By Lonnie Firestone
The American Jewish community has deep connections to the history of American theatre. Starting in the late 19th century, Jewish immigrants—largely Ashkenazi Jews with roots in the Yiddish theatre—made an indelible mark as performers, playwrights, songwriters, and producers. Today their artistic descendants continue to distinguish themselves as actors, writers, artisans, and businesspeople, both in the theatre writ large and in the genre of Jewish theatre. At the same time, we’re seeing more awareness of diversity within the community, with Jewish theatre opening up to Sephardi, Ashkenazi, Mizrachi, Black, Latin-American, and Asian Jews.
Of course, there is a lot more work to do, both in terms of diversity and in helping Jewish theatres stay financially viable. But the good news is that the landscape of the American Jewish theatre is vibrant. Despite the pandemic and political upheavals, dozens of annual Jewish festivals and Jewish theatres are producing full seasons of plays and musicals.
Amidst this busy industry sits the Alliance for Jewish Theatre (AJT), one of the few organizations promoting the creation and presentation of theatre about the Jewish experience. AJT is a CANVAS Emerging Network Grantee; as a network, it fosters relationships with theatre companies and individual artists, sparking creative partnerships while supporting their needs and interests. Through its yearly conference and virtual programs, AJT regularly brings together its 300 members—both theatres and individual artists from the United States, Canada, Israel, Argentina, England, and Romania—to share their knowledge and their work.
Meeting the needs of Jewish theatre artists
AJT has existed in one form or another for more than 40 years. In 1979, it began as the Jewish Theatre Association under the auspices of the now-defunct National Foundation for Jewish Culture. The nascent organization helped organize the first International Jewish Theatre Festival in Tel Aviv in 1982.
In 1985, the name changed to the Council of Jewish Theatres, and invited playwrights, theatre critics, and scholars to join. Its first conference, in Vienna, brought Theodore Bikel—the original Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music—to attend; he later joined the Board. In 2011, AJT became a non-profit.
This year, AJT is at an inflection point, with a new Executive Director, Willow Jade Norton, who is an arts educator, director, advocate, and theatre artist in her own right. Norton joined AJT in June of 2022 and immediately focused on understanding the needs of the community.
“I want to practice gratitude, flexibility, empathy, and curiosity,” Norton said. “But my essential focus is to listen to our members, and then meet their needs and aspirations.”
With this goal in mind, Norton held a town hall with new Board President Jesse Bernstein in July, inviting members to share their experiences with AJT and in the field. They asked members what had worked in the past: specifically, which workshops and functions of AJT were most useful, and what they wanted out of the AJT annual conference. Over forty members attended, and another dozen wrote Norton about their concerns, which ranged from recovering after the pandemic, to the ability of art to change the world, to embracing diversity within Judaism.
AJT is currently developing new programs to respond to these concerns, while continuing with popular offerings like Theatre Schmooze, a podcast featuring conversations with notable Jewish theatre artists. Recent guests include playwright Anna Ziegler and Kendell Pinkney, a theatre artist, producer, and rabbi who runs The Workshop, an arts fellowship for Jews of Color, Jewish-Indigenous, Sephardi and Mizrahi artists (and also a CANVAS grantee).
Members can still enjoy monthly AJT Talks, which spotlight innovators in Jewish theatre. Recent participants have included Jonathan Shmidt Chapman, founder of The K’ilu Company, which sparks Jewish discovery through immersive children’s theatre, and Bess Welden, a dynamic writer and performer.
In addition, AJT is renewing an emphasis on the needs of emerging Jewish theatre artists and professionals with JxGen: Next Generation Series, a virtual program sharing new perspectives on theatre from young playwrights, directors, actors, and producers.
With these programs, AJT regularly presents unique opportunities for lively, informative discussions about creating Jewish theatre and demystifying the paths to production. For announcements on upcoming programs, check AJT’s home page or subscribe to its newsletter.
The Theatremacher Program: A unique fellowship for emerging creators
One of AJT’s more notable offerings is the Theatremacher Program, a rich fellowship for Jewish theatre makers between the ages 18 and 36. Under the able leadership of Program Director Illana Stein, a cohort of eight artists meet for a year of skill-building, mentoring, and Jewish conversation, as well opportunities to form collaborative partnerships, develop new work, and showcase their productions to the AJT community.
It’s a “life-long cohort,” Norton says. “The ripples of this program can be seen in new companies starting that make theatre with a Jewish sensibility and theatre makers of multiple disciplines creating new Jewish work.”
