Theater J: Taking Drama Seriously

Washington, DC-based group’s 2011-12 season features eight shows, two world premieres, and a new festival focused on cultivating work by local playwrights.

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Rick Foucheux in Theater J's "Imagining Madoff." Credit: C. Stanley Photography

The largest Jewish theater in North America is rolling out an eight-show lineup this year that provokes serious discussion about the dark side of the human condition—long after the final curtains come down.

Hailed by the New York Times as “The Premier Theater for Premieres,” Theater J emerged as one of the most distinctive, progressive and respected Jewish theaters on the national and international scene.

A program of the Washington DC Jewish Community Center, the theater works in collaboration with the other components of the Morris Cafritz Center for the Arts: the Washington Jewish Film Festival, the Ann Loeb Bronfman Gallery, and the Literary, Music and Dance Department. Performing in the 240-seat Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater in the Dupont Circle neighborhood, Theater J works with some of the world’s most distinguished authors for the stage.

Theater J has produced world premieres by Richard Greenberg, Thomas Keneally, Robert Brustein, Joyce Carol Oates, and Ariel Dorfman, with many debuts from emerging writers like Stefanie Zadravec and Sam Forman.  

Managing a staff of 11 and a budget of $1.4 million, artistic director Ari Roth exemplifies everyone involved with Theater J—he takes drama seriously.

“We’re working within an established tradition of thought-provoking serious drama and energetic programming in the tradition of Joseph Papp at the Public Theater and the tradition of Arthur Miller as a playwright,” Roth said.

An American theatrical producer, playwright, director and educator, Roth has served as the Artistic Director of Theater J since 1997. He grew up on the South Side of Chicago and is a graduate of the University of Michigan where he studied playwriting with Milan Stitt, Kenneth Thorpe Rowe, and received his first of two Avery Hopwood Awards for Drama from noted Michigan alum Miller.

Miller’s play “After the Fall” is one of the highlights of the 2011-12 Theater J season, “Brilliant Fictions, Shattering Facts”—a lineup of eight shows that includes two world premieres and a new festival focused on cultivating work by local playwrights.  

In rehearsal for “After the Fall,” Roth said the play is about Miller through the lens of an alter ego named Quentin, looking at the wreckages of Miller’s first two marriages and some of the more daunting epochs of his age in McCarthyism and the Holocaust.

“Miller is trying to figure out how one goes on, how one believes in a future, how one makes a commitment to love again, and to re-engage in the world and believe in new ideas when there’s so much evidence that things fall apart,” Roth said.

Rick Foucheux (right) and Mike Nussbaum in Theater J's "Imagining Madoff. Credit: C. Stanley Photography.

Dedicated above all to a pursuit of artistic excellence, Theater J takes its dialogues beyond the stage, offering an array of innovative public discussion forums and outreach programs which explore the theatrical, psychological and social elements of dramatic art.

Director of marketing Grace Overbeke said Theater J frequently partners with those of other faiths and communities, stressing the importance of interchange among a great variety of people wishing to take part in frank, humane conversations about conflict and culture.

“Locally Grown: Community Supported Art--From Our Own Garden” is Theater J’s new festival focusing on the thriving Washington, DC, playwright scene. Overbeke said this robust new initiative is inspired in part by the “locavore” and Community Supported Agriculture movements which focus on cultivating, appreciating and utilizing local resources for local consumption.

Theater J’s dynamic new initiative translates these principles to DC’s burgeoning theatre scene, fostering the talent of DC playwrights through four mini-commissions, round-table discussions and readings throughout the summer and fall, culminating in staged readings throughout January and February.

“We place value on that which has taken root within our community, and to invest in our own artists and their professional development and then export that talent to the rest of the nation,” Roth said.

The 2012 Community Supported Art: Locally Grown festival will feature works from area writers at every stage of development, and incorporates three main components: The world premiere of The Religion Thing, a new play by emerging playwright Renee Calarco; workshop presentations of The Prostate Dialogues, a new solo performance piece by established artist Jon Spelman, and four readings of new works by local playwrights Jacqueline Lawton, Stephen Spotswood, Gwydion Suilebhan, and performance artist Laura Zam.

Suilebhan is the resident playwright of the Taffety Punk Theatre Company and is thrilled to be able to deepen his relationship with Theater J.

“I’ve been a big fan for a long time,” he said. “As a playwright, I’ve always been interested in science, how important it is to the small matters of our daily lives, how bewildering it is for most of us, and how much anger and vitriol it can generate as well. My play ‘Hot and Cold’ is in some ways the result of my observations about our national obsessions with viruses, immunization, medicating mental illnesses, and religious dogma.”

Another one of Theater J’s Locally Grown playwrights is Laura Zam. Her play, “Married Sex,” is her 7th full-length, one-person play.

“Like most of my work, this play uses comedy to explore issues concerning the aftermath of trauma and victimization,” Zam said. “Married Sex is about a newly married woman who finds that trauma from her past is destroying her marriage. So off she goes to different kinds of experts who might help her improve her sex life. She consults with shrinks, rabbis, yogic gurus, sex therapists, tantric masters, hypnotists, scientologists, rebirthers, EMDR folk, and a host of people who believe that tapping on just the right spot on the wrist can rid us of all our negative baggage. Can torture, abuse, and persecution truly be healed? If so, how do we stop criticizing our mates long enough to actually heal in that person’s arms?”  

Another reason that Zam’s work concerns itself with trauma is that her mother was a Holocaust survivor who lost most of her family during the war, including her parents and most of her siblings.  

“Prior to being liberated on a death march the very last day of the war in Europe, my mother had survived two Nazi ghettos and two concentration camps, including Auschwitz. I know first-hand how the persecution of the Jews can affect a person’s private life, and how those effects are passed down through generations,” Zam said.

Roth on the rest of the lineup:

*Parade by Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown: “Looks at significant episodes in the Jewish history in the Atlanta Jewish community.”

*The Religion Thing by Renee Calarco: “Funny comedy about a couple, a Catholic woman and a Jewish man, and their ambivalence about having a baby. It’s a bittersweet meditation about former ghosts still beckoning.  

*Electile Dysfunction: The Kinsey Sicks For President: “It’s wild. The Sicks are Jewish boys who went to Harvard and got their law degrees but gave it all up to dress up and sing in drag. Here they’re running for president on the Tea Party Ticket.”  

*New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch De Spinoza by David Ives: “A play that asks relevant questions about one of the brightest minds of the last century. Spinoza was both a heretic and a postate and a model for the best in Jewish education. Theater J admires Spinoza for asking the most difficult questions of our community.”

*The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez: “A play set on the final day of the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated during Passover and this play imagines the first day of Passover and looks at the son of a Jewish slaveholder whose life is saved on this final day by the former head slave who knows how to amputate a limb in order to save a life.”

*The History of Invulnerability by David Bar Katz: “Highly regarded new play that looks at the creator of Superman, Jerry Siegel, and what motivated a whole generation of Jewish comics to create these modern-day golems, these savior figures. It looks at Siegel’s battle to win back part of his creation.”  

“The truly penetrating playwrights force an audience to see those aspects of the evil inclination within us all,” Roth said. “Rather than coddle and comfort our audience we hold up a mirror, not only to the world but to ourselves, and we ask them to look inside and say what’s in there? What we see exposed and revealed onstage resonates within us.”

Posted on September 20, 2011 and filed under Arts, U.S..