Theater Chat: Together We Act

By Hannah Lee

I’ve witnessed how theater is transformational when I observed how a young family friend, petite and shy, blossomed into a singer and actor on stage, first at the Perelman Jewish Day School and later in “Ragtime” at the Papermill Playhouse, the state theater in Millburn, NJ. Somehow having a script and an audience enables people to forget their usual persona and voice.

The experience of King George VI and his struggle with stuttering was portrayed brilliantly by Colin Firth in his Academy-award-winning role in the 2010 film, The King’s Speech. How much more fun would it have been for the King had he attempted theater? This weekend, the Adrienne Theater will host two performances of “Tough Cookies,” a one-act play by Edward Crosby Wells, with actors from Together We Act, a non-profit outreach theater company that is committed to educating, motivating, and building confidence in people who stutter.

Shinefield being interviewed on Fox 29

Together We Act’s founder and executive officer, David Shinefield, a lifelong stutterer, discovered the thrill of acting at Yeshiva University. Upon realizing that he did not stutter when on stage, he decided to create Together We Act so that all people who stuttered could have a chance to immerse themselves in the world of acting. Shinefield hopes that “the theater community will be revolutionized in a way that will cause the inclusion of all sorts of actors, no matter what “handicap” they may seem to possess.”

Together We Act raised funds through crowdsourcing on Kickstarter by offering backers tickets to the shows, an official t-shirt, donor recognition in the playbill, and a recording of the play. According to Shinefield, some other troupes for inclusion are Our Time, a stuttering group for children, and Identity Theater, both located in New York. “Tough Cookies” will be directed by Kathe Mull of New York City.

“Tough Cookies” will be performed on Sunday, February 17 and Monday, February 18, in the Adrienne Theater at 2030 Sansom Street, Philadelphia, PA. Both performances will start at 7:00 PM and each will be followed by a Q&A session.

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/3053/theater-chat-together-we-act

Theater Chat: Stars of David

By Hannah Lee

I love listening to authors and artists talk about the creative process, so I’d looked forward to a lunch-and-talk program on Wednesday at the Gershman Y about Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish, which premiered at the Suzanne Roberts Theater on October 17th. Hurricane Sandy kept Abigail Pogrebin, its creator, from attending, but Warren Hoffman, Senior Director of Programming, ably undertook the role of interviewer for two notable Jews: Sharon Pinkenson, Executive Director of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office, and Ivy Barsky, the new Director and CEO of the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH). Then we went across the street and watched an afternoon show.

Under Pinkenson’s guidance, the Greater Philadelphia Film Office brought the city revenues of $3.5 billion dollars, up from $2.1 million dollars from local movie production (statistics from interview in Philly Style Magazine). Her staff of six consists of only one other Jew, but all of her employees are taught to speak Yiddish, “starting with the ‘fa’ words,” farpatshket (messed up, sloppy), fartshadet (surprised, stunned), and fartutst(confused). The majority of her childhood was spent in Levittown, so she was comfortable with a heterogenous population and she loved arguing with the Rabbi. As a single mother, she was welcomed by Rodelph Shalom, who allowed her to pay on a sliding scale and she recalls with pride the day she was able to pay dues in full. Married for 27 years to her second husband, Joe Weiss, chairman of Electronic Ink, and the grandmother of three, she beguiled Weiss to attend Rodelph Shalom, where “the Shema is optional.”

Barsky grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where every one of her neighbors voted for George McGovern, who nevertheless lost the presidential election in 1972 to Richard Nixon. Her family was not observant, but she became “a professional Jew” through the meanderings of her career– from graduate studies in Art History at the University of Pennsylvania to almost 15 years as deputy director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan. This background gives her an important perspective on the museum’s mission, as an educational institution for those without a strong Jewish foundation.

A summa cum laude graduate of Yale University and the daughter of Letty Cottin Pogrebin (the co-founder of Ms. Magazine), Pogrebin published her book, Stars of David, in 2005 (by Doubleday) in which she turned own confusion about her identity as a Jew into an ad-hoc sociological study, reaching out to prominent Jews. The musical production has a small cast of five– Nancy Balbirer as Narrator; Alex Brightman, Joanna Glushak, Brad Oscar, and Donna Vivino– who channel the spirit of a cross-section of influential Jews from Kenneth Cole to Norman Lear to Gloria Steinman.

My two favorite numbers were both by Vivino, in which she sang of the alienation felt by “Ruth Bader Ginsburg” in being excluded from the minyan for reciting Kaddish after the death of her mother (the day before her graduation from high school) and the way “Fran Drescher” dealt with enduring ethnic stereotyping in her acting career. Other numbers were not as effective as when “Edgar Bronfman,” prompted by his 5-year-old granddaughter’s question, “Who is God,” committed himself to the study of Talmud. An uplifting liberal message is offered by “Tony Kushner” who noted being Jewish (and being persecuted for it) was good practice for being gay and that the Jewish people have a big enough house with a room for everyone.

