Greetings from Melbourne – And What is This Thing Called Australian Jewish Theater?

G’day Mates!
Am here in rainy Melbourne after just a fabulous, “beaut” day yesterday. Didn’t put me “togs” on but wandered the beach in suburban Brighton just the same. Was picked up at the airport by me hosts, Richard Zimmerman and Deborah Leiser-Moore and was catered to all day. Great book shops. Lovely shopping. Long talks. And a visit to the Melbourne Holocaust Museum where tomorrow I’ll give a little talk with audience participation reading excerpts from my first family play, GIANT SHADOWS and pieces from BORN GUILTY and PETER AND THE WOLF (AND ME). Will try to tell some kind of story of the legacy of the Shoah in 2nd generation children of survivors and perpetrators and the personal and public politics of remembering the past.

I’ll talk more about the upcoming talk with Tom Keneally shortly. Today’s entry will be about the phenomenon of Jewish Theater in Australia. I copy for you excerpts of Deborah Lesier-Moore’s presentation, originally delivered at the Vienna conference for the Association for Jewish Theatre in March, 2007 and now printed in the AJT newsletter, a beautiful and very packed document with tons of great articles from and about the conferenece. So do check out the newsletter in full at the AJT website.

Jewish Theatre Down Under
by Deborah Leiser-Moore (an excerpt)

What is it to create ‘Jewish Theatre’ in Australia – this relatively new and reasonably safe country ‘down under’ where life is very easygoing? Where religion and politics are relatively safe topics of conversation but Sport is a minefield. A land of surf and sun. A country so far from the culturally rich and ancient Jewish life in Europe and very far from the ongoing tensions in the Middle East. keep reading

An ancient Aboriginal country discovered by the Western world only 237 years ago – (there were at least eight Jews on the First Fleet in 1788), it took until 1830 for the first ‘free ‘ Jewish settlers to arrive and 1841 when an organised Jewish community was finally formed in Melbourne.

Then, how did Jewish theatre emerge in this particularly foreign and remote landscape?

According to writer Arnold Zable the idea of a Jewish theatre emerged when an actor from Jacob Adler’s theatre, Samuel Weisberg, arrived in Melbourne in 1908 with the dream of playing to a large Australian Jewish community. He certainly was shocked when confronted with the reality of the small numbers in the community. However, he didn’t lose his dream. Rather the situation made him more determined to be the pioneer of The New Australian Yiddish Theatre.

So, on a Melbourne Cup day in 1908 (Melbourne Cup is an annual horse race and an Australian national holiday) in the Melbourne suburb of Carlton, he gathered a group of enthusiasts and together they concocted a plan to create a Yiddish Theatre. It flourished. Troupes were formed and toured the harsh Australian outback, playing anywhere they found a Jewish settlement.

In 1911 a cultural centre – the Kadimah – was formed in Melbourne, creating a hub for people to meet and thus a bridge between the old and new world. They produced many plays, performing to the growing number of Jews who were fleeing Europe, looking to satisfy their cultural appetite and who hungered for a taste of the ‘known’ from what they still considered ‘home’.

But, as they started to feel more comfortable and as they integrated into the Australia way of life, Jewish theatre artists became more interested in engaging with the wider Australian community – a community made up of a mix of cultures – predominately of English, Irish and Scottish decent – but there had also been waves of Chinese, Italian, Greek, Lebanese and Asian immigration. Most of these people felt the same sense of ‘otherness’ that the European Jews felt. Everone is Australia is from somewhere else. You don’t need to track back many generations.

Also, Australia is a physical environment, and people revere the body and the outdoors. So, a lot of the best theatre in Australia reflects this; ie circus, dance, physical theatre – theatre that pushes the body to the limits and beyond. So, contemporary Jewish theatre artists began to reflect this.

In 1991, in Melbourne, Barry Kosky launched his Jewish theatre company Gilgul, with a production of The Dybbuk, set in an old car garage, in the suburb of St Kilda – in the heart of the Jewish ghetto. But his was not ghetto theatre. Kosky didn’t want people to assume that this was some sort of folkloric, Jewish theatre in which reference points were exclusively set for a Jewish public. Gilgul took Yiddish Theatre traditions – including the director at the piano – but clearly subverted the form.

Which brings me to my work and the birth of Tashmadada. My theatre aims to engage a wider audience – both in Australia and internationally. The starting point for my work is the personal experience. So, my experience is that of a Jewish Polish Australian girl! Also, it is an exploration of the theatrical form itself – a reflection of my own theatrical background – I trained in dance, visual arts, the work of Ettiene Decroux, and the work of the Japanese director, Tadashi Suzuki with whom I trained in Japan. So, my work is non-naturalistic. It is physical, visual and aural – incorporating in its ‘script’ – body, text, sound, music, light, imagery, symbolism. In my mind this is a universal language that can resonate beyond the English speaking world.

Performances include: Hungry, a room with no air, The Cool Room, Here and There – Then and Now. I am presently developing a new solo piece called Cordelia, Mein Kindt.

One thought on “Greetings from Melbourne – And What is This Thing Called Australian Jewish Theater?

  1. Surprised Ari didn’t mention DCJCC’s
    previous presentation of an Australian Polish Jewish girl — Deb Filler with her wonderful “Punch Me in the Stomach” (and, another by her? title/date escaping me at the moment).

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