Domitille Martin in Pli, part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, which runs Jan. 18 to Feb. 4. (photo by Lucie Brosset)
PuSh International Performing Arts Festival returns to Vancouver Jan. 18-Feb. 4. The mid-winter event that delivers innovative, contemporary works asks the questions, “Can a live art festival be a ritual for social change? A cultural strategy? A means to rethink history while imagining possible futures?” Participating artists include Jewish community members and a production presented with Chutzpah! Festival.
Vancouver’s Vanessa Goodman (Action at a Distance) is co-creator with Tangaj Collective (Simona Deaconescu, from Romania, and Gaby Saranouffi, from Madagascar) of BLOT, Body Line of Thought: “Our bodies are strong and fragile. BLOT redefines how we see our physical selves and their relationship to the world. In a stark set reminiscent of a science lab, two dancers observe the intricacies of the body and using salt, microbiome and physiology demonstrate how interconnected we truly are.”
BLOT will be presented Jan. 22-23, 7:30 p.m., at Left of Main, with a post-show talkback after the Jan. 22 production.
PuSh, with SFU Woodward’s Cultural Programs & Touchstone Theatre, presents Toronto-based theatre company Human Cargo’s The Runner, Jan. 24-26, 7:30 p.m., at SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts. The play description reads: “When Jacob, an Orthodox Jew, makes a split-second decision of who to help, his world comes crashing down. Urgent, visceral and complex, The Runner invites us into a nuanced exploration of our shared humanity and the value of kindness.”
In Pli, by France’s Les Nouvelles Subsistances (Inbal Ben Haim, Domitille Martin and Alexis Mérat), “paper becomes a playground. This visually stunning, philosophical work considers risk and transformation, as told through a circus artist moving through a set made entirely of paper – like a vast, changing sculpture. The relationship between body and paper offers a new conversation about the relationship between strength and vulnerability.”
Presented with Chutzpah! Festival, the circus/dance Pli runs Feb. 2-3, 7:30 p.m., at Vancouver Playhouse and Feb. 2-4 online.
In all, PuSh features 17 original works from 15 countries, including four world premières and seven Canadian debuts. The works presented offer personal accounts of resistance and acts of vulnerability, and push us to examine our relationship to themes such as migration, displacement, labour, injustice and artificial intelligence.
Events include Club PuSh, a casual atmosphere where people can connect with artists and party with fellow festival-goers; the PuSh Industry Series, which, in partnership with Talking Stick, stimulates dialogue with attendees during the second week of the festival; youth programming for participants aged 16 to 24; and, in partnership with Playwrights Theatre Centre, free artistic consultations with visiting dramaturgs representing diverse artistic points of view and cultural contexts.
Tickets for PuSh range from $16.75 to $39, with a top-tier seating option of $69 for Pli at the Playhouse, and PuSh passes for people who want to see multiple shows. To buy tickets, visit pushfestival.ca or call the festival audience services line at 604-449-6000.
– Courtesy PuSh International Performing Arts Festival
Hadar Galron in Whistle, which is at the Firehall Arts Centre Nov. 14-15, as part of the Chutzpah! Festival. (photo by Nathan Yakobovitch)
“As a child I was never hugged or kissed; I think my parents did not even see me. I wrote this story to stop being an invisible child,” Israeli author Ya’akov Buchan has said about Whistle: My Mother was Mengele’s Secretary.
The play Whistle is part of this year’s Chutzpah! Festival, with performances Nov. 14 and 15 at the Firehall Arts Centre. Writer, director and actor Hadar Galron, who adapted Buchan’s story for the stage, stars in the monodrama.
“Buchan was born to two Auschwitz survivors, and began writing after he was injured in the Yom Kippur War. He’s written 18 books – four concerning the Holocaust – but he felt that people don’t read so much anymore, and that he wanted to write a play about second generation Holocaust survivors,” explained Galron in an interview with the Independent. “Dramatic writing and prose are very different techniques, and Ya’akov sent me about 30 pages of interesting and well-written content, but not dramatic enough for stage.
“The first meeting with him was out of respect – I thought I’d give him a few tips and let him take it from there,” she continued. “I remember the turning point: I said, ‘You mention twice in these pages the name Mengele. You can’t just throw in a name like that, it needs to have some dramatic payoff, or not to be mentioned at all.’ Ya’akov said nothing, just nodded. And, suddenly, I thought that maybe Mengele had tortured one of his parents. ‘Were any of your parents somehow … (how to say this?!) … connected to Mengele?’ Ya’akov looked me squarely in the eye and said, quietly, ‘My mother was Mengele’s secretary.’ That was when I knew I would take the task, and help him tell his story and the story of the second generation.”
In recent years, Galron has been working on several plays that deal with the lasting impacts of trauma. “We tend not to consider [the] second generation as traumatic,” she said, “but something as horrendous as the Holocaust leaves some people so scarred that they cannot really love anymore, even their children. Or, they love but in a different, obsessive way. The children who grow up without feeling love are traumatized, too, but their wounds are invisible.
“It’s important to understand that, whilst the trauma lasts a minute or a year or five years, post-trauma lasts a lifetime and, when considering [the] second generation, then even more than a lifetime. Long-term traumas such as [the] Holocaust are not a swing of the sword, they are more like the bite of a snake – the venom penetrates the body and mixes with the blood of the victim.”
Though she generally directs her own works, Galron said, “When I’m the actress, I need someone on the outside. At first, I thought maybe I’d direct and not act. It was Ya’akov who begged me, after seeing my stand-up cabaret Passion Killer, to act the part.”
Jaffa, Israel-born director and playwright Hana Vazana Grunwald was the first person who came to Galron’s mind to direct.
“We studied theatre together at Tel Aviv University, but that was decades ago! I had no idea where to find her,” said Galron. “We’d met a couple of times in festivals, etc., along the years. I was thinking of her on my morning walk-jog in the park by my home. In the distance, I saw a woman that reminded me of Hana and then we got closer and I saw it actually was Hana! She lives five minutes away from me, but that was the first day she decided to go out and take a power-walk before work. I don’t believe in coincidence – it’s only God’s way of remaining anonymous.”
Grunwald started out in community theatre more than 25 years ago. She is the director of the Frechot Ensemble, a collective of women creators, which she founded some 10 years ago.
“I see myself as a feminist Mizrahi (Middle Eastern Jew) writer, who brings to the forefront my personal story,” she told the Independent. “But my personal story is never just my own, it’s an inherent part of my political story, my family’s story and the collective which I belong to. I feel that my world isn’t really represented in Israeli theatre. I don’t see the household I grew up in, I don’t encounter complexities and dilemmas that interest me. I realized I have the responsibility to represent myself – I have to write these texts, I have to tell these stories. My job is to search through history and prose and to bring back the voice of all those whose voice was taken away from them.”
When Galron sent her the script for Whistle, Grunwald said, “I was immediately hooked. But, after we met again, I felt that the opportunity to work together and find connections would also be reflected in the play’s dramaturgy.
“The challenge that the play Shirika [Whistle, in Hebrew] brings to our door is how to retell the story of the Holocaust and the story of the members of the second generation, who feel transparent. Two images guided me in my search for the keys to directing the play,” said Grunwald.
