The Story of the Association for Jewish Theatre
Jews have always told stories. We might even be called “the people of the performance” since the concept behind the Yiddish word shpil is to play as well as to tell stories intrinsic and responsive to Jewish life, identity, cross-cultures, history and survival.
As the organization grew, annual conferences were held all around the U.S., engaging Jewish theatre artists from all over the continent and the world. Over the years, more Jewish theatres were created and their leaders became active in the Council.*** They also encouraged a stronger role for playwrights and managing producers, who now flocked to the Council; so much so that the Jewish Community Center Association became a sponsor which brought about a wider focus and a new name, the Association for Jewish Theatre (AJT).
In the new millennium AJT reached out to theatres abroad and with the Jewish Theatre of Austria, AJT had its annual conference in Vienna in 2007. Theatres from all over Europe attended and AJT spread its reach to Russia, Hungary, Scandinavian countries, England and Israel. At this time the iconic performer Theodore Bikel attended (on his first trip back to Vienna, from where he and his family had fled before the Holocaust). Theo was later to join the AJT Board.
Since 2011, AJT has been an independent non-profit under the leadership of AJT president David Y. Chack (ShPIeL-Performing Identity, Chicago). Throughout its over 30 years of existence it has kept the light of Jewish theatre alive. Now, with over 225 individuals and theatres in the world (from the U.S. to Buenos Aires to Israel to London to Vienna to Romania to Russia) are part of the AJT community. Theatres have fallen away but others have maintained their viability such as The National Yiddishe Folksbiene, Jewish Rep in Buffalo, Center Stage in Rochester, Theater J in D.C., Theatre Ariel in Philadelphia and Minnesota Jewish Theatre. And new ones have started including: ShPIeL-Performing Identity, Continuum Theatre – Chicago; Interplay Theatre – Cleveland, Theatre Chevruta – Silicon Valley; theatre dybbuk, Jewish Women’s Theatre – Los Angeles, National Jewish Theatre – Miami; 24/6 Theatre, Jewish Plays Project, Untitled Theatre Co. – New York; Jewish Theatre Collaborative – Seattle/Portland; Mosaic Theatre – Washington, D.C.
In recent years conferences have been held in New York City (with a Jewish theatre festival), Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Minneapolis/St Paul, and St. Louis. Great figures in the theatre world have attended such as Wendy Wasserstein, Israel Horovitz, Motti Lerner, Donald Margulies, Itamar Mozes, Carl Reiner, Emily Mann, Richard Montoya, Gordon Davidson, Theodore Bikel and more making the conferences a vital and annual destination for creative renewal and networking. Hannah Hessel (Director of Audience Engagement for the Washington, D.C. Shakespeare Theatre and a founder of Project Gym in Maryland) puts it beautifully in the online theatre journal HowlRound:
“I find my Jewish identity in how I work… The facts of my life are inseparable from my religious and cultural background. But do I make Jewish theater? This is the question that seemed to boil underneath the 2012 AJT conference. One question and answer session exploded when someone asked the question ‘What is Jewish theater?’ Yet, I am not making work for a particularly Jewish theater or audience. Legendary comedic writer Carl Reiner said, in a serious tone, ‘Jewish theater is when they speak Yiddish.’ Intelligent producers, like Ari Roth at Theater J (now at Mosaic Theatre, Washington, D.C. ), have shown that instead of remounting the past, success in a Jewish theater comes when you focus on quality productions that reflect the current moment. Jewish artists do not need to write in Yiddish or tell biblical stories; they just need to tell their story.”
In other words Hannah and other young theatre-makers are the story of Jewish theatre. Dedicated to the next generations of emerging theatre people, AJT celebrates them through a new program called AJT Theatremachers. This program provides funding for new, young Jewish theatre-makers of all kinds – playwrights, solo performers, producers, dramaturges, audience engagement managers, etc. to our conferences. There they are supported, mentored and made part of our wonderful community. Recent examples of these young people who are remaking the world of Jewish theatre and Jewish culture including:
- Aaron Henne in Los Angeles (theatre dybbuk, Los Angeles) now a 2015-17 recipient of a Wexner Fellowship
- Yoni Oppenheim (24/6 Theatre, New York), receiver of the Jewish Week’s “36 Under 36” Jewish leaders to watch
- Jon Adam Ross (independent performer, New York) who received the prestigious two-year Covenant Grant