Jewish Stories that Would Make Great Theater

With shows like Once On This Island and Torch Song recently giving their final performances on Broadway, it’s only natural to wonder what’s coming up next. To brainstorm a little, I came up with a list of Jewish stories, figures, and characters that would fit perfectly on a stage.

Disclaimer: my picks are unabashedly influenced by a mix of the new RBG movie and the new Mary Queen of Scots movie--I know, it seems weird, but I promise it will work. Grab a drink and let’s talk theater. L’chaim!

The Myth of Lilith

Photo from: My Jewish Learning

Photo from: My Jewish Learning

A play about a feminist demon. Who could ask for more? Lilith is sometimes considered to be the first woman ever created, even before Eve. Her name, meaning ‘night’, represents her manifestation of the dark side of the human psyche: sexuality, fear, and lack of control. Lilith appears many different times, in many different stories. However, each one has a tone of rebellion, feminism, and power woven into them. In more recent years, Lilith’s myths have been reinterpreted in feminist midrashim--making for some pretty entertaining stories.

Miriam  

Miriam.jpg

Honestly, her song “When You Believe” in The Prince of Egypt earned Miriam her own production years ago. This tambourine-shaking pioneer would be spell bounding in a script. She is one of the most action-driven women in the entire Torah--looking over her brother (Moses), leading women out of Egypt, and speaking her mind. Miriam’s character and life story would create a beautiful piece of theater.

The Matriarchs or imahot (אמאהות)

We know enough about the founding fathers; it’s time we get to see the core four take over Broadway. Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, the imahot, are some of the most important female figures mentioned in the Torah. Each one carries their own long, complex tail of stories that could be spun into a dozen different plots to be put on stage. There are themes of female alliance, taking down the patriarchy, and male privilege in each of these women's stories--there’s no way they weren’t eventually supposed to be turned into theater.

The Red Tent

Pinterest.com

Pinterest.com

The best selling book, originally published in 1997, could be brilliantly refreshed and redesigned for the stage. Plus, it passes the Bechdel test… so what’s not to love? The Red Tent  emphasizing the very importance of storytelling, especially stories of women. Through the eyes of young Dinah, we learn the stories of her childhood, her mother’s, and those of the matriarchs in the Torah. This beautiful story was also adapted for film back in 2014, so it’s next stop could easily be Broadway.

Hagar and Sarah

Think Mary Queen of Scots with Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, but Jewish. The relationship between Hagar and Sarah is compelling, complicated, and hard to fathom. However, it gives us a look into early female friendships and relationships, how women were groomed to turn against one another, and how the underlying heart beat of sisterhood can sometimes override that. Hagar and Sarah have many different stories together in the Torah, providing an ample amount of material for any ambitious playwright.

womenofthewall.org.il

womenofthewall.org.il


Women of the Wall

The ultimate mechitzah story. Women of the Wall is a diverse, multi-denominational feminist group that fights for equal rights and space for women to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. In the context of theater, the story of these women could go in any direction--documentary, abstract, or realism. We rarely hear the voices of modern Jewish women, especially those that live in Israel. Creating a piece of art for the revolutionary work of the Women of the Wall could open the eyes of Jewish, and non-Jewish, people globally.  



The Judges

The Torah Portion- Shoftim

Deuteronomy 16:18 - 21:9

The Torah portion, Shoftim, is all about justice and how much power we give to “judges”, or people around us. The parsha begins with commandments such as “you shall not judge unfairly” and “you shall show no partiality”. As with anything that begins with such provoking statements, this parsha ignites several loaded questions.

It is human nature to judge others. So when we are met with the opposition to this natural tendency in the Torah, how are we supposed to come to terms with it? According to analysis and discussions by Rabbis, you must recognize internally that you don’t know what you don’t know, and therefore have no legitimate ability to judge another. As a white, cis-gendered, Jewish woman, I don’t know what it is like to walk through life as a woman of color, a Muslim woman, a Catholic woman, or a trans woman-- It is as simple as that. So how could I possibly find, within myself, the permission or excuse to judge their lifestyle, habits, or choices?

Also included with this Torah portion is the question of neutrality and the idea of treating everyone equally, with the same amount of privilege and mercy, or lack thereof. Do certain people deserve more benevolence than others due to the oppression or injustice they face? Especially as Jewish women, we are very familiar with the idea of ‘otherness’, being an outsider and minority to any society in which we try to insert ourselves. The Jewish exodus is a story as old as the Torah and, unfortunately, a story we continue to see unfold again and again. Shoftim calls on the importance of equalizing those groups of people who have been cast as the ‘others’-- those who do not click perfectly into place with the rest of assimilated society. How do we bring the ‘others’ to an equal standing with everyone else, without sheltering them with the humiliation of excess charity?