“The first: whistle. Tammy, the protagonist, lost her ability to whistle, she lost her ability to love and feel loved and, as she says in the play, ‘The opposite of death is not life, the opposite of death is love.’ The way this whistle is expressed on stage is through the prop of a kettle full of boiling water. The boiling and bubbling kettle and the whistler on stage metaphorically tell the story of the Holocaust, a story that never ends.
“The second image we chose is the painting. Tammy is a painter and, when we wondered what was painted on the stage, we realized that the body is the canvas, the body treasures and carries the wounds of the past, the memories – the actress jumps from limb to limb and with the help of simple means such as brushes and paints Tammy marks national history…. This is the way in which the trauma is present again on the stage.
“It seems that precisely now the spectacle of a whistle is given a relevant meaning,” Grunwald added. “We find ourselves facing a terrorist attack in which again Israeli Jews are brutally murdered and mass murdered because of their Jewishness. We again witness horror stories in this war against Hamas. We find ourselves again, 75 years after the establishment of the state of Israel, in a shocking event that reminds us of the fear of being destroyed. The harsh scenes from both sides shake the soul, sow terror and fear, and remind us that the feeling of security is a temporary illusion and we must not forget it. I work at the Hebrew-Arab theatre in Jaffa, a theatre that gives a stage to the binational discourse, it gives a stage to both narratives, and I feel that, these days, it is the first to be hurt.”
Galron also works with artists of different backgrounds and shared one of her experiences.
“Between 2016 and 2018, I was artistic director of the Shalom Festival, a small festival that was an official part of the Edinburgh Fringe fest,” she said. “We created this festival after an Israeli production, in 2014, was shouted down by the BDS [boycott, divest and sanction movement] and, in 2015, there were no Israeli productions.”
She was inspired by Sir Rudolf Bing, founding director of the Edinburgh International Festival, from which the Edinburgh Fringe Festival has its roots. Galron explained that Bing, a Jewish-Austrian opera singer, who fled Nazi Germany, “created the festival as a cultural bridge, inviting, firstly, German artists to take part! With that in mind, I told the sponsors of the Shalom Festival that we cannot make a one-sided Shalom (Peace) Festival and that, as the artistic director, I would like to bring artists from all of Israel, including Israeli Arabs – both Muslim and Christian – and also some Palestinian artists. At first, there was big objection but, eventually, I convinced them that these are Palestinians who believe in peace, in dialogue. Until today, even in these times, I am in contact with my Palestinian friends.
“I believe art is a bridge,” she said. “I believe art and culture and theatre have the power to heal – to give us insight and create empathy. From my very first performance as a stand-up artist – my show was on the status of women in the Jewish law – I made a decision to make my art meaningful, to merge life and stage.”
Since the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attacks on Israel, Galron has been posting related videos and other items on Facebook, including “Creativity in place of survival” writing challenges. She got the idea from a course she took during COVID with Dr. Joe Dispenza. “In one of the online digital courses, he speaks of how our brain can be either in ‘survival’ or in ‘creativity’ mode,” said Galron. “The moment I heard this, I understood many things about myself and how creativity has always been for me a way of surviving. Now I know that, when we begin to be creative, we actually begin to pull ourselves out of ‘survival’ [mode] even if we are being creative whilst we try to survive. A bit like Baron Munchausen explains that he pulls himself by his hair out of the pit.”
About how she is doing since the attacks, Galron said, “I didn’t have a real answer to that question until yesterday, because everything is so chaotic. But I was speaking to a university student of mine who answered, ‘I’m committed to the good.’ I was so moved by this. She told me she adopted it from her yoga teacher. I adopted it from her. I’m committed to the good.”
Composer Rita Ueda has written an opera inspired by Barbara Bluman’s book I Have My Mother’s Eyes. (photo by Danilo Bobyk)
“In light of what is happening in the news today, we need to tell the story of Chiune Sugihara and the Bluman family more than ever,” composer Rita Ueda told the Independent. “I suspect more and more world leaders, communities and individuals will be faced with the decision to either do the easy thing, or the right thing. We need to tell ourselves more stories of compassion, courage, healing and family love.”
Ueda’s chamber opera I Have My Mother’s Eyes: A Holocaust Memoir Across Generations premières at the Rothstein Theatre Nov. 18-19, as part of the Chutzpah! Festival. Directed by Heather Pawsey, the opera tells the story of Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat who risked his own life during the Holocaust to issue visas to Jews, including members of Vancouver’s Bluman family. Its title comes from the late Barbara Bluman’s book of the same name, which was published in 2009, five years after her death from cancer.
“I don’t think I fully knew why I wanted my mother’s book published … when I immersed myself in this legacy project,” said Danielle Schroeder. “Looking back, bringing her story and my grandmother’s stories to life brought me a lot of comfort and meaning as I grappled with the profound sense of loss her death brought…. Also, at the time it was published, stories about the impact of intergenerational trauma and resilience were not being written about that much in the mainstream, so I felt my mom’s book was unique in the way it interweaves and interconnects her and her mother’s stories of trauma, loss and hope. And, of course, being able to share with the world the story of courage, generosity and compassion of the Sugihara family was also important to me.”
Ueda found out about the Bluman family in 2017, through an installation at the Maritime Museum, and reached out to George Bluman, Barbara’s brother. She was moved by the intergenerational nature of I Have My Mother’s Eyes.
“Zosia [Susan] Bluman’s escape from the Holocaust is only a part of the story,” she said. “The story of how the next two generations carried on the family legacy affected me to the core. When George suggested I expand the opera to include the story of the three generations of the Sugihara family that saved them, I became compelled to create the opera!”
“I was very touched and honoured that such a well-respected Canadian composer would want to write an opera about my mom’s book,” said Schroeder. “Especially after meeting Rita in person and learning … how my mom’s book impacted her, it was easy to say ‘yes.’”
Ueda’s opera is inspired by Barbara Bluman’s book, rather than based on it.
“Opera is best suited to convey the characters’ emotional journey,” Ueda explained. “The opera covers all three characters from the book – Zosia, Barbara and Danielle – the three generations of the Bluman women, and their love for each other in light of all the events in their lives. Materials on the three generations of the Sugihara family were based on my two visits to the Sugihara family in Tokyo. Madoka Sugihara spent over five hours with me on each visit, and she showed me many photos and books. She let me play [her grandfather] Chiune Sugihara’s collection of sheet music on his piano, and she told me many family stories. I was truly moved by the two families’ journey of survival, healing, and love for each other.”
George Bluman shared a bit about the real-life people depicted: Zosia, Barbara and Danielle on the Bluman side and Chiune, Yukiko, Hiroki and Madoka on the Sugihara side.
Bluman’s mother was born in 1920 and died in 2004. “Her story, before coming to Vancouver in July 1941, comes to life in I Have My Mother’s Eyes,” he said. “In Vancouver, she worked as a salesperson/buyer in women’s clothing at Cordell’s and Jermaine’s. She was one of the founders of the annual Warsaw Ghetto memorial program, the forerunner of the current annual Yom Hashoah commemoration. Mum is featured in the 2000 PBS documentary Sugihara Conspiracy of Kindness, as well as in the Holocaust museums in Washington, New York and Los Angeles. She loved her family, hosting raucous weekly Sunday dinners for all, often including her children’s friends.
