Keeping a small Jewish theater company going for 28 years has never been easy, but Sept. 11 almost put the Jewish Repertory Theatre out of business.
On that morning, the theater’s manager Laura Rockefeller was stage-managing a financial seminar at Windows on the World and never had a chance to escape after the first plane struck Tower One. The tragic death of the 41-year-old theater lover nearly forced artistic director Ran Avni to give up on the already hobbled company he had founded in 1974.
The Rep had been homeless since it lost its lease to the Upper East Side Playhouse 91 two years ago. The spasm in the real estate market last fall prevented the Jewish Rep from making any other short-term arrangements, including one at the Duke Theater on West 42nd Street, where it staged three plays last season.
So plans for the 2001-2002 season were scrapped. For a few months, Avni could do nothing but pay bills. The subscriber’s mailing did not go out; the Rep was in crisis.
“I asked myself, ‘Is this important?,’ ” Avni said. As the initial shock subsided and the board rallied, he decided the answer was “Yes” to saving one of the city’s most consistent sources of Jewish theater. “The company is an important part of the cultural life of New York,” he said.
Getting emergency support from its board and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s $50 million relief program for New York arts organizations hit by Sept. 11, Avni salvaged the season with last-minute concert versions of two rarely produced musicals. The Center for Jewish History allowed the Rep to rent its theater. Finally, in mid-March, Avni mailed a letter to subscribers informing them of the company’s difficulties and asking them to buy tickets.
“I’m not more or less encouraged than any other season in 28 years,” he said. “We’ve suffered a personal loss and financial difficulties, but we’ve regrouped.”
The trials of the Jewish Repertory Theatre, though partially due to extraordinary circumstances, is consistent with the uphill battles faced by all Jewish theater companies in New York. With limited resources, they compete within a universe of theater where Jewish plays and musicals are everywhere, from the Broadway smash “The Producers” to small experimental works at downtown spaces like La MaMa E.T.C.
“There’s no question the material is there and the audience is there; it’s the logistics of producing on an ongoing basis” that’s difficult, said Avni.
Others are even more pessimistic.
“Of course, there’s a large number of Jews in New York who go to the theater, but it’s a misconception they would subscribe to an exclusively Jewish theater,” said Stanley Brechner. The longtime producer of the American Jewish Theatre gave up his permanent space on West 26th Street two years ago. “After 25 years of doing four shows a season, I felt it was time to take a different approach,” he said. Now he plans to produce only individual shows.
“I don’t think there’s an audience to sustain an all-encompassing Jewish theater. The only way to support that is with a committed subscription base” that no longer exists. His company relied on the patronage of an audience that was mostly aging and moving to Florida.
The flip side is that Jewish New Yorkers would rather subscribe to the Roundabout or Lincoln Center. In fact, many mainstream theater companies frequently produce plays with central Jewish themes, like the current “Mr. Goldwyn” starring Alan King and “Andorra” by the Swiss writer Max Frisch.
One of this season’s most talked-about new plays, “The Golem,” runs through May 12 at the Manhattan Ensemble Theater. Although criticized for weak performances, the production is nevertheless a timely exploration of the Jewish community’s use of violence to combat anti-Semitism.
Artistic director David Fishelson says he hopes to carve a niche in New York theater through the “dramatization and adaptation” of classic literary works.
Though his own sensibility has often lead him to Jewish books, including Kafka’s “The Castle” earlier this year, Fishelson has no intention for the M.E.T. to become a Jewish company. “My mission is not to be a Habima in New York.”
Such aspirations keep aloft the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre. The 87-year-old company, along with veteran performers Mina Bern, Seymour Rexite, Miriam Kressyn, Shifra Lerer and Lillian Lux, will be honored May 8 in a New York State Jewish Heritage event celebrating 100 years of the Yiddish theater in New York.
Under the direction of Zalmen Mlotek and Eleanor Riessa, the Folksbiene is the last vestige of one of the most vital areas of Jewish creativity in America, and continues to offer several staged readings and joyous, if amateurish, musicals every season to reach new audiences. A Yiddish production of “Yentl” is slated for next fall.
Other larger Jewish cultural organizations have theater components, but they tend to produce mostly low-cost staged readings. The emphasis is on nurturing new talent, not on final productions.
Since opening in January, the JCC in Manhattan has offered “The Springboard Series” of monthly staged readings of new plays. The 14th Street Y’s resident Hypothetical Theater Company puts together three shows a season, but not all have Jewish themes.
Theater was initially a large component of Makor, but music and film programs have thrived lately while the theater project was suspended from November to March.
The wild card is the Jewish Theater of New York. Founded nine years ago by Israeli-born Tuvia Tenenbom, the company has garnered a reputation for provocative plays. Other theater companies do not tackle the deepest questions in contemporary Jewish life, Tenenbom said.
Last year’s “Suicide Bomber” was daring and relevant, but was panned by The New York Times. Sadly, history has come around to a drama about a female suicide bomber, and Tenenbom says he’s planning productions in Europe and may reconfigure the show for another run in New York.
As for Ran Avni, he’s now scrambling to assemble a revival of “Up from Paradise,” Arthur Miller’s only musical, which the Rep premiered 20 years ago. He hopes to recast many original actors from the first production, including Len Cariou. Avni says the musical is especially relevant because the second act, which tells the story of Cain and Abel, dwells on “the origins of violence.”
The show is set to run at the Center for Jewish History at the end of May. The Rep’s “Two by Two,” a revival of a rarely produced Richard Rodgers musical, played four performances two weeks ago, says center spokesperson Barbara Goldberg.
“Now in final negotiations,” Avni says he is optimistic that the Jewish Repertory Theatre will return to Playhouse 91 next season, taking the place of “The Syringa Tree.” Pamela Gein’s long-running Obie Award-winning show, based on her experiences growing up the daughter of a Jewish doctor in South Africa, plays a few more weeks before embarking on a national tour.