This week LA STAGE Times will present coverage of the 31st International Association for Jewish Theatre Conference via daily posts from regular contributors Cynthia Citron and Rachel Fain. To view other postings, click here.
To paraphrase a very old joke: seven Jews sat down at the table to express 14 different opinions”¦
In fact, they were the opening panel convened by the 31st annual conference of the International Association for Jewish Theatre, beginning Sunday at UCLA Hillel’s Dortort Arts Center to discuss “Jewish Theatre: Reflecting and Shaping a Shifting World.”
Moderated by Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, the panel included Jamie Pachino, playwright and screenwriter; Stephanie Liss, playwright, TV writer and documentary producer; Herb Isaacs, director/producer of the West Coast Jewish Theatre; Ronda Spinak, artistic director of the Jewish Women’s Theatre; Michael Halperin, playwright, TV writer, and novelist; and Naomi Pfefferman Magid, arts and entertainment editor of the Los Angeles Jewish Journal.
Their specific topic was “Comedy and Drama of Ethical Values in Jewish Theatre,” but like the Jews in the joke quoted above, their comments were multi-focused.
Pachino began with a comical answer to Rabbi Feinstein’s opening question, “What makes a Jewish play Jewish?”
“It depends on how it was killed,” she said.“Or, if you cut the very end of it.” And finally, “If the playwright starts out to write one act and by some miracle it turns into eight.”
Halperin followed up with “We are the mythmakers. We have a mythological approach to stories. The American myth deals with individuality and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, whereas the Jewish approach is communal—working together in community.”
Feinstein asked, “Where does Israel stand in creating myths?” “Israel created a myth and morphed it into a universal idea,” Halperin responded. “And an idea needs to be universal or it will not travel. For example, Fiddler on the Roof is a big hit in Japan because the Japanese identify with the characters and the story.”
“But the focus has shifted since 9/11,” Liss said. “The focus shifts as the world changes.”
“Israel is not the myth any more. The kibbutz movement is dying out. Things have changed,” Spinak said. “It’s important for us to look forward, not back—to reflect not what we were, but who we are today.”
“Jews have gone through so many phases in the world,” Halperin said. “Alienation, assimilation, acculturation, chameleon changes, and finally mainstream.“
“I think we’re still “˜the other’,” Liss said. “We haven’t fully assimilated. How do we become who we are meant to be in this world? How do we live with ourselves?”
“I once asked a rabbi why Jews don’t talk much about heaven,” Pachino said. “He said because we believe in doing good on earth because it’s the right thing to do, not because we want to get to heaven.
“But to respond to Rabbi Feinstein’s question, we can’t just write about Israel, we have to write about people. An audience has to have a stake in the conflict, go through catharsis, make a connection.”
“The audience wants revelation in the context of relationships,” Halperin added.
“As writers we’re given permission to explore all sides,” Liss said. “People are hungry for this.” She cited her play On Holy Ground, in which two women in Israel, one Palestinian and the other Jewish, try to resolve their conflict — the Palestinian woman’s daughter, a suicide bomber, had killed the Jewish woman’s daughter. “The jihadist culture is a culture of death,” she said.
“There are three sources of drama in contemporary Jewish life,” Rabbi Feinstein said “They are the changing perception of Jewish women, the way the Jewish community deals with non-Jews, and faith—what happens to faith in this culture?”
“There are so many voices not heard in today’s plays,” Spinak said. “For example, Persian Jewish women. Or women who have converted.”
Naomi Pfefferman Magid agreed. “The theater needs to be diverse.”
“We want to take the audience on a journey,” Spinak said. “Make them laugh.Â Make them cry.”
“The playwright has a responsibility to be true to himself,” Isaacs said. “Do producers have that responsibility, too? If he is willing to take chances, are you ready for truth in theater?”
The rabbi then asked Isaacs to make the case for Jewish theater. Why should anyone fund it?
“The first question is, Are we doing quality theater?” Isaacs responded. “You need us and you need to help. We tell your story.”
“We are telling your story to the world,” Liss added.
But, as always, the rabbi had the last word. “You want to know where to put theater and how to fund it?” he asked. “Move it into synagogues!”
Earlier on Sunday, the Conference paid tribute to actor Ed Asner at a celebratory luncheon. Asner was honored for his long history of service to the theater and to social justice causes, and for his generous support of the Arizona Jewish Theatre and young emerging playwrights.
