An Interview With Cassie M. Seinuk

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Cassie M. Seinuk is an extraordinary female Jewish playwright and stage manager. She has written incredible works such as From the Deep and Dream House and has won several awards, including the Pestalozzi Prize for Best New Play at the Firehouse Center for the Arts New Work Festival. I sat down with Cassie to discuss her experience with navigating the theatre industry as a Jewish woman. 

What inspired you to come up with the idea to call yourself a ‘Jewbana’? Which is rad as hell, by the way.

When I was growing up and in high school, people would ask me about family life. I would say I’m Cuban... I went to a Jewish school so being Jewish was sort of assumed. So then people started saying I was a Jewban. It became something unique and kind within the Cuban Jewish community. It’s not derogatory in any sense. Then when I was coming up with a Twitter handle (laughs) like 12 years ago, I figured I should just own it because it’s something that makes me different within the playwriting and theatre community.

In the theatre industry specifically, be it plays or experiences, how do you connect to all of your identities: Jewish, Cuban, woman, whatever the rest may be?

Mom is the newest one out of all of those, it’s crazy. I think that it started out as something kind of difficult. I’ve been working in theatre since I was 11, more than half my life. I first started when I went to a Jewish summer camp. I was a kid who didn’t want to act, but it was very important to me to do the plays. The woman who was running the camp was a retired stage manager and asked me if I knew what stage managers did and introduced me to that field. From there, I started stage managing the shows at the camp and as I got older I staged managed more and more shows. As I got into the real world I realized that doing theatre and being Jewish was very difficult. It’s funny because there’s this big assumption that the theatre world is full of Jews. I grew up modern orthodox, and my family was pretty socially conservative and most of the people I went to school with only had the goal of marrying a rich doctor and having a ton of kids. When I was applying to colleges, everyone in my life was very concerned with making sure whatever school I picked had a big Jewish community. But to me, I just wanted a really good theatre program. I ended up at Brandeis, which was not the biggest bubble shift, but the difference was that Brandeis was super liberal compared to where I grew up. Everyone there was always doing something and creating something and taking in other cultures. So I had the safety of still working within a Jewish world, but I got to start exploring. When I was locking in my major, my stage managing professor told me I had to make the decision to pursue my life as a Jewish woman or to pursue my life as a theatre artist. At the time, that was what it was. Theatre companies were not going to let you be their stage manager if you wanted to be Shomer Shabbat (someone who adheres to the commandments of the Jewish Sabbath i.e. not using electricity). If you want to observe Shabbat and not work from Friday night sundown through Saturday evening, then you’re going to have a problem unless you move to Israel. That was really hard for me, but ultimately what I believe, as a Jewish person and as a Jewish educator, is that God understands happiness. Part of being Jewish is embracing life and having joy in life--doing good. I had to have this moment where I realized that stage management brings me joy and that’s where I’m the best me. At the time, I thought I chose theatre over my Jewish identity. As a stage manager, it's still tough, because companies will want to hire me but their shows will open on the High Holidays (the period of time in which the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur fall on the Jewish calendar) and it’s like, did you have to open your show on Rosh Hashanah? As a playwright, which I started getting into during my last year of college, and where I feel my heart it most, I realized I could be as Jewish as I want to be and also gives me an opportunity to bring in my other identities, like being Latina.

How would you describe your voice as a playwright?

It’s definitely dark (laughs). I do feel like my voice changes. My artistic vision and what I really seek when I’m writing is identity. I’m really curious about that as a subject in general. I’m also really curious about the demons people have and the things that haunt people. How each and every one of us has some sort of haunting or scar and how those play out in our lives. Someone just said to me that I write plays about family. I didn’t even realize it, but I was rereading my plays and they do all sort of come back to family one way or the other. What really irks me and gets me to write is when I see or hear something that’s just really fucked up. It makes me want to find a way to tell that story. Whether that’s me being fascinated by young people who have cancer or two people trapped in captivity. There’s definitely a range to my voice.

What/who is a play, playwright, performer, etc. that/whose work has spoken to you as a Cuban Jewish woman?

I can’t say there’s really one piece of art or one performer that has really spoken to me. There probably are people out there who fit in the same bubble as me, being Cuban and Jewish, but I just don’t know them. I will say, I have a little fangirl crush on Alexis Scheer (get to know Alexis here). She was just in a reading of my play, Dream House and I had such a blast working with her. We both couldn’t believe that the two of us had never met before and we bonded over our mutual identity. I’m so excited to read her work and see her new play. I have such a girl crush on her.

