Exclusive BWW Interview: David Winitsky & Creative Team of JEWISH PLAYS PROJECT at 14th Street Y
An Interview with the Jewish Play Project by Amy Oestreicher
"Why is this night different from all other nights?"
It's a question we ask, "Mah Nishtanah," on the Jewish holiday of Passover - a time to celebrate the power of a story, in order to move ourselves forward. Stories have the power to transform our lives, our community, shape our world, create compassion. Judaism has quite the longstanding tradition of storytelling. What I recall most from my own Jewish upbringing are these stories - the stories that taught us lessons, that shed light on the past, and the stories that made us chuckle with that good old Jewish humor. Our stories transform our personal experience, enrich our community and teach others the lessons we have learned for ourselves.
Stories start conversations, and right now, there's a conversation taking place at the 14th Street Y that you won't want to miss. The Jewish Plays Project is known for putting bold, progressive Jewish conversations on world stages. I was more excited than I was for my bat miztvah for the chance to do some "kibbitzing" with the creative team behind JPP's newest work.
And what a conversation this was! I got to hear all about JPP's Mah Nishtanah plays, running through June 17th at the 14th Street Y. Learn more and get tickets at www.jewishplaysproject.org/open.
JPP is made possible by an army of brilliant storytelling minds. Here's the powerhouse creative team behind JPP's Mah Nishtanah plays:
- Creator & Producer of this Series David Winitsky (Founder & Artistic Director of the JPP)
- Lead Dramaturg Abigail Katz (Director of New Play Development, The Atlantic Theater)
- Guest Dramaturg Miriam Wiener (Literary Associate, the Vineyard Theater)
- Director Pirronne Yousefzadeh
And the Playwrights:
- Susan Bernfield (Artistic Director, New Georges)
- Sarah Gancher ("A Hundred Days" NYTW, "Seder" at Hartford Stage)
- MJ Kaufman (Public Theater's Emerging Writer's Group)
- Shais "Manishtana" Rishon (author of the book, 100% Black, 100% Jewish, 0% Safe)
And of course, the questions:
Amy: What does JPP do?
David Winitsky: The JPP is a content provider and an advocacy organization. We seek out the most exciting, new and different Jewish plays and musicals, provide them development and artistic support in New York, and then advocate to have them produced on mainstream stages around the U.S., and sometimes even around the world. Our goal is to add 10 new Jewish plays and musicals to the cannon of world dramatic literature.
What is unique about your process?
David Winitsky: Two main things: first, we believe in community input and interaction at every step. We talk to audiences and lay leaders about what plays to develop and which ones to advance, and we take their opinion seriously. I don't want to be in some kind of white tower in New York deciding by fiat what new Jewish theater should be. We work in as many as 10 cities every year, bringing new plays to Jewish communities and asking them what feels relevant and 21st Century to them.
On the development end, we specialize in what we call Jewish Dramaturgy. We bring thought leaders from the Jewish world - clergy, scholars, professionals and leaders - directly into rehearsal with us. We're not asking them what the structure of Act II should look like, we're asking them to help us unearth the Jewish questions that our plays are asking. What are the ideas at stake, and what does 3000 years of intellectual debate and discourse have to say about those ideas?
What are The Mah Nishtanah plays?
David Winitsky: Four short commissioned plays written in response to our current political and civic moment. We asked four incredible - and diverse - writers to respond to two questions:
How does your Jewish identity feel different now that it did a year ago? What do your Jewish ethics or values call upon you to do in this moment?
It's been a crazy year. We've had the most successful Jewish candidate for the most powerful office in the world (Bernie Sanders) at the same time that prominent politicians are using ages-old anti-Semitic dog whistles to rally their base ("globalists", "the international moneyed class"). Today we have a young Orthodox Jew (Jared Kushner) wielding more power than any Jewish politician, but doing it standing next to a probable white supremacist (Steve Bannon). We've seen all kinds of odd acts of intolerance and intellectual violence (JCC bomb threats, hate speech of all kinds), but we've also seen Jews supporting Muslims against the travel ban and Linda Sarsour coming to the aid of desecrated Jewish cemeteries.
As an organization dedicated to telling the unique Jewish stories of the 21st Century, I knew we had to respond, and we did it in the way we know best - we asked the best artists we know to create new work.
How did this project come about?
Abigal Katz: Since the election, the question of Jewishness has come up in various ways, and one dialogue that emerged was a desire to gain various perspectives within the Jewish community. We are way more diverse than we realize, and in this country we haven't really embraced that diversity and given voice to it. I think part of the reason why this exploration has emerged at this moment is due to the many conversations about intersectionality and the important role it plays in giving space to underrepresented experiences. In our many Jewish communities we have diversity of spiritual practice and belief, gender, sexual orientation, skin color, language, cultural background, family background, politics, and the list goes on. With this project we felt the need to begin exploring these different views and put them on stage.
The subtitle of the series is, "How is Jewish Different Now?" What do you think?
Pirronne Yousefzadeh: The results of this election have made my sense of my Jewish identity largely about also being an advocate for all communities that feel threatened. So, I would say, being Jewish is much more intersectional than it was before.
Shais "Manishtana" Rishon: I don't think it particularly *is* different. I just think awareness of Jewish-es besides "ours" has grown.
