470 Florida St.
San Francisco, CA 94110
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The Jewish Theatre San Francisco creates and presents plays inspired by the Jewish experience that intend to make the culture resonant and meaningful to the diverse communities of the Bay Area.
TJT was founded in 1978 by Corey Fischer, Albert Greenberg and Naomi Newman. In 1987, Helen Stoltzfus joined the ensemble. In 1998 Aaron Davidman, who is now the Artistic Director the company.
The company’s longevity confirms the vitality of its work. That vitality comes, in no small measure, from TJT’s willingness to take risks in both the form and content of the theatre it creates. TJT has created scores of original works for the theatre. The sources for these works have ranged from the legends of the Hasidim to the assassination of Trotsky; from Yiddish poetry to the reclamation of women’s wisdom; from the healing nature of storytelling to the challenge of interfaith marriage and from the politics of the Middle East to African-American/Jewish relations. TJT does not deal with social or political issues in isolation. It searches for the living images that burn themselves into our consciousness. It recognizes that the roots of theatre lie in the realm of the mythic, the sacred and the communal; that theatre can be an instrument of healing for people and cultures.
TJT has performed in over sixty cities world-wide, including Chicago, New York, Berlin, Oslo, Jerusalem and Whitesburg, Kentucky. Members of the ensemble also teach solo performance, improvisation and ensemble creation privately and through TJT’s professional training programs. In addition, the company has produced a 4-part series for Public Radio International, entitled Heart of Wisdom: Audio Explorations in Jewish Culture.
The impulse to found the company grew out of a shared desire to create works of theatre that, while grounded in the specifics of the Jewish experience, would be accessible to audiences of diverse backgrounds. Fischer had been acting in film, television and theatre since 1968, just before founding TJT, he had been working in New York with Joseph Chaikin (the “Winter Project” of 1977 and 1978 and Chaikin’s production of The Dybbuk at The Public Theater). Albert Greenberg, a singer and composer, had been increasingly drawn to experimental theatre as a more appropriate arena for his explorations in music and language. Naomi Newman, a classically trained singer with a strong background in Jewish culture, had been acting in Los Angeles theater and television while pursuing a second career in psychotherapy.
Forging a theatrical style that was influenced by the American avant-garde theatre of the 1960’s, vaudeville, liturgy, and storytelling, and drawing on themes from Jewish history, legend, literature and folk tradition, the company developed three pieces that were co-written by Greenberg, Fischer and Newman, performed by Greenberg and Fischer and directed by Newman.
Between 1978 and 1982, TJT was based in Los Angeles where it performed at the L.A. Actors’ Theatre (forerunner of the L.A. Theatre Center) and The Mark Taper Forum Laboratory and other venues. The company toured extensively to festivals, performing arts centers theatres and universities, including the New Theatre Festival in Baltimore, Theatre for the New City in New York and Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco.
In 1982, the company relocated to San Francisco, hired its first full-time managing director and embarked on its first tour abroad (Holland, Denmark and Israel). More U.S. touring followed as TJT sought the widest possible variety of audiences. The company performed in New York, Boston, Kentucky, Georgia, Maine, Utah, and California. In these years, the company formed an ongoing relationship with Roadside Theatre of Whitesburg Kentucky and The Junebug Theatre Project of New Orleans. This alliance contributed to the founding of An American Festival Project and, most recently, led to the collaboration between TJT and Junebug on Crossing the Broken Bridge.
In 1984, for the first time, the company collaborated with an outside director and a dramaturg (Michael Posnick and Susan Griffin, respectively). The piece that emerged in 1985, Berlin, Jerusalem and the Moon, was an examination of the condition of German Jewish intellectuals during the Weimar period juxtaposed with the American Jewish struggle for identity. Deepening the vocabulary that TJT had been developing, Berlin, Jerusalem and the Moon used masks and puppets, extended physical and vocal expression, extant and original music to create a work of enormous power and density that drew enthusiastic responses in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, Oslo, Stockholm, Berlin, and Vienna.
In 1987, TJT had the good fortune to collaborate with director Joseph Chaikin and dramaturg Mira Rafalowicz during a six week “Special Project” supported by the National Endowment for the Arts. Although the results of this effort did not become part of the repertory, the experience of working with Chaikin and Rafalowicz marked the beginning of a period of artistic revitalization during which company members continued collaborating and studying with a wide range of theatre artists including director/dramaturgs Martha Boesing and Mark Samuels, the Roy Hart Theatre of France and Sweden ’s Jordcirkus.
Other developments during this period including the addition of Helen Stoltzfus to the permanent ensemble, the production of Bruce Myers’ two-actor version of The Dybbuk (the first time TJT worked with an extant script), the creation of Heart of the World in collaboration with Martha Boesing, and continued touring of the highly successful Snake Talk. Moreover, the company began forging alliances with several resident theatres around the country such as Chicago’s Wisdom Bridge, The Eureka Theatre Company in San Francisco and The Group Theatre in Seattle.
In 1990 TJT became one of the first American theatres to tour post-Warsaw-pact Eastern Europe bringing Heart of the World- Greenberg and Stoltzfus’ exploration of intermarriage- and a revival of The Last Yiddish Poet, one of our earliest creations, to Bratislava and Prague in Czechoslovakia and to the Festival of Open Theatre in Wroclaw, Poland. Polish and Czech audiences and critics marveled at the sort of cultural pluralism that could give rise to a company like Traveling Jewish Theatre. In a climate of growing divisiveness, the notion that cultural differences could be sources of celebration rather than enmity had an undeniably tonic value.
