The Jewish Plays Project Discusses Their Radical Approach To Theater
“Why is this night different from all other nights?”
It’s a question we ask, “Mah Nishtanah,” on the Jewish holiday of Passover – a time to celebrate the power that comes from the simple act of telling a story, in order to move ourselves forward. Storytelling, since the beginning of time, has driven change, created movements, and initiated societal transformations. And the best part about a story is that everybody has one. Through story, we each have the capacity to shape the world we live in and build a culture based on compassion.
Judaism has quite the longstanding tradition of storytelling. What I recall most from my own Jewish upbringing are these stories – the stories that taught us lessons, that shed light on the past, and the stories with no scarcity of unmistakable Jewish humor. I’ve written about the painstaking process of pulling the stories out of my relatives from seven different countries in order to piece together my own family narrative, ultimately discovering that I come from a long line of resilient survivors. These stories started a conversation for my family on how to honor forgotten pieces of our past and find personal empowerment through an incredible legacy.
All stories start conversations, and this June, I had the privilege of engaging in a conversation that’s more relevant than ever, thanks to The Jewish Plays Project, known for putting bold, progressive Jewish conversations on world stages. I was more excited than I was for my bat mitzvah for the chance to do some “kibbitzing” with the creative team behind JPP’s Mah Nishtanah plays:
Interview with the Creative Team
- Creator & Producer of this Series David Winitsky (Founder & Artistic Director of the JPP)
- Lead Dramaturg Abigail Katz (Director of New Play Development, The Atlantic Theater)
- Guest Dramaturg Miriam Wiener (Literary Associate, the Vineyard Theater)
- Director Pirronne Yousefzadeh
- Susan Bernfield (Artistic Director, New Georges)
- Sarah Gancher (“A Hundred Days” NYTW, “Seder” at Hartford Stage)
- MJ Kaufman (Public Theater’s Emerging Writer’s Group)
- Shais “Manishtana” Rishon (author of the book, 100% Black, 100% Jewish, 0% Safe)
What does JPP do?
David Winitsky: The JPP brings great Jewish content to communities all over the country. We seek out the most exciting, new and different Jewish plays and musicals, provide them development and artistic support in New York, and then connect with the audiences that need to see them – either in Jewish or theater environments. We advocate for our pieces to be produced on mainstream stages around the U.S., and sometimes even around the world. Our goal is to add 10 new Jewish plays and musicals to the cannon of world dramatic literature.
What is unique about your process?
David Winitsky: Two main things: first, we believe in community input and interaction at every step. We talk to audiences and lay leaders about what plays to develop and which ones to advance, and we take their opinion seriously. I don’t want to be in some kind of white tower in New York deciding by fiat what new Jewish theater should be. We work in as many as 10 cities every year, bringing new plays to Jewish communities and asking them what feels relevant and 21st Century to them.
On the development end, we specialize in what we call Jewish Dramaturgy. We bring thought leaders from the Jewish world – clergy, scholars, professionals and leaders – directly into rehearsal with us. We’re not asking them what the structure of Act II should look like, we’re asking them to help us unearth the Jewish questions that our plays are asking. What are the ideas at stake, and what does 3000 years of intellectual debate and discourse have to say about those ideas?
We’ve developed three ideas: the Jewish Playwriting Contest, the Artists Shabbat and the Theater Chavurah that any community – a JCC, a synagogue, or just a group of friends – can join. We’re booking now for the 2017-18 season, so get in touch with us ASAP at Jewish Plays Project!
What do you feel is stereotypical Jewish theater? How do you aim to break boundaries and previous conception? How is this play different from all other plays?
David Winitsky: I think Jewish theater got stuck in a very mid-20th Century moment. Sometimes I say we got to “Fiddler” and it was so good, we just stopped. Immigration, World War II, the Holocaust – these were huge moments in the unfolding Jewish story, and they were INCREDIBLY dramatic. I totally get why dramatists have spent so much time on them.
