About a decade ago, theatre director David Winitsky noticed that while writers were pushing the boundaries of what Jewish theatre could be—investigating urgent themes of Jewish identity and Jewish life—the plays that ended up on stage felt dated.
“It was still Neil Simon and Anne Frank and Fiddler and things that looked at an older moment,” said Winitsky. “Plays that felt a little safe.”
Winitsky wouldn’t denigrate the classics, then or now. But he did believe there was an audience for Jewish plays that explored contemporary conversations—around social justice, race, climate change, and more complicated perspectives on the Middle East.
With this in mind, in 2011, he founded Jewish Plays Project (JPP), which quickly became the nation’s leading incubator and development house for new Jewish theatre. (JPP is a CANVAS Network Grantee.)
JPP has been incredibly effective: it has developed 55 plays to date. 36 have gone on to production in London, New York, Los Angeles, Tel Aviv and other cities—productions that have been seen by over 100,000 audience members.
“We’re presenting the play for audiences,” explained Winitsky. “But also for producers to look at it and say, ‘Maybe that’s something we want to put into our production season.’”
The Jewish Playwriting Contest
JPP’s signature program is the Jewish Playwriting Contest, which chooses new Jewish plays for development with support from local communities.
“Everything is in partnership with community,” Winitsky said. “It’s an artistic democracy.”
Each year, about 300 plays are submitted. A group of 70 or 80 theatre artists around the country read and evaluate each submission, picking six or seven plays to advance to the finalist round. Then, a round of regional readings occurs with the finalist plays discussed by different communities—such as JCCs, synagogues, or community arts groups. JPP calls them “theatre chavurahs,” from the Hebrew word for a small study or prayer group.
This year, there were theatre chavurahs in Hartford, Boston, Fairfax, Houston, Chicago, Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, New York, and Tel Aviv.
JPP then stages events with a live audience voting on finalists. (There is an upcoming live contest on May 15th in Silicon Valley.) Winitsky describes these events as “a combination of a TED Talk, a play reading, and American Idol.”
(This year’s crop of six finalists are strong plays on wide range of subjects from art to the afterlife, with playwrights from emerging to established. The winning play will be announced at the end of June.)
The winning playwright is awarded 29 hours of development—the writer works with dramaturgs, directors, and actors to sharpen the play for a staged reading in front of leading producers and artistic directors in New York City.
Victor Wishna, a 2022 JPP finalist, said that the contest “is definitely a launching pad. All the plays that make it to the finalist or semi-finalist round, they get promoted.”
Sometimes the outcome from the contest is unexpected and remarkable: Wishna’s play Tree of Life is based on a true story he reported for Jewish Telegraphic Agency on the decommissioning of a synagogue in Iowa. In June, he’s staging a reading of Tree of Life at that same synagogue, which the Congregation of B’nai Jacob gifted to the American Gothic Performing Arts Festival.
Winitsky echoed the idea that although one play wins the contest, each play receives equal support.
“I’m not super invested in ‘the winner,’” he said. “All of this is to bring attention to a whole group of plays that we think are great, and we’re always advocating for all the plays we have chosen.”
Thanks to JPP, Elizabeth Savage, a 2020 finalist, connected with a director in St. Louis, Missouri. The director had heard about a 15-minute Zoom excerpt of Savage’s play online and brought it to the New Jewish Theater in St. Louis. Her play, Aristaeus (The Bee Play), had its world premiere there last fall.
“So even though I didn’t ‘win’,” Savage said, “I totally won.”
Adam Howard, Leah Walton, Ava Weintzweig, and Tim Moyer in The Last Parade. Photo courtesy of JPP.
Developing Plays and Playwrights
Deborah Radin, a JPP board member and a reader in Silicon Valley, said that JPP’s development process allows writers to receive “invaluable” real-time feedback on their work — “an opportunity to wrestle with their own ideas.”
She added that what JPP is doing—grappling with ideas, asking questions, challenging notions from hundreds of years ago—feels inherently Jewish. This is evident in the way the plays can shift over time. Sometimes plays go into production years later, and Radin has seen plays she read as a community reader evolve and improve.
“Seeing how a playwright’s voice changed over time is pretty cool,” she said.
JPP also provides support for its finalists long after their contest year ends. Savage is currently at work to bring her play to a bigger theatre in a city like Chicago, Detroit, or New York City. JPP, she said, has been behind her for every milestone.
“It’s not like I was part of this, and they dropped out of sight,” she said. “I’m now a member of the JPP, I’m an alum, and every success I’ve had has been met with incredibly encouraging words and praise by the folks there.”
Winitsky explained that JPP plays can suddenly become relevant at unexpected times, even years later. This season, for example, Stephanie Satie’s 2013 finalist play The Last Parade, about Ukrainian Jews who emigrated to the U.S., had its world premiere at InterAct Theatre Company. The Russia-Ukraine war made the work timely.
Part of making productions like this happen is Winitsky’s ability to pull from JPP’s canon and to have continuing conversations with artistic directors about what exciting work they can put on their stage.
“We can find something that fits for a theater company,” he said.
Winitsky understands that getting a play produced at the right moment involves a delicate dance of maintaining personal relationships with writers, directors, artistic directors, and producers. That is why, unlike most writing contests, which present the yearly award and move on, JPP stays involved with past finalists, creating a network of writers that can be connected to a network of decision-makers in the theatre community.
“For us, that work is about keeping track of who is where,” he said.
To that end, JPP is working on a searchable archive with information about the finalists and their plays, including contact information for the writers and their representation.
JPP’s tireless promotion of Jewish theatre, and its ability to help playwrights reach audiences, makes it an incredible resource in an era of shrinking opportunities for theatre artists.
“It’s not like if you’re a Jewish playwright wanting to find a champion that JPP is one of five of its kind,” said Victor Wishna. “It’s the only one.”
Josh Adams, Tyler Herman, and Drew Kopas in Lindsay Joelle’s Trayfe. The 2016 contest finalist premiered at Theatre J in DC and went on to a production at LA’s Geffen Playhouse. Photo courtesy of Theatre J.
CANVAS supports a number of programs that, like JPP, act as hubs of creativity for professional artists, providing learning, career development, and community. See our recent newsletter on the New Jewish Culture Fellowship, whose fascinating exhibition, Material Inheritance: Contemporary Work by New Jewish Culture Fellows is at the Jewish Museum of Maryland until June 11. Details here. We’re also excited about Genesis: The Beginning of Creativity, an interfaith exhibition from Jewish Art Salon at three different venues in New York City in May and June. Details here. —Ed.
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