An Interview with Blair Nodelman

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Our first interview on Strip It Down is with, drum roll, please…Blair Nodelman! Blair is currently the marketing fellow at ArtsEmerson, a production company in the heart of Boston committed to bringing stories from all over the world to their stages. I am so happy to have been able to sit down with Blair and discuss what it means to be a young Jewish woman in theatre and how Judaism infiltrates and connects with her passion for theatre.

How did you first get started in theatre?

When I was in 2nd grade, I did my first musical and I played a cat, it was a big deal. But then really what happened was, my high school had a really amazing performing arts program and I auditioned for West Side Story and I didn’t get in. And then I auditioned for Urinetown and I did get in! I had a made-up choral part, I didn't sing, I was a modern dancer, I wore three-fingered gloves and face paint. Yeah, it was a lot, but that’s kinda how I started. From there, I just really liked the community and kept acting and getting involved in different aspects, like any other theatre kid it started with a bad production of Urinetown.  

What is one wish you have for the theatre industry that you want to turn into a reality?

I think something that I feel a lot, especially as someone who just graduated [college] there is a lot of opportunity in theatre, which is awesome, but a lot that those opportunities come at a cost, like literal cost. You don’t get paid enough, you get paid under minimum wage, and yet you still have to have prior experience and be able to support yourself. So I would like to be part of a culture of a younger generation of theatre-makers that demand the pay that we deserve for the work that we’re doing. I also just see a lot of awful treatment of young people and exploitation, whether it’s an internship or an apprenticeship or what not, I think we need to do a better job at giving designers and actors equal pay for the work they’re putting in.

As a Jewish woman, what piece of theatre made you realize your religion and your passion for theatre could be connected?

I think I was always interested in Jewish stories. It definitely wasn’t in high school because there are like no jews in New Mexico, so I never connected then, and I didn't grow up in a musical theatre household so I’ve still never seen Fiddler On the Roof, yeah I’ve really failed there. But I think it was pretty recently, I watched Indecent when they streamed it online and I just thought, wow this is incredible. And I probably realized that my Judaism and theatre connected earlier than that, but when I saw Indecent I was alone in my room, watching this show on my computer, and just sobbing, because it was so honest and based on a true story. It just felt like such a beautiful representation of World War II and the Jewish experience of that war and the Holocaust without being so desperately morbid and graphic. That was a very important piece of theatre for me.

Do you think the storytelling essence of Judaism helps people connect deeper to the religion and culture?

Yeah, there’s a huge oral tradition, like even with Torah portions and teachings they’re presented as like fables almost. There’s a story with a moral, but its a story first. I mean, I always think about The Prince of Egypt, I know it’s a movie, but like, it's a musical… I can’t even get into it I would talk about it all day, but there is always a story to be told in Judaism and I think that’s why the teachings are so powerful.

Who is a theatre artist that you feel represented by as a Jewish woman?

I’m not going to say Barbra Streisand because I’ve already used her as an answer this week, but I do love her. So I know they’re mostly known for their work on TV, but Ilana Glazer from Broad City and Jenny Slate from Parks and Recreation are both powerhouse Jewish women. I would also say Katrina Lenk who is in The Band’s Visit and was in Indecent, I’m not sure if she’s Jewish but I know she’s Eastern European, whatever she’s amazing and can play a really convincing Israeli. I think it’s hard too, though, because a lot of Jewish actors and artists change their last names, not that every Jewish person in theatre needs to be out and proud about being Jewish because obviously it's a personal choice, but it’s hard to name people and know who they are because people have stage names, or are told to change their names, or told to be less Jewish. Like Natalie Portman is Jewish, but she changed her last name from whatever it was to Portman to sound less Jewish. It’s just hard to name Jewish theatre artists and maybe that’s my own ignorance, like needing to do more research, but it's definitely difficult to identify them.

Do you believe your perspective as a Jewish woman impacts your career in theatre?

So I grew up interfaith, my mom is Catholic and my dad is Jewish which is really a whole other perspective that’s not often talked about and not wholly accepted in the entire Jewish community, like most conservative and orthodox Jewish people would not consider me Jewish, even though that’s how I identify,  because my mother isn’t Jewish. For me, I think theatre is a great communicative tool to display those other stories that aren’t necessarily out there. I don’t know if my perspective is the most unique or the most important one to be spotlighted, but I would love to be a part of storytelling that looks at that. I also feel like interfaith conversations, regardless of what religions, isn’t often talked about. I think coming from that background has taught me to make my own decisions when it comes to big ideal decisions like religion. I was given the choice of being Jewish, my parents wholly let me decide what I wanted to be and believe. But I do think it’s interesting that I will admit I’m Jewish before I will admit that I’m also partially Catholic and this past year I saw a production of Saint Joan, and my middle name is Joan and when I saw that show, I also identified with that story. Even though I’m definitely more drawn to Jewish stories, a part of my identity also connects with themes of Catholicism.

Have you had to face any sacrifices or challenges being a Jewish woman working in theatre? If so, what were they and how did you overcome them?

That’s funny you asked that, because I was just looking at my calendar today trying to figure out how to use my vacation days and if I go home for Labor Day I won’t be able to take off for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, because as a Jewish person I have to consider that. And often there are shows on Friday nights and while I don’t keep Shabbat, I go to services maybe, but often I have rehearsals when I could be gathering with my community. Whether you’re in the arts or not, it’s hard as a Jewish person to navigate how to celebrate holidays that are super important but using vacation time for that. It’s definitely a cultural thing and part of the world we live in but it’s a challenge. There are also a lot of times when I’m in a show that involves, or references Judaism, I’m usually the only Jewish person in the room. I did a reading once that was about Kafka and so it involved some Jewish themes and I was just like, why am I the only one speaking up about this? Especially because I wasn’t raised Jewish, I know I’m definitely not the most knowledgeable person. There’s just this weird pressure and you would think there wouldn’t be because there are so many Jewish people in theatre, but no one talks about it. Then when you’re in places with very small Jewish populations like New Mexico or Boston, you end up being the only voice in that room to speak about and represent Judaism. That can be really isolating and I also don’t think I should be the voice of Judaism as a whole. We live a pretty charmed life as Jewish artists, though. There’s a lot more Jewish art out there than we realize.