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Exit, stage left: Does TJTs demise signal the end of Jewish theater in the Bay Area

After more than three decades, some 100 productions and countless standing ovations, the curtain is coming down on the Jewish Theatre, San Francisco. With it come a few regrets, many reflections and a final farewell show, “34 Years in One Night.”

The swan song takes place May 14 at Z Space, just upstairs from TJT’s longtime home base on Florida Street in the city’s Potrero Hill neighborhood.

Like so many TJT shows, this one emerged out of a cauldron of intuition and improvisation. Company founders promise a night of stories and songs, snippets and scenes from productions past.

It’s like a greatest-hits package, only with plenty of extra laughs and tears.

“Until it actually happens, it hasn’t happened,” said co-founder Corey Fischer about TJT going dark for good. “Right now we’re really busy trying to put together that last night. My experience is that it’s not over. Intellectually I know it is.”

After struggling valiantly, TJT succumbed to the financial pressures that had plagued it for years. The theater almost went under four years ago, halting its 2008-09 season. A successful fundraising effort got the theater back on track, but bought it only a little time. Last August, the TJT board concluded it had no choice but to close down.

Some were vocal with their frustrations about TJT’s demise, acknowledging the strain of competing with larger theater companies that produce Jewish works while also suggesting the community itself bore some responsibility.

“The Jewish community has been largely ambivalent about this company for its 35 years,” said Aaron Davidman, TJT’s former artistic director. “[TJT] struggled financially for its entire existence. So when we see that the community raised $80 million” to build the Contemporary Jewish Museum, “we see the resources are there in the community for art but not for Jewish theater specifically.”

“It’s a tremendous loss to the community,” said Lenore Naxon, director of the Eugene & Elinor Friend Center for the Arts at the JCC of San Francisco, which frequently collaborated with the theater. “I really cherish what TJT stood for, and have loving memories of the exquisite work that was on their stage.”

Albert Greenberg, Naomi Newman and Corey Fischer in a production of “Berlin, Jerusalem and the Moon” photo/jim quinn

Having this final season allowed the staff and founders to ponder TJT’s last curtain call.

Executive director Sara Schwartz Geller said organizing the one-night-only farewell is “like producing 10 shows at once. Obviously, 34 years of history is a lot to cover. We’re trying to be as inclusive as possible and still give the audience the closure.”

Though the lineup remains in flux, Geller predicts scenes from past TJT shows such as “Trotsky and Frida” (1995), “Diamonds in the Dark” (1998) and “See Under: Love” (2001).

“We’re also inviting people, artists and other individuals who have been closely connected to TJT,” Geller said. “It’s a combination of performance, video and tribute. The whole evening is designed around the journey, how far we’ve come in every way.”

Naomi Newman, a TJT co-founder, has been there from the start. “It won’t feel like a funeral at all,” she said of the final night. “It will be funny and fun, and definitely a celebration of our great experience.”

 

Albert Greenberg and Helen Stoltzfus in “Trotsky and Frida” photo/kingmond young

That great experience began in 1978 when Fischer, Newman and Albert Greenberg officially founded an experimental theater company and dubbed it A Traveling Jewish Theatre.

But of course, there was the beginning before the beginning.

After knocking around the film and television jungles, by 1976 Fischer had had it with Hollywood. Craving the impact of live theater, he signed on with an experimental troupe in Los Angeles.

At a theater festival in Baltimore, he saw ethnic companies like San Juan Bautista’s El Teatro Campesino in action, and was impressed. At the same time, he had grown more interested in his Jewish roots and began to imagine the possibilities.

“When I saw these other companies, I felt incredibly Jewish,” he recalled. “Something came together at that moment. Going as deep as I could in my own ancestral culture would allow me to connect to all cultures.”

The idea of a Jewish theater took shape in his mind, fueled by working in other theater settings, including a role in Joseph Chaikin’s groundbreaking 1977 production of “The Dybbuk.”

Ultimately, Fischer joined forces with Newman, who was a colleague from acting class, and singer-songwriter Greenberg. The three started out collaborating on a staging of Hassidic stories of the Ba’al Shem Tov.

With Fischer and Greenberg acting and Newman directing, they took their show, “Coming from a Great Distance,” on the road.

Corey Fischer in “A Dance of Exile” photo/marvin lichtner

“The response was over the top,” Fischer recalled. “It was right at the very beginning of what became known as Jewish Renewal. Many Jews were not affiliated and were looking, not content to be alienated, but at the time the institutional Jewish world had nothing.”

Their next show, “The Last Yiddish Poet,” took a lyrical look at the loss of Yiddish culture. The trio created the show by improvising in Newman’s studio loft in the Hollywood Hills.

“We had so much fun,” Newman remembered. “ ‘Last Yiddish Poet‘ was painful material, going into the Holocaust and loss of Yiddish. I was concerned when we rehearsed that the guys shouldn’t go off with a broken heart; so I said just make fun of what we’ve just done. Lo and behold, that became one of the important elements of the piece: Jewish humor to get over the pain.”

Most early TJT plays were created in that collaborative fashion and spanned the wide Jewish universe. Everything was fair game, from Middle East politics and interfaith marriage to black-Jewish relations.

To tell Jewish stories, the ensemble used every theatrical device in the toolkit: music, song, dance, puppetry, masks.

“Aesthetically, our work was more tied to Europe than America,” Greenberg said. “It was naturalistic, nonlinear, breaking the fourth wall and defining space by light.”

