‘Tam’ on stage
Sidebar: See ‘A Bissel Schpiel’
Plays, like buildings, are constructed brick by brick and scene by scene. In both cases, the final projects are seldom absolutely complete when they are pronounced ready for public viewing. The husband-wife team of David Winitsky and Elizabeth Samet have cowritten a play about the Jewish immigrant experience that will be taken “for its first walk in public” in a Theater Project workshop production at the Union County College Theater in March. A Bissel Schpiel, still a work-in-progress, is designed for youngsters eight - 12 and their families.
In a New Jersey Jewish News interview in the writers’ Maplewood home, the discussion ranged over topics like playwriting, rehearsals, ethnic humor and how people learn about their heritage. “I am interested in Yiddish culture and trying to communicate an idea of this world, but this is not a documentary,” said Winitsky, who is directing the production. “The performance is presented in a style that honors these people and where they came from but is still very American.”
Samet elaborated on the unconventional process of creating this work. “It is not like a regular play where actors come, perform, and the director tells them where to stand. We envision different kinds of productions. The actors can respond to the audience and decide how they will proceed. What we’re really looking for is the spine of it…. This is really like a first draft.”
“The actors are going to have a bag of tricks,” Winitsky said, and yet “it is not improvisational. There is some leeway, but you are still directed; what to say is still written down.”
For A Bissel Schpiel, the two have imagined a troupe of Yiddish vaudeville players who are unexpectedly and reluctantly hired by an Irish-born theater manager in a small Midwestern town early in the 20th century. This plot device invites the characters to indulge in all sorts of storytelling, horseplay, and word play Yiddish shtick. Although most of the cast is not Jewish, “they are really embracing it; they get it,” Samet said, providing gratifying testimony to the universal appeal of Jewish culture in the 21st century.
The play itself, a product of many drafts and revisions before the writers were ready even to audition a cast, celebrates Jewish culture Yiddishkeit. Winitsky, who is on the staff of the Playwrights Theater in Madison and has worked in theater on and off-Broadway, became interested in his own culture while studying for a master’s degree in fine arts from Northwestern University in Illinois.
Growing up outside Philadelphia, he said, “I was ethnically Jewish. I went to Hebrew school sort of and had a bar mitzva. My father’s family had a long history of agnostic Russian Jews.”
He always wanted to learn more about his Jewish heritage, he said, and finally set out to do so. In 2004, he directed a large-scale stage production of The Dybbuk and then “a toy theater” version of stories by Sholom Aleichem at Northwestern. In the process of researching these plays, he said, he began “thinking about Jewish culture and literature, about ways of putting [both elements] together. I’m really invested and in love with this world seeking a way to pass it on. More so now that I feel good about being Jewish. I never knew how to feel about being Jewish.”
Winitsky said he has a strong desire to share this feeling. For him, A Bissel Schpiel represents “what I do as an artist and what I feel about my family. I wanted to provide something beautiful in this world that an audience of young people can learn from and think is cool.” And for the Jews in the audience: “I want them to feel good about being Jewish.”
Samet, who grew up in an observant family in Pittsburgh, said she thinks often about what she calls “the miracles of the mundane life-cycle events and holidays, the repetition of the events that define your history and who you are.” Through the play, she said, she wants the audience to take these experiences away with them. “They will see universal ideas whether they are Jewish or not.”
Samet studied fine arts at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence and received a graduate degree in painting from New York University. But painting, she said, “took too much time and space,” especially after her sons, Zeke and Lex, now six and three, were born. She works full-time as a creative director in a Manhattan advertising firm and has also written several plays, two of which were finalists in the Samuel French One Act Play Festival in 2006.
“The stuff we are doing now we really like,” Samet said. “Every time we go to rehearsals we have a new script. We’re trying to make the rehearsals be about the script and the actors together and find out what the heart of the piece is. We’re trying to make a complete piece that other actors could step into. We would love this first audience to be a friendly audience and help us out.”
Winitsky said they plan to enlist the audience’s help, not with the finishing touches but with one more step in the building process. “I’ll talk briefly about the process and what we’re doing. Then we’ll do the show and then we’ll have some questions, especially for the kids: What do you think was funny? And for the adults: What are we missing? What did you think was not Yiddishkeit?”
Thinking about that first audience, Samet said, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if another generation were telling Mendel jokes and Wise Men of Chelm stories?”
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