#JewPlay: What is the future of Jewish theatre in the United States? In this series, co-curators David Winitsky, Artistic Director of New York’s Jewish Plays Project and Guy Ben-Aharon, Producing Artistic Director of Boston’s Israeli Stage, asked Jewish theatre practitioners from major regions of the country what Jewish theatre means to them.
Okay, thought experiment. I’ll say a phrase, you give me the first image that pops into your mind. Ready? Go: Jewish theatre.
I’m gonna hazard a guess that one of three things came to mind: a) a grainy black and white of the Yiddish King Lear on 2nd Avenue, b) either Diary of Anne Frank or Fiddler on the Roof or c) your orthodontist in Little Shop at the local JCC.
All due respect to Yiddish, Anne, and your orthodontist, but as a theatremaker in the twenty-first century, I’m not exactly turned on by any of those images. (I’ll cop to a huge soft spot for Fiddler, but it's still not thrilling—just kind of sweet.)
Because really, Jewish theatre? What does that mean? Is that redundant (insert your “theatre would be dead without the Jews” joke here). Is it just old fashioned (are we talking Yiddish theatre?). It could be contentious (is it Israeli theatre?). Maybe it's just Broadway (but maybe that’s reductive)?
But I’ve got to tell you, I’ve spent the last ten years thinking about it, and the last three actively pursuing it, and I think what it could mean—what it should mean—is vital, exciting, cutting-edge art that speaks to us now.
The tools are there:
- A millennia-old tradition of argument and dialogue. (A good place for theatre to start.)
- A gorgeous mass of mysticism and magic. I’m talking dybbuks and spirits and archangels and flaming swords. This stuff is made for the stage.
- A love of the intellectual and the idealistic stretching from the minutae of every day life to the grandest notions of human justice, goodness, and righteousness.
- A deep attachment to text. We love our texts.
- A cultural history filled with great stories.
- A bit of tragedy. Can’t make theatre without that.
- Funny. Definitely got some funny.
I would submit that right now, we’re not quite using all these great tools. We’re a bit stuck on two subjects (dysfunctional families with ogre-like mothers and the Holocaust), one style (realism), and a growing disconnect between the artists who want to make this work, and the theatre community in which it would be made.
So, how did we get here, and how can we make it better?
A Brief, Annotated History of Jewish Theatre
(I won’t be offended if you want to skip right to the recommendations.)
For a people with a long history, Jews have been doing theatre for a relatively short period of time.
Pre–1800s: Not much. You got your Purim plays (a holiday in the spring with a lot of storytelling and drinking), and that’s about it. Not to say there aren’t Jews onstage, but they are mostly Jewish characters created by other folks (see Shakespeare, W. and The Merchant of Venice, et al).
At this point, Jewish stories, like almost all of Jewish life, are bound by religion.
1865–1900: The Haskalah (“Enlightment”) comes to Eastern European and Russian Jewry. They leave the shtetls and create a new, upwardly mobile, urban community, complete with an artistic class. The first Jewish dramatists (Abraham Goldfadn, Solomon Ettinger) start writing in Yiddish.
Interestingly, like some culturally-specific movements later in the United States, much of the work is political, dealing with a recently oppressed ethnic minority struggling to gain equality and become enfranchised.
1900–1930: The Golden Age of Yiddish Arts and Letters. In Poland, the classic Yiddish dramatists (Pinski, Asch, Ansky, Hershbein, Singer, etc.); in Russia, the avant-garde theorists (Meyerhold, Granovsky, Chagall, Mikheols). In New York, the vibrant 2nd Avenue Yiddish theatre starts transferring its stars to Broadway. This is really the start of Jewish theatre in the United States.
Jewish drama joins the emerging realist and modernist dramatic movements sweeping Europe. “The fate of the Jews” is no longer the only topic. Philosophy, western life, sex, money, intermarriage—the whole megillah.
1930s–1940s: Jewish theatre artists become some of the most influential in American history. You know the list: Kaufman, Hammerstein, Rodgers, Gershwin, Marx, Brice, etc.
At the same time, though, explicitly Jewish content goes away. The influence of Yiddish drama structures, the humor, the breadth, the pathos are there, and some Jewish characters are around, but the plays these folks are making are much more about America than Jews.
