Over the last year, the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company, like many theatre spaces, has had to completely pivot and change the way it delivers theatre to an audience.
Located in North York, Toronto, the company has cemented its place among the Jewish and non-Jewish theatre worlds, as they produce plays on the Jewish experience that wish to resonate with everyone.
Co-artistic director, David Eisner, has been developing innovative ways to continuously provide the public with enjoyable theatre in their homes. While Eisner expressed it’s not the same as viewing a show live, the pandemic offered a silver lining for theatres globally to connect and for audiences to view other Jewish experiences from around the world.
Can you tell about some of the virtual theatre performances you’ve put on and are planning to put on?
On May 2, we had the Virtual Telethon, which had over 20 performances across Canada and Broadway to put on some of our past shows and songs. It’s three hours long and is an opportunity to pay performers. It really takes a village to have a top notch Jewish theatre and it’s all about building bridges within and around our community. There are so many great benefits Jewish theatre can provide that connect us to who we are. Another way we’re doing this is with our show in May called Unravel. It’s part of a new program we’re working on with Artists in Residence—a burgeoning theatre company and a brand new youth initiative. This is our first project within it. People from all different backgrounds can tell us what it means to be Jewish to them, to unravel, and drill down on that meaning. Short monologues were submitted and the top 10 will participate in writing and performance workshops that will culminate with a live broadcast. Then the top three will be in another show where we highlight them and do an interview with them as well. This is for 15 to 30 year olds so we’re getting to know what it means to be Jewish today with the younger generation.
We try to highlight the Jewish story in all its realm with readings online of great Canadian works, as well as putting on cabarets. Maybe we’ll have pop-up outdoor events, but we’re still nailing down those details.
What was that process like to reconfigure how you produce live theatre for an audience? Did it give a chance to produce content you weren’t doing before?
I work with the co-artistic director, Avery Saltzman, and he’s a genius with music. Those cabarets were under his direction and he’s really brought it to life. I used to work in CBC Radio so that helped when we wanted to do a radio version of Crossing Delancy. I was thrilled to go back to that world and reconfigure the play as an audio adaptation.
One of the real discoveries in working online was our Hanukkah production with Jewish theatre from around the world. We connected with 10 countries such as, Russia, Hungary, Romania, Australia, Israel, U.S., and Mexico. To meet them and learn about who they are, and acquaint themselves to us and us to them, was really an eye opener. It’s something we could do again because theatre is about connecting us to our stories. This virtual connection is how Harold Green can be connected to Jewish theatres around the world. We hope we can augment and grow those relationships and then potentially have the chance to tour some of our plays with them and help bring their shows to us.
How else did the theatre community come together at the start of the pandemic?And does it continue now?
We were having artistic directors across Toronto meeting up on a biweekly basis which was amazing. We’re a member of the Association of Jewish Theatres which is a worldwide organization and we met with them and that was insightful not just to discuss plays but also to discuss COVID-19 related items on opening up. We live so much in our own worlds, this has allowed us to connect in different ways. Also, there’s been a whole social dynamic shifting for the better considering what’s going on in the world. For us, we tell the Jewish story but we look for as many interesting, inclusive ways of telling the Jewish story. We’ve done readings on Jews from India, with a play called Calcutta Kosher, it was amazing. We’ll continue that journey.
We’ve discussed how there’s been a silver lining here of connecting to a global Jewish theatre community. But ultimately, the pandemic has impacted live performance spaces in extremely difficult ways.
There is nothing that replaces the dynamic and potentially transforming nature of live theatre. It’s unique in itself. It’s painful not to be in a room with an audience to see how they enjoy it, how it affects them, and raises questions. There’s a slight isolationist feeling. . . watching remotely is different but not the same. Some of the performers have an opportunity to work in the T.V. and movie business, however, not all have that ability. Certainly set designers, lighting and costume, stage hands, all the people that are connected, craftsmen, have it horribly. You must really make huge shifts because there’s no work and that’s hard. I feel their pain.
Overall, how has the response been from the community on your programming?
Sometimes you get just a few people attending a performance or other times it’s 200 people, or for our theatre’s celebratory Bar mitzvah last year, we had 12,000 views. But I think people are getting Zoom weary. We’re excited and gearing up to start thinking of returning to in-person performances maybe by November, but we’ll see. In the meantime, we’ll put on as much virtual programming to entertain and connect people as possible.
Header image courtesy of Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company.
Clarrie Feinstein is a journalist based in Toronto where she is currently a reporter for Toronto Star. She previously was a reporter for Metroland Media where she covered education in Peel Region. Her other work can be seen in Daily Hive, Business Insider, Salon, and Bedford + Bowery. Clarrie earned her M.A. in journalism from New York University.