Season Planning, An Insider’s Look — Part 4

Illustrations by Donald Ely

Illustrations by Donald Ely

Hello there–Shirley here, picking back up with our season planning emails from this past summer. A lot has happened since July–we announced a new Artistic Director (welcome Adam!) I had a child (a son, Duncan, and he’s pretty darn awesome) and we opened our season with the run-away hit show Queens Girl in the World by the marvelous Caleen Sinnette Jennings. We’re off to an exciting start, and I couldn’t be more excited about where we’re headed this season.

I left off with my season planning overview with details on Stars of David (opening Dec. 22) From January 13-February 21 we will present:

SistersRosensweig_CThe Sisters Rosensweig

By Wendy Wasserstein

The Rosensweig sisters are different as can be. There’s Sara, the oldest, a high-powered international banker with a no-nonsense attitude; Gorgeous, a kvelling mother of four with an eye for faux designer fashion; and Pfeni, the youngest, a world-traveling journalist with a yearning for firmer roots. When the three hilariously reunite at Sara’s London home for her 54th birthday celebration, a barrage of suitors and several unexpected revelations make for one interesting weekend. A classic heartfelt comedy about women grappling with life choices.

Winner of the 1993 Outer Critics Circle award for Best Broadway Play
Tony Award nomination for Best New Play
Drama Desk Award nomination for Best New Play
“A funny and deeply felt look at finding one’s identity” – The Boston Globe

Wendy Wasserstein is often labeled with a series of qualifiers—she was a “Jewish playwright” a “female writer” and a “comedic genius”. But Wendy Wasserstein was also, quite simply, one of the most important American playwrights of our time.

Theater J has an important and intimate history with Wasserstein. In 2003, former Theater J Artistic Director Ari Roth saw an evening of two new one-acts she wrote presented in the “First Glance” Series at Arena Stage. Struck by the honesty and depth of Wasserstein’s writing, Theater J committed to producing what was then slated to be a series of three one-acts in its next season. When writing about the proposed collaboration, Wasserstein observed:

 “Theater J is the kind of nurturing theater that I think is crucial to a play’s development. I look forward to being artistically invigorated by both their commitment and the community.”

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Season Planning, An Insider’s Look — Part 3

Illustrations by Donald Ely

Illustrations by Donald Ely

In December 2015 we’ll present a special week-long run of a fantastic, family-friendly, festive piece (just on the heels of Hannukah and during the week of that other December holiday):

StarsOfDavid_Final_CDecember 22-December 27

Stars of David: Story to Song

Based on the book by Abigail Pogrebin, Conceived by Abigail Pogrebin and Aaron Harnick
A musical adaptation of Abigail Pogrebin’s best-selling book, Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish. A celebration of Jewish identity drawn from interviews with some of America’s most recognizable public figures, including: Gloria Steinem, Joan Rivers, Aaron Sorkin, Leonard Nimoy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and more. With original music by an all-star lineup of composers and lyricists including Marvin Hamlisch (A Chorus Line), Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home), Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof), Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater (Spring Awakening), and Tom Kitt (Next to Normal).

Stars of David has had an interesting development history. Lead writer Abigail Pogrebin talked about her original approach to the book with the Forward in 2012:

“When Abigail Pogrebin decided she wanted to interview Jewish celebrities about their Jewish identity, even her husband was skeptical.

“I think it’s a great idea, but why would anyone talk to you?” he told her.

“I basically dove in with a prayer,” said Pogrebin, a Manhattan-based journalist and former television producer. She began with her own contacts: her onetime boss at “60 Minutes,” Mike Wallace; family friend Gloria Steinem; Leonard Nimoy, who had attended Torah study with her parents; Sarah Jessica Parker, whose husband, Matthew Broderick, had gone to Pogrebin’s grade school, and Wendy Wasserstein, who knew her literary agent and her twin sister, Robin Pogrebin, a New York Times reporter. Some 62 interviews later, Pogrebin had her book, “Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish” (Broadway, 2005). Divided into short chapters, it is an unexpectedly intimate compendium of thoughts about observance, heritage, family and the State of Israel…”

From there Pogrebin worked with a team of theater artists (composers and lyricists, as well as a director and book-writer) to adapt the interviews into what was originally a book musical that was work-shopped and presented by the Philadelphia Theatre Company. When the production moved to New York however, producer Daryl Roth observed, “We decided that the stories were so well told through the songs by our various composers and lyricists that it felt like a better format would be a song cycle instead of a book musical.”

