written by Charles Busch, is set in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, a location without equal in the Twin Cities, but one might call the protagonist, Marjorie, a “Jewish Edina housewife” and get away with it. Not only is Marjorie suffering her own mid-life crisis but she has to deal with her equally New York Jewish mother, Frieda.

Who can save her? I’ll be a spoiler and let you know that it’s her mysterious childhood friend, who might remind theater lovers of the eponymous character in George Kaufman and Moss Hart’s famous comedy The Man Who Came to Dinner.

Is being the wife of an allergist really material for a Broadway play? According to a Twin Cities woman who fits this category but prefers to stay anonymous, “there’s not anything funny I can think of really; just the usual: yellow gunk in nose is a virus, clear gunk could be allergy. To me, it doesn’t ever sound funny, especially when they wake us up in the middle of the night.”

Clearly, Busch had some different ideas when he developed this script.

Reason 2: The original cast members were major constellations in the Broadway and television zodiac, including Linda Lavin and Michelle Lee, both of whom were nominated for Tony Awards.

The MJTC production gathers the Twin Cities version of these brilliant actors with its stellar cast: the marvelous and ubiquitous Sally Wingert as Marjorie; Linda Kelsey, well-known and Emmy Award-nominated television actress and stalwart of St. Paul’s Park Square Theater (among others) as Frieda; and Maggie Bearmon Pistner, a favorite of both Twin Cities audiences (her 2013 one-woman show, They Called Her Captain, sold out) and the local critics, as the offbeat friend Lee Green. The allergist himself is played by MJTC veteran David Coral.

Not only are these all wonderful actors, but Twin Cities theatergoers can feel right at home — even if the action takes place in New York — with a cast of such good “friends.”

Bringing this all together is one of the deans of the Twin Cities theater community, director Warren C. Bowles. For more than 40 years, Bowles has brought words on paper alive by guiding talented actors to reflect his imagination and vision of what playwrights who wrote in years past or even just yesterday can say to our community. Such a treasure is Bowles that in 2004, Mayor R.T. Rybak proclaimed a “Warren Caesar Bowles Day” in Minneapolis.

Kelsey has experience playing Jewish mothers. She played such a role in the MJTC production of Handle with Care in 2013. However, Kelsey finds no similarities between the two roles.

“This is a rather ‘salty’ character I’m playing,” Kelsey told the AJW. “Frieda doesn’t mind a few expletives here and there. She’s a bit of a thorn in her daughter’s side — a bit of a stereotype. I find her quite amusing.”

Kelsey says that she’s done more than a bit of research into the various Yiddish terms that she uses in the script.

Reason 3 to see The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife: Why would you pass up the opportunity to see Wingert, a multiple winner of the Ivey Award, in the MJTC’s intimate performance space?

Wingert, who was last seen in MJTC’s award-winning production of Rose in 2014, is coming off an incredibly successful 2015-2016 season already. Her performance in Theatre Latté Da’s production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was met with overwhelming praise from every critic in town. And she’s just completed another acclaimed performance in The Beauty Queen of Leenane at Park Square Theatre.

In The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, Wingert doesn’t see her character as an object of comedy, necessarily.

“I don’t think that a funny character always sees herself as funny,” Wingert said. “Marjorie takes herself very seriously. When an agent of change comes into her life, all hell breaks loose and she adopts a new outlook on her life. But, frankly, after the two vastly different roles I’ve played in the past year, it’s a pleasure to try being someone new and contemporary, and someone closer to who I am.”

Now that I’ve given you three good reasons to see The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, I challenge AJW readers to find a good reason why not to go. The only excuse that can be accepted for this show is that you’re allergic to it!

Pals Sally Wingert, Linda Kelsey share the stage for the first(ish) time

By CHRIS HEWITT | chewitt@pioneerpress.com
February 4, 2016 | UPDATED: 2 months ago

They were walking a picket line when they met. Now, they’re about to star in a play in which one of them uses a walker. And, if you happen to be in the right St. Paul neighborhood, you might see actresses Sally Wingert and Linda Kelsey on one of their weekly power-walks.

The veteran performers — now appearing together for the first(ish) time in the comedy “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” at Minnesota Jewish Theatre — met in 2000, when their union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, was on strike. Kelsey, whose recent stage roles have included “4,000 Miles” and “Handle With Care,” was feeling uneasy.

“Walking picket lines is not my favorite thing to do, and, in fact, it was really hard for me to say I would do it. But I believed in the strike, and so I decided, ‘OK, I moved here. I’m part of this community. I’m going to do it,’ ” recalls Kelsey, 69, who relocated to her native Minnesota from Hollywood after a long career in movies and TV, including five Emmy nominations for the series “Lou Grant.”

“So I am walking with my little sign and feeling totally alone because I didn’t know anybody there, and this woman (Kelsey gestures to Wingert, 58) comes up to me to say, ‘Hello.’ She is legendary in this community for that, for being friendly to everyone,” Kelsey says.

“That’s not true,” Wingert demurs.

“It’s totally true,” insists Kelsey, who lived in Hudson, Wis., at the time and who began a friendship with Wingert.

“It’s not like we were always on the phone,” says Kelsey, remembering the friendship’s early days.