How in the world does this parsha relate to theatre? My immediate reaction went to the injustice of representation of Jewish stories in theatre. Obviously, there is a much greater representation of Jewish men in theatre, on stage and off, then that of women. However, there is also the injustice of non-Jewish performers portraying Jewish characters. Although I do not agree with the idea of casting someone who ‘looks’ Jewish or ‘sounds’ Jewish, (because those are harmful stereotypes and reiterations of anti-semitic laws all on their own) I do believe that an actor portraying a character should have some understanding to that character’s culture. Again, you don’t know what you don’t know. This has been seen on stage time and time again. From the cast of Falsettos, compiled almost completely of non-Jewish actors, to the portrayal of Menke by Katrina Lenk (who is Eastern European but not Jewish) in Indecent. These productions were phenomenal pieces of art I would not deter anyone from seeing. However, it is yet more evidence of an outside judgment on ‘others’. Even though these performances were not technically controversial, nor did they have a motivation to promote anti-semitism, there is still a judgment being made on how an actual Jewish person walks, talks, and responds to life--which someone who is not Jewish could not possibly connect to. The same goes for writers and directors, the creators of these Jewish stories, who are not Jewish. This tends to happen less than the aforementioned, but it still causes a disconnect between the story and the culture it is attempting to represent.

Now comes the tricky part--how do we, as Jewish women, advocate for an equal, judgment-free, and accurate representation in theatre without coming off as elitist or exclusionary? Being Jewish or of a different faith does not determine one’s talent, but is it okay for us to deny someone’s talent simply because the person telling the story is not a member of the community in question? Do we have the right to judge someone else who may have previously judged us, the Jewish people? It is something highly subjective and fluid with its context, but it is an issue, at least I, have faced several times throughout my life and experience in theatre. There are many questions still to be asked and answered under this topic, and not just for Jewish women. Dozens of communities are struggling with this dilemma of equality versus charity versus judgment versus the opportunity for representation versus accurate representation.

I believe art is one of the best places to begin actively exploring this issue. As long as we continue to create, we will move closer to the answers. Justice must be created before it is served, and I see no reason why theatre, and the proper representation of Jewish women, can't ignite the creation. 

*SIerra boggess, who starred as the jewish rebecca steingberg in Broadway's "it shoulda been you" 

*SIerra boggess, who starred as the jewish rebecca steingberg in Broadway's "it shoulda been you" 

The Mutual Guarantee

I am thrilled to introduce my next guest writer: Sarah Haber. Sarah is a Jewish college student who never stops working, climbing, or creating. She has experienced all types of people and environments in the theatre industry, so I can't think of anyone better to share some words on Strip It Down. Enjoy! 

In the Jewish religion, the term ‘arvut’, meaning being responsible for one another, comes up frequently in my life as a theatre artist. The idea of selfless versus selfish is an internal tug-of-war as theatre students. People who pursue theatre in college become a community of artsy, ambitious, wildly driven kids. At least for me, it was quite a wake-up call to meet other students that have the same thirst for creativity as I do. These individuals I sit next to in class, or across from in the dining hall, soon become my friends--people I would, without thinking twice, make major sacrifices for.

Now the question remains… where is the line between putting yourself, and your career, above that of your friends and trying to help them succeed as well? Is it okay to be selfish in terms of furthering your own life? What happens when you spend so much time helping other people, that you lose sight of your own goals?

The term, arvut, is taught specifically in the Torah as the responsibility shared by every Jew to ensure that all her fellow Jews observe the mitzvot. Just like a family, members of our religion tend to look out for one another (probably where the term “Jewish Mafia” stems from). There is an unspoken, bonding rule that whenever you meet someone else who is Jewish, you must help them in some way. As a young Jewish woman, I’ve often felt an obligation to help people, especially working in the theatre industry. It’s here where the conversation between selfishness and selflessness, can quickly become heated. It’s my personal opinion that you should always help others, but not up to the point of hindering your own path. Having a selfless personality can never be a poor quality, as it is your relationships with others that will make or break your success in this industry. However, I think it’s important to note that it’s okay for someone to be selfish...sometimes. While caring for others and looking out for the greater good of your friends is a positive attribute, your own personal career is allowed to come first.

I’ve had the opportunity to intern for a casting office this summer, where the terms of selfishness vs. selflessness are definitely very black and white; and where I have come face to face with the idea of arvut several times. Fortunately, this small group of interns contain some amazing theatre students who were more than willing to teach me the ropes when I first got there. However, I know that looking out for others in this industry is easier said than done, with the amount of stress and competition across the board--it’s easy for someone else to sense your own selflessness, and begin to take advantage of it. Especially in the performance world where talent outweighs the number of parts available, actors will go to extreme lengths (at the expense of others) to get that one gig. 

As big as this industry appears to be, everyone in each facet of entertainment knows each other--we are still those ambitious drama kids who inevitably end up grouping together in the dining hall. Caring and looking out for other people without compromising yourself in the long run, and finding that balance, is the ultimate key to success. Triumph and a successful career needs much more than just talent to be cultivated. In my Jewish household, I was raised to believe that respect and loyalty are the most important elements of a person’s character. I hope that the right people within this industry, those full of confidence, dependability, and of course, selflessness, ultimately outnumber the selfish. I hope we can all begin to embrace the principle of arvut. 

I Wanted to Be an Actor, But I Was Only Getting 'Jewish Roles'

 

I am so excited to announce that I have been published on Alma, an online publication for ladies with chutzpah. With Alma, I was given a platform to discuss my personal journey with acting and being a Jewish woman. More specifically, I discussed the limiting process of college auditions. Below is an excerpt from the article, which you can read fully here. I am so glad I got to share this story and I hope you enjoy it!

