In Search Of The Next Arthur Miller

In Search Of The Next Arthur Miller

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

Ready. Set. Write a play! Oh, and give it a Jewish theme!

That’s pretty much the premise of the Jewish Plays Project, a new organization that is sponsoring a contest to encourage the creation of dramatic works with contemporary Jewish themes.

Co-sponsored by the 14th Street Y and the MetroWest JCC in Northern New Jersey, the initiative aims to use a variety of innovative methods, from electronic audience feedback to “American Idol”-style showcases, to choose five new Jewish plays for residencies that will culminate in productions of the plays at the Y next summer.

The brainchild of theater director David Winitsky, 40, the Jewish Plays Project ( officially kicked off two weeks ago at the Delancey Bar on the Lower East Side, when a crowd of 75 aspiring theater artists, including both Jews and non-Jews, gathered to hear about the contest. Winitsky told the assembly that they were not expected to dedicate all of their work to Jewish themes. “We want you to be fully rounded, full-blooded artists,” Winitsky announced, “but when you make Jewish art, we want this to be the place where you do it.”

Plays that are on Holocaust themes, are in Yiddish or that have humor based on ethnic Jewish stereotypes are ineligible for the contest. As Becky Skoff, who is one of the organizers of the project, put it, “We are seeking significant Jewish themes, characters, content or points of view. The person sitting next to you in your office, or on the subway, could represent the story of Jewish life in the 21st century.”

While the project has not yet been widely advertised to the theatrical community, interest is already running high, with more than four dozen scripts already submitted. The contest winners will be announced in February.

Of the five slots in the residency program, three will be selected by lay panels of Jews in their 20s and 30s. One will be chosen through an “American Idol”-style set of multimedia presentations at the MetroWest JCC, which is near Winitsky’s home in Maplewood, N.J. And the final one will be selected through a series of workshops run by LABA (the National Laboratory for New Jewish Culture, housed at the Y) in which 20 different teams of artists, after an intensive process of group Jewish text study, will solicit feedback from the audience via Txt2Thtr, an original text messaging tool developed by Winitsky.

The director grew up in suburban Philadelphia, where he felt alienated from Jewish life. As he told The Jewish Week, “The Jewish community was very exclusionary, conservative and obsessed with the past. It didn’t look out to the wider world.” After majoring in math in Cornell and then getting a master’s degree in directing from Northwestern, Winitsky found, to his relief, that “Jews were living Jewish values rather than fretting about Jewish numbers.” He was a finalist last year for a Joshua Venture fellowship, which cultivates young Jewish leaders, and this year became a fellow of PresenTense, which funds Jewish “social entrepreneurship” in both North American and Israeli cities.

The Jewish Plays Project, Winitsky explained, is a “an incubator for Jewish theater that capitalizes on a new conversation in Jewish life, both in the United States and in Israel.” A Jewish theme can be a handicap in getting a play on the boards, he opined. “The more explicit the Jewish content, the less frequently it gets produced,” he said. While theater companies often reserve a spot for an “emerging” minority writer in their season, they don’t always look for plays by Jews.

But for him and for many other Jews of his generation, Winitsky said, “theater is our religion and Jewish is our culture. We want to find places where those things intersect. We want to be a launching pad for new Jewish cultural talent.”

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