How much of your artistic statement: “I strive to write evocative theatrical and personal moments that stay with people for days, weeks, and even months afterwards. A part of this mission of mine is rooted in my drive to write plays that navigate the existential and introspective, to explore the dark and often the tragic.  My plays are set in a heightened reality, where the rules of our everyday world don’t always apply, and while it’s different for each play, it’s these aching questions about who we are, how we survive, and what happens when we lose a part or all of ourselves in the process that pulls me to the keys of my laptop.” do you believe stems from your roots as a Jewish Cuban woman?

I’m going to say this as a Jewish educator. I think knowing Jewish history and growing up with a lot of knowledge of biblical stories and the Talmud(primary text source of Jewish religious law), just in the way that Greek mythology is full of tragedies and hardships, there is an overall story of survival, its the Jewish story. I think why I write such deep, dark, sometimes twisted things, is that it really fascinates me how people either push through and survive some of the craziest situations or how those dark crevices in a person can take them down. I do think that the history of the Jewish people is about surviving. I don’t like to quote or source the Holocaust, because I feel like that’s another troupe that Jewish theatre especially falls into. It’s not that we want to erase that from history, God forbid, but its that everyone has a Holocaust story. There is more to us than that.

What has been the most monumental experience you have had in your career in theater?

Writing my play, From the Deep and getting to produce it is definitely the most powerful for me. Especially in terms of what we’re talking about, it’s my first play that I let my Jewish voice come out. It’s my first play that I didn’t hide behind anything or didn’t make a character not Jewish because of the status quo. I love Israel, but I have a complicated relationship with Israel. Growing up in a very Zionist and right-wing community, I try to keep all of my biases in check. But, when I researched Gilad Shalit, whom From the Deep was inspired by, I felt a really strong connection to the challenges of the Middle East’s struggle. Thinking of it as ‘I am just a young person being held as a political piece of furniture, because I’m Jewish, because this is my country, and because I’m fighting for what I believe in’. Especially doing marketing for the play and boosting the fact that there was Jewish content was really scary territory for me. It was the first time I was “coming out” as a Jewish playwright with opinions on something very controversial. But I was coming at it from the point of acknowledging that everyone involved is a person and all these people are being affected. That process finally gave me ownership over the Jew part of the Jewbana.

Have you had any experiences in theatre that may have been different for you, bad or good, if you did not identify as a Jewish woman?

I do think my career as a stage manager would be very different. It’s because, like what I said before, I had to make a choice between leading a more religious life and going into theatre. Because of that, there were a lot of jobs and opportunities that I just omitted myself from. I was kind of just like, I’m not going to apply to these stage management positions because I don’t want to have the conversation about needing to take time off for Jewish holidays. I’ve set rules for myself and have stuck by them for 12 years so I can still observe the important holidays and pursue my career as a stage manager. All together it's about five days per year I need to have off--that’s it. Still, it’s challenging to find steady work as an equity stage manager, someone who has been a part of the union for eight years now, it’s hard.

What is something about being a Jewish woman in theatre you wish was different?

There are so many things. You know there are a lot of times where I’m working on something or having a conversation, or there’s a Jewish character in a play and its just complete stereotype. Sometimes what’s in a piece of work doesn’t even make sense, because that’s not really what it’s like to be Jewish. My husband and I like to reference Friends when it comes to this because Ross and Monica are Jewish, but the only episode that ever really addresses that is the one with the Holiday Armadillo. But, for however many years that show ran, there was a Christmas episode every season. Yet, the writers of the show are Jewish and some of the characters had Jewish last names, so what’s the deal? Why aren’t there more real Jewish characters? I feel like with Jewish stories, it’s always like here is the Jewish character so we can make this one joke or so we can make a reference, but then forget about it. I wish there was more of a presence. Some people read my new work and think it’s too niche or too Jewish for their community. I think part of that is the assumption that you’re either a black hat, payos (sidelocks of hair worn by some observant Jewish men and boys) Jew or… you’re Monica and Ross.

How do you think more nuanced stories of Jewish women, written by pioneering playwrights like yourself, could change Judaism; a religion so deeply ingrained in tradition?

I think it goes back to representation of Judaism. In the Jewish school I teach at, we wanted to show the kids a movie that represented modern Jewish kids and wasn’t Fiddler On the Roof. It was a movie from the late 90’s called The Miracle On the Court, I think it was a Disney Channel Original. Anyway, these kids were so excited to see Jewish characters, in a movie about sports that related to them and told the story of Hanukkah. That was really powerful to see as an educator. I mean, this is where it begins. I look at my students and think, they are the people who are going to make a change one day. Our generation is making change right now in the Jewish community, you know, more Jewish women are becoming Rabbis in branches of Judaism where that is traditionally deemed illegitimate. I hope that the world is changing and I think just more exposure of modern Jewish stories, especially women’s stories will help. I feel like there’s more power when Jewish women and men create nuanced stories. Then there will be more opportunities for people to better understand our community, change, and learn.