"Soon I had my list of pieces to perform in auditions, all from plays like The Last Night at Ballyhoo, Bad Jews, and The Dybbuk. I pulled monologues from each for my auditions, though I struggled to connect with them. At this point in my life and my Jewish experience, I was still figuring out what kind of Jewish woman I wanted to be. Did I want to be a stereotypical, Brooklyn accented gossip because that’s what I saw on TV? Did I want to be shomer Shabbat and dedicate my life to my religion? Did I want to be completely reform and limit the amount of Jewish interference in my life? I didn’t know what I wanted my real life to look like, yet this identity I had not yet accepted was being shoved at me through my acting career." 

Be sure to read the full article over at Alma! 

7 Podcasts to Bless Your Ears With

Podcasts are a fun, accessible platform for new voices and invigorating conversations. They’re like mini HBO series you can enjoy pretty much at any time and usually for free. One of my favorite things about podcasts is the range of topics and the level of nuance at which they are so brilliantly discussed. Here is a list of my favorite podcasts that wonderfully represent Judaism, theatre, and women. Give them a listen and let me know what you think!

1. Can We Talk?

Created by the podcast team at the Jewish Women's Archive located in the heart of Boston, Can We Talk puts being a Jewish woman into the context of today. The podcast features monthly conversations with expert Jewish women, famous Jewish authors, and Jewish politicians on a wide range of topics. Listening to this podcast will allow you to create connections between your private life, public life, past, present, with being a Jewish woman.

2. Scene to Song

A podcast created by the incredible Shoshana Greenberg, whom you can read more about here. Scene to Song tackles topics like musical theatre, casting, and how to ensure the progressiveness of the theater industry. Shoshana also hosts guest experts to make the conversations even more fascinating.

3. Stories We Tell

One of the most special aspects of Judaism is our devotion to telling stories. The same could be said for theatre, and this podcast gives you a pretty fair balance of both. Each story is 10 minutes or less, but are packed with passion, lessons, and inspiration. Stories We Tell continues the Jewish tradition of storytelling as a form of education, while adapting to the life of the modern Jew.

4. Broadwaysted!

Who wouldn’t want to get cosmos with icons Barrett Wilbert Weed, currently starring in Mean Girls on Broadway? The Broadwaysted! podcast is an hour of hilarious, tipsy, and insightful conversation with your favorite Broadway stars. Find out what they’re drinking, their musical preferences, and their favorite stories from their time working on Broadway. It’s honestly like a wine night with your best friends… but even better. L’chaim!

5. Lilith

A publication dedicated to feminism and Judaism, Lilith also has their own podcast--and it’s as amazing as you’d expect. Lilith’s podcast tackles real life issues affecting all women and investigates how those issues are being talked about and handled within the Jewish community. With episodes featuring Lilith’s Editor-In-Chief Susan Weidman Schneider and readings of short stories, this podcast provides you with a community of incredible Jewish women right in your ears.

6. Call and Response

Slowly but surely, the barriers that were before put up by racist undertones are coming down and making room for more voices on the stage. In Call and Response, the fabulous Felicia Fitzpatrick, social media manager of Playbill, takes on conversations about the theatre experience for people of color and women of color. Felicia talks with directors, actors, and even artistic administrators to further amplify the conversations about race and theatre we need to be having.

7. Unorthodox

Tablet Magazine’s podcast stages conversations with the hosts and at least two special guests per episode. The unique thing about Unorthodox is that it always features a Jewish guest and non-Jewish guest on the show, ensuring that the perspectives are plentiful every time. Unorthodox tackles conversations about the use of certain words in the Jewish community, current events, and other Jewish themes. This podcast creates a great, casual environment to discuss some traditionally less casual topics surrounding Judaism.  

How To Find Inspiration a.k.a. How To Let Inspiration Find You

There’s nothing more frightening than deciding to pursue something creative. To really commit, lock yourself in with an idea, and bring it to fruition. At least, that’s how I felt when I first decided to start this blog. Putting the responsibility of representing voices of Jewish women on my shoulders was not a low-pressure situation. The initial inspiration was there, but how long would it last? What if I sat down to write the first piece and I went the rest of my life staring at a blank Google Doc with no significant ideas, or divine intervention, to spark the creative parts of my brain? If you’re someone in the theatre, or really in any creative field, you are most likely very familiar with this anxiety spiral. Thankfully, (at least for now), the supply of inspiration for Strip It Down content has been pretty plentiful. In the spirit of creative karma and in the hopes of inspiring more female theatre artists to create, I want to share some of the ways I ignite inspiration.

Beginning this journey of active creativity was terrifying. I started slowly-- reading books and watching Ted Talks to get the gears turning. Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat Pray Love and Big Magic, had one of the most lasting impacts on me and my creative process. I read Big Magic at the beginning of the summer, before the fully formed idea for Strip It Down had come to me, and I did not expect it to open my eyes as much as it did. In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert goes into depth about the history of creativity and the idea that it is some degree of divine (in the sense of a supernatural force, not necessarily God) intervention. She discusses the power of the law of attraction, keeping yourself open and your mind relaxed so you are able to attract your inspiration.

