Monday, September 22, 2008

What is Jewish Theater? - an ongoing series

As the curator for the upcoming Festival of Jewish Theater and Ideas, I am confronted by an old question that often comes up at the Association of Jewish Theatre: what is Jewish theater?

I am tempted to answer in the way the Supreme Court once defined pornography: I know it when I see it. But that is of course subject to the question: is what I would call Jewish theater what someone else would define in the same way?

But perhaps that question is one reason for a festival. When I produced the Havel Festival, I didn't necessarily know what made a play essentially Havellian. Of course, the easy answer is that they are all written by the same man. But what makes gives one playwright's output a signature flavor? Is it something innate to Havel that comes out in his plays? Something innate to the time and place from which he writes? The more I watched the plays, the more I noticed similar themes, themes that spoke to each other across the plays, so that each play I saw deepened my appreciation of the next.

Will the same be true of Jewish theater? Is suspect so. In the next months, I am going to continue to try (and most assuredly fail) to define what exactly Jewish theater is, and in that quest I am interested in hearing from others who have thought about that question.

What is Jewish theater to you?


Elayne said...

I used to be Artistic Director of Chicago Jewish Theatre (now defunct, alas) but I always thought of Jewish theater as works that reflect and illuminate Jewish heritage, culture and history and not necessarily religion. Elayne

Theater of Ideas said...

Yes, the question of religion versus culture is always a big one. My personal view is that, for me, Jewish theater is about Jewish culture, but of course the religion informs the culture. So the religion is in a way an aspect of culture. So the lines get blurry.

Elayne said...

Yes, aspects of religion do overshadow everything but are not necessarily the main element. One of the reasons that I believe Jewish theater can be more universal than say, theaters that attempt to do Christian works, is that in that case, religion is always the overarching element while in Jewish theater, that is not necessarily the case. For example, a play about the Warsaw Ghetto can be seen in many more aspects than just a religious one.

Theater of Ideas said...

Yes, I agree with you. Religion doesn't necessarily have to play any part. I am hoping to have a stridently atheist Jewish work in the mix. Also, one thing about Judaism is that it always invites questioning, while Christianity, to many, is about faith overcoming ones questions. But then we have works like Doubt, which, if I were doing Christian theater, is where I would begin.