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Jewish, Under 40, and Love Theater? Join the Club.

In the movie “Mean Girls, new kid Cady Heron has to navigate the complex, fragmented society that is her high school cafeteria. Each table is filled with new faces, representative of different clubs and cliques. None of them invites her to sit. Rejected and lost, she eats lunch alone in a bathroom stall—which we can all agree is both disgusting and sad.

Spoiler alert: Cady soon finds her people, or rather, they find her. Which, happens to be exactly what GatherDC and its Open Doors Fellowship aims to do.

I was a member of the spring 2017 Open Doors Fellowship cohort, a group of self proclaimed “people persons” who love building connections and community, especially in a Jewish context. We spent months reaching out to newcomers and not-so-newcomers to DC, buying coffees, and schmoozing our way through GatherDC happy hours. [Editor’s note: applications are NOW open for the 2018 Open Doors Fellowship.]

At the end of the program, each fellow organized a capstone project. The goal was to create a space for Jewish community, though the events didn’t have to be explicitly Jewish or religiously oriented. For example, a previous Open Doors Fellow started the popular Jews on Bikes group. A member of my cohort hosted a “Vodka, Babka, and Board Games” Shabbat dinner.

As a theater lover, I often find myself interested in watching local productions, without any idea who to see them with. I’ve been to a few shows solo, but the experience isn’t quite the same as seeing it with friends. Surely, I thought, I can’t be alone here.

For my capstone project, I elected to create a club for Jewish young professionals to attend plays together. I called it Oy The World’s A Stage, and immediately began organizing our first outing. In July, nine of us saw Arthur Miller’s “Broken Glass, a psychological drama set in Brooklyn during 1938. As horrors unfolded in Europe, a Jewish couple struggled with morality, health, and marital issues – as well as their own Jewish identity.

The event was a huge success, helped in part by funding from Moishe House Without Walls. Theater is an expensive hobby, which may be why the average audience has more white hairs in it than a home with a Persian cat. Thankfully, numerous DC-area theaters offer discounts for people under 35. Between this option and the beloved “Pay What You Can” nights, theater can be as affordable as your weekend brunch habit.

By creating a space for people to talk about current and upcoming productions, plan outings, and share information on ticket discount programs, I hope to build an accessible and welcoming community for local Jews in their 20’s and 30s to bond over a shared love of theater.

Members don’t need to be new to town—I’ve been in DC for nearly a decade. They also don’t have to be Jewish or under 40, though the club was created with that population in mind. For Hanukkah, female “Oy” members went to see “Pajama Game at Arena Stage alongside women over 50. It was our first intergenerational event, evidence that this club need not be an exclusionary venture.

Half a year after creating the “Oy” Facebook group, I found myself at Char Bar with a group of ten “Oy” members, ready and eager to finish dinner and head to The National Theatre for the world premiere of “Mean Girls: The Musical.

It was a sold out performance, and we laughed along with the packed audience as actors threw out classic lines like “She doesn’t even go here!” and cast members turned favorite scenes into songs. We watched as Cady navigated the cafeteria on her first day. From my seat, I imagined “Oy The World’s A Stage” as a table where local Jewish theater lovers can find their people.

We’re already busy planning our next outing, a joint event with Moishe House Bethesda. We’ll be seeing “Everything Is Illuminated at the Edlavtich DCJCC on Thursday, January 11. Oh, and you can totally sit with us! You just have to buy a ticket.

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Editor’s Note: Roundup of upcoming chances to see live theater with new friends.