Big Magic isn’t all answers--there are some parts that I found impossible to connect to--but the most unsuspecting theories and perspectives got stuck in my mind and I think about them on a daily basis. For example, the idea of ego vs. soul. In the book, Elizabeth Gilbert discusses the difference between the two, saying that “there is a place in our lives for our egos… to shore up your boundaries, to give you a sense of self, to keep some fire in your belly. But don't let your ego make the big choices for you. Because it will do nothing but forever demand more, more, more, more.” Essentially, she exposes your ego as that nagging voice that has followed you throughout your entire creative life telling you that you’re not enough. Conversely, your soul, according to Gilbert, only wants “joy and light and love…and excitement. When you are living the life that your soul wants to live, you will wake up each morning and say, ‘Oh my god, I can't believe I get to do this today!’" This is the most important distinction a person has ever made for me. What fills my soul and my ego are two completely different things that should almost never mix. Having one over the other isn’t what’s important--it’s keeping them balanced that's key. This is a major lesson to remember when embarking on the road towards creative inspiration. If it fills your soul, you don’t need to worry about what the ego is saying, but you need your ego to know that what your soul creates is worth committing to.

In her Ted Talk after the release of Big Magic, Gilbert describes creativity and inspiration as some physical, mystical, force that literally enters the minds of artists. I highly recommend watching the Ted Talk before, during, and after reading Big Magic, as it will affect you differently and deeply each time.

Okay, I think that is enough of me plugging Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Big Magic. Which you can buy here and your creative life will change, ok, I’m done. Moving on, another way I like to boost inspiration and creativity is to look at the simplest things that are right in front of me. Whenever I try to take on the role of the complex, tortured artist, my work comes out forced, confusing, and inauthentic. Just keep it simple: What topic inspires you? Food? Religion? Fashion? Corgis? There are no wrong answers. Once you’ve decided which inspiration is calling to you the loudest, look at your new inspiration for all that it is: every tiny detail and puzzle piece that create it. No matter how “easy” a portion you discover seems, use it to further fuel your inspiration. Everything can be a source for the next spark and flow of ideas if you let it be. Even if your ego is screaming that it absolutely sucks, you never know what that pile of a creative mess could lead to.

Without art and courageously creative people, our world would be worse off than it already is. Obviously, everyone works differently when it comes to artistic pursuits. That’s part of the magic. But, if you’re finding yourself particularly stuck, especially if you know--deep to your core--that your voice could make a ripple right now (shout out to my Jewish theatre ladies), allow yourself to be inspired. Keep yourself open to inspiration, relax the muscles in your mind, feed your soul, honor your ego, read Big Magic (okay, NOW I promise I’m done plugging), and commit to making whatever it is that floats your creative boat.

Waving Through A Window*

I am so excited to introduce our first ever guest writer: Emma Weeks. Emma is a Jewish woman trying to navigate the world just like the rest of us. But more often than not, she feels pushed out of what should be her community. Read Emma’s story and explore your own view of who you perceive to be an outsider.

Turns out, I don’t know anything about theater. And I thought I did—for a long time, actually. I’ve always appreciated plays and musicals. I’ve seen The Lion King, Wicked, and The Book of Mormon. I know who Andrew Lloyd Webber is. I’ve watched snippets from the Tony Awards on YouTube the day after they’ve aired. I go to a school with a prominent theater department. Also, my freshman year roommate was an acting major, and we sometimes talked about the different productions she had been in or was auditioning for. I even work in the marketing department of a theater company in Boston, where I have mingled with performers and playwrights alike. I thought that all of this gave me enough credit to participate (somewhat) in the theater community but...not really. I regularly find myself excluded from conversations about theater—and when I am invited in, I struggle to keep up. Although I try to keep myself well-informed about the theatre industry, it is almost impossible to know all the newest shows on Broadway and the names of every actress who has played Elphaba. My lack of knowledge about theater is especially apparent at my college--a school where everyone seems to have seen Hamilton at least three times. Although I enjoy theater and would absolutely consider myself a theater fan, I avoid talking about it to my peers because I know if I mispronounce a name or get a fact wrong, I will be met with scoffs and eye rolls and variations of “you don’t even know what you’re talking about.” There have been times where theater has felt completely inaccessible to me—not because of the content of the show or the price of the ticket—but because I have felt undeserving to see a performance. Maybe I’m not a real theater fan. Maybe I should refrain from buying a ticket so someone who really knows the show can see it instead. I think, “maybe I should just sit this one out.” And so I do.

Turns out, I also don’t know much about Judaism, despite the fact that I, myself, am Jewish (technically “half-Jewish”, but I’ll get to that later). Although I identify as a Jewish woman, I wasn’t raised in a religious household. I didn’t go to temple, or have a bat mitzvah. Growing up, I was surrounded by some aspects of Judaism. I sat shiva for my uncle, who was a Holocaust survivor. My parents explained to me what the High Holidays are all about. I make sure to sit down every year at Passover to watch The Prince of Egypt. I am not an innately religious person, but I identify strongly with the beliefs and traditions of Judaism. However, not everyone would agree with my identifying as Jewish. Like I mentioned earlier, I am half-Jewish. For many Jewish people, the fact that my mother is not Jewish would disqualify me from being a part of the religion. I really do try to engage deeply within the Jewish community. I keep myself updated on current events that are relevant to not only Jewish Americans but to Jewish people around the world. I have spent many nights trying to learn more about the history of the religion by reading books and doing research through websites. Now that I’m older, I have begun to observe Jewish holidays; I even had a Break the Fast celebration at my house after Yom Kippur this past year.

