Before Jesse Freedman started working as a director, designer, and performer, he entertained crowds as a magician, a role he says shaped his artistic approach.
“When you're in a play there’s a lot of people involved,” he said. “As a magician, it was just me and very direct experiences with an audience. I did do plays — I did musicals — but I always went back to this solo performance practice that I had, which was me making people laugh or think, playing with their expectations.”
Freedman continues to play with audience expectations through his productions with Meta Phys Ed, a multidisciplinary performance collaborative he co-founded with Bronwen Mullin, a rabbinical student at JTS as well as a playwright and composer herself.
“We were both very interested in using sacred text as a starting point for making theater,” he said. “A lot of my theater or art practice comes from looking at something on YouTube and I think, ‘Man, that would be really interesting placed next to this piece of text.’”
The eclectic group of artists presents its shows at venues such as the New York Fringe Festival, bringing reimagined sacred texts to the mainstream theater scene. Sometimes this manifests itself in an overtly Jewish context, such as the 2012 production of “Chalom: A Dream Opera” that juxtaposed sexual and spiritual statements about dreams in the Talmud. Sometimes, the connection to Judaism is less obvious, such as with “Karaoke Bacchae,” a dance theater adaptation of Euripides’ tragedy set in a sports bar.
“The Bacchae is a sacred story or a sacred text of someone else's religion, and the themes in it, what the project was about, was a religious and spiritual project, as profane as we tried to make it,” Freedman said. “To me it felt totally in line with the company's mission statement. We found space in there to broaden what we do.”
As for his next projects, Freedman says he’s working on an adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s “The Jew of Malta” viewed through the lens of Kanye West, and exploring little known plays by the 18th-century kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, also known as the Ramchal.
“I live my life trying to stay in touch with the spiritual and religious impulses that keep me going, and as an artist I just make things. I respond to the empty canvas or the element in front of me.”
High school muscle: On his high school football team, Freedman played offensive lineman.