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About the Author: Lauren Landau (@laurenmlandau) lives in Silver Spring, MD with her roommate and a more-or-less alive houseplant. She is a producer for NPR, where she works on fundraising projects. She was a regular contributor to DCist’s Arts & Entertainment Desk until the publication’s recent demise. When she isn’t thinking about raising money for public radio, she is planning her next weekend getaway or theater outing. Following her participation in Cohort 3 of GatherDC’s Open Doors Fellowship, Lauren founded Oy The World’s A Stage, a club for D.C. area Jewish theater lovers in their 20s and 30s.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

‘Broken Glass’ Star Talks Miller, Human Contracts and Jewishness

Arthur Miller’s riveting psychological drama, Broken Glass, directed by Aaron Posner opens at Theater J later this month. According to Theater J, the plot centers around “Sylvia Gellburg, who has suddenly, mysteriously, become paralyzed from the waist down. Her husband, a self-denying Jew, can’t figure out why. Set in Brooklyn throughout the rampage of Kristallnacht in 1938, this rare and gripping drama demands we confront our fears, our assumptions, and our anguish. Miller balances private and public morality in this astonishing and electrifying play about being American, being married, and coming to terms with one’s own identity.”

We sat down with actress, Michele Osherow, who plays Harriet, Sylvia’s sister, to learn more about her process as an actress, the play, Arthur Miller as a playwright, and how she connects to her Judaism.

Tell us a bit about your character in the play? Who is she, what motivates her?

I play Harriet, the sister of the woman, Sylvia. Harriet represents a kind of womanhood expected by America in the 1930s—or, more specifically, 1930s Brooklyn. She’s a caretaker: she cares about the color in her sister’s cheeks, about cuts of meat, about whether to call a family doctor or a specialist. She’s the archivist of familial facts. She takes her responsibilities seriously, and I think she’s very competent. She’s not compelled to question or to push against boundaries the way her sister is. Harriet’s eyes are open, but she’s not looking much beyond her block in Brooklyn.

How did you prepare for this role?

Mostly by channeling my mother’s cousins! Miller’s play takes place in Brooklyn. My mother grew up in Brooklyn and was very close with her Brooklyn cousins. I spent some memorable afternoons sitting at their kitchen tables sipping the coca-colas I couldn’t have at home. These women were always talking, and they had a way of making everything they said sound urgent and important. They had opinions (!) and funny ways of making them known. My mother was (and still is) the quiet, refined type, so as a girl I was always sort of alarmed and delighted by how well she got on with these bold-talking women. I’ve been thinking about them a lot for Harriet because, like my mothers’ cousins, I think Harriet has her methods for asserting authority and disguising those methods at the same time. I don’t think she hesitates to take pride in her contributions to making the world turn. I also think that for women such as these, love is something you do rather than something you say.

Do you consider this play to be Jewish?

The play overtly deals with issues of Jewish identity. The action is sparked by a woman’s—a Jewish American woman’s—reaction to Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass). She becomes obsessed with images and coverage in the newspapers; and this event, though it’s across an ocean and in another country, triggers an awareness of other immediate forms of persecution and vulnerability. The play mines these on several levels, both public and private. Miller uses characters’ Jewish identity to get at the broader picture of the dangers of denial and disassociation.

He’s counting on our reading the play through the lens of history, so we know the devastating consequences of not reacting, of not feeling. The character is paralyzed by what she sees, which is a telling metaphor for America’s response to these events.

Other ways the play feels ‘Jewish’ to me are through its use of humor and metaphor, and patterns of language.

I heard you are Jewish. How do you connect to your Judaism?

I am Jewish, and I connect to Judaism in any number of ways – but the one that shows itself most is probably through language and literature. I’m an English professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and I both research and teach the Hebrew Bible as literature. I never get tired of biblical readings and criticism and how biblical texts get revised and revisited in Western literature. I also teach courses on Jewish American literature. There’s a flavor to Jewish storytelling, and I’m drawn to the kinds of stories we choose to tell—a mix of humor and pathos, truth and wonder. It’s a community that recognizes the value of a good story. The Bible itself suggests that language is a pretty powerful thing. G-d does his creating in Genesis by saying things, after all! And the psalms suggest that G-d appreciates a good turn of phrase. (Can’t help but admire that.)

What do you hope the audience takes away from this play?

There’s layer upon layer of possibilities for this one. Our director, Aaron Posner, was saying just today that what audiences take away will depend largely on what they bring: some might focus on the personal relationships the play explores, some the social, some the historical. Miller’s plays are always invested, I think, in reminding us that human beings are responsible for one another—that there’s a social contract to which we agree just by being in the world. Broken Glass suggests that the social contract is severely compromised when an individual ignores obligations to his or herself.