Just two examples: Kavanah Productions, New Zealand’s first and only Jewish production company, started by alum Yael Gezentsvey, and JewFace: A New Play Lab in Los Angeles, affiliated with AJT Board Vice President David Chack’s non-profit ShPIel: Performing Identity.
Actor and director Casey J. Adler has observed a profound evolution of his career through the Theatremacher Fellowship.
“AJT changed the direction of my theatre mission,” he says. “I no longer internally shun my Jewish identity as a playwright, performer, and producer; rather, I bring it forth in much of my work. I can say first-hand that AJT’s impact on my fellow Jewish artists is unequivocally positive and forward-thinking.”
The AJT conference: Bringing Jewish theatre artists together
AJT’s annual conference is a crucial part of its mission. This year, on October 23 and 24, more than 70 members from around the globe met online for two days of learning, creativity, and conversation.
The theme, Revive and Renew, was an acknowledgment of the concerns that came up during the summer town hall Norton held for members, as well as an offer of encouragement to re-energize for the future. Norton was a genial and welcoming Zoom host from her home base in Portland, Oregon.
“Revive and Renew is about stepping into our Jewish identity and the world with greater empathy and awareness,” she said in her opening remarks. “However you arrive is welcome.”
Participants could join The Artist as Torah, a workshop for individual artists run by Kendell Pinkney and Rebecca S’manga Frank, an actor, writer, director, and Workshop fellow.
Together, Frank and Pinkney took participants through a gentle process of generating new Jewish monologues, with time for writing and revision to a background of “chill music,” as Frank put it.
Another compelling session, Working Session for Member Theatres, covered how Jewish institutions can better engage with diverse populations. The session was run by Warren Hoffman, the Executive Director for The Association for Jewish Studies, and Miriam Steinberg-Egeth, the Strategic Manager at the educational institution Hadar. (Hadar is the home of Rising Song Institute, another CANVAS grantee.)
The presenters were straightforward about how daunting it can be to embrace diversity in its many forms, and how important it is to do it anyway.
“You have to start somewhere,” Steinberg-Egeth said. “You literally need to pick a place and start.”
Some ideas: providing childcare during matinées so parents of young children can experience theatre. There are also ways to be inclusive that cost organizations nothing, such as providing clear information about parking and transportation options. Theatres often neglect to provide this information, but they are a concern of people with accessibility needs.
These themes—of empathy, honesty, creativity, and inclusiveness—continued throughout the conference, with panels on diversity in theatre and overcoming institutional bias. But career development wasn’t left out, with networking sessions, panels on non-profit leadership, and a conversation on “playwriting entrepreneurship”—creative ways to fund a production.
The conference was capped off by performances from member theatres The Braid, CenterStage, Nephesh Theatre, Seattle Jewish Theater Company, SH’MA Theatre Group, Theater of Ideas, and Yiddish Theatre Ensemble.
Norton said she engaged in “radical listening” to members before designing Revive and Renew. The practice seems to have worked: One writer shared that the conference “gave me hope during a time of darkness.” Another expressed enthusiastic gratitude for this “rich, inspiring, and down-to-earth gathering of creative minds.”
Asking questions about the human experience
This is a difficult time for the theatre field. During the conference, a number of AJT members expressed anxiety about declining audiences and finances. But Jewish theatre remains a crucial way for the community to engage with its own history and culture as well as providing insight into universal values. AJT is working to nurture these stories and to celebrate the wide scope of interests among Jewish theatre artists.
“I see Jewish themes as connecting to core elements of theatre,” Norton said. “We’re asking questions about the human experience. I want artists to focus on making great work that delves into the questions that inspire them.”
Norton is bringing a new energy and sense of purpose to AJT while continuing its important mission of connecting Jewish theatre artists and promoting their work. Its success is reflected in the enthusiasm of its members.
“It is so exciting that AJT is supporting individual artists and offering dialogue with different entry points to Judaism, including theatre for young audiences, my area of focus,” said Jonathan Shmidt Chapman. “I’m thrilled that the Alliance for Jewish Theatre exists.”
Image: The set of Elizabeth Savage’s Aristaeus at The New Jewish Theatre in St. Louis, a Jewish Plays Project finalist premiering at an AJT member theatre. Photo: Dunsi Dai
You can read more recent profiles of other CANVAS Network Grantees here, here, and here.