The Exciting Week That Ended August – The One Soon To Begin

Let’s let this Hurricane Weekend be the last resting space before a furious run of WITHOUT YOU I’M NOTHING, sure to grab us, lift us, and hurl us through a whirlwind of 18 performances with the singular superstar talents of Sandra Bernhard. Just listened to a great, very real/down-to-earth/early morning/tell-it-like it is interview with Sandra on DC 101 that came out just the other day. I think something really is going to click with this three-week gig — Sandra’s speaking out in DC on the election, on our nation’s slide, on our administration’s depravity–brand new material taking us right up to the minute–it will play fresh, urgent, and deeply needed, and it will all be intertwined with a reinterpreted take on material from a beloved hit show that’s stood the test of time–great songs, beautifully sung.  No one’s seen this new version of WITHOUT YOU I’M NOTHING and we’re playing fast and flexible and by the seat of our pants. Sandra’s band, The Rebellious Jezebels, flies into town this weekend and we begin our tech process Sunday night. The drum kit’s in place, the lights are hung, the banner’s unfurled. The talent will be the last — and by far the most important piece to make it into the building and we’ll all be ready for her when she does fly down. Tons of pieces in the press this week, from the Washington Post Weekend, to a Metro Weekly cover feature, to great pieces in The Blade and the Washington Jewish Week.

Advanced sales have been extraordinary. Good news. Saw Carrie Fisher’s new show, Wishful Drinking, at Arena Stage (in residence at the great Lincoln Theatre) and enjoyed the playfulness with the audience, the celebrity in-breeding blackboard, the droll self-deprecating candor. Made me excited for our turn as well.

The week that just was involved a good bit of recovery from the exhaustion of workshopping our first two productions of the season in presentations last weekend at the Kennedy Center’s Page to Stage Festival. And a weekend concluding panel discussion on the subject of playwrights and play development. Highlights all around, and things that made an impression; let me tick a few off:
– The huge relief when we got to the 440-seat Terrace Theatre on Sunday night (August 31), the definition of a dead time in DC, and rather than finding 20 stragglers, we counterd over 100 hearty souls out to hear Stefanie Zadravec’s HONEY BROWN EYES. The relief actually came within the first 10 minutes of the play reading which, when we rehearsed earlier in the day as we marked our places in the script, came off flat and, for me, uninvolving–the result, no doubt, of our reading way too many stage directions in the pass through. Some judicious editing in those stage directions, and–voila–the menace, the violence, the terror, and the humanity played brilliantly, beautifully, grabbing the audience by the lapels. I moved from a place of wondering what it was I fell in love with in this play to remembering/realizing/re-experiencing (with great relief) what an important, explosive piece of writing we have in Stefanie’s new play. Phew. And hooray.

Here’s a nice email we got from Stefanie later in the week. It reminds us that both Sandra and Stefanie are part of a larger initiative we’ve, rather unwittingly, been pursuing, giving a strong voice to strong women. Here’s Stefanie:

Went to New Dramatists forum of women playwrights (over 300 showed) to discuss theaters and how most of the big Lort theaters are producing only one or NO women playwrights.

I went home and looked at the Theater J brochure…. I counted FIVE women writers/translators in main programming, not to mention your staff and the directing slots given to women.
You have also put women in your coveted Fall slots (never happens) so good for you!!
In addition to wagging fingers we also need to commend theaters that allow women to contribute and don’t consider the women’s voice an ‘other’/minority vision of our culture.
So thanks!

The other piece of the week that was: Six days of intensive rehearsal with Theodore Bikel and director Derek Goldman in SHOLOM ALEICHEM: LAUGHTER THROUGH TEARS. Over 300 people came to the Terrace for that Labor Day presentation. Such an enormous labor, indeed, to take a two act play spanning some 125 minutes and, through the course of vigorous cutting, re-ordering of material, and generating many new linking ideas, bring the show in at an intermissionless 95 mnutes. That’s 30 minutes on the cutting room floor. Combined with the addition of 4 to 5 new songs in Yiddish, with some newly cooked-up English translation. A back-breaking amount of work for our octogenarian playwright. It wasn’t always smooth sailing to get to the new place, and we still have a good 15 minutes still to cut, not to mention aspects of Sholom Aleichem’s journey from Europe to America, back to Europe and finally America again left to strengthen. There’s a great biographical drama to tell while at the same time relating a range of beloved stories about family, about the shtetl, and about Tevye the milkman. How to successfully sustain both the biographical drama and find the right length and the right number of stories to tell? That remains part of our development process for the next three months.

But Theo is a lion, a living legend, and a beloved figure in our larger community. And people were so moved by his presentation. Here’s a lovely write-up of the event from Joel Markowitz, penning for DC Theatre Scene.

No one tells a story like the great Theodore Bikel, so when he stepped on the Kennedy Center Terrace Stage, he was welcomed with a thunderous applause as he began to portray the great Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem. The audience laughed and snapped their fingers, and clapped as he sang songs in Yiddish and English, and told great funny stories and jokes, and showed the packed house why this Sholom Aleichem is so well loved by Jews and non-Jews of all ages. Here are some of my favorite quips and lines:

“When I met Mark Twain, he told me, “People call me the Yiddish Mark Twain, and Twain replied, “People call me the American Sholom Aleichem.”

On American life: “This is not the promised land. Here Jews are scrambling to make a living. Here the oppressors are fellow Jews.”

On suffering: Jews don’t have time to suffer. You have to survive, so it doesn’t kill you.”

On going to Cheder (Jewish school): “The Rabbi had only one technique- whipping!”

On trying to find his friend Shmulik the Storyteller who disappeared one day: We were one body -one soul. Because of his stories, I was determined to become a storyteller. Every Jew is on a journey from Jerusalem to Jerusalem. This writer is on a journey from Shmulik to Shmulik.”

And a charming story of when he had writer’s block, his small daughter squeezed his finger, and after the squeeze, he began writing again.

And why is his character-Tevye – The Milkman so close to him?

“I have a passion for poor Jews, They are an art. I can show you what I can do with poverty.”

After the show, Mr. Bikel told me he is still working on editing the show. What was once a two act show is now only one act. I grew up reading these Sholom Aleichem stories, and I understand what a difficult job this must be. I can’t wait to see Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears, when it plays at Theater J from December 17, 2008 – January 11, 2009.

You can listen to two podcasts I recorded with Theodore Bikel at Theater J in May, 2007:

Theodore Bikel, Act 1 and Theodore Bikel, Act 2