“My sister, Barbara Bluman (1950-2001), graduated from UBC Law School in 1975, among the first large class of women. She was an independent thinker and feminist who lovingly balanced raising her children and her career in law. Her commitment to human rights was demonstrated in all of her pursuits…. Her deep dedication to Holocaust understanding led to her contribution to the Gesher Project, a second-generation cultural exploration of the Holocaust, and organizing an important symposium on the Nuremberg trials.”
Bluman said that, from 1996 to 2000, his sister made notes from 19 interviews with their mother. “Excerpts from these notes formed the basis for her book,” he said, praising his niece’s efforts in getting the book published.
“Yukiko Sugihara (1913-2008) married Chiune Sugihara (1900-1986) in 1936,” said Bluman. “In 1993, my family first met her, together with her oldest son, Hiroki (1936-2002), and Michi (Hiroki’s wife) for a few hours at the Vancouver airport during a stopover on their way to a dinner in Toronto organized by Ontario Premier Bob Rae involving the Jewish and Japanese communities. There was a spontaneous outpouring of strong emotions. To me, in her demeanour, she was an empress! She knew no English and I no Japanese, but I felt what she was saying. My mum and Barbara attended the dinner in Toronto, where the principal guest speaker was David Suzuki.”
There were a few other encounters, and Bluman said he and his brother Bob have corresponded regularly with Madoka. “I have met her twice in visits to Japan,” said Bluman, noting that Bob joined him on the second visit.
“Madoka is a very gracious person and works passionately on making the world aware of the heroic legacy of her grandparents. According to Madoka, her grandmother Yukiko played a most essential role in the Sugihara story.”
Ueda’s opera is “especially meaningful,” said Schroeder, “because it brings my mother back to life and honours her in such a profound way.”
She added, “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the Sugihara family, so to see a piece of art be created that brings our family together is moving beyond words.”
It has taken seven years to get to this point – the opera’s première.
“George and Danielle have been wonderful to work with,” said Ueda. “They have shown me photos (which you will see in the production) and shared family stories with me. They also introduced me to the wonderful Sugihara family.”
Ueda shared “two fun facts”: George Bluman, an emeritus math professor at UBC, trained her brother, a former math professor himself; and she has received permission to turn Yukiko Sugihara’s Midnight Sun Songs, poems that chronicle her story as the wife of Chiune Sugihara, into a sequel to I Have My Mother’s Eyes. The world première will be in Tokyo in October 2024.
Ueda has been composing since she was a toddler. “My late mother was an opera singer, so I grew up in a household with music,” she said. “My early musical ‘scores’ were crayon drawings of picture-representations of the sounds I improvised at the piano. My very first composition teacher when I was 3 (who was about 95 at the time) encouraged me to improvise at the piano and to keep on ‘drawing’ scores in crayon colours, even though his own teachers in the 1880s were Helmholtz and Tchaikovsky. He also arranged for me to see many concerts and events with composers such as Steve Reich, Earle Brown and John Cage.”
The environment, human rights and other societal issues have inspired Ueda’s work. “People in the audience do not need to agree with what I say in my music, but I want them to use the experience as a catalyst for important community dialogue,” she said.
For Ueda, opera is the perfect medium for telling a story with a strong emotional content.
“Opera cannot deliver a blow-by-blow story like a TV drama, film or documentary,” she acknowledged, “but music combined with voice can speak to you at the deepest, most profound level. Through opera, I hope to tell engaging and relevant stories that are important to us – who we are, what we stand for, and what we believe in. European opera has had a history of elitism throughout the past 400 years, but recent Canadian opera productions have been changing this. I hope I Have My Mother’s Eyes will contribute to this change.”
Grass is Green is at the Rothstein Theatre on April 25. (photo from Una Productions)
B.C. Movement Arts and Chutzpah!PLUS present the Canadian première of Grass is Green in Vancouver and several other B.C. locations, starting April 25.
Grass is Green is an evening-length work from San Francisco- and New York City-based UNA Productions. Performed by six dancers and drag queen/cellist/pianist Rose Nylons, Grass is Green considers cycles of destruction and renewal both within humanity and the land of which humanity is a part. The highly physical and exuberant work embodies a cycle of rebirth, representations of queer intimacy, and moments of communal joy, grief and connectivity.
The choreographer of Grass is Green is Chuck Wilt, in collaboration with the performers, who are Wilt, Nylons, Kira Fargas, Dominica Greene, Dasol Kim, Rebecca Margolick and Hadassah Perry. The music is by Nylons, Donna Summer, Sylvester, DJ Koze and Nils Frahm, Julia Wolfe and Matthew Welch, and Michael Nyman.
Grass is Green is the first partnership of B.C. Movement Arts (BCMA) and the Chutzpah! Festival. BCMA was founded by artistic and executive director Mary-Louise Albert, the former director of Chutzpah!, which is now led by artistic managing director Jessica Gutteridge, who has been at the helm since 2020.
Grass is Green takes place at the Rothstein Theatre on April 25, 7:30 p.m. For tickets, go to chutzpahfestival.com or call 604-257-5117.
It moves on to Sointula April 27-28, Alert Bay April 29, Port Hardy April 30 and Campbell River May 2. For more details on and tickets for these shows, visit bcmovementarts.com or call 604-970-3206.
Ben Caplan opens this year’s Chutzpah! Festival Nov. 21. (photo from Chutzpah!)
In the last issue of the Jewish Independent, Chutzpah! Festival artistic managing director Jessica Mann Gutteridge, festival host and stand-up performer Iris Bahr and event comedy closers Jess Salomon and Eman El-Husseini, aka the El-Salomons, were featured. This week, the JI offers a glimpse into the rest of the lineup, by order of appearance.
Musician Ben Caplan opens the festival on Nov. 21 with a recorded performance. Before the recent COVID restrictions, the show was to be presented live from the Rothstein Theatre.
Caplan was on stage here back in January, bringing Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story – which is based on the true story of two Jewish Romanian refugees coming to Canada in 1908 – to the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival (jewishindependent.ca/searching-for-a-safe-harbour). This show, Caplan will be performing songs from his album Old Stock, which is adapted from this music-theatre work.
“The story of Chaim and Chaya, and, by extension, that of a great number of immigrants and refugees who have come to Canada, is full of a great many hardships and tribulations,” said Caplan when asked what lessons from their experience might be relevant in COVID times. “Their story is not free from conflict, both with the outer world, with each other and with themselves. What we see in their story is that, through perseverance, they are able to cross the narrow bridge of their precarity into a sweeter time. It is a nice reminder that no matter how dark things get, there are always brighter moments ahead.”
* * *
Last Chutzpah! Festival, former Vancouverite Tamara Micner performed her one-woman show Holocaust Brunch here. On Nov. 22, she’s offering a first peek at a new work-in-progress from her current hometown, London, England.