“No, but we were always happy to see each other. Then, she moved three or four blocks away from me and, eventually, we started to walk,” Wingert says. “I walk each day with a different girlfriend, Monday through Friday — I have a Monday walk, a Tuesday walk. So we began a walk and, early on, we were talking about friendship and intimacy and — do you remember this conversation, Linda?”

“Not specifically.”

“Well, I remember you saying, ‘I’m looking for another girlfriend, somebody in my world.’ And I think I said, ‘Well, I’d like to be that girlfriend.’ And we fell into a really close friendship. She’s one of my closest friends,” Wingert says.

The routine has altered over the years. Kelsey used to be the Tuesday walker but had to switch to Wednesdays when she began Spanish lessons (“My daughter was living with us and, looking out the window, she saw Sally walking by one Tuesday and she called me to say, ‘Mom, Sally is cheating on you. She’s got another Tuesday.’ “). They’ve also resorted to virtual walks when Kelsey and her husband, Glenn Strand, make their annual trips to France or when Wingert traveled to New York and London with the play “La Bete.”

Beyond keeping fit, Kelsey says one great aspect of the Wednesday walks is that it’s a regular date to talk about kids, cooking, faith (they go to the same church), work and whatever else is on their minds. These days, that sometimes includes “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” a play local theatergoers may recall from a Valerie Harper touring production at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in 2002.

‘THREE GREAT LADY PARTS’

The new production of “Allergist’s Wife” began when Minnesota Jewish Theatre’s artistic director, Barbara Brooks, asked Wingert if she’d be up for starring in it as a bored Manhattan woman whose life is turned upside-down when an old friend drops in. (Kelsey plays Wingert’s bawdy mother.)

“Barbara has given me astonishing opportunities. Some of the hardest and most interesting work I’ve done in the last six years has been at Minnesota Jewish Theatre,” says Wingert, who was the lone performer in the company’s “Rose” and “Woman Before a Glass.” “But they’ve all been solo. So I said to her, ‘Please. Let me work with someone else. I’m bored with myself.’ ”

She got her wish with “Allergist’s Wife,” which features, as Wingert puts it, “three great lady parts,” also including Maggie Bearmon Pistner as the friend. The cast is rounded out by David Coral as Wingert’s husband and Charles Goitia as her doorman. It’s a comedy of the sort that will be familiar to Neil Simon fans, but the actresses say there’s more to it than meets the eye.

“I understand her and how the rhythm of this language needs to go to get the desired effect. But, partly because (director Warren C. Bowles) is such a good actor and he knows how to probe the little soft spots, he’s making us look really closely,” Wingert says. “You could say it’s a funny, slightly glib take on a post-menopausal woman who is having a midlife crisis, but there’s a lot more to it. Don’t you think we have stuff to mine, Linda?”

“I do. There is more to the play. Your role has more to chew on than mine,” Kelsey begins.

“Oh, it’s chewy. But you’re all over the play,” Wingert says.

“I guess the challenge is understanding how my character fits into the deeper scheme of the play, which Warren is helping us discover. Frieda could be just a device to get laughs …” Kelsey starts.

“… because she always talks about her bowel movements. That could just scream one-joke-pony,” Wingert adds.

“… but all of us are looking for more. We are all trying not to play caricatures,” finishes Kelsey, who notes that after “4,000 Miles” last year at Park Square Theatre, Frieda is the second time in recent months she has played a woman who uses a walker. “I seem to have moved through the leading-lady phase of my career. I hope I’m joking about that, but …”

“Do you really hope you’re joking? Because I feel like that’s all I’ve done. I’ve been doing character parts since I was 16. Welcome to my world!” Wingert replies.

She’s exaggerating a bit, as Wingert became perhaps the most beloved performer in the Twin Cities with leading roles in dozens of Guthrie Theater productions, such as “Private Lives” and “Other Desert Cities,” but it is true that even the leading parts required a character actor’s artistry.

Like many of the smart, articulate women she has played, it’s easy to see why a director might think of Wingert for Marjorie, the title character in “Allergist’s Wife.”

“Somebody asked me at the Playwrights’ Center what I would like to play if someone wrote a play for me, and I said I’d like to play a shy person who’s not very intelligent. I don’t get those roles because I don’t project that. Not that I’m smart — but I don’t project shy. I’m not shy,” says Wingert, who just completed a run in “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” a play she’d already like another crack at. “But I am not this character, either. I’m not a volcano. I’m not depressed. I am in midlife, post-menopausal, but I’m really not in her shoes. So there’ll be a bit of a journey, and I want to explore that more.”

LEADING LADIES

One of the pleasures of the play, for both Kelsey and Wingert, is the rare chance to explore it with others in their own demographic. Kelsey speaks fondly of bringing together a group of women with whom she wanted to work — including Aditi Kapil and Mo Perry — for a benefit performance of “Love, Loss and What I Wore” at Park Square three years ago.

Wingert was in that one, too.

“I would kill to have a play to work on with Linda and Michelle Barber and Regina (Marie Williams) and Greta Oglesby. All of them! But there’s usually only one part for a woman this age. So the cohort of women my age, I don’t get to work with them much,” says Wingert, who reluctantly admits that she has begun to contemplate the possibility of directing a play.

