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My Life in Jewish Theatre:A Coming-Out Story
By Kayla Gordon

Kayla Gordon is Artistic Director of the Winnipeg Studio Theatre and former Artistic Director of the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre. She teaches Musical Theatre and Acting at the University of Winnipeg. Kayla received the Young Leadership Award from the University of Jerusalem and was nominated for the John Hirsch Young Directors Award. e-mail kaylapgordon@gmail.com  web: http://www.winnipegstudiotheatre.com/  

My journey into Jewish theatre was unexpected but truly rewarding.

I am not now nor have I ever been a particularly observant Jew, but my Jewish identity has been a constant. Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, my parents gave my brothers and me Hebrew names. We went to a conservative synagogue on high holidays and to Jewish camps in the summer. I attended Hebrew day school until grade six and had a bat mitzvah. I walked past a public school each day on the way to my school and got bullied by the non-Jewish students who called us names and picked fights. I felt ostracized, so when I went to public schools after that, I rarely admitted I was Jewish for fear of being different. Many years later, my husband, Arthur, and I were married in a synagogue. We now have two amazing children, and I have been known to make a fabulous Seder on Passover.

It was in 1991 that my life changed, and I became immersed in the world of Jewish theatre. It started in Norway House, a small reserve 500 kilometers from Winnipeg where I was working on a cross-cultural playwriting experiment with Native and non-Native students through two schools, West Kildonan Collegiate and Norway House High School. The project changed my career path and reduced my anxiety around admitting I was Jewish.

I was teaching drama at West K and founded the High School Drama Youth Festival in Winnipeg. Ed Braun had brought down students from Norway House to participate in the festival, and we decided to develop a play based on the experience of city kids travelling to the reserve and Native kids travelling to the city. Both school boards decided to fund the project. We spent a few weeks in each community working with dramaturge/playwright Rick Chafe doing writing assignments and exploring friendships, relationships, attitudes to each other’s cultures, etc.

When my students and I travelled up to the reserve for two weeks, we were taught how to skin a fox and go ice fishing. We attended drumming ceremonies, experienced the Northern Lights while lying on the frozen river, and much more. The community shared so many rich stories about themselves and their past. What affected me the most was experiencing a sweat lodge. Imagine me, a nice suburban girl in her red velour robe, sitting in a sweat lodge. I was afraid to sit too far into the tent-like tarp for fear that I would choke from the hot steam coming off the coals. I slipped into the “tent” close to the opening so I could get a crack of air. Of course, the sweat leader, or “pipe holder,” asked me to join him, so I reluctantly glided into the centre. I remember trying to concentrate and breathe slowly in order to immerse myself in this new experience without hyperventilating. The pipe holder sounded the water drum and called forth the spirit guiding us in prayer from the “Four Directions.” He poured water onto the hot stones. Some prayers were said (in English) honouring the Mother Earth, Sky Father, Sacred Grandfather, etc. Then the leader turned to me and asked if I could say a blessing over the spiritual wine (which was Coke or Pepsi). I told him I didn’t really know any Christian blessings, and he replied, “Well . . . what are you?” I replied under my breath, “. . . I’m Jew-ish.” He laughed and responded, “Then say it in Jewish.” So I said the Hebrew blessing over the spiritual wine, “Baruch atah adonai. . . .” After I was done, he said with a very thick Native/Jewish accent, “Tastes like Manishevitz, tastes Jewish.” Well, everyone started to laugh; it was one of those moments when everything comes together. The “ice” was broken. Then all the kids started asking questions about what it was like to be Jewish. It turned into an amazing discussion of the rituals and traditions of both Jewish and Native cultures.

When we came back home, the plan was for the students to continue developing material based on their experience. For about two weeks, no writing was coming forward, so Ed and I decided to meet with the kids. We soon found out that a fight had broken out when the kids were having a party one night in Norway House. They were drinking, and blame was laid on one of the Native students when in fact it was one of my “white” city kids. After finding out the truth, we encouraged them to record what had happened, and it ended up being the turning point of the writing. The project culminated in a play called Tangled Souls about acceptance, unlikely friendships, tolerance, and new experiences.

Tangled Souls, which won the Governor General’s Award the following year, was performed at the Manitoba Drama Youth Festival and then at a conference for First Nations chiefs in Thomson, Manitoba. At the conference, I was asked to speak about the process of creating the play. As I told my story about “coming out” as a Jew in that sweat lodge, my eyes filled with tears. It was the first time publically that I admitted to being a Jew. I felt comfortable opening up about myself to this group of strangers and compelled and proud to talk about my heritage. Ironically, when I returned home, there was a posting for a job as the Artistic Director of the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre (WJT; www.wjt.ca). I realized that I had been ignoring the fact that I could tell so many stories about my own culture and background. I applied for the position and got the job. I spent eleven years working with WJT.