“Old Friends is very much in the early days – I would say it’s in kindergarten,” admitted Micner. “I’ve been working on it this year and the Chutzpah! Festival streaming will be the first time I perform some of the piece with a public audience. I don’t know exactly what the performance will look like or exactly what will be in it. It’s ‘nervciting’! I look forward to sharing some of the work with Chutzpah! audiences and doing a Q&A afterwards to speak more about the show. I’m hoping and aiming to present the full show in 2021.”
A key inspiration for Old Friends is the music of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, and their relationship.
“I find Simon and Garfunkel’s music comforting and uplifting…. The combination of Paul’s songwriting, Art’s voice and their harmonies are beautiful,” said Micner. “I also find the themes in their music resonant at this time – including loneliness, isolation, hope and a yearning for connection…. I’m also intrigued by the on-again, off-again nature of their relationship and the Jewishness in that – how we have a tendency to cling to each other, leave each other, not talk for years, but not be able to fully stay apart or let go. There’s a lot to mine in that, I think – where that comes from, what it’s about and how we can free ourselves from that cycle.”
* * *
Also on Nov. 22, New York-based playwright Rokhl Kafrissen shares her new work-in-progress.
“Shtumer Shabes [Silent Shabbat] opens in the year 2000,” said Kafrissen. “A performance studies grad student named Jess is writing about the heyday of Yiddish theatre in Poland in the 1930s. Jess is studying what she calls the ‘hybrid potentialities of interwar Yiddish performance practices.’ How did Jews use their art to embody binaries like Yiddish and Polish, Jew and Catholic, urban and rural, capitalist and socialist? She argues that The Dybbuk is the ultimate expression of that hybridity.
“As the play opens, Jess stumbles into the chance to interview an honest-to-goodness Warsaw Yiddish diva. It turns out that Sonja, a 90-something veteran of the Polish-Yiddish stage, is living in her neighbourhood. Jess comes to believe that Sonja possesses a ‘lost’ play script: Shtumer Shabes. Her encounter with Sonja is also her opportunity to write history. But Jess is confronted by the elusiveness of ‘plain facts’ and the cost of writing history. For me, the encounter between Jess and Sonja represents two competing ways of understanding the past, through scholarship and through art.”
Imagining Sonja’s world wasn’t hard for Kafrissen, as she knows well Yiddish theatre, past and present, and the standard Yiddish reference sources. However, she did struggle with her protectiveness of the Yiddish past and her obligation as a journalist “to the people and productions I’ve been reading about, an obligation to tell their stories accurately and respectfully.”
“But, at some point, my inner journalist has to be thanked politely and shown the door,” she said. “If you’re going to write historically informed fiction (which is what I consider this piece), you have to be comfortable going beyond the facts. It gets even trickier because part of Sonja’s backstory … is flashback to the war, when she was imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto. I know enough about the Warsaw Ghetto to invent a plausible scenario. But depicting it feels daunting. The potential for kitsch or melodrama is high. My characters grapple with extremely sensitive issues, including allegations of collaboration with the Germans. It was important to me that if I was going to include such provocative topics, I had to stick closely to historical fact and stay within the realm of the possible. My characters would not be saints or holy martyrs, but real people, caught in the worst possible circumstances.”
Cast as Sonja is Shane Baker, who Kafrissen has known since she worked with him in 2009 on his one-man show The Big Bupkis: A Complete Gentile’s Guide to Yiddish Vaudeville.
“I quickly became a big admirer of Shane’s work,” she said. “He can go from the highest brow, as with his translation of Waiting for Godot into Yiddish, all the way to the lowest brow, as with his vaudeville show…. In the last few years, Shane had been working on a drag character called Miss Mitzi Manna. She was inspired in part by his close friendships with the last generation of Yiddish theatre grandes dames. So, when I got a 14th Street Y LABA Fellowship in 2019, I decided to write a play with a role for Shane in drag as my yearlong fellowship project. I knew from the beginning that the role wasn’t written for Mitzi Manna per se, but Shane’s development of the character was a huge inspiration. Writing the role of Sonja with a drag character in mind opened up a kind of playfulness and experimentation for me. Drag is such a dramatically rich device. It heightens our awareness of the artifice of theatre and interrogates the mimetic nature of theatre itself.”
A staged reading of Shtumer Shabes was supposed to have taken place last in April. “Unfortunately,” said Kafrissen, “that coincided with the world as we knew it collapsing. As I get ready to present excerpts from the play for the Chutzpah! Festival, I can see a tiny sliver of silver lining. Even with the pandemic, I’ve managed to sneak in some actor time in the last couple months, as well as getting thoughtful feedback on the script from folks both within my artistic circle and outside. The script is now so much better than the version I had in the spring, so I tell myself maybe it’s better that I didn’t present that earlier draft to the world.”
The Dybbuk by S. Ansky infuses Shtumer Shabes: Jess is obsessed with The Dybbuk and it’s why she went to grad school; and “Sonja’s career on the Warsaw Yiddish stage was tied up with the phenomenal, real world success of The Dybbuk,” said Kafrissen. “It was with a Dybbuk monologue that she auditioned for Yiddish drama school and the role of Leah (the young woman possessed by the dybbuk) was always her dream.”
This year marks the 100th anniversary both of Ansky’s death in November 1920 and the première of the Yiddish version of the play a month later. “I love the idea of having our Chutzpah! program serve as Sonja’s final tribute to Ansky and his creation,” said Kafrissen.
* * *
Death … and life are at the centre of Israeli choreographer Ella Rothschild’s Pigulim, which is described as “a cultural narrative [that] unfolds against the backdrop of a meal at a long dining table where three characters suffer from unbearable loneliness and battle their way between life and death. Each character travels between their individual materialistic being and their consciousness, revealing their essential humanity in relation to existence and the quest for happiness.” A pre-recorded performance of the work will be shown at the Chutzpah! Festival on Nov. 23.
In the summer of 2019, Rothschild was selected as one of the first artists-in-residence at Suzanne Dellal Centre. She started Pigulim there and continued researching it in “other places in the world with different scenarios and different cast members.” This year, back at the centre, the piece premièred in its video version.
Pigul (pigulim, pl.) “describes a law from the Jewish tradition,” explained Rothschild. “It refers to a sacrifice that was prohibited to be eaten because of a forbidden thought that the priest (kohain) had in the moment he was making the sacrifice. It can mean abomination or loathsome, and it’s not a word used in everyday Hebrew. The idea that a thought can change reality has a direct connection to what I tried to present in Pigulim. If the thought one can have determines the reality of another entity, how much from our consciousness is being present in our reality and our society?
“Another aspect of choosing this particular name is another gap that unravels between the sound of the word and its meaning. Pigulim has a nice way of rolling in the mouth. The letters are round and when you pronounce it, it almost sounds like a name of a rare flower – but the meaning of it is the opposite. It contains strong emotions and gravity. Once more, it holds this gap between what we experience and the reality.”
This gap – “a certain detachment between our body and mind” – is something with which we must live, said Rothschild, and its loneliness is not changed by “how many people are surrounding you in the space.”