Later that evening conference participants were treated to An Evening of Jewish Theatre, consisting of solo performances of classic Jewish set pieces and modern one-acts at the Santa Monica Playhouse, followed by Insomniac’s Delight, 70 minutes of music, monologues and mischief presented by Parlor Performances producer Jeannine Frank.
DAY TWO: Monday, February 6 — Montoya on Jewish Theater Reflecting and Shaping a Shifting World
On the second day of the conference, Richard Montoya of Culture Clash gave the keynote speech. Culture Clash’s work is largely based in Chicano-Latino culture, but Montoya, who had a Jewish great-grandmother, has also been exploring the Jewish part of his culture for many years.
“I’m on a journey,” he said.Â “I want to find grace in a violent world.”
“The Sinaloa drug cartels are in L.A.,” he noted. “The apocalypse is all around us.” His books and plays were on the reading lists of ethnic studies classes that have been banned in Arizona. He said he “drives to Westwood with a passport,” and he pulled it out of his pocket as proof.
Claiming Gordon Davidson as “his spiritual father,” he said, “political theater is good business,” and noted that Culture Clash had sold out at UCLA’s Royce Hall. “My political theater is an act of love,” he added.
“I have professional A.D.D.,” he said, “and I’ve been doing Jon Stewart for 28 years. Art and politics are inextricably woven together,” he continued, as he discussed his play Palestine, New Mexico, which was produced at the Mark Taper Forum in December 2009. One of the themes of that play was a particular Indian’s belief that his tribe was actually Jewish. “Isolated people have reason for kinship,” Montoya said.
He noted the influence of the Spanish culture on Jewish culture and the similarities of the “magical realism” of Spanish-language authors and the Midrash, the ancient Hebrew commentary on the scriptures. “We have something to teach each other,” he said. “One culture steps into the footprints of another. My Sephardic roots have a progressive Jewish core, even though people tell me “˜You’ll never be Jewish—you’re not Ashkenazi.’”
New Directions in Jewish Performance
Later in the day, the discussion of ethnic identity continued with a panel consisting of David Chack, president of the Association for Jewish Theatre and artistic director of ShPIel Performing Identity in Chicago; playwright Wendy Graf; Aaron Henne, playwright and director of Theatre Dybbuk; and Tali Tadmor, composer and Six Points Fellow. The moderator was playwright Emilie Beck.
To the question of how they incorporate their religion into their plays, Graf noted that she doesn’t have a “traditional Jewish response” in her plays, but overlaps responses from many cultures.
Henne said his hybrid performances, which include dance and music, myth and mysticism, are a Jewish “investigation,” rather than a “response.” As a Jewish writer “it’s where I come from, but it’s not exclusive.”
Tadmor said she provided a “nuanced response. We can express in art what we can’t politically.”
And Chack noted that “we respond to our history and culture, and it’s all about survival.”
The question was raised, “What makes theater Jewish? Is it too Jewish? Not Jewish enough? Written by a self-hating Jew?”
Graf responded, “There are all kinds of Jewishness. “Porgy and Bess is not about Jews, but [its music] was written with a Jewish voice, George Gershwin’s. And the same goes for West Side Story [written by Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim].”
Chack added, “It’s one minority telling the story of another minority. It deals with assimilation, and we are a part of that.”
But can someone who isn’t Jewish write Jewish art? The consensus was that that art provides a fresh perspective and interplay between cultures.
Henne, whose work combines movement and speech, noted that this is a “new direction in Jewish performance,” which was the title of the panel discussion in which they were all engaged. “In the meeting of the two the tale is told,” he said.
Graf suggested that playwrights ask “new, different questions and let the audience answer them. Be controversial, take a chance,” she advised.
“Artists are subversive,” Chack said. “They are always looking for sharper, edgier ways to tell the story.
“My characters lead me,” Graf said. “It’s instinctual—what comes from your heart.”
“Our challenge is to share what we have with others,” Henne concluded. “To provoke dialogue about things in our society, to have a sense of inquiry, not an agenda, to share the history, the memories, and the experiences we have in common.Â And to celebrate the culture. Our stories have so much to share.”
***All photos by Cynthia Citron except where notedPrint