Considering Jewish Theatre

Jewish-theatre practitioners met in the nation's capital earlier this month for a five-day international conference that took on a high-powered, sizzling life of its own. Some 150 theatre people—among them, directors, producers, actors, playwrights, scholars, and journalists—were on hand. The gathering was fueled by the attendees' constant exploration of ideas and issues, as well as numerous performances, play-readings, and full productions.

For the Association for Jewish Theatre (AJT)—an American-Canadian theatre organization that sponsored the five-day event—it was a quantum leap forward. Appropriately, the conference was called "Spreading Our Wings." For the first time, AJT moved beyond North American borders, drawing not only from its own two countries, but from Great Britain, Austria, and Israel as well. It was a superb opportunity for networking, for mining the possibilities of cross-country theatre collaboration.

"In a time of insecurity…our coming together to argue for theatre's importance is to argue for the triumph of humanism all around," said keynote speaker Ari Roth—whose own Washington-based Theatre J co-hosted the conference with Marilyn Hausfeld's Center Company at the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia. "Making Jewish theatre allows us to tap into the most personal identity issues. As we examine, debate, and exhort and reform, we are doing sacred work."

Among the numerous highlights were Theatre J's full production of "Jump/Cut"—Neena Beber's provocative play about a manic-depressive—and a reading of a Wendy Wasserstein one-act, with the playwright herself on hand to comment. "Welcome to My Rash" was an insightful piece on a doctor-patient relationship. Dancer Liz Lerman, a recent winner of the MacArthur Fellowship, performed and shared her own philosophy of the arts.

In one session, theatre producers (some 30 attendees) were each given only several minutes to profile their theatres, while playwrights were similarly limited in another session, as the conference held strictly to its tight, disciplined program. "How much time do I have left?" asked playwright Rich Orloff. "Three minutes? I donate my three minutes to the UJA [United Jewish Appeal]."

In other highlights, the San Francisco-based Traveling Jewish Theatre spelled out the story of Moses in dance, movement, and music. Prof. Ellen Schiff offered a vivid report on the recent London academic conference on Jewish theatre.

Visits to the Canadian, Austrian, and Israeli embassies, as well as to the Kennedy Center and the Holocaust Memorial Museum, enhanced the Washington experience. At the Austrian embassy, Warren Rosenzweig, American-born founder of the Jewish Theatre of Austria, offered a memoir piece on his founding of the theatre—which launched a heated debate on Austrian anti-Semitism. Among the solo pieces, an Israeli performer of Ethiopian birth, Yossi Vazza, offered an endearing piece called "It Sounds Better in Amharic," dealing with the culture shock of an Ethiopian newly arrived in Israel.

The Israelis were, in fact, a strong presence at the conference, showing an eagerness for further dialogue and theatrical exchange between cultures and countries. In a panel held at their embassy, they explored the differences and parallels of American and Israeli theatre. Sinai Peter, artistic director of the Haifa Municipal Theatre, lamented the fact that, although Israelis are avid theatregoers, chalking up the largest per capita theatre attendance in the world, they prefer escapist theatre. "They go out more than ever to escape the news," he explained. "I think you experienced something like it after 9/11."

As Israeli playwright Roi Rashkes put it, "In the present situation, we do happy shows, and when the situation gets happier, we can do more miserable shows."

On the other hand, Israeli playwright Motti Lerner insisted that the best of Israeli theatre, as he sees it, does offer a "cruel theatre," using the term as defined by Artaud: a theatre which jolts the audience into a new sense of gritty reality.

The Americans agreed that their own theatre, in general, tended to stay away from serious material—and suffered by contrast. "There's a bigger and bigger gap between American and Israeli theatre," Roth pointed out, criticizing the Americans' "lamentable drift into sentimentality and nostalgia." He cited an upcoming Golda Meir show as an example of their differences. While Americans see Meir as a folk hero, Israelis are very critical of their former prime minister.

"We are dominated by the Hollywood machine," added American performer Charlie Varon. "It's a given there's going to be a lot of Hollywood products, a lot of sentimentality." Varon himself, earlier in the conference, had offered a hilarious monologue on the American media.