In 1991, the company entered the field of radio production. The California Humanities Council (with matching funds from The National Endowment for the Humanities) provided support for a series of sixty-minute programs on various aspects of Jewish culture explored in relationship to world culture. The series, Heart of Wisdom, been distributed by American Public Radio and broadcast on several hundred public radio stations across the country. All programs have been produced, written and narrated by ensemble members, in collaboration with independent radio producer, Claire Schoen.
During this same period, TJT founding member Naomi Newman and John O’ Neal of the Junebug Theatre Project of New Orleans, began a long term collaboration with director Steven Kent on a piece exploring African-American/Jewish relations. The piece that evolved, Crossing the Broken Bridge, uses the lens of African-American/Jewish relations to examine the forces that divide and unite the human community. In several cities, such as Detroit and Los Angeles, the piece was co-produced by organizations in the African -American and Jewish communities who found themselves working together for the first time in many years. The piece had a double premiere at San Francisco’s Life on the Water Theatre and at the Oakland Ensemble Theatre in June, 1993. And continues to tour extensively. Two solo works by Albert Greenberg (The Fatherless Sky) and Corey Fischer (Sometimes We Need a Story More Than Food), both directed by Helen Stoltzfus, were also completed between 1991 and 1993 and toured in the U.S. and in Europe.
In 1994, for the first time in its history, the company acquired its own theatre: a 2400 square foot space inside the artists’ cooperative, Project Artaud. The space opened with a seven-week run of The Last Yiddish Poet which sold out all performances.
In early 1994-95, TJT developed Trotsky and Frida, a new ensemble work, with guest director Mark Samuels, based on the meeting between Leon Trotsky and Frida Kahlo in Mexico in the 1940’s. Trotsky played to full houses at The Center for The Arts in Yerba Buena Gardens, at Theatre Artaud and in our own theatre.
1996-97 saw the development and performance of two new works: Like a Mother Bear and Old Jewish and Queer along with a number a guest presentations and special events, including the first Summer Intensive Training in Ensemble Theatre Making. That initiative has grown into ETOP, our Educational Outreach and Touring Program. Each year, young professional actors develop, under the direction of a company member, an original piece of theatre suitable for touring to a variety of “low-tech” venues like schools, synagogues and community centers. This program gives young artists the opportunity to join a collaborative process that includes creating, revising and touring an original production.
After the 1997-98 season, which included the much praised revival of Dybbuk, (revived again in 2004) TJT ran a successful capital campaign and raised $750,000 for major renovations on its theatre. In the summer of 1998, a new entrance was created on Florida street, as well as a new lobby, a lift for wheelchair users and new dressing rooms. The space re-opened for the company’s 20th anniversary season (1998-99) with a new ensemble creation, Diamonds in the Dark, a music-theatre exploration of Yiddish poetry.
The company and its artists have received numerous awards including a lifetime achievement award from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture and a Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays award for See Under: Love by Corey Fischer. TJT’s production of See Under: Love was named one of San Francisco’s ten best productions of 2001 by the San Francisco Chronicle and was nominated by the American Theatre Critics Association as one of the best American Plays of 2001. TJT’s 1985 play, Berlin, Jerusalem and the Moon, will be included in the first published anthology of American ensemble-created plays (TCG, 2004).
TJT was one of eight American theatres to have been chosen to participate in the first cycle of TCG’s “New Generations” program, funded by the Doris Duke and Andrew W. Mellon Foundations. In July, 2002, Aaron Davidman, who had been working with the company for four years, and had been mentored by Fischer under the New Generations program, became its Artistic Director. He works closely with Founding Member Corey Fischer, who remains active with the company and Founding Member Naomi Newman. Founding Member Albert Greenberg and former Co-Artistic Director Helen Stoltzfus have gone on to work on projects of their own and retain the titles of Artists Emeriti.
In 2005, under Davidman’s direction, TJT created Blood Relative, an international collaboration between Jews and Arabs that brought a significant number of Arabs and Arab-Americans into TJT’s audience for for the first time. In the same year, TJT helped develop and present The Bright River, a work of Jewish hip-hop theatre that attracted a larger-than-usual number of young theatre-goers.
In 2006, the company’s third “Word for Word” style production of short stories by Grace Paley and Bernard Malamud broke all box office records and was extended twice. In that season, TJT added Mountain View to San Francisco and Berkeley as one of the three cities in which each season’s productions are presented. In the same season, TJT initiated a collaboration with MacArthur Fellow Liz Lerman on a dance/theatre piece with Fischer, Davidman and Newman co-writing and performing. The piece, conceived and Directed by Liz Lerman is an exploration of the human experience of prayer and will premiere in spring, 2008. Finally, at the end of the 2006 season, TJT invited two well known Bay Area performers, Joan Mankin and Jeri-Lynn Cohen to join TJT as Associate Artists. Both Joan and Jeri-Lynn have worked with TJT on several projects and share the company’s vision. Joan Mankin is a veteran of The Pickle Family Circus and the SF Mime Troupe, Jeri-Lynn Cohen is a charter member of Word for Word Theatre and has acted with Berkeley Rep and A.C.T. in many productions. Both will continue to appear in TJT projects and will join the ensemble in the ongoing process of long-term planning.
In spring, 2007, TJT produced Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, directed by Aaron Davidman. Ironically, this choice of an American classic is, for TJT – a company that has built its reputation on experimental, company-created work – a very radical one. Since it premiered in the 1950’s, much has been written about the hidden Jewish identity of the Loman family but, as far as TJT knows, no production has ever explored this aspect of the play: the legendary Lomans as a conflicted Jewish family trapped in their pursuit of the American Dream.