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.

Audience Member Post

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 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.

 

Association for Jewish Theatre Conference 2013 Closing Remarks 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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Growth and Strategic Planning

MJTC is poised for growth and we want to be smart about it. 

It’s hard to be cautious when you are excited about the work!  I’ve been familiar with MJTC since its inception and have the utmost respect for Barbara and those who came before us on the Board.  I’ve always said this is the best theater bargain in town – not just an inexpensive ticket (although that’s nice!) but overall, the artistic value that comes from this small-budget theater company is amazing. 

It’s a gem.  As a non-Jewish friend of mine said just last week, “Every time I go to that theater I learn something new about the Jewish culture.  And it’s great theater!” 

It speaks to our souls.

Too many theaters have tried to grow and failed – not only in the Twin Cities, but nationally.  There are less than a handful of independent Jewish theaters remaining in the US.   As a theater that has previewed many new plays about Jewish life, the MJTC is a leader nationally – although the secret is too well kept! 

Last year, the MJTC board took stock of the theater and set four key goals for the future:

  1. Increase attendance and visibility/awareness of MJTC.  You’ll notice more social media, a refreshed branding and marketing strategy, and audience research.
  2. Improve contributed income.  Public money and individuals are particularly critical to the theater’s operations.  Your contributions literally keep us going and allow us to keep ticket prices reasonable.
  3. Expand and enhance performance season to improve the experience of attending MJTC performances.  We want to make sure the core product achieves our mission – ignite the hearts and minds of people by producing theater of the highest artistic standards rooted in Jewish content and serving people from all cultural backgrounds.
  4. Improve organizational and governance capacity to sustain MJTC for the long-term.  We want to strengthen our board, increase staffing from two people to three, and build our cash reserve.

This planned growth is measured -- not overreaching.  It’s designed to keep the “gem” grounded in both artistic excellence and earthly realities.

Blog posting by Mary Pickard, Chair, Governance Committee, Board of Directors.  Mary is a Principal Advisor at Opus Philanthropy Group where she and her colleagues advise a group of family foundations and a corporate foundation associated with one family.  Mary joined OPG after retiring in 2007 as president of the Travelers Foundation where she served for 35 years.