I have just written a play, and, when you do, you fish around for what to do with it. If this were any other profession, well, this would be a horse with a cart in front of it. If you’re manufacturing a product, you probably should have some idea where to sell it before you make it, or you risk having a product nobody wants.
Plays don’t work like that, though, not usually. I do know there are some playwrights with mercenary sensibilities who carefully track the market and write plays specifically for it, tailoring certain plays to specific institutions, and bully for them. It seems an awful lot of work to me, especially considering how little playwrights generally make, but if it works for them, hooray.
Most of us, however, write the play that we feel like writing. Something has tickled us, and we sense dramatic possibilities, and, with greater or lesser success, we write a script that explores those possibilities. Afterwards, we see what we’ve got, and then see where it might go.
This can be an enormously frustrating process, because sometimes it feels like there are a million playwrights out there, all pitching simultaneously and indiscriminately, so wherever you send your script there is a slush pile of other scripts a mile high. And theater producers have their own agenda, and, unfortunately, it’s not generally to find bold new plays and introduce them to the world. You’re usually not really competing with other playwrights who have written new plays; you’re probably competing with a play Neil Simon wrote in the 1970s. Or Shakespeare. Always Shakespeare.
And even with theater projects that look to develop new work, there may be a collision of agendas. As an example, there is the Jewish Plays Project, which initially seemed like a good match for my play, which is about an actress whose career consists of appearing on the fringes of Yiddish stage. In fact, I completed my play within a self-set deadline, and that deadline was the moment when the Jewish Plays Project opened their doors to submissions.
But I have reconsidered and won’t be submitting, and let me tell you why.
The Jewish Play ProjectThis is a project that has some lofty goals. “The JPP is reinventing Jewish theater,” it claims, and what do they mean? Well, their call for artists says they are looking for people who “make new work that challenges old stereotypes.” In their “about” section, they say they are looking to put “bold, progressive Jewish conversations on world stages.”
“A revolution is underway in Jewish culture,” the website states. “In music, in books, in film, artists are creating amazing new pathways to Jewish identity. We believe that it is time for theater to join the movement.”
Now, there is nothing wrong with a bold mission statement, per se. It tends to generate a lot of excitement, especially when an organization is presenting itself as being somehow revolutionary. But this mission statement has identified an apparent problem in Jewish theater that it is the cure for. We can suss out what this problem is, as it is the inverse of what the JPP is seeking to do: Jewish theater is full of old stereotypes. It is not bold, nor progressive, and does not participate in creating new pathways to Jewish identity.
Indeed, the JPP is absolutely clear what sort of plays they do not want, embedded in the list of what they do want. It is as follows:
“Full-length plays that deal with contemporary Jewish themes that have never been produced in New York City. The following must be true of a submitted play:
1. It contains significant Jewish themes, characters, content, or points of view.
2. It is not a Holocaust play (stories that deal directly with the history of the Shoah, its survivors and their children, or the World War II period more generally).
3. It does NOT fall into the beloved category of "ethnically stereotypical comedy" (No "Yiddishemammeh" plays, no "My Afternoon With Bubbe", no "Jewtopia")
4. It is in English. (We welcome translations).
5. It runs at least 75 minutes.
6. It has not had a full production in the NY Metro region, or a major regional theater (LORT C or above).”
Besides this, neither musicals nor short plays have a clearly defined place at the JPP, although their submissions are not explicitly rejected. There is apparently some sort of development process for them, but not as part of their annual contest.
What is left outSo, just to be explicit, there are certain broad categories of Jewish plays that do not have a home at the JPP’s annual contest. These include plays about the Holocaust, comedies that make use of so-called ethnic stereotypes, and non-English plays.
The JPP is, of course, free to make any decision it wants to about what sorts of plays it does and does not want to develop. But I am free to take issue with the idea that excluding these categories of theater makes the contest bold or progressive, or significant, or representative of the revolution underway in Jewish arts that theater needs to join.
No, what we have here is an expression of a personal taste, probably mostly that of the JPP’s founder, David Winitsky. And there are problems with his tastes, because, rather than creating the opportunity for bold new Jewish theater, it arbitrarily limits those opportunities. It excludes an enormous amount of Jewish storytelling, not because there is anything inherently wrong with that sort of storytelling, but because somebody just has a preference against them.
(I will also note that going through the staff of the JPP, there is not a single playwright among them, and there is only one playwright listed on the advisory board. Based on long experience, this is a red flag, as playwrighting programs that don’t include significant input for playwrights on their staff or advisory board are often oblivious to the needs and concerns of playwrights.
Additionally, looking through the JPP’s list of “panel readers,” who are the first ones who vet the plays, I see very few playwrights, although it can be hard to suss out, since the readers are listed by name without any other identifying information. I know that Susan Bernfield and Sandra Daley-Sharif are playwrights, but almost all of the other names I recognize are directors and literary managers, and I will bet that the vetting process is largely done by non-playwrights. I don’t have the space to detail why the general exclusion of playwrights from the gatekeeping process in American theater is a problem, but would suggest taking a look at the book “Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play” by Todd London, which carefully details just how bad this has been.)
