Q & A with Candace Barrett Birk


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

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

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

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

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

Q & A with Craig Johnson

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

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

How did you prepare to direct Becoming Dr. Ruth?

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

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

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

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

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

Any favorite lines from this show?

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

Who or what inspires you?

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

What do you love most about the Twin Cities?

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

What is your dream show to direct?

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

Q & A with Miriam Schwartz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any favorite lines from this show?

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

Who or what inspires you?

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

What do you love most about the Twin Cities?

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

What would be your dream role to play?

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

Reflections on Jericho from Barbara Brooks

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

Actor Spotlight: Jericho's Maggie Bearmon Pistner

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What attracts you to MJTC?

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

How did you prepare for the role of Rachel in Jericho

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

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

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

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

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

Any roles you're dying to play?

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

Who or what inspires you?

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

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

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

Playwright's Notes: Jericho

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

- Playwright Jack Canfora 

Director's Notes: Jericho

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

- Warren C. Bowles 

"9/11 Remembered" by A. Strakey

"9/11 Remembered" by A. Strakey

Actor Spotlight: Jericho's Anna Sutheim

What attracts you to MJTC?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any roles you're dying to play?

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

Who or what inspires you?

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

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

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

Director Spotlight: Jericho's Warren C. Bowles

What attracts you to MJTC?

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

How did you prepare to direct Jericho?

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

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

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

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

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

Who or what inspires you?

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

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

If I could direct any play...I would!

Telling Our Stories

By Katharine Kline, MJTC Communications Manager

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

Good morning, third graders!

Today is Tuesday, September 11, 2001.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Actor Spotlight: Jericho's Ryan M. Lindberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Chanukah Guest: An Interview with Playwright Jenna Zark

By Bradley Machov, TC Jewfolk 

December 14, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

TCJ: What interested you most about this particular story?

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

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

TCJ: Who’s the Chanukah Guest?

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections on New Jerusalem

By Katharine Kline, MJTC Communications Manager

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

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

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

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

Welcome to Our New Communications Manager

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

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

Truth and Justice: Not Always the American Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guest Post: Audience Member Jeff Strate

By Jeff Strate
Originally posted on facebook February 10, 2014

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

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

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

Intimate Musical Theater: "The Last Five Years"

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

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

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

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

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

Holiday Season Reflections

From Barbara Brooks, Producing Artistic Director

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

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

By Elena Giannetti

Sandra Bullock plays a convincing astronaut in the current movie “Gravity.”   No one asks her how she can play an astronaut when she isn’t one in real life.  Apparently, I make a convincing Jew on stage even though I’m not one.  But it never fails that every time I play a Jewish character, an audience member is surprised to learn that I’m not Jewish.  As though it should be a prerequisite for playing a Jewish role, or for working at a Jewish theater.  But I’ve never thought it was odd, because that is my job as an actor: to embody a character as fully as possible, including their particular experience and culture.   Every role is a challenge, Jewish or not.  And for every role, I do the research, play and explore in the rehearsal room, and hopefully, in the end, bring a believable person to the stage, complete with their unique heritage, history and culture. 

When we started rehearsals for A Strange & Separate People, I trusted that even though I wasn’t Orthodox, a third generation Jew, nor the mother of an autistic son, there were ways that I would connect to the role of Phyllis.  It wasn’t an easy or comfortable process because it challenged me to face some of my worst fears, flaws and demons – Phyllis is far from perfect.  And working through many of the Orthodox components of the script added another unique layer to the discovery process we explored together in the rehearsal room.  But I was also challenged as an actor – more than almost any other character I’ve played before.  All of which left me in a vulnerable state through much of the rehearsal process.  But I knew two things: first, that I could trust my fellow actors and the director, no matter where we went, or where we ended up.  And secondly, like Phyllis, I would have no choice but to go forward through this journey of self-discovery in order to survive all of these challenges.     

As with many of the plays at MJTC that I’ve been a part of, the roles and stories we tell are not exclusive to Jewish experiences – the struggles, pain, joys, triumphs are common to each of us.  The challenges of having an autistic son, the pain of a collapsing marriage, the difficulty in embracing compassion in times of conflict: all of these are subjects we can all relate to, even if we have never experienced them directly in our own lives.  And if I do my job right, then the audience will have their mind ignited by touching their heart, even if they’re not Jewish – because these experiences are universal.  They are human.  They are part of our own humanity. And we are all part of a human collective.  Being a part of this production, and a part of MJTC, has taught me a lesson that is valuable to all of living, on and off the stage:  When we can connect from our heart, we tap into a more authentic and receptive self, which allows us to be “ignited”... mentally, emotionally and spiritually.  Jewish or not.

Meet the Actor: Kate Fuglei

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 MJTC:  What upcoming projects are you currently working on?

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

MJTC:  What fills your time apart from acting? 

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