Speaking of actresses on stage together, although “Allergist’s Wife” is being billed as the first time the St. Paul neighbors have worked together, that’s not true.

“It’s kind of a lie,” Wingert says. “We did ‘When We Were Married’ at the Guthrie …”

“… but we weren’t even on stage together, really. A brief passing, with maybe a two-line exchange,” finishes Kelsey, recalling that she performed that actress-filled show in a cast after breaking her wrist while bicycling to the first preview performance.

Wingert and Kelsey get to spend quite a bit of time together in “Allergist’s Wife,” mostly with Kelsey needling Wingert. But they want more.

“I just wish we had more scenes together, more to do. It’d be fun,” says Kelsey, who notes that the experience of “Allergist’s Wife” has revealed that she and Wingert work with a similar method, slowly finding their way into their characters.

Perhaps there will be time on a future walk to dream up a project that would give them loads of time to act together on stage. Even off-stage, Kelsey admits there are times when their brisk walks get a little, well, theatrical.

“We’re two actresses, walking along, gesturing wildly,” Kelsey says.

“Animated, always animated,” Wingert says.

“People will come from the opposite direction and make comments about it sometimes: ‘Oh, you two are having a good time, huh?’ ” says Kelsey, with a chuckle.

And you know what? They may have to grab at elbows when they hit an icy patch, offer a comforting word during a tough time or help each other negotiate through a tricky scene, but the answer to that question is: Yes. They definitely are.

City Pages

Minnesota Jewish Theatre Co. offers a seat for The Chanukah Guest

by Ed Huyck
Tuesday, December 8, 2015

When she was asked to direct The Chanukah Guest for the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company in 2014, Candace Barrett Birk was thrilled at the opportunity to work with children again. “I was the director at the Children’s Museum of Los Angeles. I haven’t done it here, so this was a chance to revisit that territory,” she says.

The Chanukah Guest is back for another go-round in 2015, with Birk again in charge of directing.

“This year’s production is the same script. We tweaked things because of what we learned last year. The cast is new. That makes for a new production just by what they bring to it,” Birk says.

Jenna Zark adapted Erik A. Kimmel’s book for the seasonal show, which is aimed primarily at the preschool lot. The play looks at the holiday from a distinctly Russian perspective, as a young boy and his grandmother have an unexpected visitor — a bear, who they mistake for the visiting rabbi — on the celebration’s first night.

“One of the things that struck me was that there are a lot of different cultures that have have a celebration of light and dark at this time of the year. There’s a lot of that here. We have the cozy, warm cottage that is surrounded by the dark and mysterious, deep dark Russian woods,” Birk says. “We often find ourselves in a reflective place at this time of the year. There is the new growth. All of that is embedded in the script.”

Care has to be given when presenting a show to such young audiences. It’s entirely possible that the person watching the play is seeing their first bit of theater. To that end, Birk and the company have worked to make the theater space as inviting as possible.

“There is a pre-show piece where we show them what actors do before the show. We show them how we test lights and how sound travels around the theater,” Birk says. “It gives them some degree of comfort in this alien environment.”

Birk gives a lot of credit to the trio of actors. “All of them are extremely talented and generous of spirit,” she says.

Rehearsals for the production started before Thanksgiving, so there was a break during the middle of the process. “I spent the week in Washington, D.C., as part of a team decorating the White House,” Birk says, noting that the company spent the time with their families or out of town.

“Everyone worked on their own, and they were totally ready to go when we came back. They are generous and thoughtful and committed artists,” Birk says.

Performing for children is a particular challenge. “We have to be highly focused and highly committed to the telling of the story in the clearest possible way; so there is no confusion and the children know where to look and what to listen to,” Birk says.

Though the play offers some of the history and traditions of Chanukah, it is really “about the spirit of Chanukah and the spirit of generosity and kindness. The crux of the story is about that spirit and the kind of miracle we can notice if we just keep our eyes open and our hearts generous,” Birk says.

IF YOU GO
The Chanukah Guest
Through Dec. 22; public performance 1 p.m. Sunday
Highland Park Community Center
1978 Ford Parkway, St. Paul
$18
For tickets and more information, call 651-647-4315 or visit online.

American Jewish World News

‘The Chanukah Guest’ returns to MJTC

Director Candace Barrett Birk looks forward to presenting the story to a new audience

By ERIN ELLIOTT BRYAN / Community News Editor

Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company (MJTC) has announced the return of its holiday show,The Chanukah Guest, which will run Dec. 6-22 at the Highland Park Community Center in St. Paul. This original MJTC commission by Jenna Zark, based on the book by Eric A. Kimmel, sold out in 2014.

Candace Barrett Birk, who made her Twin Cities directorial debut with the 2014 production, returns to helm this year’s show. She says it’s an opportunity to present the story to a new audience.

“The ultimate payoff is seeing that new audience come in and be delighted and surprised and thrilled by something that we get to present to them as a gift,” Barrett Birk told the AJW in a recent phone interview.

Candace Barrett Birk: The whole spirit of Hanuka is alive in this particular story.

In The Chanukah Guest, the audience meets David’s grandmother, Bubba Brayna. She may be losing her vision and hearing, but she always makes the best potato latkes in the village. As she prepares her kitchen for the first night of Hanuka, a knock at the door reveals a most unexpected visitor.

