The first time I met Shirley was at a meeting about Voices from the Changing Middle East: A Festival about two years ago but it feels like I have always known her. I am thrilled that she is taking over the literary and programming aspects of my job. Her new official title is Director of Literary Affairs and Public Programming. In addition to being a smart cookie, a hip blogger and a good friend she is a talented directer and a company member with Catalyst Theatre. As she mentions below she’s been connected to our theater for a while: first through meetings, then readings, workshops like Noor, Brownie Points and The Playdoh Golem, and will finally be joining staff and directing our world premiere of Sam Forman’s The Rise and Fall of Annie Hall. Shirley doesn’t have a headshot, like our actor/bloggers but she’s given me permission to use a photo of her that helps to describe her personality.
Tell Us a Little Bit About Yourself:
Where did you grow up? How did you first get involved in theater?
I grew up in a suburb of Rochester, New York. We lived on the West Side, which was some mild version of “the wrong side of the tracks” and basically meant that:
1. We were of Italian-American heritage (my mother)
2. Most of the adults around us worked in middle management at Eastman Kodak (my parents, both school teachers, were exceptions to that rule.)
3. A lot of my friends went tanning often and managed to tease their bangs into a pretty impressive “claw” (see various do’s here)
In first grade, at our PUBLIC SCHOOL, they announced we would be doing a play called “The Littlest Christmas Tree” (which seems awfully iff-y for a public school now that I think about it, but I suspect that as two half-jewish six-year-olds my twin brother and I combined may have been the most Jewish member of our entire first grade class). Anyway, I declared that I should be the lead because I was the shortest person in the class (next to Lenny Pavia) and I was a better reader anyway. For some reason the teacher listened to me and I got the role. From then on, I was pretty smitten with the whole theater thing.
I did a lot of high school and community theater growing up, and then eventually went to college for: musical theater, acting and directing—one at a time and in that order.
Tell Us a Little About Us:
What was the first show you saw at Theater J? What have you worked on with Theater J? What do you think is unique about Theater J’s audience?
My history with Theater J actually started in 1995 following my sophomore year at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. I’d heard of Ari Roth but I hadn’t been able to schedule a class with him. That summer I played Luisa in The Fantastiks! Another U of M student, Seth Hitsky, played Matt. Seth would rave about Ari as I drove him to and from our rehearsals at the Henry Ford Museum in Greenfield Village, Michigan. I wondered what the big deal about this Ari guy was anyway. Eventually, Seth and I ended up smooching in the Motown Room. It wasn’t until a bit later that I realized what an anti-Semite Henry Ford had been, and the whole scene seemed kind of ironic. Seth now makes techno music in Chicago, and I will be working with Ari at Theater J. And the world spins madly on.
The first show I actually saw at the J was Rocket to the Moon in the fall of 2001 because of another U of M connection—my dear friend Laura was down from New York acting in the play. I also saw Miklat that year and have vague memories of Grady Weatherford in side curls. He insists that he did not have side curls for that show, so maybe I just want that to be true.
The first time I worked with Theater J, I think, was directing a 5 x 5 reading when the inimitable Hannah Hessel was out of town. Before that, I’d sent Ari a note after hearing about the first Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival, volunteering to help in whatever capacity they needed. The muddle of Jewish-Islamic relations is something that has troubled me since I visited Israel in 1999. 9/11, and all that came with it, escalated my feelings, and I was frustrated by the one-step-forward, two steps back “peace process” I’d read about in the news. I’d also just directed Two Rooms at Theater Alliance (a play about the hostage crisis in Lebanon in the late 1980s) and was devastated that things were only getting worse, not better. Ari said he’d put me to work, so I ended up doing the aforementioned 5×5 readings, and then directing a reading of Islamic scholar Akbar Ahmed’s play NOOR, which turned into another reading, then another, and another. Then I directed some readings of some other plays, including The Rise and Fall of Annie Hall, and am thrilled to have the opportunity to direct a full production of that play in spring 2009.
The Theater J audiences that I have been exposed to are inquisitive, equal parts supportive and demanding, and strikingly intelligent. I don’t think they come to the theater to take it easy. Theater is perceived as a rigorous mental and emotional exercise, which is the way I like it.
Favorite Jewish playwright (or play)?
Tony Kushner is one of my favorite playwrights, period. I saw both parts of Angels in America on New Year’s eve at the end of 1993, and I truly believed that history was about to crack open—right then and there. Musically– I am a big fan of William Finn, and also dig the direction in which Jason Robert Brown and Adam Guettel are pushing musical theater. As for newer playwrights—I love what I have read of Jason Grote’s (go see Rorschach’s sharp production of This Storm is What We Call Progress). Also Anne Washburn. Also Mark Schultz.