The Winnipeg Jewish Theatre was established in 1987 by Founding President David Cohen and Artistic Director Bev Aronovitch. It started as a community-based theatre producing two plays a year, with an audience of 700 people. In 1993, WJT grew into a professional company, working under the guest artist category with the Canadian Actors’ Equity Association. We took the step to become a full-fledged non-profit professional Canadian theatre company producing a full season of plays. At the time, WJT was the only theatre in Canada producing three to four plays a year with a strong Jewish focus.

Incorporating the knowledge I had gained from the recent experience of the Norway House project, I began to focus on finding, developing, and telling new stories. My life became devoted to producing and directing theatre that reflected the Jewish experience of the past, present, and future. WJT’s mandate includes mounting both current and new Canadian plays on themes of Jewish interest and/or by Jewish playwrights, reaching across communities through the presentation of socially relevant plays and plays that “promote a better understanding of Jewish culture in the community at large” (Winnipeg Jewish Theatre). I loved being immersed in a world full of extraordinary playwrights, actors, and other directors. In both the 1998/1999 and 2000/2001 seasons, attendance reached over 6,000, with approximately 940 subscribers. Box office revenue surpassed the $100,000 mark for the first time in 2000/2001, the years we produced Funny Girl and Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah. Programming at the time was typically one lighter play, comedy, or musical (e.g., Beau Jest by James Sherman), mixed in with a new work (e.g., None is Too Many by Jason Sherman) and one educational or Holocaust-based play (e.g., Kindertransport by Diane Samuels).

After a few years, I heard about an organization called the Association for Jewish Theatre (AJT; www.afjt.com). In 1996, I decided to attend my first AJT conference in Boston. That Jewish theatre movement was to become my lifeblood over the next ten years while I was Artistic Director of WJT, feeding me information on current plays, trends, and what was hip in Jewish theatre. The Jewish Theatre Association was formed in 1979 under the auspices of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture (NFJC). The association was “open to all artists exploring aspects of Jewish culture from either an historical or contemporary perspective, whether they [were] Jewish themselves or not” (Margolis and Weinacht 94–95). Annual conferences were initially held in New York City but thereafter were convened throughout the United States and Canada. In support of AJT’s goal of “bringing together theatre artists interested in investigating expression of Jewish identity and culture” (95), the association later encouraged a stronger presence by playwrights and solo artists internationally, resulting in a wider focus. More recent AJT features include the Global Jewish Theatre Network centred in Israel and Moti Sendak’s “All About Jewish Theatre” website (www.jewish-theatre.com ).

The most important challenge for me was to find ways to tell new stories that resonate. As Artistic Director of WJT, the work I was most proud of was the development of over ten new Canadian plays, such as The Prayer Shawl by Sheldon Oberman (1995), None Is Too Many by Jason Sherman (1997), The Chosen adapted by Aaron Posner and Chaim Potok (2002), The Year of the Flood by Howie Wiseman (2004), Sunday Father by Adam Pettle (2005), and 10 × 10, a collection of short plays by Canadian Jewish playwrights (1996), a highlight because it brought together several amazing Canadian female playwrights and actors for one unique project. Going Home by Sharon Bajer and Hanoch Reim (2003) was created by playwright/actors from Israel and Winnipeg. The work took us to Israel twice and was modelled on the Norway House project. The Intifada had erupted in Israel, and many told us we were crazy to go during that unpredictable period. We went anyway. It ended up being another highlight of my career. We put a lot of heart into these new play development projects, and it is my hope that they will have another life somewhere in the future.

After stepping down from my post at WJT, I took on the role of Executive Director of AJT. The organization was growing rapidly, creating partnerships and great networking opportunities. In 2006, there were approximately 50 member theatres, both professional and community, and about 150 playwrights and solo performers. During my tenure, I spent a lot of time organizing and travelling to conferences all over the world, including Vienna, Tel Aviv, Budapest, and more. I also had the opportunity to direct for a number of the theatre companies. It was a special time of growth for me as a director, and I loved the people I worked with. AJT was thriving, and so was Jewish theatre.