The play features Alex Brightwell as the Rabbi/Guest, Kirby Bennett as Bubba Brayna, and Soren Thayne Miller as David. MJTC describes the show as a “charming, heartwarming and imaginative tale,” and recommends it for children ages three and older.

The show also explores the cultural traditions of Hanuka, which was somewhat unfamiliar to Barrett Birk and her trio of actors, none of whom are Jewish. For the first reading of the play, Barrett Birk and her husband, local actor Raye Birk, hosted the cast, producers and MJTC’s producing artistic director, Barbara Brooks, for a night of latke making.

“We all made latkes, and then we all sat around the dining room table and learned how to play the dreidel game and did a lot of singing,” Barrett Birk said. “It’s some of what theater does best, you’re always exploring new cultures and new ways of thinking and being and learning in the world.”

The show will also include a 10-minute pre-show presentation that introduces young audience members to the theatrical elements, including the lights and sound system.

“We’ve taken that responsibility seriously, of introducing a whole new group of kids to the theater,” Barrett Birk said. “We’re seeing this play as a transition place between sitting on your mom’s lap and hearing a story read and going into a formal theater setting.”

Children will also have the opportunity to learn how to make the sound of the wind, which features prominently in the story set in the woods, and to learn a song that will be sung during the show.

“Most of the kids, by the time they come to us, have read the story,” Barrett Birk said. “We’re just introducing them to a new way of hearing the story. And, hopefully, a way that they can also…make costumes and make sound effects and tell their own stories.”

This engagement of the young audience is in line with Barrett Birk’s previous experience as director of the Children’s Museum of Los Angeles. A native of Des Moines, she has been involved in theater since high school and last appeared on the MJTC stage in Our Class.

In the Twin Cities, Barrett Birk has worked at the Guthrie Theater, Live Action Set, Hippocrates Café, Theatre in the Round and Open Eye Figure Theater. She also teaches acting at the Guthrie and serves as lead artist for its Theater and the Healing Arts program.

She said The Chanukah Guest is an enjoyable way to spend an hour with “enormously fun visuals.”

“The whole spirit of Hanuka is alive in this particular story,” Barrett Birk said. “It’s a good way either to be introduced to the notion of Hanuka or to kick off your Hanuka season and be part of that celebration of light at the dark time of the year. And we can all use that right now.”

***

Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company (MJTC) will stage The Chanukah Guest Dec. 6-22 in the theater at the Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Pkwy., St. Paul. This production is appropriate for children ages three and older.

For tickets and information, call 651-647-4315 or visit:www.mnjewishtheatre.org.

Pioneer Press

Actress, 25, finds 'Becoming Dr. Ruth' means becoming a lot older

By Chris Hewitt
August 20, 2015

Here's what Miriam Schwartz has in common with Dr. Ruth Westheimer, whom she plays in "Becoming Dr. Ruth": She's Jewish, short and female.

Here's what Schwartz does not have in common with her: She's one-third Westheimer's age, she's not a Holocaust survivor, she didn't have most of her foot blown off by a bomb and she is not one of the world's foremost sexperts.

"I was very surprised to get cast," Schwartz, 25, says of playing Westheimer, who is now 87 but is 69 in the play, "Becoming Dr. Ruth," which runs through Aug. 30.

Schwartz, who had appeared in Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company's "Jericho" and "Handle With Care," was invited to audition. When she was leaving her tryout and saw that the next auditioner was a woman who had played her mother-in-law only a month earlier, she figured she was unlikely to get the part.

"I expressed my apprehension, both before the audition and after I was cast," Schwartz says. "If the script jumped back and forth in her memories, I had thought it might make sense to be cast younger, but she's 69 for the entire play. But both Barbara (Brooks, the theater's producing artistic director) and Craig (Johnson, the play's director) did a really nice job of reassuring me that they had chosen me because of an energy, as opposed to whether I looked 69."

Other than school productions, it's the first time Schwartz has played a character anywhere near the age of the famous TV sex therapist, whose younger exploits as part of the children-rescuing Kindertransport during World War II and as an Israeli sniper are dealt with in the play.

But commenting on events in the life of the elderly Westheimer is only one of the play's challenges. There's also the fact that Schwartz is the only person on stage for "Becoming Dr. Ruth's" entire 90 minutes.

"It's a really different energy in the rehearsal room," says Schwartz, who has never done a solo show. "There's the director and the stage manager and me. I'm used to having actors around, to working on scenes and dialogue, which are usually the parts I love most about acting."

Given the old truism that acting is reacting, "Becoming Dr. Ruth" is tricky, since there's no one to react to.

"Beyond the fact that it's challenging to memorize this much text in a short amount of time, it's a different way to approach the show because how you break down the beats and the moments of the text are not dictated by reacting to other characters," Schwartz says. "In this case, she's packing up her apartment and her thought process is dictated by the objects she picks up and the sentimental value they have to her."

Schwartz -- who grew up in Seattle, moved here to participate in the Guthrie/University of Minnesota bachelor of fine arts training program in 2008, and never left -- says that, in lieu of other actors, she has been taking advantage of technology so distant family members can help her learn the pages and pages of lines.

