Eileen Levinson, Founder & Creative Director
Wendy Jackler, Program Manager
24/6: A Jewish Theater Company believes that the performing arts play a critical role in the vitality of American Jewish life, and is committed to cultivating innovative theater grounded in a rigorous engagement with Jewish tradition. Theater has the ability of making people more empathic, and more empathy is what is needed to grapple with many of the community's challenges. Though it is nearly impossible for Sabbath observant artists to work in the professional theater, we believe such artists add an essential dimension to the theater and Jewish community. We are dedicated to providing them a home.
The wisdom of: Talmud Torah (Jewish learning):
The process of Jewish learning to us means a rigorous investigation of the text, themes, commentaries, discussion and argument. It informs all of our work from choosing the pieces we produce, to our way of working as actors and director in rehearsals. The performance is an extension of that impulse. We share our insight with the audience, and allow them to engage with it.
For example, recently the JCC Manhattan, with whom we have partnered with on a number of occasions, invited us to lead an interactive session on the Story of Ruth entitled “Where You Go, I Go” at the Tikkun Leil Shavuot program.
We drew on the Jewish wisdom encapsulated in a verse in the Passover Haggadah: “B'chol dor vador chayav adam lir’ot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatza mi’mitzrayim.”/ "In every generation one must look upon him/herself as if s/he personally had gone out of Egypt" (Pesachim 116b). The Jewish appeal for empathy, that we must see ourselves as leaving Egypt, inspires us as theater artists. It is a theatrical impulse that the rabbis in Pesachim 116B also understood. Our session placed the audience in the role of Ruth, Naomi, Orpah, and the people of Bethlehem so that they could explore, theatrically, what these characters and story mean to them personally, as well as to us as a group today in 2016.
The wisdom of sanctifying Jewish time in space:
24/6: A Jewish Theater Company was launched with a group-wide learning of a section of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath, from which we created our first show Sabbath Variations, an evening of five theatrical responses to his work. Heschel discusses how Judaism sanctifies both time and space. Over the course of five years as a company, we have delved into various facets of Judaism’s unique concept of time and created theatrical works that are in relationship to the Jewish calendar, holidays and their related rituals. We adapted Anton Chekhov’s classic play Uncle Vanya and structured it around the Jewish Kabbalistic ritual of the Tu Bishvat Seder. The Tu Bishvat ritual brought to the fore the environmental themes of Chekhov’s play. As we led the audience through the ritual involving special drinks, foods, and spices, they partook in a ritual many were until then unfamiliar with, and experienced Chekhov’s play in an entirely new way or even for the first time.
Our contemporary and Purim-time adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House wove together texts and commentary about the Book of Esther, and played with the Jewish performance tradition of the Purim spiel, with each character in the play correlating to a character in the Purim story. We set the play in a Modern Orthodox home in post-Madoff financial crisis New York, and examined the changing role of women in the Orthodox community. The play created a privileged space for the audience to reflect on this important and at times controversial issue with the distance, guidance and insight of a classic text of the modern theater and a familiar Jewish story that places a female protagonist at its center.
Last summer, again focusing on the Jewish wisdom of treating anniversaries as moments of sanctified time, we marked the 10th anniversary of the Gaza Disengagement with a theatrical play reading series at the JCC in Manhattan. One evening focused on Israeli plays and the second evening was a performance of an American play on the subject. Both were accompanied by discussions we moderated. We took a politically fraught issue and by focusing on a combination of human stories and classical texts allowed people to have a conversation and to learn about an event, which for some occurred when they were too young to remember it clearly, and for others was one they could reflect upon after a decade’s time. Our goal was to create a safe theatrical space in which all audience members could consider the event’s impact on them and our community today.
By selecting classical plays to examine through the lens of Jewish ritual and tradition (like works by Ibsen, Chekhov, or plays like The Dybbuk) we make Jewish wisdom accessible and applicable by taking something the audience is familiar with and layering into contemporary Jewish interpretation. The plays, whether classic or entirely new works, are all emotionally accessible to a diverse audience. If the audience is laughing, crying, or in some other way emotionally engaged in the performance, they are connecting to the material and to how it resonates in their own lives.
By performing our work on and around holidays, we directly connect a diverse audience to the themes, meaning and rituals of these days and provide a space to find their own meaning in these traditions. Many of our performances included a moderated post-performance discussion where audience members can have a conversation with us about the themes of the plays, holidays, and Jewish wisdom therein.
When 24/6: A Jewish Theater Company launched 5 ½ years ago, there wasn’t a space for Sabbath observant artists to create theater. We have engaged over 50 artists in 20 shows and reached a wide and diverse audience of approximately 2,000. In a year and a half, we have gained close to 500 followers on Twitter. Our twitter account goes well beyond sharing news of upcoming shows, we share Jewish wisdom about Jewish artists, holidays, engage in twitter chats with the larger theater community, and do twitter memorials for Yom HaShoah, twitter celebrations for Yom Ha’atzmaut, and beyond. All with a focus on Jewish theater.
The artists working with us have had opportunities open to them in theater, commercials, and web-series as they have a work resume to show that includes classic and new plays they have done with us. We have written recommendations and made professional introduction for our artists that have led to other jobs. Mainstream theatrical publications, such as HowlRound have reached out to us to write for their Jewish theater week, and the PBS/Channel 13 TV program Theater Talk invited us to film an interview. Our co-artistic director Yoni Oppenheim was selected by the Jewish Week as one of their “36 Under 36” in recognition of the impact of our work on the larger Jewish community. We have been invited by Limmud Philly, Limmud NY, JCC Manhattan, and Beit Avi Chai in Jerusalem, to present our work.
When we launched 24/6: A Jewish Theater Company, we didn’t realize that we would be engaging so deeply with the Jewish calendar and Jewish time in our work. But after having to turn people away at the door of a sold out performance of one of our first shows, A Doll House, we realized that matching an emotionally and intellectually resonant story to the Jewish calendar spoke to the people we were hoping to reach. They were searching for meaning in their lives, for things to do to mark certain days. For those from more observant religiously backgrounds, our work adds a layer of appreciation and meaning to their experience of Jewish time and ritual.
Creating theater is hard, and we largely live in a society where the arts are the first thing cut from school curriculum and are the first thing struck from government budgets. As with all new endeavors, there have been ups and downs, successes and disappointments, challenges and enormous opportunities to grow. What has kept us resilient over the past five years has been that Jewish wisdom of the Chanukah and Purim miracles which focus on "rabbim b’yad m’atim” “many into the hands of few”. This wisdom continually reminds us, that Jewish history, tradition, and faith, has never been a numbers game. It has been a meaning game. The Jewish people have been able to contribute to society and be a positive light not because there are many of us, but because we have something meaningful to offer to the world, and we have faith in it – in good times and in challenging times. We may be a small theater company with limited resources, but we believe our mission is essential, and have committed to it even when the going gets tough. Over five years audiences and artists have been drawn to our work and have had deeply meaningful experiences at our performances.
©2016–2018 Lippman Kanfer Foundation For Living Torah — All Rights Reserved.