“As I see it and experience it, it is a state of being, not only of certain individuals but as a mass society,” she said. “I have learnt, through working with others, more about how this gap appears and how we perceive it. We behave inside these structures that are determined for us and, yes, it leaves a gap or an absence that we don’t really understand, or we will forever try to make sense of.”
However, there is more than just absence. “I did find out that we share more than we think,” she said. “We share beauty, laughter, sadness and grief. We cry from the same things and we worry and we fear. But we also love. And that is an overwhelming thing to share.”
* * *
Israeli pianist and composer Guy Mintus – whose solo concert will be live-streamed on Nov. 24 – is about to release his third album with the Guy Mintus Trio: A Gershwin Playground.
Mintus’s study of piano didn’t follow a traditional path. “I didn’t start with classical piano,” he said. “I started on a little keyboard my parents got me, not an acoustic piano even, and I was studying a very mixed repertoire of adapted arrangements for beginning keyboard players. Among that repertoire were the Beatles, Israeli pop songs, Fiddler on the Roof and … two [George] Gershwin tunes: ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ and ‘Summertime.’ When I started playing those, my father handed me the Porgy and Bess album of Ella [Fitzgerald] and Louis [Armstrong]. That totally blew my mind and I started trying to emulate the arrangements on my keyboard (which had the ability to switch between different sound samples).
“To me, these songs are timeless – musically and lyrically. They’re very rich and have a strong musical character but yet they remain very open and flexible to let you in and bring yourself into them. The lyrics also mostly speak of things that will always be relevant. It’s not by accident that generations and generations of jazz musicians have been interpreting Gershwin.”
One aspect of the music’s continued importance is that, “unfortunately, we’re constantly reminded by these horrific events that keep happening that racism is still very much around; that the colour of your skin can easily become a disadvantage right off the bat,” said Mintus. “When I’m thinking of Gershwin, I’m also considering his background as a Jewish-American composer coming from a family of immigrants. Of all things he could be fascinated by, he was fascinated by Black American music and ended up writing the first jazz opera bringing this marginalized music to the heart of the consensus. More than that, he wouldn’t allow Porgy and Bess to be premièred at the Met Opera because, at the time, they wouldn’t allow Black performers. He made it mandatory that, if Porgy and Bess is ever performed, main roles have to be performed by Black people. Now, Porgy and Bess has its controversies in regards to race and representation but I believe in the essence of its coming from a place of great respect to the incredible culture its getting inspiration from.
“I think that the Jewish and African-American communities actually share quite a lot in common,” he continued. “There’s certainly a collective trauma we’re each dealing with. To me, Gershwin was standing right in the middle of that – in ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ (which is on the album, as well, in a solo version) you literally have a meeting point between klezmer and the blues. I want to echo that connection, which is still very relevant to me, through my own lens as an Israeli who lived, studied and worked in New York. It’s important to give back, acknowledge and show respect where it’s due. Last July, the trio and I did an online fundraiser concert called Gershwin Global. It was in order to raise funds for the Jazz Foundation, who takes care of elderly musicians and emergency cases. This music comes from people who gave their lives to it – if we benefit from it, we’ve got to find a way to also give back to its source.”
The new album will be launched on Nov. 27 and, given COVID, touring it is not an option. Nonetheless, Mintus said it is worthwhile to put it out anyway. “Life goes on, music goes on and, in my opinion, it’s as relevant, if not more, to release new music in this period,” he said.
With the internet, there are many ways to connect with people all over the world, he added. “This poses a creative challenge how to find interesting, experiential ways to share this music with the world; how to share the story behind the album. Each single has a unique artwork, there are videos, a bunch of online live events that are planned – all of this is going to be available through my Facebook page (facebook.com/guymintusmusic). The fact that I’m not switching countries so often as normal allows me a different kind of focus and attention on how to turn this release process into the most fun, meaningful and creative process it can be.”
* * *
Chutzpah! artist-in-residence this year is choreographer Idan Cohen (Ne. Sans opera and dance). The world première of his Hourglass, which is presented by RBC, will be performed and live-streamed from the Rothstein Theatre on Nov. 25.
“Both the residency and this opportunity to present at Chutzpah! are the best things that could have happened to me during a time when artists are facing difficult challenges,” Cohen told the Independent. “I believe with all my heart in the strength and importance of the arts for a healthy society. It is not a luxury but a necessity, especially within a specific culture. Judaism is not just a common history or a set of beliefs, but a diverse culture that needs to be ever-evolving, reinterpreted and recreated, respecting and learning from our common past while creating a shared future. Having Jessica [Mann Gutteridge] share some of the same core values, and acknowledge the importance of going forward with the festival this year, has been such an empowering force for me and my collaborators during these past few months.”
Hourglass is an exploration of aging set to music by Philip Glass. It is a duet with former Ballet BC company dancer Racheal Prince and returning Ballet BC company dancer Brandon Lee Alley.
“As dance artists,” said Cohen, “our focus is on our most intimate tool and instrument: the human body. When that body is extremely intelligent and qualified, as Racheal’s and Brandon’s bodies are, true magic happens on stage. It’s like an ancient fairytale told to you as a child: it represents both the past and the future, it’s exciting and haunting, and it teaches you something valuable through the most basic elements of storytelling. No need for fireworks or special effects.
“For this edition of the festival, we are presenting 30 minutes of dance to four out of 20 études composed by Glass played by the conductor and celebrated pianist Leslie Dala (Vancouver Opera, Bach Choir). Leslie was actually the one who first presented the idea of this project to me, and dancing and working with him has been a most gratifying experience. There are linear elements in the piece, but Glass’s music marries the abstract and the linear, the romantic and the intellectual, in a way that not many composers are able to do, and that’s what makes it so unique.
“Racheal and Brandon, who are young yet mature and highly experienced dancers, can embody different physical states in such a fascinating way,” said Cohen. “They had a significant role in our exploration of the theme of aging and time.”
Being a real-life couple means that Prince and Alley have been able to rehearse together safely during COVID, and the Rothstein Theatre is large enough for them to work with Cohen at a safe distance. “Since Leslie is also dancing (!) in the piece,” added Cohen, “we had to adapt in order to keep everyone safe, which is, of course, the priority. This has definitely been a great learning experience, and an immensely gratifying one.”
The Chutzpah! Festival runs Nov. 21-28. For tickets, which start at $18, visit chutzpahfestival.com or call 604-257-5145.
The new artistic managing director of Chutzpah!, Jessica Mann Gutteridge, faced unique challenges in presenting the festival. (photo from Chutzpah!)
“This has been a challenging time for all communities. I hope that this year’s Chutzpah! Festival can bring a sense of joy, and the communal spirit that comes from sharing performing arts experiences with others, whether at the theatre or from the comfort of home,” said artistic managing director Jessica Mann Gutteridge in a recent interview with the Jewish Independent.
This will be the first-ever Chutzpah! The Lisa Nemetz International Jewish Performing Arts Festival that people will be able to watch at home. Given the COVID-19 pandemic, all of the performances will be available online, Nov. 21-28, with a few opportunities to attend small-audience shows that are being live-streamed from the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre. Not only will this be the first Chutzpah! presented digitally in the festival’s 20-year history, but it will be the first directed by Gutteridge.