Theater J presented the revue as a benefit performance in 2014. It was a spectacular evening–with special guest Ruth Bader Ginsburg present in the first row, watching her own moving story told through song.

Theater J's 2014 benefit presentation of STARS OF DAVID

Theater J’s 2014 benefit presentation of STARS OF DAVID

The show has gone through some small changes since that presentation, so our December 2015 audiences will be seeing the most updated version yet. And I’ve got to say–these songs are pretty wonderful. It’s a smart and eclectic mix of musical theater styles, from more traditional approaches (like Sheldon Harnick’s song “The Book of Norman” about Norman Lear) to witty, wordy patter songs (Michael Friedman’s “Horrible Seders” about Tony Kushner) to contemporary, indie-music influenced compositions (“The Darkening Blue” by Duncan Sheik and Stephen Sater about Kenneth Cole.)

Sadly, we’ve lost some of the luminaries whose words and stories appear in the show since we last visited the material (Leonard Nimoy and Joan Rivers) but we hope that reflecting on their lives and unique journeys is the best kind of tribute an artist can have.

Remembering Theodore Bikel: Ver vet blaybn, vos vet blaybn? (Who will remain, what will remain?)

Actors Ed Gero and Theodore Bikel in THE DISPUTATION.

                      Actors Ed Gero and Theodore Bikel in THE DISPUTATION.

Upon hearing of the death of legendary theater artist and musician Theodore Bikel yesterday, we’ve been moved to observe as many artists from the Theater J family reflected on the time they spent–on stage and off–with this incredible man.

Our own Associate Producer Delia Taylor worked closely on the production of THE DISPUTATION with Theo. She shares this memory:

In the Fall of 2005 I stage managed The Disputation, a Theater J production starring Theodore Bikel. Also in the cast were Edward Gero, John Lescault and Naomi Jacobson.  It was a once in a lifetime experience for all of us—working with Theo—he was one of a kind, a big man in every sense, to whom all superlatives applied. He played with us too; Naomi and John will never forget having him in their home, singing with the cast and crew, strumming his guitar until the wee hours following the show. He would return to the DCJCC again a number of times since then and every one of his performances will be remembered with delight by the many who attended—his memory is a true blessing.

We worked with Theo again in 2008, producing his own stunning adaptation of several Sholom Aleichem stories in the solo show SHOLOM ALEICHEM: LAUGHTER THROUGH TEARS.

Theodore Bikel in LAUGHTER THROUGH TEARS, directed by Derek Goldman.

Theodore Bikel in LAUGHTER THROUGH TEARS, directed by Derek Goldman.

Bikel’s script for Laughter through Tears opened with these questions:

Ver vet blaybn, vos vet blaybn? Who will remain, what will remain? Does anybody worry about legacy? People under sixty usually don’t. I started to worry about it in my thirties.

What will become of the memories of yesterday, of the shtetl, of Sheyne Sheyndl, of Tevye? Of the language they spoke and sang in?

Friends keep telling me ‘just live for today and work for tomorrow.’ But today and tomorrow are not worth all that much without the memory of yesterday. Poetry, songs, heated discussions of rabbis, we remember it all. Is this just nostalgia? No, we Jews are not a people of nostalgia, we are a people of memory.

Bikel burns brightly in our memory, and he always will. His legacy–that of an artist, a friend, a mentor, and an activist–will long endure. We at Theater J are honored to have spent time and artistic space with this great man.

Season Planning — An Insider’s Look, Part 2

Illustrations by Donald Ely

Illustrations by Donald Ely

Next up in our 2015-2016 line up is:

SonsOfTheProphet_Poster_FINALNovember 18-December 20, 2015

Sons of the Prophet

By Stephen Karam

After Joseph Douaihy’s father dies in the wake of a freak traffic accident involving a plastic deer decoy, he’s pretty sure lightning won’t strike twice. But it does, again and again, as Joseph’s health, sanity and family are called into question. Add in fending off his off-kilter boss, who wants him to write a book about his family’s tenuous connection to Khalil Gibran, and Joseph’s to-do list is looking pretty long. But he’ll get to everything – just as soon as he can get someone from his insurance company on the phone.   A 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist dark comedy that laughs in the face of human suffering. 