Maybe the biggest challenge of "Becoming Dr. Ruth," though, is to capture a familiar character without resorting to mimicry.

"It's been about finding how I can do it in a way that is truthful to the body I'm in and the voice I have and the perspective I have, but also make her recognizable as the woman who had such a considerable influence on sex education," says Schwartz, who is 5 inches taller than the 4-foot-7 Westheimer.

The actress has been working with dialect coach Foster Johns, as well as Johnson, to capture the distinctive sound of Westheimer's voice, which bears traces of her knowledge of French, German and Hebrew. Meanwhile, they are also working to get at the heart of the woman who, even in her 60s, came off as much younger.

"There's this exuberance she has when she speaks," says Schwartz, who was not yet born during Westheimer's '80s heyday but has plenty of TV tapes to study. "She often talks about when she was sent to Switzerland on the Kindertransport and her grandmother repeated this mantra that she used often, which was to smile and be cheerful and trust God. Even when she recounts the horrific details of her childhood, she always puts a positive spin on it and she talks about this concept in the Jewish faith called 'tikkun olam,' which means 'repair the world'."

That concept is a key to understanding Westheimer, Schwartz thinks.

"She talks about having survived when millions of children didn't," says Schwartz. "I think that perspective colors all of her interactions and the way she thinks about all the events of her life. And, ultimately, it plays into what she finds important about educating people about sex."

Although Westheimer's candid sex talk was one of the things that gained her fame, Schwartz says the more circumspect "Becoming Dr. Ruth" won't offend audience members who are touchy about sex talk.

One degree of difficulty Schwartz has not had to deal with while playing Dr. Ruth is Dr. Ruth herself, who was involved in the initial New York performances of the play, which starred the also-significantly-younger Debra Jo Rupp ("That '70s Show").

"I read a little interview with (Dr. Ruth) when the original production was being done a couple of years ago and there was some anecdote about her speaking with Debra Jo Rupp and saying, 'You sit too much! Stand up! I walk around all the time. Let me see you walk like this!' " Schwartz says with a chuckle. "I think she was kind of bossy."

Schwartz will have to find her inner boss in "Becoming Dr. Ruth" but that may not be a problem. As she admits in her answers to our 10 questions, the lines between Ruth and Miriam are beginning to blur:

Q. What's your motto?

A. Always smile and be cheerful and trust in God. No, wait. That's Dr. Ruth's. I'm confused. I don't know that I have one.

Q. What would you do if you had a million dollars?

A. I'd travel all over. Probably Spain, Morocco, South America. I would quit my day job (site accountant at the Uptown Minneapolis YWCA).

Q. Where is your favorite place to be?

A. I love being on the West Coast, near the ocean. I love being in my family's home in Seattle, listening to music with my parents.

Q. Who would play you in a movie?

A. Maybe Ellen Page. She's young and probably more hip that I am but I think a movie version of me would be more hip than I am.

Q. What's the scariest thing you've ever done?

A. This (the show) is pretty close.

Q. What are you thinking when you're about to begin a performance?

A. It depends on who's in the audience. Before this one, I think I might be throwing up. Hopefully not? Usually, I'm pumped and ready to give the audience a fun show.

Q. When did you know you wanted to be a performer?

A. There wasn't really a deciding moment. I grew up with a lot of music and theater and a very supportive family. So, after I decided I couldn't be a princess, the next best thing was an actor. That was when I was probably 7 or 8. Then, when I graduated high school, there wasn't really any question about whether I would pursue it professionally.

Q. What was your first job?

A. I had the best high school job. I was one of the hosts of a PBS series from the same people who did "Bill Nye, the Science Guy." It's called "Biz Kids" and it's still running on PBS. Occasionally, friends will call and say, "I'm watching you on TV, explaining the difference between a debit card and a credit card." I spent a lot of weekends and evenings in my high school years, filming.

Q. What's the best thing about your job?

A. Working with other actors, working on texts. I love telling stories and I love the opportunity to collaborate in the ways that acting lets you do.

Q. Who do you admire most?

A. I admire my parents most, both as individuals and as examples of how to create a loving environment for their children and family.

Star Tribune

Actress embodies famed sex therapist in 'Becoming Dr. Ruth'

A one-woman show recounts tales from the colorful life of America's favorite sex therapist. 

By Kristin Tillotson
August 14, 2015

Being America’s most famous sex therapist might seem a substantial enough accomplishment for any résumé. But before she earned those laurels, Dr. Ruth ­Westheimer was a sharpshooter with the Israeli army.

“That certainly didn’t fit with my perception of who she was,” said Miriam Schwartz, who portrays Westheimer in “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” a solo show being staged by the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company starting Thursday. “She said she was fast, had good aim and was small so there was less of her to shoot back at.”

Westheimer’s early life was traumatic. As an only child growing up in Frankfurt, Germany, she was shipped off to Switzerland before World War II and never saw her parents again or found out what happened to them, although it is presumed they died in concentration camps.

After the war, she went to live on a kibbutz in Israel, studied to be a teacher and trained as a soldier.

“One of my favorite lines in the play is her saying, ‘I taught children arts and crafts by day and was taught how to throw hand grenades at night,’ ” Schwartz said.