1950s–1960s: Post World War II things change, but they also stay the same. The list of Jewish American dramatic greats definitely continues to grow: Adler, Miller, Sondheim, Harnick, and on and on. (I’m definitely switching to an American narrative here. At this point, there aren’t any Jews left in most of Europe, and Israeli drama hasn’t really started.)
But we do start to put some Jewish things back onstage—mostly in an effort to reclaim the history that has just been so traumatically ripped away. We reach a height with Fiddler on the Roof and The Diary of Anne Frank, two towering pieces that try to reclaim what was lost.
1970s–80s: By now, American Jews are fully assimilated, upper-middle class and on their way to wealthy. Jewish theatre artists are still a major force, but they make their bones completely away from their Jewish identity.
Jewish intellectuals are moving fast away from ancient, tribal, religious affiliations. Vanguard artists look instead to global, multicultural, humanistic concerns. (Judith Malina, Julian Beck, Richard Schechner, etc.)
Combine this with the general shift away from religious life in America and a growing sense of unease on the left side of American politics with the contentious situation in Israel/Palestine, and we get a generation of artists who in many cases refuse to be labeled “a Jewish artist.”
I would argue that this point is where a drop-off in Jewish theatre starts. Not because we need theatre by us for us (FJBJ?). I truly believe that matrilineal descent is neither necessary or important. (Of course, my mother was Catholic, so I have a bit of an axe to grind on this count.)
It’s more a matter of specificity. The value of any culturally-specific theatre is the way it uses it’s unique point of view to illuminate the human condition. Whether it’s August Wilson’s African American Hill district, Harvey Fierstein’s gay New York, or Nilo Cruz’s Ybor City, it’s the gritty details that made these new worlds relevant to a broad audience.
As Jewish artists—and in some ways American Jews overall—distance themselves form core parts of their cultural inheritance, we start to get a Jewish theatre that is too general, too devoted to the easy joke, the pat historical record, or the cultural stereotype to stir the kind of emotions we want our audience to feel.
NB: Except for Neil Simon. Even though today he is often used as a punchline for jokes about shlocky theatre, I’d argue that his Brighton Beach trilogy is on par with Miller in its searching investigation of American ideas, ideals, and history through a very Jewish lens.
1990s: A curious time. Tony Kushner, Wendy Wasserstein, Donald Margulies, David Mamet, and others inherit the Jewish voice on the stage. Their theatre is always powerful and often Jew-ish, but can traffic in a “specifically Jewish sense of anxiety and guilt,” rather than a deep engagement with Jewish ideas. (That great phrase is from Jeremy Stoller, but in his defense, he was not talking about these writers when he said it.)
During this period, culturally-specific Jewish theatres and producers are dropping like flies. American Jewish Theater and Jewish Rep in NYC both go out of business; companies in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Los Angeles, and elsewhere are born and die in rapid succession. An odd fact emerges in a study by Jewish cultural agencies: Jews prefer to see Jewish content in non-Jewish venues, and non-Jewish content in Jewish venues. Go figure.
2000s: Away from the theatre, waves of young Jews are involved in the ongoing reinvention of Jewish life from the inside. Worship services continue to change, women and the LBGTQ community gain traction, as do “Jews in ALL Hues.” JDub brings Matisyahu to the masses. Social justice movements around the environment, hunger relief, and eradication of poverty and political activism become a growing focus of Jewish life. It’s pretty cool.
And there are artists following the trend. Jennifer Maisel’s The Last Seder looks directly at the magic that might still exist in our assimilated, multi-culti families. Motti Lerner’s hard-hitting stories from Israel (Pangs of the Messiah, Hard Love) come to America. Aaron Posner’s brilliant adaptations of Chaim Potok's The Chosen and My Name is Asher Lev bring the question of modernity versus tradition alive.
But at the same time, the organized, institutional parts of the Jewish world take a definite shift to the right. The drivers of the global Jewish community are wealthy donors, many of whom are very conservative, socially and politically. Unswerving support of Israel becomes the litmus test of many Jewish leaders (and virtually all politicians). Jews might still vote Democrat, but it’s been awhile since we were all of the leftie-liberal, worker’s rights, bleeding heart set. In this environment, support for the questing, challenging artist starts to dry up.
2014: Which brings us to today (roughly).
Today, Jewish life and the Jewish conversation are alive with ideas that are resonant with theatre life and theatre conversations—open dialogue, social and civic justice, international collaboration, and new modes of creating sacred space and time for an overstimulated population.