I was the Executive Director of AJT until I took on the role of Artistic Director of Winnipeg Studio Theatre in 2007, a new company devoted to creating original Canadian and international contemporary plays and musicals in an intimate setting (www.winnipegstudiotheatre.com). I am still an active member of AJT. Unfortunately, they’ve started to see Jewish theatres closing and participants from those companies declining at the annual conferences. The Jewish theatres in San Francisco, Atlanta, and Arizona, all very strong companies, closed their doors over the last five years. Their demise is of concern to the future of Jewish theatre.

David Y. Chack, current AJT president, commented on recent changes in AJT and Jewish culture in general: Regarding the future of Jewish theatre in the next five to ten years, I see less Jewish theatres devoted to only Jewish theatre. I see very few, if any, Jewish Community Center theatres. I do see a large mix or collage of theatre done through mainstream theatre companies, solo performances in rented venues, online performances getting traction, and transcultural theatre companies that do cultural/identity theatre. We are seeing an upswing in these kinds of theatre makers joining the association across the world. Right now we have approximately 250–300 members and associates throughout the world—from Argentina to Israel to London to Sydney to Brussels and North America.

Jewish theatre is alive and strong in Canada, and Winnipeg Jewish Theatre continues to evolve, still an active part of the theatre scene in Winnipeg. Soon after I left WJT, there was a decrease in subscribers; however, over the past four seasons under current Artistic Producer Michael Nathanson, WJT has enjoyed an artistic revitalization. WJT is the only theatre in Winnipeg in the past decade to present a new play named as a finalist for the Governor General’s Award in Drama (TALK by Michael Nathanson, 2009), and the Globe and Mail has recognized WJT as “one of the gutsier theatre companies in Canada” (Nestruck).

Ellen Schiff, editor of four collections of Jewish plays, suggests that “drastic social transformations” have influenced “what audiences are prepared to see” and that changes in Jewish theatre are indicated by “how Jews represent themselves on stage.” Nathanson has led the company into the ever-changing tides. New audiences needed to be reached; new programming and a fresh new vision to attract a younger demographic needed to be developed. Nathanson explains: I think there’s a great challenge for Jewish theatre in the next five years and moving forward. The demographic of the traditional patrons of most theatre skews older. With the preponderance of technology and ever increasing entertainment choices, theatre becomes an increasingly difficult sell. With the younger Jewish members not necessarily becoming patrons of theatre and with the continued high rate of intermarriage, there is a gap in ensuring the audience for Jewish theatre moving forward. There seems to be a tension between mounting plays that appeal to the traditional, older audience and risking offending that audience by programming plays that might appeal to a wider and younger audience. Is a Jewish theatre still a Jewish theatre if its audience is made up of non-Jews as the majority? How does Jewish theatre go about attracting and retaining a younger Jewish audience? I certainly don’t have the answers to these questions but I think this problem must be dealt with.

The work I do now at Winnipeg Studio Theatre continues to be informed by the fact that I’m a Jewish artist. Just recently, WST produced the new Canadian musical My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding (2010) by Toronto’s Irene Sankoff and David Hein, a very Jewish Canadian Story. Another new musical, Hersteria (2011) by Sharon Bajer, has a distinct Jewish character. I’m drawn to new and interesting stories, a lot of them Jewish.

I was at a master class for directors in Toronto, and our instructor was the brilliant Jewish theatre director Peter Brook. He wrote a note in my book. “Whenever you tell a story . . . tell it with heart and soul.” Brook seeks to make theatre absolutely and fundamentally necessary to people—as fundamental as eating or sleeping. I’d like to stay true to his philosophy and hope that theatre and the stories we tell will continue to be fundamental. Jewish theatre will, of course, be as diverse as theatre is in general. There will always be room for our stories whether they are distinctly Jewish or not.


Works Cited

  • Chack, David Y. “Re: the future of Jewish theatre.” Message to Kayla Gordon. 10 July 2012. E-mail.
  • Margolis, Tina, and Susan Weinacht. “Jewish Theatre Festival 1980.” Jewish Theatre Issue. TDR 24.3 (1980): 93–116. Print.
  • Nathanson, Michael. “Re: the future of Jewish theatre.” Message to Kayla Gordon. 15 July 2012. E-mail.
  • Nestruck, J. Kelly. “Admiring Strindberg Doesn’t Mean We Like Him.” Globe and Mail 4 Feb. 2011. Web.
  • Schiff, Ellen. “Re: the future of Jewish theatre.” Message to Kayla Gordon. 9 July 2012. E-mail.
  • Winnipeg Jewish Theatre. “About Us.” www.wjt.ca . N.d. Web. 25 Aug. 2012.

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