Wanting to be considered Jewish within the Jewish community is not much different than wanting to be considered a theater fan in the theater community. Sure, there are conservative individuals in both realms who will ignore me when I show up to services or an opening night performance, but it doesn’t really matter who dismisses me. What matters is who accepts me.

I am lucky enough to have surrounded myself with people who are accepting members of both communities.

A pre-broadway performance of Moulin Rouge recently opened in Boston and every one of my colleagues has been buzzing about getting tickets. Of course, I wanted to see the show but I initially kept quiet because I didn’t want anyone to think I was just hopping on the bandwagon and pretending to care about theater. When a friend of mine who saw the show told me I should enter the ticket lottery, I told him that I didn’t want to take the opportunity away from someone who “deserves to see it more than me.” My friend looked at me, mouth agape, and said something along the lines of, “what do you mean more than you? Of course you deserve to see the show! Everyone deserves to see it!” Here, my friend, a denizen of the theater an exemplary Broadway fan, and a person with a background in music performance, was telling me not only should I see Moulin Rouge, but I deserved to see it. My friend recognized a great performance and also recognized that everyone deserved to see it--not just people who consider themselves to be the ultimate theater buff.

Around this same time, I was invited by friend to attend Shabbat services at her temple in Brookline, Massachusetts. I expressed my initial hesitation in going, seeing as I had never gone to temple before. She warmly calmed my nerves and told me that the event was for everyone, temple member or not, and that she, along with the rest of the community, would be thrilled to have me there.

Despite feeling like an outsider in both of these worlds at certain times, I have also felt so completely welcomed. Time and time again I have been taken into these communities with open arms and warm smiles. My journey with finding my place in these communities has made it clear to me that regardless of how much knowledge someone has about Judaism or theater, they deserve room. They deserve a space to participate. Historically, both the Jewish and theater communities are recognized for accepting minority individuals into their space. Especially because these two communities in particular are comprised of people who have been persecuted and discriminated against, they’ve done their best to create a welcoming environment. It is so important for both Judaism and theater to include all varieties of people, because there is a great chance that this person has been ousted from other communities. Theater and Judaism should promote spaces where everyone feels welcome, something each of these communities are slowly getting better at doing.  Although the theater and Jewish communities each have long-standing traditions, they also have avenues within the community that are willing to accept people for who they are, with open arms. Including me.

*When I floated the idea of this piece around, someone joked that I should title it “Waving Through A Window.” At the time, didn’t get the reference. Now as I am finishing up this post, I have listened to the Dear Evan Hansen soundtrack twice over and read summaries and reviews of the show. Small steps.

 

 

7 Places for Even More Theatre

Much like the city in which it most fiercely thrives, the theatre industry never sleeps. It can become overwhelming if you don’t know where to catch up on the latest news--who’s leaving, who’s being replaced, what’s opening, and the occasional “who is that”? Sticking with the magical number seven, a number standing for creation in Judaism, here are seven incredible resources for your next theatrical enlightenment:

  1. The Interval

Near and dear to my heart, The Interval was one of my strongest inspirations for Strip It Down. The Interval focuses on specifically highlighting the work of female theatre artists in New York and all over the country.This publication puts out unbelievable profiles and interviews with artists like Paula Vogel and Leigh Silverman. Trust me, you’ll be starstruck before you even read the article. The Interval also publishes socially and politically charged pieces that connect to theatre, all written by women, of course. Its Editor-In-Chief, Victoria Meyers, is going to be featured on Strip It Down in a couple weeks so make sure you check out whatever wisdom she ends up sharing--she’s got loads of it. In short, The Interval is a feminist theatre maker’s dream publication. Go read, you won’t regret it.

http://www.theintervalny.com/

2.             Playbill

You simply can’t go wrong with a classic. Playbill covers all of the hot gossip, previews, openings, and closings you need to know about on Broadway and beyond. If you’re ever in need of knowing essential information like who’s getting cast in what revival, Playbill is the place to go. Not only does its content go back decades into theatre history but it also puts out amazing Spotify playlists for the musical theatre nerd in all of us.

http://www.playbill.com/

https://open.spotify.com/user/playbill/playlist/6nN2c6fCEPIR4vQ22vJrrl

3.             HowlRound

HowlRound is the best of both worlds. It is a platform for all theatre artists to publish their own thoughts and ideas, as well as a hub for international theatre news. HowlRound is especially unique because it puts an emphasis on publishing pieces about newer forms of theatre that may be lesser known. They also have a virtual map where you can see all of the different theatre productions going on in the world. If you’re searching for a place to brainstorm, collaborate with artists from all over, or broaden your cultural horizons, you need to check out HowlRound.