But in 2017, we need to bring this dialogue forward. We have to tell the dramatic stories that are happening TODAY. We have to use this incredible art form – playwriting – to create a new set of classics. And in our opinion, these new plays are going to look more and more outward at the world – how do we use our privilege and power to bring positive change to the whole world, not just the Jewish community.
I always tell our writers, the plays we are making now are going to last – 50 years, a hundred years. We’re making the stories that will help our grandchildren’s grandchildren understand Jewish life in the beginning of the 21st Century.
What are The Mah Nishtanah plays?
David Winitsky: Four short commissioned plays written in response to our current political and civic moment. We asked four incredible – and diverse – writers to respond to two questions:
- How does your Jewish identity feel different now than it did a year ago?
- What do your Jewish ethics or values call upon you to do in this moment?
It’s been a crazy year. We’ve had the most successful Jewish candidate for the most powerful office in the world (Bernie Sanders) at the same time that prominent politicians are using ages-old anti-Semitic dog whistles to rally their base (“globalists”, “the international moneyed class”). Today we have a young Orthodox Jew (Jared Kushner) wielding more power than any Jewish politician, but doing it standing next to a probable white supremacist (Steve Bannon). We’ve seen all kinds of odd acts of intolerance and intellectual violence (JCC bomb threats, hate speech of all kinds), but we’ve also seen Jews supporting Muslims against the travel ban and Linda Sarsour coming to the aid of desecrated Jewish cemeteries.
As an organization dedicated to telling the unique Jewish stories of the 21st Century, I knew we had to respond, and we did it in the way we know best – we asked the best artists we know to create new work.
How did this project come about?
Abigal Katz: Since the election, the question of Jewishness has come up in various ways, and one dialogue that emerged was a desire to gain various perspectives within the Jewish community. We are way more diverse than we realize, and in this country we haven’t really embraced that diversity and given voice to it. I think part of the reason why this exploration has emerged at this moment is due to the many conversations about intersectionality and the important role it plays in giving space to underrepresented experiences. In our many Jewish communities we have diversity of spiritual practice and belief, gender, sexual orientation, skin color, language, cultural background, family background, politics, and the list goes on. With this project we felt the need to begin exploring these different views and put them on stage.
What are you hoping for in terms of the project’s life after the performance?
David Winitsky: We just finished a great run of these plays in New York, and now we really want them to reach more people. Just the idea of these plays has proven exciting and provocative, and there has been interest in them from some of the JPP’s presenting partners around the country. We’re looking for partners to bring this amazing work to audiences all over the country: major urban areas, of course, but also in smaller communities where the JPP can provide special access. My real hope is that we can use these like some of the original rapid-response theater movements like “The Every 28-Hour Plays” and “The Pulse Plays,” where individual communities can read and perform these plays and use them as springboards for vital and necessary community dialogue.
The subtitle of the series is, “How is Jewish Different Now?” What do you think?
Pirronne Yousefzadeh: The results of this election have made my sense of my Jewish identity largely about also being an advocate for all communities that feel threatened. So, I would say, being Jewish is much more intersectional than it was before.
Shais “Manishtana” Rishon: I don’t think it particularly *is* different. I just think awareness of Jewish-ness besides “ours” has grown.
Abigail Katz: I don’t think Jewish is different, but our relationship to it feels different. There is a sense of urgency in claiming identity in this moment, as if it is an act of defiance. I’ve noticed that people are bonding in their “otherness,” sensing that anything that isn’t white, Christian, cis-gender, straight, and male is somehow under attack. I think for certain segments of the Jewish community who have benefited from whiteness, this was a jarring realization. Suddenly we were “Jews” again. In my spiritual community this different reality has led to important and sometimes difficult discussions on how we’ve othered members of our own community, and in our new sense of awareness, how do we move forward both in the community and outside it?