With our township schools closed from the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, I brought along my teen daughter along and we were both surprised that she enjoyed herself! Stars of David will play through November 18th; tickets may be ordered through The Philadelphia Theatre Company.

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/2681/theater-chat-stars-of-david

Why I Love Summer Stage

By Hannah Lee

It’s been 10 wonderful summers for my girls at Upper Darby’s Summer Stage, the drama camp alma mater of Tina Fey which she reminisced fondly in her memoir, Bossypants.  My girls have taken separate paths, one behind the scenes — handling lights, sound, props, costumes — and one on stage.  Summer Stage has left its mark and they’re the better for it.  It’s now my younger daughter’s final summer and I write to say farewell.

Now in its 37th year, Summer Stage continues to delight audiences throughout greater Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley.  Last October, its founder and executive and artistic director, Harry Dietzler, was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the annual Barrymore Awards for excellence in theater.  Who would have foretold in 1975 that a 20-year-old music major at Temple University would change the horizon of musical theater in greater Philadelphia so profoundly?

Each summer, more than 30,000 audience members attend almost 40 performances, consisting of six children’s musicals, one Main Stage musical for adult audiences, a dance troupe, a cabaret, and one-act productions.  It’s still an affordable way to experience live theater — cheaper than the price of movie tickets! — with up to 100 talented teens on stage, singing and dancing up a storm.  Its signature song, “Magic Up Our Sleeve,” gives me goose bumps each time they sing before the lights go down.  Alumni in the audience sing along unabashedly at each performance.

The children’s theater program engages 750 teens, aged 13-17, in learning skills that can sustain them throughout life, not just in specific tasks such as hanging lights and creating costumes, but also lessons in how to work hard, work with others, and project one’s ideas.  Summer Stage was voted “Best Theater Group in Philadelphia” for four consecutive years on the MYPHL17 Hot List, voted by regular Philadelphians.

Seating 1,650, the Upper Darby Performing Arts Center on the campus of Upper Darby High School provides a wonderful, professional-grade venue for these lessons.  It employs 100 professionals to teach and guide the campers.  When I asked Mr. Dietzler about budgetary cuts from the township, he said that the program brings in enough revenue from ticket sales and sponsorship to offset any cuts.

Bryn Bookstaver and her buddy Reggie prepare for their roles in Annie, Jr. (Photo by Dan Luner)

For some years, they experimented with flying apparatus for shows such as Aladdin and Peter Pan, but I’m happy that they’ve returned to earth.  Again this year, a real dog will appear as Sandy in the production of Annie, Jr.  In the recent production of Seussical, Jr., the toddler son of the director, Dawn Morningstar — I love her name! — had a cameo role as the young creature hatched by Horton the Elephant.

A shout-out to Mama Moscotti, Office Manager/Nurse Extraordinaire.  Farewell and my best wishes for a strong season, Summer Stage!

The remaining children’s shows this season are: Annie, Jr., How I Became a Pirate (based on the children’s book of the same name in its local premiere), and A Disney Spectacular featuring princesses, heroes, and villains.  The Main Stage show, Hairspray, features actors aged 17-25.  For show times and tickets, log onto their website.

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/2359/why-i-love-summer-stage

Talkback on “Slaying the Dragon”

By Hannah Lee

Teshuvah (repentance) is a prominent Jewish value, but what happens when a high Ku Klux Klan high official renounces his life?  The world premiere of the opera, Slaying the Dragon, was heralded by a Q&A session with a panel consisting of: Ellen Frankel, the librettist and managing director of Center City Opera Theater; Kathryn Watterson, author of Not by the Sword: How a Cantor and His Family Transformed a Klansman on which the opera is based; and Bob Wolfson, Associate National Director of Regional Operations for the Anti-Defamation League and formerly the local ADL officer in charge of Lincoln, Nebraska where the events took place.  The panel discussion took place on Sunday, June 3 at the National Museum of American Jewish History.

In her 1995 book, Watterson, a professor in the English Department of the University of Pennsylvania, chronicled the stranger-than-fiction narrative of Larry Trapp, the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan’s Lincoln chapter who had a change of heart, renounced his life of hatred and violence, and embraced Judaism.

A double amputee and blind from the complications of diabetes, Trapp — a black-sheep, distant relation of the von Trapp family singers of The Sound of Music fame —  was inspired by the love and kindness offered by Michael and Julie Weisser.

A remarkable couple, Michael Weisser was then cantor and spiritual leader of the Reform Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, one of two synagogues in Lincoln, and Julie was herself a convert to Judaism.  Together they were raising five children, and they all welcomed Trapp into their home — with the teen sisters giving up their own room — and nursed him while he was dying from his illness.  When Trapp died at age 42, he was buried in the Jewish cemetery there.