Abigail Katz: I don't think Jewish is different, but our relationship to it feels different. There is a sense of urgency in claiming identity in this moment, as if it is an act of defiance. I've noticed that people are bonding in their "otherness," sensing that anything that isn't white, Christian, cis-gender, straight, and male is somehow under attack. I think for certain segments of the Jewish community who have benefitted from whiteness, this was jarring realization. Suddenly we were "Jews" again. In my spiritual community this different reality has led to important and sometimes difficult discussions on how we've othered members of our own community, and in our new sense of awareness how do we move forward both in the community and outside it?
MJ Kaufman: I'd say that what's different this year is that rising anti-Semitism reminds us that the Jewish community as a whole needs to do an even better job of showing up for our Muslim allies and showing up with and for Jews of color and queer and trans Jews, that a far right agenda on Israel threatens many homes and lives and obscures actual anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism doesn't operate in a vacuum; it is on the rise because racism, white supremacy, and xenophobia are on the rise around the world.
What is theater's job in light of current events?
Pirronne: I have always believed that the theatre is a meeting place for us to grapple with difficult questions and deepen our empathy for those whose experiences are different from our own; I feel that now more acutely than ever before. Beyond that, the theatre has to speed up. Development is great, but let's get the work up so we can be truly relevant to the larger national conversation, galvanize, and engage our audience's hearts and minds. Before we're all under water, ideally.
Miriam, you had an idea about the Kushner family. Did your original idea differ from the one we are presenting?
Miriam Weiner: Jared Kushner is commonly referred to as "Jared Kushner - an Orthodox-Jew-who-is-married to-Donald-J.-Trump's-daughter-Ivanka". This moniker has raised a lot of questions for me about who J&I really are in their personal, Jewish moments. Susan has written an introspective, scathing and yet, still, compassionate piece that suggests however observant one is on Shabbat, it's hard to escape certain worldly questions.
Shais, you are a novelist and screenwriter. What about this theater process surprised you?
Shais Rishon: What surprised me was how similar it was to screenwriting, yet somehow totally different. It was a lot more of an organic, breathing, evolving thing than I was previously used to.
MJ, Who do you think is the ideal audience for this?
The audience for this is everyone, but I especially hope my Jewish community and my queer and trans communities show up. I want to see everyone do a better job of naming and confronting transphobia, racism & antisemitism and this project is part of that.
What is funny in these plays? How does humor play a role?
Susan Bernfield: Oh, it's gotta be funny, is there actually another option? I'm amazed by the signs at the protests. I mean, I'm a funny person but no way can I briefly sum up the current absurdity like those signs do. It gives me hope, seriously, when that many people filtering their anger and frustration through their funny heads to make a pure point. This play ["I and J and J and I" about Jared and Ivanka]... it's embarrassing to crack up at your own stuff, but I've been giggling since I was invited to write it. Imagining what I and J perceive as their truth; creating a hyper-theatricality with which to riff on it. I'm not pleased we've got these guys, but hey, they're a gold mine.
What do you feel will surprise audiences most about this? What do you think they are expecting, and how are they in for something completely different?
Sarah Gancher: One thing that is so delightful about this evening is that all of the works are truly in conversation with each other and with this moment in a very meaningful way. The audience will definitely get glimpses into some unfamiliar and fascinating worlds - a trans man forced to confront his Jewish heritage in a new and unexpected way, black Jews at a white wedding, or the world of the global alt-right depicted in my play. (Not to mention Ivanka and Jared.) I'm still mulling over some of the questions these plays brought up for me, and I suspect I will be for a very long time.
What are you hoping for in terms of the project's life after the performance?
David Winitsky: Just the idea of these plays has proven exciting and provocative, and there has been interest in them from some of the JPP's presenting partners around the country. My real hope is that we can use these like some of the original rapid-response theater movements like "The Every 28-Hour Plays" and "The Pulse Plays", where individual communities can read and perform these plays and use them as springboards for vital and necessary community dialogue.
What do you feel is stereotypical Jewish theater? How do you aim to break boundaries and previous conception? How is this play different from all other plays?
David Winitsky: I think Jewish theater got stuck in a very mid-20th Century moment. Sometimes I say we got to "Fiddler" and it was so good, we just stopped. Immigration, World War II, the Holocaust - these were huge moments in the unfolding Jewish story, and they were INCREDIBLY dramatic. I totally get why dramatists have spent so much time on them.
But in 2017, we need to bring this dialogue forward. We have to tell the dramatic stories that are happening TODAY. We have to use this incredible art form - playwriting - to create a new set of classics. And in our opinion, these new plays are going to look more and more outward at the world - how do we use our privilege and power to bring positive change to the whole world, bit just the Jewish community.
I always tell our writers, the plays we are making now are going to last - 50 years, a hundred years. We're making the stories that will help our grandchildren's grandchildren understand Jewish life in the beginning of the 21st Century.
This is a dialogue we should be having EVERY night. But as least you can still catch a performance until June 17th. Get some tickets and join in the conversation - these are stories that need to be heard.
Learn more and get tickets at www.jewishplaysproject.org/open.
THE MAH NISHTANAH PLAYS: How is your Jewish different now?
Four Original Short Plays in Response to Today's Political Climate
Thursday, June 15 at 7 pm
Saturday, June 17 at 7 pm
Amy Oestreicher is a PTSD specialist, artist, author, global TEDx speaker, survivor, award-winning actress, and playwright, currently touring Gutless & Grateful, and developing FIBERS, a play to honor her family's survival through WWII and immigration to New York.