Managing Director Rebecca Ende and Acting Artistic Director Shirley Serotsky and their team are ‘moving on’ and preparing for an exciting 2015 season at Theater J.
Joel: How do you see your new roles as an opportunity to move more strongly and deliberately in the direction the theater has been going?
Rebecca: As Managing Director, my day-to-day role hasn’t actually changed. As Acting Artistic Director, Shirley will take the lead in planning the 2015-2016 season. During this transition period, we will lead our team ine executing the artistic mission of Theater J—that is, producing fresh, creative, thought-provoking performance art for the Washington community.
Why is it important for the JCC to maintain an in-house professional theater company?
The DCJCC is unique among Jewish Community Centers because of its high-level arts programming. The theater is an integral component in fulfilling the DCJCC’s mission to preserve and strengthen the Jewish cultural tradition of performing arts and wrestling with difficult questions.Being part of the DCJCC provides Theater J with the space, support and resources that allowed us to grow into a robust company. Theater J has been able to work with incredible artistic talent and take artistic risks because of the safety net of the larger institution.
Why does it matter from the DC area to have an cultural/ethnic theater like Theater J? What do cultural/ethnic theaters provide to the public and audiences?
All theater provides a lens through which we can interpret, analyze and connect more deeply with our world. By the nature of their missions to produce theater through a unique cultural lens, culturally specific theaters inherently diversify the range of artistic expressions and cultural perspectives available to audiences. Theater J is the only Jewish professional company of our size. We take the Jewish value of debating difficult and sometime unanswerable questions to heart. It informs every aspect of our programming, applying both to work that contains obvious Jewish content, and to work that grapples more broadly with the human experience. Questions of identity, the nature of historical narratives, relevant political debates, and familial dynamics are all things we seek to explore in the work we do, whether explicitly Jewish or not.
Where do you see Theater J headed in the next 2-3 years?
I think audiences will see the continued broadening of the Theater J cannon, as we have done over the years by producing plays like David Mamet’s Race, David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face, Alexandra Gersten Vassilaros The Argument, Winter Miller’s In Darfur, and coming up later this season Tanya Barfield’s The Call. I also see us building on new and existing relationships with local playwrights and community partners, such as with Georgetown University two seasons ago and the Atlas Performing Arts Center this spring – as well as carrying on our tradition of excellent and comprehensive post-show programming
What will you be looking for in the new artistic director?
A committee comprised of Theater J staff, the CEO of the DCJCC, stakeholders in both Theater J and the DCJCC, and artist representatives will conduct a national search for a new Artistic Director. First and foremost, we’ll be looking for someone with a strong artistic vision and a track record of producing outstanding theater. What we know from many years of working with Ari and many other leaders in our industry is that an outstanding Artistic Director plays many roles and needs a wide skill set. He or she must work collaboratively with the Theater J staff to communicate a clear and unique artistic vision, connect with and stimulate audiences, provide leadership and mentorship to staff and artists, and raise community support for the theater. We will be looking for the candidate that can apply all of these skills to fulfilling the missions of Theater J and the DCJCC.
Joel: What is the next production at Theater J? Tell us about it and about the cast and designers. Why should local theatregoers come and see it?
Shirley: We’re about two weeks into rehearsals for LIFE SUCKS (OR THE PRESENT RIDICULOUS) a new play written by Aaron Posner and inspired by Chekhov’s UNCLE VANYA. Aaron is also directing the play. DC audiences have been fortunate to see Aaron’s work on many of our local stages—especially since he and his family moved to the DC-area several years ago. His work is boundary-stretching, hugely creative, deeply felt, and always entertaining. We’re thrilled to have him with us again, following up on the great success of his play THE CHOSEN, which he directed for us in 2011 in a Theater J production at Arena Stage.
Aaron is working with a dynamic team of actors–several of whom you’ve seen on Theater J stages in recent years (Kimberly Gilbert, Sasha Olinick, and Judith Ingber); some of whom we are thrilled to welcome back after several years (John Lescault and Naomi Jacobson); and two that we have admiredfrom afar, making their Theater J debuts (Eric Hissom and Monica West). The design team also includes artists with whom Theater J has had previous rich collaborations (Nancy Schertler is designing lights; James Sugg is composing original music and designing sound; Kelsey Hunt is designing costumes; and Samina Vieth is designing props) as well as artists who are new to us (our scenic designer Meghan Raham).