“I knew that I had an exciting and challenging year ahead of me when I took the helm of Chutzpah! from Mary-Louise Albert, who was artistic director before me for 15 years,” said Gutteridge. “I really could not have anticipated how much the world would change just three weeks later, when the pandemic shuttered the Rothstein Theatre and the entire performing arts sector. The first month or so was spent focusing on our staff’s well-being and helping the many users of our theatre to reschedule and replan all the events that had to be canceled.
“The first thing I did for the Chutzpah! Festival was to take some time to think,” she said. “My board was wonderfully supportive from Day 1 and assured me that whatever scale I felt was right would be all right with them – even if I wanted to postpone for a year. I spent a great deal of time just thinking about the purposes of the festival, how it serves the community and the relationships we have with our audiences and community of artists. Even before COVID, when I was thinking about what my first festival might look like in a transition time, I felt inspired to bring together artists who had performed in the festival in the past with new artists who I hoped would join us in the future. So, I began by reaching out to artists from both groups so that we could just start to get to know each other, and find out how everyone was responding to this unprecedented situation.”
By early summer, said Gutteridge, it became clear that the health-related restrictions with respect to the pandemic would still be in place in November, “so I began to think about how we might incorporate digital presentations into the festival, and to talk to artists who were exploring this form of performance in their work.
“I was thrilled to learn that Iris Bahr, who was in the 2019 festival, is not only a brilliant actor and stand-up comic, but is also a podcaster who interviews other artists and public intellectuals with much wit and insight. I invited her to perform her solo stand-up, but also to function as our festival host and conduct live interviews with all the festival artists,” said Gutteridge. “Because Iris divides her time between Israel, New York and Los Angeles, we knew she would have to appear digitally and, though this adds another layer of technical complexity, I think it’s such a special opportunity that the present moment brings us – to join artists from across the world and have a chance to learn more about how the pandemic is changing and shaping their creative work.”
The festival’s online-only shows will include Bahr’s stand-up comedy performance (click here for story); New York-based playwright Rokhl Kafrissen’s Shtumer Shabes (Silent Sabbath) and former Vancouverite-current Londoner (England) Tamara Micner’s Old Friends, both of which are works-in-progress; a concert by Israeli pianist and composer Guy Mintus; and Israeli choreographer Ella Rothschild’s Pigulim.
There will be two shows live-streamed from the Rothstein, where limited audiences will be permitted. Ben Caplan will perform music from Old Stock, which is adapted from his music-theatre piece Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story (see jewishindependent.ca/searching-for-a-safe-harbour). And Chutzpah! artist-in-residence Idan Cohen (Ne. Sans opera and dance) presents the world première of Hourglass. Closing out the festival are Jess Salomon and Eman El-Husseini (click here for story), who will be live-streaming from Brooklyn, joined by yet-to-be-announced local comedians performing at the Rothstein.
The lineup is a fraction of what it would have been if not for COVID, but Gutteridge thought it important to proceed with the event.
“Well, for starters, I’m stubborn and I like a challenge!” she said of the decision. “I also knew that we were well-positioned with staff and support to execute a creative and fulfilling festival, even though it would not look much like past festivals. In talking to colleagues inside and outside the JCC, and hearing from our community via a survey in July, I understood that there was a lot of enthusiasm to keep experiencing the kind of performing arts presentations that Chutzpah! has offered for 20 years now. And, looking ahead to dark November nights, I think we can offer a communal experience that will bring some much-needed joy.”
In addition to focusing on quality entertainment, health and safety has been at the forefront of the planning.
“We have worked carefully with health and performing arts sector experts to make sure that we are providing the safest possible experiences for audiences, staff and artists, including at our physically distanced, intimate live events at the Rothstein Theatre,” said Gutteridge. “I’m also very impressed by how our artists have risen to the challenge. Rokhl Kafrissen, the playwright of Shtumer Shabes, has been working with her cast via Zoom since April, when they presented a workshop of the play in lieu of the debut performance they were scheduled to have at LABA in New York. Our audiences will have a chance to meet the artists and see excerpts from the play, with context about the work’s meaning and creation, all performed from the artists’ individual locations. It’s a special opportunity for our audiences to peek inside the creative process.
“Idan Cohen’s Hourglass, a new dance piece with live piano accompaniment, is being created this fall at the Rothstein Theatre as part of our creative residency program. With 318 seats and a large stage, the theatre is large enough for physical distancing, and Idan is working with a skeleton crew – often just himself and the two dancers at work. The dancers, Brandon Lee Alley and Racheal Prince, are partners offstage as well as on, so they are already in a household bubble. The other dance piece, Ella Rothschild’s Pigulim, comes to us from the Suzanne Dellal Centre in Tel Aviv, where the performance was previously recorded in a studio theatre, so that health and safety protocols could be observed and the dancers could form their own bubble.”
Tickets for the festival start at $18 and are available online at chutzpahfestival.com or by phone at 604-257-5145.
Iris Bahr pulls double duty at the 2020 Chutzpah! Festival, as host and performer. (photo from Chutzpah!)
Comedien, writer, actor, director, producer and podcaster Iris Bahr will both host this year’s Chutzpah! Festival, Nov. 21-28, and perform her stand-up live Nov. 26.
Known for her eclectic characters, Bahr will call on many of them as she converses with the other festival artists as part of her hosting duties.
“I’ll be conducting these conversations either as myself or as some of my characters, depending on the artist I’m speaking to,” Bahr told the Independent. “My alter egos include Shosh, the salty Israeli who has become popular on Instagram, Rae Lynn Caspar White, my ‘Southern redneck intellectual,’ and Shuli, my Orthodox character who is beyond excited to ‘dive into the arts’ for the first time.”
Many JI readers will know Bahr’s stand-up from having seen her perform at last year’s Chutzpah! The show will be somewhat different this time around.
“My stand-up will involve more crowd work and storytelling versus just straight-on stand-up to camera,” she said. “I have found that to be a more captivating and enjoyable experience for everyone involved when the audience can also engage and experience each other’s presence, it’s the closest we can get to a communal live theatrical experience in these challenging times.”
Eman El-Husseini, left, and Jess Salomon with furry family member Esther Honey El-Husseini. (photo by Mike Bryck)
Jess Salomon and Eman El-Husseini, aka the El-Salomons, close out this year’s Chutzpah! Festival on Nov. 28. They will live-stream from Brooklyn, and local comedians will join the event from the Rothstein Theatre.
In performance, the married Jewish-Palestinian lesbian comedy duo leans into the things that make them unique. Their chemistry is not only evident on stage, but even comes out in an email interview, where the pair play off one another like, well, a couple who knows and loves each other well.
JI: You met when you were each performing solo routines and continued in that vein, I think, even after you were married. When and why did you team up professionally as well?
Jess: It didn’t really come from us. We weren’t out in comedy until we got engaged so it was only after that, that we started making jokes about our relationship. Sometimes, we’d follow each other on a show and it became obvious who we were talking about. Like how many Jewish-Muslim-Palestinian Canadian couples that moved to America from Canada are there? Another comedy couple might be able to be on a show together and say my boyfriend did this or my girlfriend did that, and no one would connect that they were referring to one another. So, we built in this reveal and, eventually, people started asking if we were going to share the stage together. We didn’t want to, but it’s a sacrifice we make for the fans!