What are your thoughts on Arthur Miller as a playwright? Do you think he is a Jewish playwright?

I think Arthur Miller is probably the greatest dramatist our country has produced. His best works rattle you to the core. You don’t expect his deeply flawed characters will break your heart, and yet they do. Mostly, he tells the truth.

Is he a Jewish writer? He certainly taps into issues relating to Jews and Judaism throughout his career (both in his plays and in his novel), and it’s clear that he values the power of the word. Again, that’s a biblical inheritance. But I think his plays and politics might find the category of “Jewish playwright” too narrow. Miller’s litmus test for the value of the written word was to consider the work in terms of the question: “What is its relevancy to the survival of the race? Not the American race, or the Jewish race, or the German race, but the human race.”

You can see Osherow on the Theater J stage from June 14th to July 9th. For tickets and more information, visit their site.

Jewish Director of the Week – Adam

Adam-Immerwahr

Adam came to the DC after spending almost 10 years in Princeton, NJ. He left his role as the Associate Artistic Director at McCarter Theatre Center to join Theater J as their new Director. Adam and I were able to sit down and chat about what is in store for Theater J, how he is adjusting to DC and why someone in their 20s and 30s should come see the next Theater J show!

Know someone you think should be Jew of the Week? Nominate them!

Jackie: How did you first get into theater? 

Adam: I pretty much grew up in the theater.  When I was young, my mother was a modern dance teacher at Swarthmore College, and she was just starting her own theater company.  And my father (who taught at Villanova) was close friends with the head of the theater program there.  So I was in shows at Villanova as a child actor, and hanging out around theaters and dance studios in Swarthmore. It always seemed like the most obvious way for me to express myself.

Jackie: What is the stage production you are most proud of?

Adam: As a producer, I’m immensely proud of Fiasco’s INTO THE WOODS, which I produced at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre when I was the Associate Artistic Director there. It’s an inventive, 10-actor and one-piano version of Sondheim’s classic musical, and our production went on to The Old Globe (in San Diego), the Roundabout (in NYC), and now it’s playing on the West End in London and preparing for a national tour–including a stop at the Kennedy Center!  As a director, I’m most proud of a production of THE CONVERT that I directed at Almasi Collaborative Arts in Harare, Zimbabwe. It was extraordinary to work with a group of Zimbabwean actors, designers, and producers to tell a story together–and the production was incredibly well-received and nominated for the national arts medal award in Zimbabwe.

Jackie: Did you always dream of being the artistic director of a Jewish theater?

Adam: Ha!  Wait was that a joke?  I never in a million years would have imagined that I would end up leading a Jewish theater.  But when Theater J was looking for their next leader, they hired one of the top search consultants in the field, so of course I took his call.  I basically said I wasn’t very interested during the first few conversations, but as I got to know the theater better, and got to think about what kind of programming I could do here, I realized what an extraordinary opportunity it was. Theater J has a unique role in the Jewish life and culture of this city, but we also are a critical part of the nation’s theatrical ecology. As the country’s largest and most prominent Jewish theater, we have an opportunity to preserve and champion a rich theatrical heritage, whether it is revivals of little-known Jewish-American classics like Arthur Miller’s BROKEN GLASS (which we’re doing this year), or newer plays like THE LAST SCHWARTZ (our season-opener). I realized that in programming through this lens, I could have an incredibly rich conversation with D.C.’s audience, do a broad range of really vital work, and I didn’t want to pass up the chance!

Understudy Rehearsal 2Jackie: As the new director of Theater J what was the first thing you wanted to tackle?