There are still people in the Jewish community in Lincoln who doubt Trapp’s sincerity in his transformation.  Wolfson recounted the “surreal feeling” he had when Trapp, who’d previously threatened his family, rolled up to the ADL office in his wheelchair and asked to give Wolfson a hug.  This was the guy that he had to warn his children against, and the reason they had to monitor the in-coming mail to the house.

Wolfson thinks it was because the Angel of Death was at his back that Trapp personally apologized to every person he’d hurt in his campaign of hate.  However, it took courage to leave the KKK, because it was a public betrayal — by a Grand Dragon, no less!  The opera deviates from reality in that Trapp is portrayed as vulnerable, being mocked by his fellow Klansmen for his physical disabilities.  In actuality, he was a strong leader and was admired by his Klan, despite his inability to physically carry out the acts of evil and spite that he advocated.

Michael Weisser, now a rabbi in Flushing, New York, was a strong believer in redemption — he’d had his own tragedy to overcome.  Neither he nor his wife were punitive people; their preferred motto was: “Educate, not punish.”  When two college boys were on trial in Lincoln for defacing his synagogue, Weisser offered to lead educational classes for them both in lieu of jail time.  Watterson pointed out that society has surely gained more by the time these misguided youth spent at Weisser’s side than in prison.

Watterson noted that white supremacists are under-developed emotionally.  So much energy is expended on projecting hate that there is no room for personal growth.  Wolfson said that people often prefer to think of these people as “nuts.”  ”Some are, but not all are so.”  Larry Trapp was not intellectually impaired, he said, but it is harder to contemplate rational people who hate obsessively.

Could what had happened in Lincoln happen here?  Hatred can happen anywhere.  Wolfson said that Weisser was a radical, whose Reform temple had lost members.  The conservative Jewish community looked askance at him, whom he would describes as “to the left, politically, of Mao Zedong,” the late Communist dictator of China.

The Jews of Lincoln were Zionist and middle-of-the-road politically and they couldn’t understand Weisser who believed in the prophet-to-the-nation philosophy of Reform Judaism, stressing tikkun olam (repairing the world) and protesting injustice.  However, Weisser built up his congregation and brought life to the synagogue.

Watterson said that she focused on Trapp’s life as a white supremacist, because it was so similar to that of Timothy McVeigh, the man who detonated a truck bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people and injuring more than 800 people, the deadliest act of terrorism within the United States prior to the September 11 attacks in 2001.

Frankel, the librettist, said that the composer, Michael Ching, urged her to make Larry Trapp and Michael and Julie Weisser–  re-named Grand Dragon Jerry Krieg and Rabbi Nathan and Vera Goodman in the opera — less black-and-white evil and goodness incarnate.  He wanted her to bring the characters closer together and find the commonality in them.

Are we in a post-racial world?  Wolfson noted that the world has moved to the right in recent times, citing hate crimes in France, Greece, and the United States.  Economic hardship and instability bring out the worst in human nature.  However, liberal-minded people tend not to regard this evidence of persistent racism as a motivation to keep the fight against bigotry at the top of their social action agenda, preferring to think that the issue has been resolved.

It’s most important, Watterson urged, “to get to know each other, beyond our comfort zone, and acknowledge each other’s humanity.”  She noted the spill-over of hate words into general society (e.g., “femini-Nazis”) and the public shaming and blaming tolerated in our communities.  We should foster more creativity, said she, not demonize “people of color.”

Herbert Levine, Frankel’s husband, asked from the audience about how the KKK was able to get away with its open acts of violence?  Where were the police, the FBI?  Wolfson said that in the case of the Asian immigrant community, the Laotian leadership told the police to let them handle acts of violence against their community in their own way.  Thus, after their community center was targeted by “Operation Gooks,” defaced and destroyed by Trapp’s minions, it was re-built by the Asian community anew, but this time behind barbed-wire fencing and patrolled by armed guards.

How strong is the KKK nowadays?  Watterson said they’re very organized — “the movement inspires action.”  One aborted example: Trapp himself had planned on assassinating Jesse Jackson, the black civil rights activist and Baptist minister, figuring that, in his weheelchair, he could get close to his targeted victim.

Of the white supremacists groups, White Aryan Nation is more powerful, but there are local KKK groups in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.  Wolfson pointed out that the Internet allows these groups to organize more efficiently, not announcing a public rally until “12 minutes before” — with the leaders texting one another — to avoid police intervention.  The ADL (and the FBI) used to infiltrate these groups, but they can now avoid unwanted scrutiny more easily.  Wolfson noted that the biggest problem is the lone wolf, one who operates outside of group sanctions.  Frankel added that the Philly chapter of ADL has a full-time staffer who monitors the communication of hate groups and who maintains an ongoing dialogue with the FBI.

Evening performances of Slaying the Dragon will take place on June 14 and 16, with a 2 pm final show on June 17  at the Helen Corning Warden Theater at the Academy of Vocal Arts, on 1920 Spruce Street.   Limited  seating is available.  For tickets, visit www.OperaTheater.org.

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/2241/talkback-on-slaying-the-dragon