The show, written by Mark St. Germain and directed by Craig Johnson, begins with Dr. Ruth in her New York City apartment, going through boxes while preparing to move, reminiscing about particular objects, photographs and journal entries.

“A music box she received from her second husband in Paris leads her to talk about the importance of music in her life,” Schwartz said. “but she advises against playing music during sex, saying, ‘You should concentrate on each other.’ ”

Westheimer also has had a lifelong fascination with dollhouses.

“When she lost touch with her family, she found some peace in arranging little figurines in dollhouses as pristine family pictures,” Schwartz said.

At 25, actress plays age 69

Westheimer met her first husband in Israel, and they moved to Paris, where she studied at the Sorbonne. They divorced, and she met her second husband in Paris, then moved with him to the United States, where she had her first child.

She used restitution money she received from the German government to enroll in psychology and family-relationship courses.

After divorcing husband No. 2, with whom she is still on good terms, Westheimer met her third husband while skiing. Around the same time, she volunteered at Planned Parenthood, which sparked an interest in the family and sexual health that eventually launched her career as a therapist and radio and television commentator.

“She attributes her success to the unlikelihood of someone like her being in that field,” Schwartz said. “People didn’t feel intimidated by her, and she used her sense of humor to put them even more at ease.”

The role’s biggest challenge for her, Schwartz said, is “being 25 years old and playing a 69-year-old woman.” (Dr. Ruth is now 87, but the play is set a generation earlier.)

“It’s been a real exercise in character work, trying to avoid mimicry,” she said. “Also her dialect, which is a mishmash of German, French, Hebrew and English.”

Solo show ‘mini panic attack’

Schwartz, who grew up in Seattle, moved to Minneapolis in 2008 to attend the Guthrie Theater’s BFA acting program at the University of Minnesota. After graduating, she stuck around because “I was lucky enough to get steady work, a wonderful thing about the Twin Cities theater scene.”

Her first job was playing a few different roles in “Clandestino,” a collaboration with Workhaus Collective at Mixed Blood. “I look kind of pan-ethnic, so I could do both a Hasidic Jew and a Guatemalan immigrant,” she said.

“Becoming Dr. Ruth” will be Schwartz’s first solo show.

“I had a mini panic attack when I found out I got the part, and I’m not quite out of the terrified phase yet,” she said. “But I sought out advice from friends and mentors, and they told me it feels like an athletic feat, that it’s exhilarating to have the audience in the palm of your hand, taking your time to tell a story all by yourself.”

 

Pioneer Press

Sally Wingert to star in Jewish Theatre Company's 'Tale of the Allergist's Wife'

By Chris Hewitt
07/21/2015 

Fans of St. Paul-based actress Sally Wingert have more dates to mark on their calendars now that Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company has announced its 2015-16 season.

Wingert will appear in Charles Busch's hilarious "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife" as the title character, a woman who has a breakdown at a Disney Store.

The season also features the area premiere of the comedy "Bad Jews," in which a family squabbles over an heirloom, a theatrical adaptation of Nathan Englander's story, "The Twenty-Seventh Man" (also a regional premiere), the holiday show "The Chanukah Guest" and a season-opening solo performance by Miriam Schwartz in "Becoming Dr. Ruth."

Performances are at Highland Park Community Center in St. Paul. For season tickets, call 651-647-4315 or visit mnjewishtheatre.org. 

City Pages

Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company Celebrates 20 Years

By Ed Huyck Thursday, October 16, 2014 

Twenty years ago, Barbara Brooks just wanted to put on a show exploring Jewish issues for a Twin Cities audience. Today, the Minnesota Jewish Theatre is still going strong and about to open the second show of its anniversary season.

"I grew up in New York City in Queens and came out here in grad school," she says. "When I came out here, there was a real undercurrent of racism. It didn't seem like the people mixed very well."

Brooks came face-to-face with misunderstandings in her everyday life as well. "I was working part-time at a law firm, and someone mentioned they hadn't met a Jew before. Why would that be an issue?" she asks.

Even within the area Jewish community, Brooks found that many of them weren't "connected with anything Jewish. There was a fear that they would lose the Jewish community," she says.

Brooks went through several steps, from learning how to write grants to forming a nonprofit to setting up a board.

For their first production, A Shayna Maidel, Brooks picked the decidedly Roman Catholic Cretin-Derham Hall to stage the play. She also acted in the show, playing Rose, one of two sisters reunited in the United States following World War II.

"It was not just about Jewish history and culture. There are universal themes, like immigration and assimilation," Brooks says of the play.

The show was a success. "We had money. Everyone got paid," Brooks says.

Soon after, the Minnesota Jewish Theatre started performing at Hillcrest, which has become its longtime home. Brooks guided the company to steady growth through the years, producing hits like Old Wicked Songs and beginning to commission new work, starting with The Magic Dreidels in 2000.

"Everything has been in a natural progression. We had new play development because there was a need for it. Extending the season was done very strategically," Brooks says.

In recent years, the company has done five shows a season. The 2014-15 program began this summer with Rose, a one-woman piece starring Sally Wingert and presented at homes around the Twin Cities area. The production was well reviewed and attended, an earned an Ivey in September -- the fourth time work at MJTC has been honored.

