Neat Things One Is Called Upon To Make, Only In Theater

Hey there Teammates,

This is Theater J Tech Director Tom Howley, speaking to you on location from the Theater J Scene Shop in Beltsville, MD. While only popping up very rarely on our blog, the theme I’ve enjoyed touching on is “Only In The Theater,” and I have to say that the talented Paige Hathaway’s design for ANOTHER WAY HOME, written by Anna Ziegler, has afforded us another one of those happy opportunities. She’s given me permission to give you a behind-the-scenes look at a particularly fun element of her design: The CAMP KICKAPOO sign that looms over the primary playing area on the stage.


It is, of course, one of those traditional made-from-branches camp signs that have been appearing in films and on postcards since about 1903. Very outdoorsy/folksy/artsy-craftsy. But, what there’s NOT is a chapter in the ol’ Scenic Construction 101 on how you’d actually make one of these venerable, iconic items? Happily, it’s really not that challening from a technical standpoint.


Did not cut any live growth. That just seemed inappropriate.

Step 1:  You need branches. Fortunately, a slice of county forest abuts most of our back yard, so I got out into the woods with loppers and a pruning saw, and worked my way around to a couple of particularly large dead-fall piles created by the remains of a) Snowmaggedon, and b) the Derecho (a few years ago).

Step 2:  Cut branches down to transportable, usable lengths, aiming for a ballpark diameter between 1-1/4 ” and 2-3″.



This was easily the most taxing aspect of the project.

Step 3:  Good heavens. These branches are ALL covered with unusable bark! The branches need to be stripped. What expensive, special tool does one have to use to do that?  A machete?  Some new power tool?  Or. . . my Dad’s old Swiss Army Jack-knife which I’ve carried around for 25 years and never actually used?  I summon my inner Jed Clampett. . .




The branches are attached with a combo of long drywall screws and long finishing nails.

Step 4:  Then came the-honestly-quite fun part of the project, which was working from the drafted letters and finding real-branch analogs for them. It was necessary to take a couple of stylistic liberties here and there in order to make the letters themselves attach securely to the beams and to each other. The square panel you see to the right was a gridded guide I used to lay each letter out first to ensure that it fit correctly and that it presented well.


Several kinds of wood on display.

Final Step: The framework has a break point between the two words, as the whole piece is about 6 ft longer than will fit into our truck. Temporarily assembled, I propped some scrap ply behind the frame just to clear up the visual. The framework is open, and the letters themselves will have a lighter, grayer wash to both unify them and to make them visually pop from the darker wood around them.


And there you have it.  A how-do-you-do-it project that proved to be not too hard to figure out and was quite fun to fabricate in the process. One component in a truly delightful design for our final show of the season.


Another Way Home by Anna Ziegler runs at Theater J from June 23-July 17. Click for tickets and more information. 


16 Performances, 5 Playwright meetings, and 2 Falafels in 4.5 Days

As opposed to in the US where a play may run 8 nights a week for a month or two, in Israel a successful production can run for years and years, but with only a few performances a month. That means that in any given stretch of time, there is at least 5 or 6 times as much theater to see in Israel! In Tel Aviv, productions run the gamut from major institutional theaters playing to over 100,000 patrons a year to tiny performance art troupes performing site specific work in the streets.

750In 4.5 days of the International Exposure for Israeli Theatre festival, we saw the full range cramming in as much as we possibly could, with non-stop theater from 9:30 am to after 9:00 pm (Israelis stay up late). The amount of diversity on stage is truly unique to Israeli theater ranging from the most innovative of fringe productions to large-scale productions at major institutions. The fringe-ier performances included: a performance piece of light and sound called You Never Look at Me From the Place I See You and two very personal and brave one woman autobiographical shows (The Other Body and My Ex Mother-In-Law) at Tmu-Na Theater to a movement piece about our attraction to violence in art at the Tel Aviv Museum (Forever/Never produced by Clippa Theatre) to a sweet and dark children’s story ending with a trans-gender love story told at Jaffa Theatre (where Arabs and Jews work to create art together).