MJ Kaufman: I’d say that what’s different this year is that rising anti-Semitism reminds us that the Jewish community as a whole needs to do an even better job of showing up for our Muslim allies and showing up with and for Jews of color and queer and trans Jews, that a far right agenda on Israel threatens many homes and lives and obscures actual anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism doesn’t operate in a vacuum; it is on the rise because racism, white supremacy, and xenophobia are on the rise around the world.
What is theater’s job in light of current events?
Pirronne: I have always believed that the theatre is a meeting place for us to grapple with difficult questions and deepen our empathy for those whose experiences are different from our own; I feel that now more acutely than ever before. Beyond that, the theatre has to speed up. Development is great, but let’s get the work up so we can be truly relevant to the larger national conversation, galvanize, and engage our audience’s hearts and minds. Before we’re all under water, ideally.
Miriam, you had an idea about the Kushner family. Did your original idea differ from the one we are presenting?
Miriam Weiner: Jared Kushner is commonly referred to as “Jared Kushner — an Orthodox-Jew-who-is-married to-Donald-J.-Trump’s-daughter-Ivanka.” This moniker has raised a lot of questions for me about who J&I really are in their personal, Jewish moments. Susan has written an introspective, scathing and yet, still, compassionate piece that suggests however observant one is on Shabbat, it’s hard to escape certain worldly questions.
Shais, you are a novelist and screenwriter. What about this theater process surprised you?
Shais Rishon: What surprised me was how similar it was to screenwriting, yet somehow totally different. It was a lot more of an organic, breathing, evolving thing than I was previously used to.
MJ, Who do you think is the ideal audience for this?
MJ Kaufman: The audience for this is everyone, but I especially hope my Jewish community and my queer and trans communities show up. I want to see everyone do a better job of naming and confronting transphobia, racism & antisemitism and this project is part of that.
What is funny in these plays? How does humor play a role?
Susan Bernfield: Oh, it’s gotta be funny, is there actually another option? I’m amazed by the signs at the protests. I mean, I’m a funny person but no way can I briefly sum up the current absurdity like those signs do. It gives me hope, seriously, when that many people filtering their anger and frustration through their funny heads to make a pure point. This play [“I and J and J and I” about Jared and Ivanka]… it’s embarrassing to crack up at your own stuff, but I’ve been giggling since I was invited to write it. Imagining what I and J perceive as their truth; creating a hyper-theatricality with which to riff on it. I’m not pleased we’ve got these guys, but hey, they’re a gold mine.
What do you feel will surprise audiences most about this? What do you think they are expecting, and how are they in for something completely different?
Sarah Gancher: One thing that is so delightful about this evening is that all of the works are truly in conversation with each other and with this moment in a very meaningful way. The audience will definitely get glimpses into some unfamiliar and fascinating worlds — a trans man forced to confront his Jewish heritage in a new and unexpected way, black Jews at a white wedding, or the world of the global alt-right depicted in my play. (Not to mention Ivanka and Jared.) I’m still mulling over some of the questions these plays brought up for me, and I suspect I will be for a very long time.
I caught the very final performance of The Mah Nishtanah plays at the 14th Street Y this June. Four short plays, brilliant writers, one powerhouse director, and a captivated audience in one little black box. As I left the theatre, the conversations were just beginning, thanks to the work of these fearlessly creative change-makers. Storytellers will always be the trailblazers, planting vital stories for those who are ready to listen. These four plays certainly caught our attention. To the JPP Team: We’re listening – keep talking!
THE MAH NISHTANAH PLAYS: How is your Jewish different now? Four Original Short Plays in Response to Today’s Political Climate. Learn more at http://www.jewishplaysproject.org/
Written by, Susan Bernfield, Sarah Gancher, MJ Kaufman and Shais Rishon (aka MaNishtana) Lead Dramaturg: Abigail Katz Guest Dramaturg: Miriam Weiner Directed by Pirronne Yousefzadeh Designed by Joshua Benghiat and Jesse Freedman