David Lloyd Olson can hear church bells every day at noon. They come pealing through his office windows at the intersection of 16th and Q, where he serves as the Managing Director of Theater J. Founded in its current form in 1990 – though Olson tells me that various iterations of DC’s JCCs have been producing theater since all the way back in the 1920s – Theater J is not interested in a seventy-third revival of Oklahoma! or playing the hits for the sake of familiarity. Rather, in their own words, the theater’s mission is to “preserve and expand a rich Jewish theatrical tradition” while also “creat[ing] community and commonality through theater-going experiences.”
Through ventures like the Yiddish Theater Lab and Expanding the Canon, Olson and Theater J are diligently pushing both prongs of the theater’s mission: to both preserve and expand the longstanding presence of Jewish theater, the influence of which on American culture exists far beyond its most visible examples. As Olson tells me, Theater J has never done a production of Fiddler on the Roof. It doesn’t seem like that will change soon; Theater J is too busy moving in new, exciting directions.
Samuel: What brought you to DC?
David Lloyd Olson: I originally came to DC to go to University of Maryland. I had a performing arts scholarship and ended up leaving with a degree in theater and political science. While I was in school, I and my now-husband moved to Columbia Heights and would take the green line into campus. Then, I went on a Fulbright to Latvia, came back to DC and worked as a freelance puppeteer and in office jobs at theaters around town. Eventually, I landed a managing director job at a theater in northwest Philadelphia – but got a call last summer with an opportunity at Theater J, and was really excited about the opportunity to come back to DC.
Samuel: What is it about DC that brought you back? Was that always part of your plan?
David Lloyd Olson: Part of it is my husband and all the friends that I’ve made. But here’s my analysis on DC, just based on my experience. Everyone who moves to LA was voted prettiest person in their high school. Everyone who moves to New York was the lead in their school musicals. And then everyone who moves to DC was valedictorian or president of their class in high school. Between the people who have called DC home for decades and the new arrivals, I love being in a town where there are so many intelligent people, so many ambitious people, so many people who are here because they want to change the world. People here want to make a difference, whether it’s through theater or policy or journalism or international affairs. You get to run into people who are making history and making change.
Samuel: What makes DC theater in particular so special?
David Lloyd Olson: I don’t think people realize that this is one of the only towns in the United States where you can have a full career as a professional in theater. Even coming here to University of Maryland, I always saw my future in New York or London – what I thought was a “real” theater town. But during my time at University of Maryland, I realized: Wow, this is a broad and robust community of theaters! [The DC theater scene] is big enough that you can have your whole career here working at different theater institutions, but small enough that it’s a really collaborative rather than competitive culture.
Samuel: How about the audiences?
David Lloyd Olson: DC audiences often crave more than just entertainment. They want big ideas. They’re interested in digging into difficult work, not just light entertainment, happy stories, musicals. This town is interested in a play like John Proctor is the Villain or Gloria: A Life.
Samuel: How is Theater J approaching new work and the development process? How are you pushing the boundaries of what might be seen as mainstream Jewish theater?
David Lloyd Olson: When people think of Judaism or Jewishness, a lot of people are thinking only of a few Jewish experiences. Fiddler on the Roof. Seinfeld. Schindler’s List. So much of the dominant culture for the last hundred years in America has been centered around Ashkenazi Jewish narratives. So, one of the programs we’re working on is our Expanding the Canon program. We’re commissioning seven new plays by ethnically and racially diverse Jews centering Jews of color and non-Ashkenazi Jewish experiences.
Samuel: What kind of personal resonance does that have?
David Lloyd Olson: I grew up in a suburb of Atlanta, where I was one of the only Jewish people in school. I definitely felt othered as Jewish. Coming from a mixed background – my father has a very white American sort of Swedish-Irish-German-British Protestant background, while my mother’s family was half Lithuanian Jews in rural Georgia and half Syrian Jews in Mexico City – I really embraced my Jewish identity. So my Jewish life at home included Mexican and Syrian practices as well as Southern and Ashkenazi experiences.
When I watched, for example, Seinfeld – or the broader media portrayal of Jews in a very northeastern-centered context – that just was not the Jewish family I grew up in. Even though there’s always been non-white Jews, they were never part of the dominant narrative. So for me growing up, there were times where I wasn’t sure what was Jewish about my family’s Jewish practice versus what was Mexican about it versus what was Syrian or Southern about it. Asking myself: Is flan something other Jews have at Passover? So with the work we’re doing at Theater J, I’m passionate about this idea of putting non-Ashkenormative, non-white Jewish stories on stage. We have plays that go from our stage to all over the country, like The Wanderers.
Samuel: How do you balance expansion of the canon with the preservation piece of your mission?
David Lloyd Olson: Our hope as an institution is that by commissioning and producing these plays we are helping to include Jews who haven’t been included for so long, and to change the perception of Judaism away from one that is just Seinfeld and Sarah Silverman and Fanny Brice. I love Funny Girl. Theater J isn’t going to never do Neil Simon plays – those are part of Jewish culture. But that’s why the mission is to preserve and expand. It’s an and, not an or.
Samuel: You’re in Atlanta, then College Park, then DC, then Latvia, then Philly, and now back to DC. How have you maintained connection with Jewish community over time?
David Lloyd Olson: Growing up, I was really nerdy about my Judaism. I wanted to know everything. I think that partly stemmed from the fact that my father wasn’t Jewish, and my name is WASP-y, and so I felt some insecurity around Judaism or the assumption that I was not Jewish. So because of that, I felt like I needed to know everything about Judaism. And then there’s family – I went to synagogue a lot with my mother, and every Friday night my whole family would have dinner at my grandparents’ house. It didn’t matter if there was a football game, or play rehearsal, it was something our whole family – grandma and grandpa and all my cousins and aunts and uncles – did. Judaism has always been part of my relationship with my husband, too. We literally met at the welcome fair for Maryland Hillel.
Samuel: What’s the best piece of art you’ve encountered lately?
David Lloyd Olson: Alex Edelman’s Just for Us. And of course, everything that Theater J is doing – we’re about to open Two Jews Walk into a War… which is this crazy, dark, vaudevillian, slapstick comedy. I think people are going to absolutely love it.
Samuel: You perform as DivaD Llicious – what role does drag play in your life?
David Lloyd Olson: As someone who grew up performing in community theater and JCC drama camps and at a performing arts high school, drag is an outlet to perform on stage and use those skills I’ve acquired over my lifetime. I don’t use performance skills in my day job, and I’m very happy to not use them in my day job, but being able to perform is great. It’s also cool as a charity opportunity – I perform around twice a year with Haute Dish.
Samuel: If you could invite any three people to Shabbat dinner, who would they be and why?
David Lloyd Olson: Oh my God, living or dead? This is good, but it’s so hard because we’re pressed for time. You have to say that you’re putting me on a timer but…Barbara Streisand, of course. And Cher. And definitely Fran Lebowitz.
Samuel: Speaking of time, let’s get you out of here on this. Finish the sentence for us. When Jews of the DMV gather…
David Lloyd Olson: The world changes. The world becomes a better place.
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