Sons of the Prophet, by Stephen Karam (Speech and Debate, Columbinus) was first produced at the Roundabout Theatre Company in October 2011. I didn’t actually read it until this past year when Erin Neel, our Director of Patron Services (who also happens to have a background in dramaturgy) put it on my desk. It played to raves in New York—famously particular Charles Isherwood wrote “[an] absolutely wonderful new comedy-drama… Mr. Karam understands that for those in crisis, the brute, sometimes humiliating reality of debility and disease is a greater preoccupation than philosophizing about it. And with unerring sensitivity he finds the sweet spot at which laughing at the horrors of life and feeling compassion for those who must endure them intersect.” Since the combination of humor and tragedy–“laughter through tears”–is practically a cultural imperative, the tone of the play felt very right for Theater J.
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Season Planning — An Insider’s Look

Yikes–we’ve gone ahead and announced our 2015-2016 Season and have totally neglected to blog about it!

I’m going to remedy that by sharing a show-by-show account of what excites me about each production and insights into why these 6 plays (plus musical revue) ended up in our line up.

Illustrations by Donald Ely

Illustrations by Donald Ely

The process of season planning is equal parts thrilling and daunting. We start with a clean slate; key questions (what do we want to talk about next year? what themes do we want to address?); and a list of titles. These may be plays we read a month earlier or three years ago–but they are all stories that stuck with us, that resonated then and now as the stories we should be telling. And then we open up the conversation. At Theater J that means discussing the plays with staff and our committee of volunteer readers, mostly members of our smart and intuitive Theater J council. And the list gets shorter, and shorter, and then sometimes longer again, and then shorter, and shorter. And then we do a very fancy high-tech layout of post-it notes with plays written on them stuck to one of our office doors. Super sophisticated.


This is THE door, without any post-it notes (we wouldn’t want to give away too many industry secrets.)

Okay, so not very sophisticated, but it works. The post-it notes start to resemble a calendar. Dates are tweaked and negotiated. We step back and consider balance. How many larger cast shows do we have? Which ones will need a longer load in period? Which are likely to exist in a world that is more physically spare? How about gender parity of the mix? Representation of diverse voices and playwrights of color? Ratio of comedy to drama? And when we have a line-up that feels like the right mix of plays we are passionate about, we start conversations with agents and publishers. Samuel French and Dramatists Play Service are the two largest licensing agencies, so for published plays the conversation continues there. And finally, when contracts are signed and rights are negotiated, we have a season. Simple, right? Not always, but…

On to next season!

We start the year with:

QueensGirl_Poster_D Continue reading

More dramaturgical reading for G-D’S HONEST TRUTH

I’m pleased to share two more dramaturgical essays (both packed with research) that relate to Renee Calarco’s G-D’S HONEST TRUTH, coming from Jodi Kanter’s dramaturgy class at George Washington University. The topics were each inspired by the play, but the pieces investigate their themes in even greater depth. The first essay reflects on Jewish Marriage throughout history; the second examines the relationship between Jews and commerce.

Jewish Marriage


Josh and Alanna in G-D’S HONEST TRUTH (photo by C. Stanley Photography)

by Jeremy Neff

Judaism, like any ancient culture still alive today, has undergone massive shifts in social mores and customs. Judaism is unique, however, in the way that it has fractured and partially assimilated into mainstream culture (particularly in America). Orthodox, Conservative, and Reformed Jews share many common marriage practices or beliefs, but vary greatly in their tendencies. This research will examine historical Jewish marriage, the differences in modern Jewish marriage, and particularly the current state of Reformed Jewish marriage (the most populous in the United States).