The play is funny and charming and wonderfully effective in its examination of love and longing. It’s for anyone who has ever loved and lost; anyone who has ever loved from afar; anyone who has ever loved and then stopped loving; anyone who has ever found themselves incapable of loving enough. Wait—isn’t that pretty much everyone? Okay then, this play is for EVERYONE!
What have they learned from Ari Roth that they will take with you and that will inform your own stewardship of Theater J? What might you do differently, now that you are at the helm?
I have learned so much from working with Ari Roth. First and foremost—that it is essential to have a deep and passionate connection to the work. Also, an overall commitment to theater that is politically and socially relevant, thought-provoking, and engaged with a community—indeed, that’s what brought me to Theater J in the first place. That includes beyond-the-stage programming as well as what we produce on the stage-Ari and I have worked closely together for six and a half years to program upwards of fifty post-show discussions and panels a season. It’s been hugely fulfilling work for me, and I look forward to continuing to plan and execute these conversations.
I’ll also continue to grow and nurture two initiatives that have come into being during my tenure at Theater J—that’s the Locally Grown: Community Supported Art festival, and our commitment to expanding and diversifying the voices we produce on Theater J stages (you can read more about that in a post I wrote for the blog HowlRound last season.
I’ll work hard to let our immensely talented, incredibly bright staff have their voices heard in our season planning process, and in other decisions going forward. We have worked together as a team to navigate this tumultuous time and I could not be more impressed with how this group has shined. They each deserve a shout out—from our Associate Producer Delia Taylor (who has been our primary contact with artists, designers and technicians at Theater J for ten years and is a deeply respected, dynamic actor, director, teacher and producer in the DC theater community) and our production team of Technical Director Tom Howley (who makes everything on our stage beautiful, impactful, and safe!) and Production Manager Ryan Breen (who executes a complicated schedule smoothly, cohesively, and with a welcoming smile) to our Director of Marketing and Communications Amy Friedman (who has kept up with a seemingly endless flow of press alerts and requests while remaining clear-eyed, unflappable, and endlessly positive); our Community Outreach and Creative Director Molly Winston (who has initiated and nurtured rich relationships within our community with integrity and grace while also keeping our internet presence current and elegant); our Patron Services director Erin Neel (who hit the ground running only a few months ago, and has communicated clearly and personally with every patron and subscriber who has had questions or concerns about the recent turn of events); our Development Associate Alice Magelssen (who has handled all communications with donors and other invested organizations with remarkable patience and clarity); and of course—our much beloved Casting Director Naomi Robin (who remains a constant, welcome, and respected presence in the DC theater community.)
You’ve heard from Managing Director Rebecca Ende and me as we’ve navigated this past week and a half, but we are not operating in a bubble. Every organization is only as strong as its team, and Theater Jhas an amazing team.
Will the Epic Expressions season continue as planned or do you envision changes in shows or artistic personnel?
This season will continue as planned. As you might have read in the press, our greatly respected colleague Jennifer Nelson was compelled to step down from directing our production of Tanya Barfield’s play THE CALL, which we’ll be producing at the Atlas Theatre in the spring. It’s a play that I strongly advocated for during season planning and one with which I feel a deep personal connection. As of now, the plan is for me to step in and direct the production. Other than that, we do not envision any changes in artistic personnel.
This is a time when many theaters are putting together their 2015-2016 seasons. What can you share with us about the season planning process at Theater J? Where does it stand? What were or will be your roles in it? When will the season be announced?
Our process will remain similar to what we have always done—a lot of reading and narrowing down of material, and then deep conversations amongst staff and our Theater J advisory council about what will make up the strongest and most dynamic 2015/2016 Season. We started this process in November, and will aim to have a season announcement in March or April—which is very much in line with what we’ve done in the past.
LIFE SUCKS (OR THE PRESENT RIDICULOUS) plays from January 14-February 15, 2015 at Theater J- at The Washington DC Jewish Community Center’s Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater – 1529 16th Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call Box Office Tickets at (800) 494-8497, or purchase them online.
‘The Imperative to Reconcile’: A Conversation with Ari Roth by John Stoltenberg on DCMetriTheaterArts.
[Thanks to DCMetroTheaterArts writers Leslie Weisman, Robert Michael Oliver, and John Stoltenberg for their help with this interview].