As We Move Toward Dress Rehearsal…

The Rest of the Season Waits For No One. Meaning deadlines for our newsletter beckon, just as production meetings are being scheduled and payments are going out the door. We’ve got a riotuous winter we’re planning, full of laughs, and it’ll mark the first time in our history when one comedy follows another! How RADICAL is that?

True, one show’s a musical comedy and the other is a maniacal stand-up rant — with deft little actorly turns as Judy Gold sruts her acting chops as well as her Emmy award winning brand of stand-up — still this winter promises to put lots of smiles on people’s faces.

But wait a minute. There are rumblings. A concern that perhaps these early winter offerings are a tad too… ethnic, shall we say?

I’ve addressed this subject in my most recent Center in the City DCJCC newsletter article that will go to the printer sometime soon for a December circulation. Definitely a different lead time in print than on this here blog. Still, I’d like to share a copy of the article now, because it’s going to take this blog somewhere new in the coming days, even as we concentrate our artistic energies on opening SPEED-THE-PLOW.

There are a few strands for me to work on in the coming days. I’ve neglected to post anything about my trip to Boston last week when I consulted for the New Center For Arts and Culture; one of 6 programmers invited up to brainstorm for a vitalizing 6 hour session as this new institution charts a wholly new course for an arts organization. It’s a 150 million dollar building in the process of being built along The Rose Kennedy Greenway in downtown Boston near the Harbor. Its origins are within the Jewish community of Boston and its animating base is a circle of Jewish philanthropists who had hoped to create an ambitious Jewish arts institution, either in Newton on the campus of the existing JCC there, or even better, in Boston. And then a great big wonderful parcel of land opened up on the Greenway, and The Massachusetts Turnkpike Authority granted to this influential group the deed and permission to build a stunning 80,000 sqaure foot arts complex designed by world renowned architect (and sometime iconoclast) Daniel Libeskind. The stipulation from the Mass Turnpike Authority was that the Arts Center had to be open and accessible to all. And that it’d be good, in that regard, if the word “Jewish” were not in the name of the project.

Well, so begins a fascinating story of how this New Center will either succeed or not in splitting the hairs on the hide of this arts institution that originates in the Jewish community but is not explicitly of it, or for it. It’s for All of Boston. A laudable goal for an arts organization. A gift, as it were, from the Jewish community, to the greater Metropolis, yet still presenting a series of values that reside within the home base.

What does any of that mean?

We shall pursue.

For now, let’s see what it means to be a Jewish Theater and yet want to stay relevant and inviting to a larger non-Jewish culture going crowd. And for that, I present this draft from our Theater J page of the December Center in the City DCJCC newsletter issue.

    From the Artistic Director

    What’s in a name? Well, an identity, for starters. The J in “Theater J” stands for Jewish, of course; tossed off at times nonchalantly, as in “I’m going to the J” – the “J” being short for “JCC,” just like “I’m going to the Y” really means “I’m going to the “Young Men’s Christian Association,” though very few people-be they Christian or Jewish-would be caught spelling out YMCA completely. The “Y” and the “C” in “YMCA” are soft-peddled; we don’t dwell on the meaning of the words that comprise the acronym and, as a result, the institution winds up meaning different things to different people. Our DCJCC is both the same and quite different. And Theater J, like the “Y,” has an aspect to its character that doesn’t trade excessively on its “J-ness,” although it can also be argued that our community spends an exceptional amount of time questioning the nuances of our ethnicity and how deeply that ethnicity extends.

    “How Jewish is Theater J?” We hear the question a lot, both from strangers but also from within our circle of regulars; even within Theater J’s nascent strategic planning committee, where we turn the question around and ask, “How Jewish does our audience expect us, or need us, or want us to be?”

    Or want us not to be?

    That’s the flip side that we’re hearing; a concern that perhaps there’s “too much” Jewish content in our current season; this note coming from people eager to bring in new faces, new brains, new bodies to our theater. Those people might hesitate when they hear some of the titles of some of our shows wondering “Are these plays for Jewish People Only?”

    It’s a reservation we’d do well to pay attention to, even as we hope and assume that everyone knows our theater presents work that is accessible to everyone. Perhaps some of our titles suggest otherwise?

    What’s in a title? The capacity to describe, intrigue; announce; or possibly alienate. Our winter titles, which promise to be among our most popular, comic, and culturally revealing shows also boast titles that might make a certain segment of our audience uneasy: Shlemiel The First. Rabbi Sam. 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother. All in a row.