http://howlround.com/

4.             OnStage Blog

OnStage Blog is a highly underrated source for pretty much anything and everything you need to know about what’s happening in theatre. Covering theatre news worldwide, it publishes reviews and acting tips, provides behind the scenes footage, and even profiles stagehands (the ultimate theatre hero). OnStage Blog works fiercely to give all contributors to theatre a space to be heard and celebrated.

http://www.onstageblog.com/

5.             The Broadway Blog

One of the best features of Broadway Blog is that is goes “Beyond Broadway.” This theatre blog highlights shows happening Off-Broadway, at smaller regional theaters, and through other artistic companies. With interviews and breaking news, The Broadway Blog is a great way to make sure you have all of your bases covered when it comes time to buy tickets to your next show. https://thebroadwayblog.com/

6.             Broadway Briefing

If you’re a fan of The Daily from The New York Times, you will love Broadway Briefing. It is the perfect place to get your quick fix of theatre buzz before the day begins. The publication sends curated Broadway news straight to your inbox seven days a week. Who wouldn’t want a full rundown on what’s happening in Broadway to greet them every morning? Read it over your coffee, your tea, or your mimosa-- whatever matches your aesthetic.

https://www.broadwaybriefing.com

7.             Lilith Magazine

I end this listacle with a little twist to my usual, theatre-related content here on Strip It Down. Lilith Magazine has, for years, provided readers a space for feminism and Judaism to join together like apples and honey. The publication features strong, empowering, inspiring Jewish women from all over telling their stories, sharing advice, and providing current event updates. This publication creates an independence for Jewish women that isn’t found in the Torah. They also have a fantastic glossary of rituals and holidays, so you really don’t have to be Jewish to take in the richness that is Lilith Magazine.

https://www.lilith.org/

 

 

A Jew In the Room Bitching*

With Pride Month 2018 now behind us, Broadway is coming down from 30 days of fabulous festivities all over New York City. Armed with rainbow printed Playbills, theatre performers and audiences alike were wrapped in a blanket of love, acceptance, and celebration. In the theatre industry, the LGBTQ community is consistently celebrated, as they should be. There have been countless stories of young LGBTQ members telling their story about how theatre gave them the safe space or confidence to accept who they were and to go forth loving themselves. Although these artists comprise an integral part of the theatre industry, there is a noticeable disconnect between the outpouring of pride for the LGBTQ community and the Jewish community—which has for decades contributed to the theatre scene just as strongly. The Jewish and LGBTQ communities are both iconic, irreplaceable pieces of the theatre industry. Members of both groups have contributed significant amounts of talent and creativity we see in theatre today. Yet, creators of LGBTQ stories have the confidence to write stories that spread along a wide spectrum—celebration, love, self-discovery, heartache, oppression—while those of Jewish identity are still fearful to break the boundary of nuance.  

For Jewish people, there is far less celebration and even less a sense of pride. Jewish professionals in theatre have been encouraged to change their last names to sound ‘less Jewish’—Mel Brooks was originally Melvin Kaminsky and Idina Menzel is originally Idina Mentzel. Early Jewish playwrights would tone down more ethnic elements of their Jewish characters to ensure a wider audience, and Jewish plays seemed to exist solely to prove that Jewish people could successfully assimilate to American culture. It could be argued that this struggle to freely portray Judaism on stage stems from a fear deeply ingrained in the Jewish people, enabled by thousands of years of exile, oppression, and most recently the atrocities of WWII. The theatre industry is arguably the most accepting and progressive artistic industry in the country, especially smaller regional companies. Indisputably, both the Jewish and LGBTQ communities have struggled and fought to get to where they are today. However, there is usually more of a tone of celebration surrounding stories about those who identify as LGBTQ, whereas Judaism sticks to the same, sad story, but is that motivated by fear or misrepresentation?  

Many Jewish theatre stories, such as The Diary of Anne Frank, Indecent, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, and Parade are completely dependent on the themes of oppression and exile. Yes, educating audiences about the horror of the Shoah (the Jewish genocide in WWII) is imperative, but it is not our only legacy and suffering is not our only story. Contrarily, shows that represent the LGBTQ community are more varied in plot. Stories such as A New Brain, If/Then, and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, where the characters and plot showcase different experiences, rather than one universal story for all LGBTQ members. However, the LGBTQ community has more recently begun to be represented in theatre compared to Jewish people, coming to fruition in an age where art is taking more risks than ever before. These productions celebrate queerness and the discovery of love and sexuality, and rightfully so, as these aspects of life are essential to celebrate.

Maybe even more importantly, many LGBTQ shows celebrate what it means to be gay, now, in this moment. As a young Jewish woman in theatre, I, contrastingly, look to shows like Fiddler on the Roof: a tale of Judaism from hundreds of years ago that seems to encourage me to identify as an oppressed victim whose biggest goal should be to marry the Rabbi’s son. Yet we obviously cannot ignore the more recent attempts at telling a different kind of Jewish story on stage. Shows like The Band’s Visit, Falsettos and even Angels in America—the latter two representing both communities at hand—take a new angle on Judaism and represent us in more unique approaches. Yet there still is not much positivity or celebration, making the portrayal of Jewish people in theatre generally depressing. Jewish people have, and continue to be pioneers in theatre, just like the members of the LGBTQ community who continue to break through barriers. Neither are a small feat and both deserve a joyful round of applause.