"I started to notice that the more Jewish-ness that was imbedded in the play the more it attracted a non-Jewish audience," Brooks says.

Up next is New Jerusalem, a work by David Ives that explores the life and thinking of 17th-century philosopher Baruch de Spinoza.

"He is very important to the history of philosophy, and had new ideas about liberty and freedom of speech. How he was viewed in his community has a lot of relevance for today. It's a really well-written script and has a lot of meat in it," Brooks says.

The anniversary season continues with three more shows through 2015. Brooks will begin to think about the 2015-16 sometime in the new year. "I get frantic about around May and then announce the season in June," she says.

The whole 20-year journey, "has been rewarding. I remember sitting in my living room and thinking, 'Should I try to start a theater?' To see the response from people is amazing, from unsolicited emails to phone messages to letters. Things like that keep me going. It makes the hard work worth it," Brooks says.

Pioneer Press

She founded Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company to share her culture

By Sam Jasenosky

The first meal Barbara Brooks ate in Minneapolis was at the University of Minnesota in the late 1970s. Shortly after arriving on a flight from New York, Brooks moved into Comstock Hall, then an all-girls dormitory. In the dining hall, a group of girls nearby started to pray and cross themselves before their meal.

Brooks, who grew up in New York and went on to found Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company in St. Paul, hadn't experienced a religion other than her own.

"I thought to myself, 'OK, this is a little bit different,' " Brooks said.

The thought that religion in Minnesota was "a little bit different" from religion in New York would stick with her for years before she did something to change it. Her hometown of Forest Hills, N.Y., had a large Jewish population, but when she moved to Minnesota. Brooks didn't know a single Jewish person.

"I felt there was an undercurrent of racism because people didn't know about each other," she said. "While the Twin Cities were so diverse, they were also very separate."

Brooks eventually settled in the Twin Cities. She worked for St. Paul Public Schools for over a decade, got married, acted occasionally and did commercial work on the side.

Her son was born in 1994. "I nursed him for 11 months, and I was so protective of him. I didn't watch TV or read. Your mind wanders when you're just sitting there in a rocking chair," Brooks said, "and that's when I decided to start the theater.

She decided early on it was important for her son to be able to share his culture with his friends, as she'd been able to do growing up in New York.

"He was in classes that had one, maybe two Jewish children," Brooks said. Some years, he was the only one. "We had to explain why he wasn't going to be in school for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur -- in New York, they close the schools on those days."

Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company didn't look like much of a company at first. Although the Hillcrest Center in Highland Park is now MJTC's home, the company's first show was at Catholic Cretin-Derham Hall High School.

"The location didn't really matter though," Brooks said. "I was just so happy people came."

MJTC rented the Hillcrest Center for its second show, and became the center's regular group. Nearly 20 years later, MJTC is the longest-running independent professional Jewish theater in the country, according to Brooks.

Brooks thinks the theater's success has much to do with the fact that those who work with MJTC are compassionate, innovative and collaborative people.

"We have a very set schedule: we stop at 10 p.m., no questions asked," she said. "Some theaters go until 1 or 2 in the morning. How is someone going to turn around the next day and function without any sleep?"

Playwright Hayley Finn, who has directed six plays at MJTC, including the Ivey-winning "Rose," said Brooks is committed to the theater.

"First, she has a committment to tell compelling stories that will connect with the audience," Finn said, "and she has a real committment to artists, which is why so many of the same artists return year after year to work at MJTC."

Actors who work with MJTC have been all over the theatrical world, from Broadway to London, Brooks said. Many of them could work with any theater in the country, but she thinks they choose MJTC because there's something to be gained from working in its environment.

"The actors say it's a different feeling from working at, say, the Guthrie," Brooks said. With over 50 productions under her belt, and nearly all of them having been regional or world premieres, the most rewarding part for her is the commonalities discovered between people with different backgrounds.

Despite the fact that the theater performs shows under Jewish culture, its purpose is to expand perceptions of cultures, Jewish and not.

"People learn something about themselves when they see a show," Brooks said. "Experience is universal, and that comes out in different cultures."

Following a performance put on for kids at a St. Paul school, there was one moment in particular that demonstrated just how powerful messages of cultural acceptance can become when they're sent out artistically, Brooks said. In order to get feedback on shows, MJTC asks teachers have students fill out evaluations. The final question asked students what they learned from the play, and an 8-year-old African-American boy wrote: "I learned why not to hate Jewish people."

"That," Brooks said, "was really something else." 

Star Tribune

Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company Celebrates Organization's 20th Season

By Sharyn Jackson

Barbara Brooks likes to say she had two babies at the same time.

One was her son Mathew, born in 1994. The other was the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company.

Twenty years later, her son is a senior in college, while her theater company has become one of the longest-running independent Jewish theaters in the country.

The 5-foot-1-inch Brooks is the outsized force responsible for the maturation of both.

With no experience in running an organization, an uphill battle convincing supporters of her vision and a desire to avoid the “Fiddler on the Roof”s of the Jewish canon, Brooks managed to turn her theatrical baby into a Twin Cities stalwart.

“This is kind of the little engine that could,” said James M. Rosenbaum, MJTC’s board chair. “It’s not based on the fortune the theater has. [Brooks] is the engine that runs this and makes it happen. She’s a remarkable woman.”