    How is it that we picked one musical, one workshop, and one solo comic performance piece, each with an explicitly proud, in-your-face Jewish title? Well, we didn’t think that we were doing anything abnormal, for starters. We were comfortably choosing comedy because we’d experienced the magic of laughter last season being around each one of these pieces. Shlemiel The First was the comic highlight of our fall programming during our Robert Brustein Residency and we got to witness, over a week of concert readings in a semi-staged presentation, the full promise and potential of this joyous musical romp. This musical adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s play about the legendary Polish town of Chelm is an exhuberant jolt of joy. It’s the Marx Brothers set to music. It’s “Fiddler” by way of “The Three Stooges.” And it’s a dazzilingly witty set of lyrics arranged by the late librettist Arthur Weinstein, who turned this immortal lyric: “And here’s the rub, there lies my zlub, I married a Shlemiel.” Shlemiel, we will all come to understand very soon, means “dolt,” or “bungling fool.” And what more colorful, flavorful and linguistically apt way of capturing the particular charm of this buffoonery story than by calling it by its proper, authentic, Yiddish name?

    Still, a broad audience won’t feel itself invited if the play only trades in Yiddishisms, right? And it’s in this respect that the musical delivers with highbrow and lowbrow aspects intertwined throughout. Or as New York Times critic Stephen Holden put it, “The rollicking new klezmir musical, Shlemiel the First, is a reminder that the most inspired low comedy offers a lot more than pratfalls, buffoonery and custard pies. When attached to a potent fable and staged in an airy surreal style… it can be profound in a wonderfully offhanded way.”

    Similarly, 25 Questions For a Jewish Mother is saddled with a spot-on, ethnically explicit title for a show that’s not only a hoot, but also an affecting tour de force of universal appeal by Emmy Award winning comic Judy Gold who interviews women across the country while turning on a dime to deliver a high octane comic rant on the travails of being a single gay mom. 25 Questions smashes the stereotype of the American Jewish mother even as it invokes it and forces the audience to deal with its historic associations.

    And our other offering of early winter, Rabbi Sam (January 7-8) is a world premiere workshop of one of our great author/performer/chameleons, Charlie Varon, who brings his inimitable story-telling techniques to this highly theatrical saga of a slicko-hipster rabbi and the Bay Area congregation he’s upsetting. It’s a spirited and colorful story about the drama of being on a perpetually divided synagogue board. But Rabbi Sam could also be about any boardroom argument, be it within a public charter school or a group of shareholders.

    Still, we come back to the question, posed by our good friends looking out for our best interests: Are these universally relevant comedies stuck with titles that seem just too, well, forbiddingly ethnic?

    And should that be a concern for us?

    And should we look to create a far more methodical balance in our offerings between the explicit and the universal?

    These are important questions worth asking at every stage of a program’s evolution.

    Just as 25 Questions is about every mother-daughter relationship, and Shlemiel the story of an exceptional yet ordinary town, Charlie Varon’s show will succeed, not because, or even in spite of its title, but because, like the other two shows, it proves to be drop-dead funny, universally satisfying, and deftly constructed. Quality has a way of finding a broad base.

    And that’s what we’re aiming for at Theater J: Universally satisfying stories told through a shifting culturally-specific lens. With occasional spasms of radically explicit Jewish content. We’re comfortable with our titles. But sensitive to the fact they might be misread.

    We know that each of theses offerings is infused with a large artist’s heart; and will embrace a wide audience. That’s the Theater J Way. But this conversation must be continued.

    That’s the Theater J Way as well.

2 thoughts on “As We Move Toward Dress Rehearsal…

  1. Admittedly, sometimes the “too Jewish” conversation rubs me the wrong way. But from a marketing standpoint and when trying to reach a broader audience, I see where people are going with it. After all, I’m the last one to want the broader public to think of Fiddler on the Roof as the biggest Jewish theater contribution. Sigh! Since I am in Israel, I guess all of these type of issues confronting the American Jewish community seem far away. I wonder if Israeli theaters grapple with the issue of offering Jewish vs. non-Jewish content.

  2. Hey, RZ – Appreicate the comment. Israeli theaters must wrestle with the question of religious portraiture on stage all the time — How much should the secular art-form pay attention to the religious practices and preoccupations of some of the population? How “Jewish” is the repertory of the Cameri Theatre? When portraits of the religious community are presented on stage, are they sympathetic? Fiercely critical? Is the work ever reverent itself? The secular community gets hammered by the religious community for its anti-religious bias. The only difference: the secular community doesn’t much care about offending the religious community in Israel. It’s more of an open argument. Yes? No?

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