Eman: The first time we shared the stage was at a gig in an old synagogue turned community centre in L.A. I went on first and introduced Jess for her performance. We bantered, unprepared, on stage for about 10 minutes. We had no idea a reviewer from Tablet was in the audience and, although we individually performed for about 30 minutes separately, that 10 minutes of banter stole the show…. We didn’t think much of it but, a year later, 2018, we were in our hometown of Montreal for the Just for Laughs Festival. The BBC World Service was in town to put on a comedy show. They called us and asked if we’d want to record a set together and we said, ‘absolutely not.’ First of all, they have a huge listenership and we wouldn’t be able to polish an act under such short notice and, second, no one wants or should want to work with their spouse. But, the British have a way to persuade, it must be the accent.
At the same time, because we were back in our hometown, Just for Laughs offered us two shows to do whatever we wanted. We decided to perform individually for 20 minutes and then 20 minutes together. We almost got divorced but the audience loved it! We sold out both nights and added a third. Who would have thought a duo act would be so sought after? We’ve been working together ever since, and we are still married! I think, at this point, if we ever separated, we’d have to be closeted about getting divorced.
JI: From where do you get the strength and confidence to be a stand-up comedian?
Eman: I have no idea why and how I’ve stuck with this career after my first set. I bombed so hard and, until today, continue to bomb at times, but there is truly an addictive element to making someone laugh. Even if it’s a single person in a room. Laughter is so genuine and isn’t easily had. I mean, even in our day-to-day life Jess and I will share with each other how we made a stranger laugh shopping for groceries or walking the dog. It’s so rewarding.
Jess: Making strangers laugh and then talking about it is 100% an Eman thing. Right now, we’re in an argument over a speech therapist I’m convinced she hired just to entertain while she insists she has a speech impediment that must be fixed.
Eman: I feel like my strength and confidence comes from my parents. Although my sister and I have a brother, I managed to be the favourite.
Jess: You do have a masculine energy they might be responding to.
Eman: A big reason I wanted to be a stand-up comic is because of how misrepresented and underrepresented Arabs, Muslims and particularly Palestinians are in the media. More often than not, I am the first Palestinian someone meets in real life. I feel like an ambassador of sorts, dispelling stereotypes about my people. Exposure is such a powerful tool in getting through to people and if you can make them laugh that’s a big bonus. Even if people are immediately turned off by what I represent, they are still curious to hear what I have to say. I remember headlining a show in Niagara Falls once. I had to be on stage for 45 minutes. Twenty minutes in, I realized I haven’t made a single person laugh….
Jess: I love that it took you 20 minutes! That’s confidence.
Eman: They were conservative-leaning so, I called them out, ‘Guys! I know you don’t like what I’m saying but I can tell you like me.’ That eviscerated the room! From that moment forward I knew I could never quit comedy even if I wanted to.
Jess: I tried to do a joke about the no smoking sign on the plane and quickly realized there were at least a few comics who had done the same joke. That’s when I realized it’s better when I pull from personal experience. Even if I’m not an ambassador like Eman. I’m not the first Jewish comedian people have seen.
JI: How and when did your new Crave Canada special, Marriage of Convenience, come about?
Jess: After performing in Montreal for Just for Laughs and the BBC in 2018, we kept working on our duo act and growing our audience on Instagram for our comics (@theelsalomons). We sent a tape of what grew into an hour-long show to Just for Laughs and that’s how we got booked for the Crave special.
Eman: We realized people preferred us together than individually, which is insulting considering we had about a decade each of solo experience. It’s understandable, there are so many stand-up comics but rarely any duo acts.
Jess: There’s no one I’d rather lose my individual identity for.
JI: What is the origin of the cartoons?
Eman: Jess came up with the idea. We would get such a huge response on social media when we’d write these back-and-forth status updates about each other.
Jess: Huge is relative.
Eman: People asking when the sitcom was coming out.
Jess: And, knowing that it would take awhile for us to find the time to write a pilot that was pitch-ready and be in a place where we could sell a series, a weekly cartoon on Instagram seemed like a manageable place to start to develop the character version of ourselves and, hopefully, an audience. We also have a close family friend, Jesse Brown, who just happens to be an incredible illustrator that wanted to work on this with us. So that’s how it was born.
Eman: The El-Salomons was the hashtag for our wedding, and Jesse drew us for our invitations … my mother-in-law saw them and said, “He made you look thin.”
Jess: Actually, yes, that is how it was born.
* * *
Chutzpah! starts Nov. 21. For the full lineup and tickets, visit chutzpahfestival.com or call 604-257-5145.
AvevA and her band perform at the Rickshaw Theatre Nov. 14. (photo from Chutzpah!)
“I’m really looking forward to performing for a new audience in Vancouver, and to seeing Vancouver for the first time,” Israeli-Ethiopian singer-songwriter AvevA Dese – who goes by her first name – told the Independent.
The Rehovot-based musician will perform at the Rickshaw Theatre Nov. 14 as part of the Chutzpah! Festival. She will be coming with a band: Noam Israeli (drums), Nadav Peled (guitar) and Itamar Gov-Ari (keyboard). While in North America, the group will also perform in New York and Los Angeles.
Though AvevA has been singing since she can remember, she started songwriting in her teens. Her participation, in 2012, on the Israeli reality TV show The Voice led her to Rimon School of Music, in Ramat Hasharon, a suburb of Tel Aviv. This, in turn, led the musician – who mainly listened to American soul music when she was a kid – to explore her roots. While AvevA was born in Israel, her parents made aliyah in 1984, having escaped civil war and famine in Ethiopia by making the weeks-long journey to a refugee camp in Sudan, from where they were brought to Israel as part of Operation Moses.
“It was a process, trying to get in touch with my roots, my heritage,” she said. “As a child, I wasn’t interested in my heritage because I felt I had to choose either I’m Ethiopian or I’m Israeli. So, I chose Israeli because I wanted to fit in.
“Growing up, I understood that I can be both, but I wasn’t eager to learn and know about my Ethiopian roots – that acutely started through music. When I was at Rimon School of Music, I started singing in an ensemble called Afro-Pop, where the music we played was mostly African music, and I fell in love with it. That same year, I was invited to perform with the Idan Raichel Project, where I performed an Ethiopian song for the first time. I started collaborating with Ethiopian writers, I’ve visited Ethiopia three times in the last four years, and I’m still learning more each day.”
AvevA’s discography includes the EP Who Am I, which was released in November 2016, and the LP In My Thoughts, released in March of this year. “I’m now working on some new songs that I can’t wait to release,” she said. “I hope it will happen in 2020.”
AvevA said she generally begins composing on the guitar. “I’ll start jamming and, when I find something that I like, I just go with it and try to complete that idea into a song.” However, she added, “A song can change a lot in the process of recording and working with a producer. For example, my song ‘Won’t Let You’ wasn’t written before I started working with the producer Isaac DaBom. I had a whole different song that he didn’t think was good enough, so he asked me to rewrite it and that’s how I wrote ‘Won’t Let You.’”