Adam: So much!  One of the advantages of a theatrical season is that I get to pick multiple plays that are programmed throughout the year (September-July).  I was eager to expand the notion of what kind of work could happen in a Jewish theater, so I was thrilled to get my hands on the rights to THE CHRISTIANS, a searing new play about how religion can tear us apart or bring us together–set inside a church.  We’re recruiting a different church choir to perform live onstage with us at each show!  But I also wanted Theater J to be a place of joy and laughter, so I was eager to start the season with Deborah Zoe Laufer’s stupidly funny THE LAST SCHWARTZ, all about the things we pass on from one generation to another.  Theater J has always been a place of rich intellectual dialogue, so THE HOW AND THE WHY (about elevation, feminism, and generational divides), and COPENHAGEN (about the creation of the atomic bomb) seemed like perfect fits.  And of course because we’re in the heart of the gay community of D.C., I had to bring back D.C.’s favorite all-male, dragapella beauty-shop quartet, the Kinsey Sicks.  These “chicks with schticks” will be performing their delightfully salacious OY VEY IN A MANGER during Chanukah season, in perfect four-part harmony.

Jackie: What perspective are you bringing to Theater J as a millennial/next generation Jew? 

Adam: I think that my generation has different ideas about what theater can be. Our culture is becoming more participatory, more on-demand, and more customized–but theater has lagged behind. I’m working on some ways to make Theater J a more communal place to be, and to open up opportunities for arts participation beyond just attending a play and staying for a talkback. For instance, we’re engaging an entire interfaith community by inviting live choirs to perform with us in THE CHRISTIANS–and sharing the stage between professionals and community members.  It should be really exciting, and I look forward to figuring out how we continue to expand our notions of how a professional theater works with its audience.  But I also think that as we look toward making Theater J a cooler place for millennial/next generation Jews to congregate–it helps to have someone whose taste is shaped by similar influences. I curate art differently than many in the generation above me.  I can’t help but have the programming that I’m attracted to be the product of my generation.

Jackie: One of Theater J’s production is THE CHRISTIANS. How do you decide what plays fit into the scope of Theater J?

Adam: It’s a very smart question. At one time, the rule at Theater J was that either the playwright or one of the characters must be Jewish. That felt to me both limiting and small, and I wanted to expand the notion of what Jewish theater can be.  The rubric I’ve been using is that the plays we do should fit into at least one of three categories: legibly Jewish plays (which directly struggle with and celebrate Jewish life and culture); thematically Jewish plays (that tell stories that parallel our own); and Jewish values plays (big plays that engage with the major issues of our time).  So that means that not all of our work is by Jewish artists, or even has any Jewish characters on the stage–but all of it connects with Judaism and resonates with the Jewish experience in a meaningful way.

Jackie: THE LAST SCHWARTZ is about to start its run, what would you say to a young professional who hasn’t come to Theater J before to encourage them to see the show?

Adam: It’ll be a really really fun night out.  THE LAST SCHWARTZ is a stupidly funny play with a whole lot of heart.  It’s about a family who gather together for a yahrzeit that goes perfectly wrong when one of them (a Hollywood director) brings a sexy wannabe starlet to the family home–and everything goes awry. It’s surprising, it’s got some side-splitting laughs, and it’s less than two hours long. We’re right between Dupont Circle and 14th Street, so you can go grab a bite and then have a good time.  Plus–our ushers will let you buy a drink and take it into the theater with you, and tickets for those under 35 are only $17 on weekdays or $30 on weekends.  So it’s a great deal!

20160329_AdamImmerwahr_0591459530318

Greg Kendall-Ball/For The Washington Post

Jackie: How have you been acclimating yourself to a new city?

Adam: I really have been enjoying D.C.  I ditched my car and get everywhere with my bike. The theater community has been incredibly welcoming, and so has the community around the group “Nice Jewish Boys.”  I am eager to get to explore the city more, especially the food scene–I just discovered Union Market which is terrific!

Jackie: Who is your favorite Jew?

Adam: Right now, I’ve been thinking a lot about Fyvush Finkel, the great actor who just passed away.  By all accounts, a terrific man–but if you’ve never seen him perform you’ve missed one of the most ebullient and charismatic artists of our time.

Finish the sentence: When the Jews Gather…we have fun!