This idea of representing everyone is not new to the theatre industry, or the arts in general. In an interview with American Theatre magazine, Paula Vogel—female Jewish author of the Tony Award winning play Indecent—states: “Everyone needs to be represented and see representation of others—every voice heard in the community” (Dembin, R.). It seems like common sense to encourage the increase of new stories and more representation in theatre. Although Jewish stories are being told, how do people interpret our representation? When is fear and Jewish denial allowed to turn to pride?

*The artist formerly known as “Four Jews In A Room Bitching” from Falsettos.

 

 

7 Powerhouse Jewish Women in Theatre

In Judaism, certain numbers have hidden meanings. The number seven is considered to be the number with the greatest amount of power. This number represents creation, fortune, and blessing. So, I figured, what better number than seven to represent the literal superpower that is the Jewish woman? Some you may have heard of and some may be complete strangers to you, but each and every one on this list will leave you with enough inspiration to last the next seven days.

1.  Bette Midler (Performer/Producer/Singer/Songwriter)

We had to start out with a name pretty much everyone knows. Bette Midler is an ICON in theatre. Her most recent performance in Hello, Dolly! landed her the 2017 Tony for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical. She is not a new face to the theatre scene, but every time she comes back onstage, we plotz. Bette Midler has taken on Broadway roles, become a highly successful recording artist, and starred in iconic films such as Beaches and The First Wives Club. She really can do it all. Midler 2020.

2.  Shoshana Bean (Performer)

Shoshana Bean is one of those actors we know we’ve heard of, but are dying to know more about. From taking on the role of Elphaba in Wicked back in 2005 to now rehearsing for a limited run of Jason Robert Brown’s Songs For a New World, Bean’s belt will remind you just what she is all about. She is not only a successful recording artist and Broadway star, but she also dedicates time to outreach and teaching. She offers several online masterclasses that focus on keeping yourself healthy, grounded, and prepared when taking on everyday life in the theatre industry. Check out the masterclasses she offers here: https://www.shoshanabean.com/masterclass

3.  Paula Vogel (Playwright/Teacher)

If you haven’t yet heard of Paula Vogel, prepare yourself, because your life is about to change. Paula Vogel recently made her Broadway debut with her play Indecent, which is based on the true romance between two Jewish women during World War II. You can stream a performance of the show here: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/gperf/indecent-full-episode/7823/. Yet Indecent is just a tiny fragment of Vogel’s portfolio. Previously, she wrote both How I Learned to Drive and The Long Christmas Ride Home. Her plays take on a healthy mix of absurdist and stylized theatre, something we rarely see done in such an accessible way today. Paula Vogel has one of the most unique and captivating voices in theatre right now, and her willingness to contribute her perspective as a Jewish woman in her stories is bursting open doors and shattering ceilings. Once you watch or read one of Paula Vogel’s plays, you’ll instantly fall in love with her storytelling and want to sit down with her to soak up her genius.

4.  Tina Landau (Director/Playwright)

Tina Landau is a woman who is perfectly all over the place. She has spread her talents across New York City theatres teaching blossoming artists about what it means to be a theatre maker. She casually co-wrote a book with Anne Bogart (mega-famous director and author of essential books like A Director Prepares) but that’s fine, no big deal. Landau has also directed countless, show-stopping productions. She was even just nominated for her direction and conception of SpongeBob Squarepants the Musical (and anyone who can make Spongebob work on Broadway deserves ALL the praise). It is always interesting to get to know Jewish female directors and see how their interaction with Judaism impacts their work. Previously in her career, Landau collaborated on a few Paula Vogel works before directing a production of The Diary of Anne Frank. Not all of her work directly reflects her identity as a Jewish woman, but it is still powerful to know that her perspective is being put center stage. Tina Landau is an important voice in the theatre—she has a knack for taking something that seems so commercial and spinning it to address important cultural issues.

5.  Rebecca Taichman (Director/Professor)

Connections, connections, connections. Rebecca Taichman is an ingenious theatre director who won the Tony for Best Direction of a Play for Paula Vogel’s, Indecent. Taichman’s work on this play fills my heart with pride and excitement to know that this beautiful story was told through the eyes of two Jewish women rather than being passed off to a cis white man like most Broadway productions. Rebecca Taichman has vision, knows it, and takes risks to see those visions come to fruition on stage. She is the type of director who should be sculpting shows that are headed to Broadway. Taichman has a way of being productive while keeping herself open to inspiration and her raw talent can be seen in her past productions of School Girls and Stage Kiss. You can read more about Rebecca Taichman here: https://www.broadwayworld.com/article/BWW-Review-Paula-Vogel-and-Rebecca-Taichmans-Thrilling-INDECENT-Recalls-A-Case-of-Broadway-Censorship-20170419, But, I have to warn you, you’ll probably get overwhelmed with how smart and kick ass she is and want to direct every piece of theatre that exists. So remember to take deep breaths as you get to know her.