AvevA sings in English and Amharic (the national language of Ethiopia), and some of her songs use Ethiopian scales.
“Ethiopian music is primarily based on a five-tone scale system, known as a pentatonic scale, and the Western scale generally consists of seven notes,” she explained.
AvevA said she feels no pressure to be a “poster girl” for Israel’s openness to diversity. “I don’t feel that pressure,” she stressed. “I share my story and the way that I see things. In Israel, like in any other place, there are beautiful sides and there are ugly sides.”
B.C.-based Leila Neverland, in her trio Mountain Sound, opens for AvevA on Nov. 14, 8 p.m. For tickets to the concert – Rickshaw Theatre is a 19+ venue – and other Chutzpah! shows, visit chutzpahfestival.com.
Tamara Micner performs her one-woman play Holocaust Brunch this weekend at Chutzpah! (photo by Sophie le Roux)
“In recent years,” playwright Tamara Micner told the Independent, “I feel there’s been increasing discussion about inherited trauma in indigenous communities and in other minority communities, such as Japanese- and Chinese-Canadian communities. For me, it’s been valuable to remember that, sadly, we as Jews are not alone in inheriting collective trauma. In fact, I also know white, Christian Canadians who have it, too. The tsures we carry is unique in some ways, but we’re definitely in good company.”
Micner, who now lives in London, England, will be returning home to Vancouver for a couple of weeks to perform her new one-woman show, Holocaust Brunch, at the Chutzpah! Festival. It is one of two theatre works that will see their Canadian première at this year’s festival; the other is The Diary of Anne Frank LatinX, directed by Stan Zimmerman, who is based in Los Angeles.
While The Diary of Anne Frank was mounted by Fighting Chance Productions last year (jewishindependent.ca/glimpse-of-life-in-the-annex), Zimmerman’s production features only Latinx actors. This is what makes this version of the play – written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett Based and adapted by Wendy Kesselman – unique.
“I chose to use Latinx actors for the characters in the attic,” Zimmerman told the Independent, “after seeing a CNN report about a Jewish woman in L.A. who arranged to hide a Latina mom and her daughters after her husband was suddenly deported by ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement].
“Contrary to initial media reports – that went worldwide – we are not replacing the Nazis with ICE agents [in the play]. We are performing a word-for-word production of the script that Natalie Portman starred in on Broadway in 1997. I’m not saying the situation is exactly the same as the Second World War, but there are parallels – parallels that we can hopefully learn from. Only then can we live by Elie Wiesel’s famous phrase, ‘Never again.’”
Some Jewish community members were concerned about Zimmerman’s casting choice.
“Initially,” he said, “I had a few Jewish friends question my decision to cast Latinx actors in the play. For them, it was more about not wanting to tarnish the legacy of Anne Frank. But, when they saw that we were honouring her memory, they understood the power of this production. I took to heart the insightful words of a young Anne Frank from her diary – ‘Our lives are all different, and yet the same.’”
The concept of “different yet the same” is one of the reasons that Micner was interested in telling the stories of Bluma and Isaac Tischler, who have both passed away. Born in Poland, they “met in medical school in Tajikistan during the war, and went on to become renowned Vancouver doctors.”
“I have known the Tischler family since 1987, when their daughter Yael and I did What Do I Do When I’m Two? together at the JCC,” said Micner, referring to a program at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver. “Our parents and grandparents have also known each other for many years.”
That said, Micner explored some of her gaps in understanding, through creating Holocaust Brunch.
“Growing up,” she said, “I felt there was a disconnect between ‘the Holocaust story’ I was taught, which focused on Western Europe and camps, and my own family’s story, which was about living in Eastern Europe (Poland) and surviving the war in the Soviet Union. The Tischlers’ story has those parallels as well, and it feels important to me to talk about a kind of Holocaust story that I haven’t seen told in wider culture, and that some non-Jews I know have never even heard.”
Micner is no stranger to writing plays based on people she knows.
“I have created shows in the past that are inspired by my own family,” she said. “Holocaust Brunch is partly about another family’s story, and started with the Tischlers offering me part of their family’s story to tell in a piece of theatre. I take that offer very seriously as an act of trust and a responsibility, as the creator and performer of the piece. We’ve had several conversations along the way about the central questions and themes of the piece as it has taken shape, and they have seen the show as it has evolved.”
One of the central aspects of the work is looking at trauma from a third-generation perspective.
“I am indeed part of the ‘third generation,’ and Holocaust Brunch explores what it’s like living as a descendant of Holocaust survivors, two generations removed from that history and trauma,” said Micner. “It’s certainly based on some of my experiences and, inevitably, incorporates aspects of other people’s experiences based on conversations I’ve been part of, books and articles I’ve read, and so on. There are many of us who are thinking and talking about these issues.”
In contrast, Zimmerman witnessed a lack of discussion and knowledge about the Holocaust and, specifically, The Diary of Anne Frank.
“I was quite shocked,” he said, “when the 15-year-old actor playing Anne told us that she did not know who Anne Frank was before auditioning for our production. As a Jew, I grew mad to learn that Anne’s diary is no longer required reading in the California school system. I decided then that it was vital to get as many student groups as possible to see this play, with this cast.”
And it hasn’t been only the cast and audiences who have learned something from the play.
“Although I was a good student at my temple’s Sunday school,” said Zimmerman, “being involved in this play opened my eyes to so many stories about the Holocaust that I never knew before. These important lessons were gained by visits to several museums and meeting many survivors and hearing their stories firsthand.”
He added, “As many of our survivors pass, it is important for us as artists to find creative ways to keep Anne’s story alive.”
One of the ways in which Micner creatively tells her story is with humour. Describing Holocaust Brunch as a “dark comedy,” Micner explained, “I think there’s a history of Ashkenazi Jews using comedy to look at hard things – the oppression we’ve suffered, displacement, antisemitism, poverty and so on. Holocaust Brunch is certainly engaging with that tradition,” she said. “I think there’s also a history of Ashkenazi humour being self-deprecating – as in, making fun of ourselves – and, one of the things I’ve been interested in, is looking at where that comes from and what it would mean for us not to be the butt of our own jokes. Holocaust Brunch is using comedy to look at communal trauma, and how we might be able to heal from that. The show also uses humour to explore stereotypes and assumptions that some non-Jews have about Jews. I think laughter helps us open up and look at hard places.”
For his part, Zimmerman would like audiences who come to see The Diary of Anne Frank LatinX “to feel like they literally stepped into the shoes of these characters – just like the actors have. Then we can all have this highly emotional and very visceral experience that can only be achieved communally with live theatre.”
Holocaust Brunch runs this weekend in the JCCGV’s Wosk Auditorium, Oct. 27, 1 p.m., and Oct. 28, 7 p.m. The Diary of Anne Frank LatinX, co-presented with Howard Blank of Point Blank Productions, is at the Rothstein Theatre Nov. 6, 8 p.m.; Nov. 7, 8 p.m.; Nov. 8, 1 p.m. and 8 p.m.; and Nov. 9, 2 p.m. For tickets to these and other Chutzpah! shows, visit chutzpahfestival.com.