A Traveling Jewish Theatre lived up to its name, playing in more than 60 cities around the world, including parts of Eastern Europe, which at that point had not seen Jewish theater since before the Holocaust.

One TJT fan was a young non-Jewish actress who grew up in Virginia. She caught the company’s performance of “Yiddish Poet” at a 1981 theater festival in Minnesota. “Afterward everyone rose to their feet,” recalled Helen Stoltzfus. “I was blown away by that kind of theater.”

So much so, she moved to California to work with TJT. Stoltzfus and Greenberg also fell in love and eventually married.

“My presence always kept the question alive of how do we maintain our own identity while honoring and marrying the other,” she added. “The issue underlying that was how we get along with each other.”

She and Greenberg went on to create productions such as “Trotsky and Frida” and “Heart of the World” (1999), which explored the challenges of intermarriage.

Corey Fischer and Albert Greenberg in “Coming from a Great Distance” photo/marvin lichtner

“I call it slow theater,” she said of TJT’s way of collaborative, improvisational play creation. “Like slow food: marinating a work. There’s a richness and complexity, a meatiness there in a work created by multiple voices that I think is really valuable.”

Once TJT found a permanent San Francisco home in 1994, the company traveled less and began facing the same issues any theater must: paying rent and filling seats.

It changed things, at least for Greenberg and Stoltzfus, who eventually departed.

“As soon as you get a home, you can’t draw people from other cultures,” Greenberg reflected. “We had essentially a Jewish audience serving the Jewish community, which is fine. African-American theater gets African Americans. Latino theater gets Latinos. It becomes very ghettoized.”

The two went on to start an East Bay–based theater arts education organization, ALICE Arts.

Meanwhile, the 1990s and 2000s were auspicious years for TJT. The company joined forces with other local ensembles, such as Word for Word. And for many seasons, TJT thrived, with plays such as “Berlin, Jerusalem, and the Moon” (1999) “God’s Donkey” (2003) and “Moonwatcher” (2003).

Geller, a theater professional from Toronto, caught that last show, a Chanukah tale with puppets, nearly 10 years ago and was hooked.

“I remember thinking, this is what Jewish theater is supposed to be,” she recalled. “There was a level of depth to the Jewishness of the piece I don’t see often. I felt so deeply connected to my own spirituality and Judaism after seeing it.”

She later joined the staff, eventually becoming executive director.

Another admirer was Aaron Davidman, a young actor who found work with the company.

Naomi Newman and Corey Fischer photo/bernd uhlig

“When I worked for them for the first time, what opened up for me was identity,” Davidman said. “The rich story of my own heritage. Theater and Jewish identity were things I had passion for, so to be in a place where both could come together was really exciting, and opened the door to developing work I hadn’t thought of before.”

Davidman cites as one of the highlights of his tenure the collaboration between TJT and David Grossman in adapting the Israeli author’s 1989 novel “See Under: Love.”

Grossman “became a hero and a friend, a tremendous artist,” Davidman said. “He said ‘Betray my text.’ He’d seen people [ruin] his stories, so he said ‘You need to have your own creative room to make it yours.’ ”

Davidman left TJT more than a year ago to pursue independent theater projects as an actor, playwright and director. He has had time to process the company’s end, but is still not happy with the way it all went down. He’s not the only one upset.

Carey Perloff, artistic director at the venerable San Francisco theater company ACT, is a longtime fan of TJT, and she mourns its loss.

“It made me incredibly sad,” she said. “I think they handled it really beautifully. Not every theater is going to last forever. They looked at their legacy and said it’s probably better to end it now.”

So who will tell the Jewish stories now?

Jewish theaters do exist around the country, perhaps most prominently Theater J in Washington, D.C. Because it is affiliated with and housed at the JCC, Theater J has found a safe and financially secure home.

Beyond that, mainstream theater companies, including Berkeley Rep and ACT locally, have inaugurated in-house play development departments. On occasion, they have created plays with Jewish themes, such as Perloff’s recently produced “Higher,” which was staged at the Children’s Creativity Museum theater in San Francisco.

“There’s totally an appetite for Jewish plays, Jewish stories,” said Davidman. “TJT had a place in the field of new works, but it’s hard to compete now when the big companies are creating plays, too.”

Geller concurs, wondering whether an ethnic theater like TJT has a place in the theater arts community anymore when larger theaters are taking on Jewish content.

“I pose the question, given everything going on in Bay Area, what does the community want?” she asked. “There are lots of other Jewish theater artists in the Bay Area. Maybe they will get together and do something. We’ll see.”

Newman admits to mixed feelings. “There’s a sense of gratitude and satisfaction and pride,” she says. “And a sense of sadness and regret that we always had to struggle so hard economically, and in the end it was that which ended us.”

There may yet be an afterlife for TJT. Geller and the other principals intend to launch a fundraising effort to create an online archive and, finally, get the company’s many original scripts officially published.

It would be a fitting legacy for a company that contributed so much to the Bay Area Jewish community and the arts in general.

“TJT’s greatest impact is that it brought Jewish themes, culture and ideas that people wouldn’t necessarily have otherwise wrestled with,” Geller said. “The Jewishness of the work was really at a very deep and profound level.”

“34 Years in One Night,” 7:30 p.m. May 14 at Z Space, 450 Florida St., S.F. $35-$50. (415) 522-0786 or www.tjt-sf.org

 

cover illustration/cathleen maclearie

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.