6.   Natasha Katz (Lighting Designer)

In a generally, even more so, male dominated category of theatre, Natasha Katz is proudly representing Jewish women in her career of brilliant lighting design. Nominated for her design for Hello, Dolly! And The Glass Menagerie, Natasha Katz is a pioneer for the modern day female lighting designer. What makes her even more of a powerhouse (really not sure it’s possible), is she also works with ballet choreographers and professional operas and lends her talent for lighting design to other forms of art. The amount of women who are encouraged to become lighting designers is scarce. This absolutely stems from a deep-rooted, systematic sexism when it comes to women working in more analytically based fields. Natasha Katz is not only a trailblazer, but she also acts a mentor to younger female lighting designers. If you love productions like Mowtown, A Chorus Line (revival), or 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, you love Natasha Katz.

7.  Julia C. Levy (Executive Director of RTC)

For all of my arts administrative and business savvy readers, Julia Levy is your woman. She has been climbing the ladder at Roundabout Theatre Company (RTC)  since 1990 and is now the executive director. RTC is an off-broadway theatre in New York City that is committed to producing new pieces of theatre and reinventing classic works. They are a phenomenal company and one I dream about working with, you can check out more about RTC here: https://www.roundabouttheatre.org/About.aspx As executive director, Levy has overseen dozens of productions at the RTC such as The Humans, Long Day's Journey Into Night, and Waiting for Godot. Julia Levy is navigating very unchartered territory for women in theatre and her position at RTC is wildly inspiring. Levy works with fundraising and making sure the RTC gets its proper funding in order to continue their phenomenal pattern of producing new and provoking works of theatre. Julia Levy represents a totally different avenue of theatre and she is running the RTC the way only a powerhouse woman can.

 

 

The Tony Awards: A Recap of Broadway's Hanukkah

 

With the 2018 Tony Awards officially behind us, it’s time to strip it down with a look at who was in the room and who left with that iconic trophy. Before the awards began, there were a total of seven Jewish artists nominated for their contributions. Out of these seven, four were Jewish women. Most exhilarating, at least for me, was the nomination of Tina Landau for her direction of Spongebob the Musical. To see a Jewish woman in the director’s chair is undoubtedly one of the most inspiring sights. Although Landau did not take home the Tony—she lost to David Cromer of The Band’s Visit, which we’ll get to later, don’t worry—she was present and visible on one of the most important nights in the theatre industry. Tina Landau presents all female Jewish artists with an interesting situation. Her show, Spongebob the Musical, was a shocking success this Broadway season. The entire show is a pulsing, spell-bounding spectacle, a piece of art almost everyone thought would flop—but that ended up filling the world with color and joyful music. It’s almost as if Landau’s place in the industry as a female Jewish director subconsciously played into her directing choices for the Tony-nominated show.

Spongebob the Musical was unexpected and not quickly accepted, even by Landau at first. I mean, when you were watching Spongebob in middle school on a Saturday did you really ever think you’d see a human person playing him on stage? As the only woman nominated for best direction this season, Landau undoubtedly had something to prove, or at least the industry demanded that she did. Few people in this industry expect the best work to come from women. Especially in a field like directing, which is overflowing with Jewish men, Landau was up against a lot, even if she didn’t let it show or detrimentally impact her production. She, like her nominated musical, came out of left field. A Jewish woman brought something so drastically different than anything else that’s been on Broadway this season or in the past to life. From the choice to give a squid a tap number to the decision to give Mrs. Puff a drinking problem—it would not be far-fetched to say that her unique directing choices were impacted by the expectation of her as a Jewish woman to break down the walls that had been keeping her out of the room for so many years.

Now, it wouldn’t be a Tony’s recap without discussing what is arguably the biggest win of the night: The Band’s Visit for Best Musical. This production shed light on Middle Eastern relationships in telling the story of a traveling Egyptian band that end up in the wrong Israeli town on a stop during their tour. It showed compassion, love, culture, and humanity between Egyptians and Israelis without needing to beat the dead horse of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. As a Jew, The Band’s Visit wins made my heart soar. I stared in shock with feelings of gratitude, pride, and representation every time its name was called to accept the Tony. As a woman, however, my heart broke. Once again, the women of the Jewish community in theatre were kept out and to one side. The lead female role, portrayed gorgeously by award-winning Katrina Lenk, was not even played by a Jewish actress. Casting, of course, can be a completely different world and I am in no way a casting director—a good thing too, given my Libra tendencies—but the entire creative team was made up solely of men. Not a single female voice or perspective was brought into a room where the relationship between Israelis and their long time rival was being turned into something beautiful. The Band’s Visit is one of the most important shows this Broadway season and its iconic win acts as a beacon of hope in a season of commercial direct deposits. That being said, should it continue its run or move to other theatres, the show would benefit from the addition of Jewish female voices into the cast and creative team. And who knows, it’d probably uncover hidden gems in the script and score as well.

Though we are always striving for more progress, it was fantastic to see artists like Cassie Levy and Tina Landau earn nominations for their work, as well as for David Cromer and Tony Kushner to take home the Tony for best direction of a musical and best revival of a play, respectively.

Tony’s season is and will always be an exciting time. The awards are pretty much an unofficial Jewish holiday at this point, if we’re being honest. Perhaps there can just be some more women invited to the celebration next year.