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A Sad Rift at the Folksbiene

The new guard usurping power from the old is, well, the way of the world; indeed, it's to be expected, however painful, some might argue. Whether the new order is an improvement or, in fact, worse than its predecessor—and that depends on viewpoint—feelings may get hurt.

As it turns out, devastatingly so at the Folksbiene, the 82-year-old Yiddish-speaking theatre on West 55th Street.

Consider this: actress Zypora Spaisman, an award-winning leading lady at the Folksbiene for 42 years, cannot speak about her being unceremoniously dumped (that's her spin, anyway) without sobbing. So overwhelmed with emotion, the Polish-born refugee asks a friend to talk with us, prepared notes in hand. Later, a more composed Spaisman gets on the phone to continue the conversation, only to break down again.

In a marked Yiddish accent, voice trembling, she describes her 42-year dedication to the theatre as performer, wardrobe mistress, and fundraiser. Indeed, in recent years, she asserts, she kept the theatre alive single-handedly, precisely when other Yiddish-speaking theatres were going belly-up.

None of it has been easy. While the Folksbiene had its followers, by her own admission, the old audiences are literally dying. Still, she maintains, she boosted audiences substantially. Among other accommodations, "I put in earphones that translated the Yiddish into either English or Russian. I raised $40,000, contributed $10,000 of my own money, and put up an $11,000 bond. And I never got paid.

"In 1998, when the Workmen's Circle [a Jewish fraternal organization that co-sponsored the theatre] decided to take over the management, I agreed to work with the new board. In the beginning they said they would pay all the theatre's debts and the money I put into the theatre. They never did. Instead, they told me I had to step down. I had to beg to be in the final play ["Blacksmith Folly."] They said they'd let me do it, if I paid for everything. And I did. I even stayed on for awhile as a member of the board, and I attended the meetings. But they were all so unfriendly and hostile, I realized I was unwelcome and I had to leave. I was forced out of the theatre that I had helped create."

According to Spaisman—winner of OBIE, Drama Desk, Show Business, and Yiddish Goldie awards—she has been the casualty of a carefully orchestrated family takeover.

As she tells it, the Workmen's Circle and the Forward, a Yiddish language paper that is loosely affiliated with the Workmen's Circle, joined forces to oust her. Their goal, she contends, was to replace her with Zalman Mlotek, the son of a former editor at the Forward. "It's now a family operation. They want to keep [the theatre] in their family and pass it from generation to generation." Mlotek, the co-artistic director, serves alongside co-artistic director Eleanor Reissa, whom he selected.

To add insult to injury, Spaisman insists, "When audience members call and ask what happened to me, they [Folksbiene staffers] say I retired. Retired? I didn't retire and they know it. If I had retired, wouldn't I have gotten a goodbye party? Well, I didn't. And I happen to still be working. And they know that, too."

Refusing to simply disappear, Spaisman has just launched a new theatre, The Yiddish Public Theatre, which opens Oct. 25 (at The Mazer, 197 E. Broadway) with "Green Fields," a classic Yiddish drama by Peretz Hirschbein. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, "Green Fields" was the debut production for the New Yiddish Art Theatre at Irving Place in 1919. Spaisman is a featured actress in the upcoming work.

Most striking, monies have been pouring in, she says, from former Folksbiene theatregoers, who were outraged by what happened to her.

'Sheer Vindictiveness'

Not unexpectedly, Zalman Mlotek, the Folksbiene's new co-artistic director, describes the events very differently, suggesting that almost everything Spaisman states is inaccurate. Or to quote him, "unfortunately, not true."

To begin with, he stresses, "I have total admiration for [Spaisman]—the way she wore all hats and kept the theatre going. In no way do we dishonor her contribution. And it was not our intention that she leave. We wanted her to stay on the board in an advisory capacity. And we never treated her badly.

"No, we didn't promised to return any monies to her. If anything, the situation is reversed. [He doesn't elaborate]. But we're not going to prosecute. And we're not going to do anything about the fact that when she walked out, she took every document, mailing list, and record we had, so that we had to start from scratch. She did this out of pure vindictiveness.

"When people call and ask what happened to her, I don't know what I say—if she retired or she's no longer here. And she doesn't know what I say either."

So what happened? After four and a half decades why is Spaisman no longer on the scene?

Says Mlotek: "She didn't want to hear what we had to offer. After making decisions for 30 years, the old guard doesn't want to lose to the new guard!"

What emerges in the course of the conversation is that in Mlotek's view, Spaisman is out of tune with the business end of promoting a play; marketing strategies, he suggests, are alien to her.

"Look, I had done the music for 'Yankl der Shmid,' [a play at the Folksbiene] that was really well-received, a fine production. But no audiences came. Here you had a woman [Spaisman] running a theatre with no sense of how to get audiences—especially new audiences—into a theatre."

The larger question, of course, is how did Mlotek land the gig of artistic director? What qualifies him? Responding to her charge that he essentially inherited it, he grows quietly dismissive. "It's a sad comment," he notes, pointing out that he has a track record as both a successful producer as well as a composer. "I was a co-producer of both 'The Golden Lamb' and 'Those Were The Days,' [the latter] nominated for two Tonys.

"Our goal now at the Folksbiene is to bring in audiences who are interested in theatre generally, not only those who are connected to the Yiddish language and culture."

He suggests that during his two-year tenure, he has begun to move the theatre in the right direction by offering, for starters, a weekly children's show—90% English, 10% Yiddish—"that has elements of 'Saturday Night Live' and 'Sesame Street.' We have also introduced simultaneous translations." Interestingly, Spaisman takes credit for the same initiative.

But, he underscores, the theatre has not forgotten its roots. "In many of our casts we make a point of including veterans of the Yiddish theatre. And our next play will be 'An American Family,' a turn-of-the-century Jewish family saga."

Regarding Spaisman's latest theatrical endeavor, Mlotek makes all the appropriate well-wishing noises, emphasizing that there is certainly room for more than one Yiddish-speaking theatre.

Spaisman would agree with that sentiment. "My whole life has been about preserving the Yiddish language," she says. "Hitler didn't kill it. Neither did Stalin."

But today, theatregoing indifference might. And Spaisman and Mlotek could find themselves on the same side if no real audience exists for either operation. That remains to be seen.

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