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More polished was a stunning political fable told with puppets, a live video feed and 1,000 lbs of salt – The Road to Ein Harod by PuppetCinema , which you can see at The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center this April. We also saw a few pieces of more traditional theater (what we would call plays). Jehu, an older play by Gilad Evron, who wrote Ulysses on Bottles, at the Habima National Theatre, the Israeli adaptation of Falling Out of Time at Gesher Theatre, which was developed specially for their space so the audience could move throughout three locations, and a pared down adaptation of Electra at The Cameri on a gruesome and stunning set. I will admit I skipped the Habima/Cameri co-production of Our Class because I wasn’t up for sitting through the shocking violence again.

In total, I saw 4 shows with no words, 3 shows that included chalk drawings, 4 shows with puppets, 3 site-specific works, 2 of which functioned as guided tours through the political and the personal, and 5 shows that used innovative projections. What I didn’t see were a lot of new plays by Israeli playwrights. (Those will be included in next year’s IsraDrama festival, rather than the Exposure festival.) What I did see was a lot of incredible, innovative and moving performances.


In between all of the performances, I carved out some time to connect with some playwrights – familiar faces and new friends. It was wonderful to reconnect with Motti Lerner and hear about his latest projects, which include a narrative film opening in December. I shared carrot/lemon/ginger juice (at her recommendation) with Hadar Galron (who wrote Mikveh). She is working on a new Israeli TV drama about a cult leader of sorts with many wives called Harem, which will also be adapted into a play. I dined with three young innovative artists from Ensemble Can who are working in a variety of fictional, devised and documentary style work – most recently in a trilogy about sex. I also had coffee with Goren Agmon, whose work deals primarily with the unsolved personal struggles in the lives of women in Israel.

I ended my time over a glass of wine with prolific and widely produced Israeli playwright Joshua Sobel. According to Motti, Joshua’s work is what inspired him to first become a playwright. His body of work already includes over 45 plays, but at 76 he is continuing to develop new work as both a playwright and director. His most recent works include The Melting Pot which looks at the growing prostitution problem in Israel and a new adaptation of Waiting for Godot in Yiddish, Russian and Spanish that frames the play as a story about two Russian Jewish refugees waiting for a smuggler (Godot) to ferry them across the French/Spanish border to safety.

And that’s not even getting into the fascinating people that I met from all over the world. Believe me, if I could have managed to squeeze in more than 2 falafels, I certainly would have! I’m looking forward to catching up on sleep and laundry, and then debriefing with all of my colleagues back at Theater J.


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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Reporting from First Rehearsal of The Call

I have been procrastinating, avoiding and downright refusing to blog for years. But with a new year, a new blog and a new show in rehearsal, 2015 seems like the time to get over my trepidation about sharing in such a public forum.

Last Monday was the start of the rehearsal process for The Call, a new play by Tanya Barfield. I read the script a few times during the season planning process last season, so I wasn’t expecting to be as moved by the first read as I was. Something about hearing it out loud made it much more resonant for me.

TheCall at Playwrights Horizons

Playwrights Horizons’ 2013 production of The Call. Kelly AuCoin, Eisa Davis, Crystal A. Dickinson, Kerry Butler. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

When Tessa Klein, as Annie, lashes out with “Three years of drugs, of doctors – my body /lost babies” my eyes well-up with tears. Not because it’s an experience I have experience with personally, but because through Tessa’s vulnerable but resilient voice, I could feel what she must be feeling.

In grappling with America’s relationship with Africa – the devastating impact of AIDS, the overwhelming poverty, the experience of being an American tourist and volunteer – the reading also stirs up my own conflicted feelings about my time as a volunteer in Ghana. I was there for a week to help repair schools and attempt to promote safe sex and education to high school students. Although it was an amazing experience for me, I am sure I got more good out of it than anyone in Ghana. Just the amount of money I spent to get there could have done far more for the students in Ghana than I managed to do.

I have a feeling that every time I see this relatively compact play that manages to dive into so many issues, it’s going to bring up different feelings for me. Director Shirley Serotsky kept saying in her remarks that this is a “story for our modern times,” and indeed it feels that way to me – relevant in ways I hadn’t even expected.