Like the theatre, these amazing ideas live in the context of a world of shrinking resources, right-drifting politics, and a disconnect with a mass audience. In the Jewish world, there’s a lot of handwringing over intermarriage and dwindling numbers; in the theatre, there is a constant concern over brain drain to more lucrative media like film and TV.
So What Do We Do Now?
Three years ago, I started a venture called the Jewish Plays Project, a development center for new Jewish theatre. In that time, I and my colleagues have read and reviewed 512 new Jewish plays from 450 writers in twenty-six states and eight countries over. That’s a huge outpouring of ideas and energy.
Based on that work, here are a few ideas, and a few plays that I’ve worked on that are great examples. (Producers or Artistic Directors who want to look at any of these plays—contact me ASAP.)
1. Embrace the mystical in our ancient texts
Yes, it’s dense. Sure, much of it might be in Hebrew. But it’s like a gold mine if we get into it. These are not your Hebrew school lessons. These are subversive, radical, sexy, dark stories full of complex motives and results. The stories in our texts are the stuff of theatrical gold, if we can go and get them.
We need to take a page from Wilson, Lorca, and Rivera and bring the magic and the spiritual onto our stage. Hasidic folktales, are hallucinogenic, trippy tours through the subconscious of a highly ordered society. This stuff should be catnip for dramatists. (See He Who Laughs by Ian Cohen, Estelle Singerman by David Rush, and Modern Prophet by Sam Graber).
2. Invite Everyone
The best part of all of this is that you don’t have to be a Jew to get into any of it. In today’s world, we all have access to culture from all over the world. Some of the best Jewish theatre is being created by people who are not religious or cultural Jews (The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez comes right to mind). I always make sure we have a good group of non-Jewish playwrights in the work the JPP develops—often their insights are among the most profound. The non-Jewish directors, actors, designers, et al who interact with the JPP’s work often learn more and have their horizons expanded more than I do. (Check out Lauren Yee’s The Hatmaker’s Wife, Lenelle Moises’ The Many Faces of Nia, and Cory Hinkle, Victoria Stewart, and Jeremy Wilhem’s Clandestino)
3. Let’s talk about Israel
Ah, Israel. Palestine. Israel? Let’s just say the Middle East. Not only is it one of the most contentious, complicated, vexing questions in the Jewish world, it has instant import for the global community, too. And in its very short history, it has amazing stories of tragedy and triumph and moral questioning.
I know it’s tough. It can be tiring. But it’s so enmeshed in deep questions: faith and modernity, socialism and capitalism, war and peace (literally), nationality versus ethnicity, law versus history! What theatremaker worth her salt wouldn’t want to get into that?
And if there is a future there that does not involve some kind of mass tragedy, I truly believe it is up to us—up to the artists and the thinkers and the creators—to envision it. What does this part of the world look like in fifty years? (Further reading: Six by Zohar Tirosh-Polk, Goodnight, Mrs. Bernstein by Lauren Kettler, and Close to Home by Jonathan Gillis).
4. Leave anti-Semitism
Jews today are, by and large, a free and prosperous people with more power and influence than ever. That’s a huge difference between Jewish culturally-specific work and other cultural groups. Our goal in Jewish theatre is not to liberate or empower Jews—that happens in other ways. Our goal should be to liberate and empower everyone through the best of Jewish culture.
(Don’t get me wrong. Anti-Semitism is certainly alive and well in our world, but its not a central factor in the way most of us live (particularly in America). And preparing for potential future anti-Semitism means we are living from a place of fear, and that’s not where great art lives.)
And yes, I include the Holocaust in this idea. The JPP does not develop plays about the history of the World War II period or its immediate aftermath, not because its not important, but because it’s already been done. The body of Holocaust dramatic literature is significant and of high quality. The more remain stuck in that moment, the harder it is to…
5. Be in the now
Jewish life is ancient. That’s what’s cool about it. But in its best aspects, it does not concentrate on that long history. Jewish ideas—and the best Jewish theatre—are about how we live today. How this mass of life lessons, gained through hard-fought experience, can teach us to live now. (Plays I Love: Let Me Go by Jonathan Caren, a People by Lauren Feldman, Esther’s Moustache by Laurel Ollstein.)
Whether we embrace text, religion, magic, history, or philosophy, there is something for all of us that can help us be better humans today.