If Bay Area theaters were open right now, they would dim the lights for Corey Fischer.
Co-founder of A Traveling Jewish Theatre and a pioneer in the region’s Jewish performing arts scene, Fischer died June 7 from complications from a brain stem bleed he suffered last December. He was 75 and lived in San Rafael with his wife, China Galland.
A native of Los Angeles, Fischer directed or acted in more than 100 plays over his career with the theater, which was founded in 1978 and later renamed The Jewish Theatre before folding in 2012. He also had roles in film and TV, including “M*A*S*H,” “All in the Family” and “Frasier.”
His community theater work earned national acclaim. In 1999, Fischer and TJT won a grant from the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays to adapt Israeli writer David Grossman’s novel “See Under: Love” for the stage. The adaptation subsequently was included in the 2005 anthology “Nine Contemporary Jewish Plays,” published by the University of Texas Press.
In the Bay Area, Fischer was the undisputed dean of Jewish theater. “I can’t do any work that is not in some sense Jewish, because the theater has always been the way I have been able to express my Jewishness,” he told J. in a 2016 interview.
Founded by Fischer, Naomi Newman and Albert Greenberg in Los Angeles in 1978, A Traveling Jewish Theatre excelled in combining music, movement, puppetry, masks and any other interdisciplinary theatrical magic available to spin Chagall-like works for the stage, including “The Last Yiddish Poet,” one of Fischer’s first collaborative pieces for TJT.
“There was a lot of laughter,” recalls Newman of the company’s early days. “Corey was such a flexible and interesting actor. He was also not the easiest person in the world. The first time I’d make a suggestion [as a director], he’d say ‘I can’t possibly do that.’ Then I’d wait a few moments and he’d say, ‘OK let’s try that.’ As time went on and as we matured together, and it was great to direct him.”
They performed across the Bay Area and in more than 60 cities around the world before settling permanently in San Francisco in 1982, eventually leasing the 88-seat Florida Street theater.
Fischer and Newman maintained their lead roles as the theater developed many lauded original works for the stage. When Aaron Davidman became artistic director in 2002, the theater maintained its high standards with a 2007 staging of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” with Fischer starring in the iconic role of Willy Loman.
Davidman directed Fischer in that production, capping an artistic friendship that began years earlier when Fischer served as Davidman’s mentor, starting around the year 2000.
“I was aware at the time a lot of my peers didn’t have a real mentor, especially in theater, where people job around so much,” Davidman recalled. “Here was an opportunity to really go deep. I had a path as a theater artist and a separate one interested in Jewish identity, culture and religion. It was with TJT that the two fused, the lightbulb went on, and I realized I had something to say, something to explore and a heritage to mine.”
In “Death of a Salesman,” which reinterpreted the classic as a more nuanced Jewish play, Davidman says Fischer “gave one of the great performances of his career.” Davidman also directed Fischer in the title role of Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen” for a 2009 TheatreWorks production.
The renamed Jewish Theatre fell on hard times in 2008 during the recession that hit the nation that year. Most of the staff was laid off, and the 2008-09 season was put on hold. A fundraising appeal brought $300,000 in much-needed cash, but 2011-2012 proved to be the final season.
Fischer remained active, composing music, playwriting and performing. His 2016 one-man musical theater show “Lightning in the Brain” examined his first brushes with seizures and other brain-related medical issues.
He suffered a brain stem bleed on Dec. 3, and after surgery and weeks in intensive care began a long rehab process. He lost that battle last weekend.
As for Fischer’s legacy, his colleagues believe it is assured.
“His contribution to the Jewish theater in America is enormous,” Davidman said. “What Corey [and his TJT colleagues] did was take some of the techniques they had explored in the experimental formats, and they went on to dig through their own experience of what it meant to be Jewish in America. I think they helped pave the way for Jewish content to find its way to mainstream American stages in a form that now we don’t even call experimental anymore.”