What is Jewish theatre?

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What is Jewish theatre?

 Creatives come together to discuss the challenges and the future of Jewish performing arts the UK

Visual minutes of the conference were drawn by Beatrice Baumgartner-Cohen
Visual minutes of the conference were drawn by Beatrice Baumgartner-Cohen

If, as the saying goes, two Jews will have three opinions then 90 creative Jews will likely have hundreds of opinions. That is exactly what came to fruition at an open space conference at JW3 last Sunday, when the Jewish theatre world came together to respond to the question “What next for Jewish theatre in the UK?”.

The event, initiated by the Shoresh Charitable Trust as part of its continuing contribution to Jewish theatre, posed a huge range of questions prompting myriad discussions, starting with: “What is Jewish theatre?”

But then there were others, touching on issues and sensitivities that Jewish creatives in the theatre world felt needed to be addressed. These included topics such as how do we make Jewish theatre in a time of Jewish genocide? Antisemitism in, around and through, Jewish theatre. Non-Zionist theatre. Keeping safe and sane. Jewish representation in casting, beyond the rhetoric of ‘Jewface’. Jewish musicals and topics such as theatre and Jewish life cycle and rituals. And the debate about whether there should be a designated Jewish theatre.

Attendees, including luminaries such as Sir Nicholas Hytner, came from all over the UK and also across the world – actors, directors, producers, playwrights, theatre PRs, clowns, comedians, make-up artists, musicians, set designers, theatre funders and numerous creatives – all Jewish and together representing every aspect of theatre. Beatrice Baumgartner-Cohen was on hand to create visual minutes – in themselves wondrous works of art – to record the day’s events.

Nicholas Hytner (centre)

In recent months London has seen a raft of Jewish plays with differing themes. Many of them have been performed in offwestend venues. At the Marylebone Theatre there was the multi award-winning The White Factory, set in two vastly different places and eras – the Lodz ghetto of 1940s Poland and 60s America. While over at The Red Lion Not Even the Dogs was also based on another true story, namely the determination of one man, as he fought to survive in the horrors of wartime Warsaw, to create a permanent history, written by the very people who were the victims of the Holocaust. Baron’s Court Theatre was home to Paved with Gold and Ashes, a short but beautifully written play, about the tragedy of the fire at The Triangle Shirtwaist factory And over at Southwark Playhouse the musical Cable Street – the story of the 1936 uprising against Moseley and his Blackshirts – proved so popular that it sold out before it had even opened and the show is now returning for another run.

But not all Jewish plays are about the Holocaust or tragedy. Kunstler – the story of Jewish American lawyer and civil rights activist William Kunstler, has just ended at the White Bear. Over at Soho Theatre, and selling out every night, was Pickle, Deli Segal’s hugely popular one-woman show about being Jewish and secular in the UK today. And playing at the Park Theatre is Israeli-born Ofra Daniel’s Song of Songs – a love story that takes its inspiration from biblical King Solomon’s writing – a journey of sexual and personal empowerment.

All these performances have two things in common, firstly that they tell stories about Jewish people and secondly that they all have been nominated for theatre awards. And the latter says a great deal about the quality of Jewish theatre and its ability to attract both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences.

There was much discussion on whether non-Jews do go to Jewish plays. Certain plays have themes that are of particular interest to Jewish audiences and by default may not appeal to other audiences, however if they know a performance is good, and that the storyline is interesting, then, yes, they are likely to see it. Cable Street tells the story of a Jewish family, but also the tale of the Irish workers and communists who fought in the street’s battle, so has wide appeal.

There has been a long tradition of Jewish involvement in theatre and performance. You only have to look at Hollywood in the 20th century, or Yiddish theatres that played to packed houses in London’s East End. And isn’t the Seder night, in reality, an immersive performance, said one attendee. It has it all – fantastic story, great songs, plenty of props in the form of the horseradish, charoseth and bitter herbs, loads of audience participation and, of course, halfway through there’s interval when you have something to eat!

There was much debate on whether there should be a designated Jewish performance space. Some feel this is the way forward – a place to incubate new writing and to show plays and new musicals with Jewish themes or Jewish creatives, whereas others asked why there needed to be a separate space. Surely performances should be in mainstream venues and for universal audiences, they countered.

The huge cannon of Jewish musicals was another hot topic. There is so much talent in this area, perhaps once again stemming from Jewish cantorial tradition, that many feel there needs to be more done to help showcase new performances.

“We planned this conference last year, months before the events of October 7. We felt there was a need for a conversation. And this became all the more pertinent, post October 7,” said event facilitator Rachel Grunwald. Indeed the tragic events in the Middle East overshadowed mush of the eight hours of debate.

The consensus was that the day had been hugely beneficial. Connections had been made, networks created and there was a huge amount of optimism about the future of Jewish theatre within the UK, thanks to the remarkable talent that there is within the theatre world and the audiences who appreciate their great performances.

Said William Galinsky, the programming director at JW3: “I feel sure something exciting will come about as a result of today’s event.”



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