The idea for MJTC was born during 11 months spent with her son in a rocking chair.

“I was the kind of mom that thought I shouldn’t be watching TV. So your mind wanders, and I just started thinking of how different it was as a Jewish person,” Brooks said.

The New York City (Queens) native had grown up in a community that felt “99.9 percent Jewish,” she said. A graduate program in music therapy at the University of Minnesota brought her to the Midwest — and outside of her comfort zone.

“I noticed the glaring differences between New York and here,” she said. Then, a co-worker at her part-time job told her that she had never met a Jew before.

“It was the strangest thing,” Brooks said in her thick and fast East Coast accent. “Who would even say that?”

She noticed a lack of cultural exchange between Jews and non-Jews, and she wondered if she could help bring people together through the arts.

Meanwhile, her involvement in Judaism had been waning. She had grown up observant, but as an adult in Minnesota, was unaffiliated with a synagogue. She shared that disconnect with increasing numbers of Jews.

“And I thought, maybe theater could provide this opportunity for Jewish people to be in touch.”

Contemporary, not kitsch

By spring of 1995, Brooks had mounted and acted in MJTC’s first play, “A Shayna Maidel” by Barbara Lebow, at Cretin-Derham Hall, a Catholic high school. Most of the 50-odd productions since have played in the theater’s current home, the Highland Park Community Center in St. Paul.

The journey to becoming one of the country’s longest-running independent Jewish theaters was understandably difficult to navigate.

“I knew nothing — absolutely nothing,” Brooks said. “I had no tech background, I had no business background.”

Back in 1994, Brooks had a tough time persuading Jewish organizations to support the theater. (The Jewish Federation of Greater St. Paul has since gone on to become a top investor.)

“At the beginning when I started the theater, it was like a strange concept,” Brooks said. “I didn’t feel like we got a lot of encouragement, for sure.”

So Brooks launched the theater company with the help of a grant from the St. Paul Companies (now Travelers insurance). She also sought advice along the way from pros at the Guthrie and other Twin Cities theaters.

Target and General Mills Foundation are now among the theater’s top supporters. The company operates on an annual budget of approximately $265,000.

Those in the early years who might have thought Jewish theater meant Borscht Belt comedy and Yiddish fables were mistaken. Most shows Brooks has produced have been contemporary works, many of them regional and world premieres. MJTC’s current children’s holiday show, “The Chanukah Guest,” was a commission by local playwright Jenna Zark.

The play, which runs through Dec. 21, is a trippy story about a nearsighted grandma frying up potato pancakes for a wayward bear. It includes lessons on the holiday, playing dreidel, and grandma’s secret ingredient in her latkes — schmaltz, or chicken fat. Twice, the grandmother, played by Joanna Harmon, asks the audience of schoolchildren to say with her the word “schmaltz,” which can also be defined as excessive sentimentality.

A personal connection

Though schmaltz is the secret ingredient in the play, it doesn’t feature in Brooks’ personal recipe. She avoids sentimentality when talking about the heights to which she has brought the theater in two decades, brushing off every opportunity to gush about how an idealistic aspiring actor became a den mother to some of the Twin Cities’ top artists.

Sally Wingert remembers Brooks first approaching her about working at MJTC more than a decade ago, after Brooks had seen Wingert in a Shakespeare play at the Guthrie. Wingert was flattered, but when Brooks later asked her to do a one-woman play, “Family Secrets,” she wasn’t interested.

“I just swore I wouldn’t do it,” said Wingert, who was more comfortable performing in ensemble works.

But Brooks was dogged, and eventually won Wingert over. Since then, Wingert has starred in four plays with MJTC, all of them solo.

“She has a small theater and it’s not the most luxurious space to work in. The dressing room is a parks and rec storage room,” Wingert laughed. “But what [Brooks] lacks in amenities, she makes up for in heart.”

Candace Barrett Birk, director of “The Chanukah Guest,” says she has felt nurtured by Brooks.

“She just holds us all, very carefully and firmly,” Barrett Birk said.

Brooks said her focus has always been on bringing new works to audiences, “because those are the shows that tell stories about what is going on in our world today.”

Warren Bowles, a longtime company member of Mixed Blood who is directing his second MJTC play this spring, said the plays Brooks chooses connect with more than just Jewish audiences and artists.

“It’s not the Yiddish theater of New York at the turn of the century,” Bowles said. “It is honoring and respecting a part of our community, but opens it to the entirety of the community.”

MJTC’s plays that deal with the past — the Holocaust and Jewish history — have been the ones that the company’s typically 40 percent non-Jewish audiences respond to most, Brooks said.

In addition to theatergoers, the organization has also left a mark on Brooks and her family. Twenty years in, Brooks says the theater has “provided something” for her son that exposed him both to Jewish culture and the arts.

It did the same for her.

“I think in retrospect, it was a way for me to become more rooted in Jewish life,” she said.

The next stage for the theater company is to figure out how to go forward “beyond Barbara,” she said. The board is in the midst of a strategic plan to bring bigger and younger audiences to the theater, while also preparing for Brooks’ eventual departure.

But Brooks doesn’t have plans to retire just yet.

For now, she continues to raise her babies — both of them.

Sharyn Jackson • 612-673-4853