Historical and Religious Background – Jewish Marriage Age Pre-Holocaust

“Traditional Judaism was based on a system of early marriage. The mishnaic statement ‘at 18 a man marries’ [ben shmoneh-esreh le-huppa] was often regarded by medieval commentators as representing an upper limit in age”[1] There would often be marriages between 14 year olds, etc. There is anecdotal evidence of marriages between children of 11 or 12 years of age, but this is not strongly supported by statistical evidence.[2]

Jews became increasingly assimilated into European culture in the 19th century and even more so in the 20th century, and marriage age followed suit – although not uniformly. By and large, Germanic Jewry adopted late marriage by World War I, either because of general acculturation to the majority or because of legislation that prevented early marriage in Germanic lands.[3] Indeed, in Germany there is a trend away from early marriage among Jewish people in the 19th century even compared to the general population, while marriage age was still low in Russia until the turn of the century. “In 1867, for example, 43 percent of Jewish grooms and 60.8 percent of Jewish brides were under the age of 21 in the Russian Empire; by 1897, however, only 5.8 percent of grooms and 25 percent of brides were under 21.”[4] Continue reading

Student Writing on G-D’S HONEST TRUTH

Leading up to our final weekend of performances for G-D’S HONEST TRUTH, we’ll be rolling out several essays written by dramaturgy students in the theater department of George Washington University. We are thankful to Professor Jodi Kanter–a noted educator and theater artist herself–for her wonderful work with these young ‘turges. We were so happy to have them sitting in on our process.

The first is a personal essay by student Josh Bierman reflecting on his own Bar/Bat Mitzvah experiences–both as a guest and as the Bar Mitzvah boy himself.IMG_2454 color corrected

The “Bar Mitzvah kids” from Renee Calarco’s G-D’S HONEST TRUTH (Photo by C. Stanley Photography)

Today, I am a Wax Hand: Tales from a Bar Mitzvah Veteran

Josh Bierman

 For a solid four of years of my parents’ life, one of the biggest parts of their weekend was figuring out how my sister and I would be getting to that weekend’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah. My sister is two years older than I, so immediately after she finished the two-year grind of her classmates’ Bat and Bar mitzvahs, I started mine. Parents would alternate carpooling duties on Saturday nights to the farthest pockets of Manhattan (or, God help us, Brooklyn) or arrange walking groups of acne-covered teenagers across Central Park on a Sabbath morning to hear the latest Bar Mitzvah boy crack through his thoroughly unmelodic Torah portion.

And if it was hard for the parents, one can imagine how difficult it would be for the kids. Maybe I’m in the minority, but you can bet I dreaded the walk to the Upper West Side, and the endless two hours of speeches (in which every single family member was thanked for traveling all the way from Israel, South Florida, Paris, Great Neck, Calcutta, you name it) that followed it, and then the luncheon where the same food was served week in and week out. With every cream colored oversized envelope you got in the mail you prayed that you find an invitation that would be asking you to join Mikey and his family for their special Bar Mitzvah weekend in Jerusalem. No parent would ever be willing to carpool that far. And of course every few Bar Mitzvahs, it would finally be the special weekend of a close friend of yours and as happy as you were for them, you started getting anxious about yours and how it would stack up.

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A New Look, A New Year, A New Blog


Hello and welcome to the refreshed and renovated Theater J blog.

What exactly does that mean?

My husband loves to watch HGTV renovation shows–I’ve been known to sit in for an episode or two (okay, or more). Inevitably, in these shows, a family reaches a point where their home feels a little too busy, too filled with knick knacks, in need of a new look. They love the memories and the history that is contained within their home–but they want people to feel like they can move around easily; that their floor plan makes sense; and that everyone has an accessible and livable space in which they can grow and flourish.

That’s what we’re doing with the blog. We’re giving it a 2015 update–so it’s a little sleeker, a little bolder–and hopefully, easier to navigate.

As far as content, you’ll still be getting a behind-the-scenes view of what is happening at Theater J, and we’ll be mining a number of sources for that. You’ll hear from the Theater J staff–all of us eventually–and you’ll know who is writing based on the name connected to the post. You’ll hear from our remarkable teams of artists–actors, designers, playwrights–through featured interviews and profiles of the many people who come to create with us. We’ll also have guest posts–from interns, or from members of our partnership organizations–to fully represent the extended Theater J family.

As always, we’d love to hear from you. Let us know what you’d like to see more of. Engage in conversation with us and our artists in the comments field. Reach out. Be in touch. And if you’re looking for a post from the past, do not worry–all of our earlier writing is still available through the “Archives” link just below the site banner. That will take you to all previous affiliated blogs–which you can still search by date and key word.

So welcome. We’re glad to have you here. Do visit often.