Collecting scrap metal, reselling old clothes, even pawn broking —Jews have been in the recycling business for a long time, turning the flotsam and jetsam of other people’s lives into gold. Davy Rothbart, founder of Found magazine, has taken the most unlikely detritus — from love letters to snapshots to shopping lists — and made it into a kind of art. Now comes “Found,” a new Off-Broadway musical based on Rothbart’s unusual quest. With a book by Hunter Bell and Lee Overtree and music by Eli Bolin, the show runs this fall at the Atlantic Theater Company with Nick Blaemire starring as Rothbart.
Rothbart, 39, grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich.; his family celebrated Jewish holidays but went to Quaker Friends Meetings instead of synagogue. He became interested in lost papers after he found a note on his windshield that was intended for someone else. His magazine, which is published once a year, has spawned a number of books, beginning with the 2004 bestseller, “Found: The Best Lost, Tossed and Forgotten Items From Around the World” (Touchstone). The current musical version was developed by Story Pirates, a company known for using children’s stories as the springboard for its performances.
In an interview, Rothbart told The Jewish Week that he loves the “voyeuristic” experience of trying to interpret the discarded slivers and fragments of other people’s lives. “If you find a ripped up love letter in the grass,” he said, “you don’t know if the person who received it tore it up, or if it was destroyed before it was sent.” His “finds” stand, he noted, in stark contrast to the confessional culture of social media. “You’re catching people in private moments; they’re unselfconscious because they’re not broadcasting themselves. It’s like people-watching on paper.”
Of the more than 50,000 items that have been sent to him over the last 13 years, his favorites include an algebra test by a Maine schoolchild in which he made up all the answers, and a Baltimore man whose new smartphone received texts that were intended for the phone’s previous owner. While less and less is written by hand nowadays, Rothbart said, “The stuff that does motivate us to put pen to paper is more poignant,” such as when a marriage is dissolving or when someone is contemplating suicide.
Rothbart views his work as part of the Jewish tradition of storytelling. “It’s raw and intimate,” he said. “It’s about having compassion and empathy for other people’s lives.” And, as Neil Pepe, the artistic director of the Atlantic, added, “In the act of exploring other people’s lives,” the characters in “Found,” including the one based on Rothbart, “discover who they are.”
“Found” runs at the Atlantic Theater, 336 W. 20th St., from Sept. 18 through Nov. 9. Performances are Wednesday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Tuesday at 7 p.m. and Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. For tickets, $75, call OvationTix at (866) 811-4111 or visit www.AtlanticTheater.org.