Where Are We as a People?: Exploring the Jewish Experience on Stage

June 6, 2017Cantor Erin R. Frankel

Recently, I sat with 10 other Jews sharing thoughts on classical piano, the experience of the “lone soldier,” the ambivalences of the life of a clergy person, talking wigs, shiva as a construct, and the history of yogurt. What prompted us to cover so many different topics?

We were reading plays.

The 10 of us made up the Philadelphia Theater Chavurah for the Jewish Plays Project. Over the course of a couple of months, we each read up to 10 plays, all of which were finalists in the Jewish Plays Project's 2017 contest. The chavurah was helping choose one brand-new play for development and production this June in New York City. None had ever been staged.

As we shared our quarrels with and our excitement about what we had read, we considered the voice of the playwright, the sophistication of the subject matter, the potential for effective staging of the play, and perhaps most important, how each play reflects the experience of Jewish life today. We tackled each primary text by crawling inside it and examining it from various angles, bringing our individual knowledge and experience to the discussion, listening to the impressions of others, and in the process deepening our understanding of our own Jewish lives. As David Winitsky, the founder of the Jewish Plays Project, reminded us, what could be more Jewish?

We were one of seven cohorts around the country reading the same plays and sitting in homes discussing them with others in our community. Just as on Friday evening Jews around the world share the experience of Shabbat, Jews around the country sat together in local living rooms and shared in discussions of topics as wide-ranging as the bar mitzvah experience, the phenomenon of the Jewish mother, the passion of those who choose Judaism, and how we talk about Israel and the Palestinians. With the knowledge that others were engaged in the same project, I felt the Jewish community of the world become smaller and more connected despite the diversity of our personal journeys.

The theater is a profound vehicle for exploring the Jewish experience. A play allows us to experience characters who rise above tropes and monoliths, who, like all of us, are contradictory beings. The “Jewish experience” in this country and this century is not one thing; on the contrary, there are endless experiences. We are most likely to see our own experience and those of the people we know in characters who are complicated, and we are most likely to understand and learn about (and from) the Jewish experience when it feels real.

That is the objective of the Jewish Plays Project, Winitsky shared with me. To bring more people into the exploration of the Jewish experience on stage, the Jewish Plays Project offers opportunities for theater lovers to enjoy a wider theater experience, to access a play in its infancy, and watch it develop into a full production. The process is as important as the product, so Winitsky wants to build programs that people can take into their homes and to provide modes of feedback that lead to conversations with artists and producers, to ensure we all are making Jewish theater and art together. Only together, in the widest circle possible, can we explore the questions of “where we are as a people and what we want to say about that,” Winitsky says.

Questioning is as much a part of the theater tradition as it is a part of the Jewish tradition. The future of the Jewish people relies on our ability to question who we are at this moment and why, so it will inform who we want to be in the future and how we will get there. The theater and playwrights’ perspectives will be invaluable tools for that exploration for those of us who are drawn to the arts.

Visit Jewish Plays Project for more information and to find out how your community can be a part of it.

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