Why what is excluded is importantI would go through the list of excluded topics one by one, but the first, the rejection of plays about the Holocaust, is so blinkered that I don’t even know where to begin with it. It’s the sort of exclusion of a topic so profound that it shouldn’t be the sort of thing you just mention in your submission rules, but take a full page to explain. It would be like having a Jewish theater project and saying you will not accept plays about Hasids, or Israel, or, I don’t know, rabbis.
The Holocaust isn’t just a theme, after all. It is the single most important event to happen to Jewry in the 20th century. The only comparable event in the history of Judaism is the destruction of the Second Temple, and even other modern genocides are somehow in the shadow of this one. I do not need to argue why Holocaust plays should be in a Jewish play festival; a Jewish play festival needs to explain why this sort of play would be excluded. Because at the moment it is incomprehensible.
But let’s talk about the other exclusions. Firstly, the JPP takes issue with what it calls “ethnically stereotypical comedy,” which it leaves undefined, but offers up “Yiddishemammeh,” “My Afternoon With Bubbe" and "Jewtopia” as examples. The first two are not especially helpful, as they are not real plays, although they not unmeaningful, as I will get to. “Jewtopia,” however, is a 2004 play about Jews and dating, with a significant subplot about a Gentile who wants to date Jewish women and enlists the help of his friend to learn how to act Jewish.
If the JPP doesn’t especially like plays like “Jewtopia,” that’s just fine; I don’t especially like them either. The project takes issue with stereotypical treatment of Jews, and that's laudatory. But, then, it isn’t terrifically clear what the JPP considers to be a stereotype. Neither Yiddish mamas nor bobbes are inherently stereotypical, and I have genuine concerns about the fact that we see mothers and grandmothers mentioned, but not fathers or grandfathers. The oppressive Jewish mother and doting Jewish grandmother might be overused tropes, but they are still capable of being well-used (see Reizl Bozyk’s performance in “Crossing Delancey” as an example).
By specifically excluding them, but not identifying the stereotypical qualities that are at issue, the JPP removes our ability to represent a certain group of Jewish women at all. If I can sum it up using a single actress, this submarines the entire career of Lanie Kazan, because it does not distinguish between her performance in “My Favorite Year” and her performance in, I don’t know, “You Don't Mess with the Zohan.” And that’s a shame, because her performance in “My Favorite Year” is spectacular.
I think it is meaningful that these characters are represented here with Yiddish words. I think what we’re seeing is a specific expression of taste that isn’t rooted in a progressive agenda, but is instead rooted in embarrassment. There is a Yiddish expression for that embarrassment: mein bobbe’s tam, which means “my grandmother’s taste.”
Mein bobbe’s tam was lowbrow, religious, and smacked of the old world. It was for things that assimilated American Jews found tacky and foreign, such as lungen stew and spitting to ward off the evil eye and going to shund Yiddish plays. For contemporary Jews, these qualities seem stereotypical, but they were not expressions of stereotypes, they were expressions of character. It is not radical to exclude mein bobbe’s tam, because it involves rejecting a specific Jewish immigrant experience, and, even more specifically, a women’s experience.
There are not so many plays about Jewish women that we can afford to discourage new ones because they are about women that embarrass us.
English is not the only language of American JewsPerhaps the most puzzling aspect of the submissions guidelines is the rejection of plays that are not written in English. The JPP is aware of the fact that there has been exciting new work done on the Jewish experience in other arts, but somehow has missed out on how much of that has involved ongoing experiments to preserve Yiddish as a language of creative expression.
And it’s not just Yiddish. One of the most distinctive qualities of Judaism is its long history of preserving Jewish languages, and, in the case of Hebrew, actually reviving a language that had not been a vernacular for thousands of years.
One of the great creative tools Jews have is multilingualism, and the extraordinary variety of languages we can use to express the Jewish experience, which includes Ladino and Arabic, both of which, like Yiddish, represent the primary languages of specific Jewish experiences. By refusing to consider these as languages for Jewish theater, we are forcing Jewish art to assimilate to a language that is not especially Jewish, English.
Perhaps this is for purely practical reasons. It’s a little harder to do a play in a non-English language. But it’s not that hard, and laziness or a lack of theatrical imagination is not a compelling reason to exclude explicitly Jewish voices from a Jewish theater project.
I guess I’m just not of the opinion that limiting the opportunities to represent history, the experience of women, and the diversity of Judaism on the stage is either bold or progressive. To me, this is not an example of a theater project encouraging new conversations about Judaism, but limiting them. I would prefer to see the conference accept plays that are consistent with their bold mission statement, rather than reject them for unexplained reasons that seem mostly to be an expression of personal taste.
Until they do, this isn’t really the Jewish Plays Project. It just excludes too much of the Jewish experience, and without justification, explanation, or any mechanism of community response to address it.
And it’s too bad, because there really aren’t that many specific opportunities for the development of Jewish plays. But, then, this isn’t either. It’s just an opportunity for a particular kind of Jewish play, and excludes everything else.