Jewish writing on stage

MJWF director Esther Kister

A NEW production set around the work of 10 Jewish authors will be staged by the Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival (MJWF) at St Kilda’s Alex Theatre on August 22-23.

Theatrics: The Wit and Wisdom of Jewish Writing will see actors Deidre Rubenstein, Michael Veitch, Luisa Hastings Edge and Christopher Brown present short stories, monologues, readings and scenes on a variety of themes covering Jewish culture.

The content is drawn from four Australian writers – Arnold Zable, Serge Liberman, Maria Tumarkin and poet Alex Skovron – and international authors Howard Jacobson, Etgar Keret, Nathan Englander, Grace Paley, Ayelet Waldman and Isaac Bashevis Singer.

MJWF director Esther Kister says that Theatrics is an ambitious project which will be staged on August 22 and 23.

“We’re adapting selections from literary works to create a unique theatrical performance, backed by an original music score,” she says.

“We’ve commissioned a short story from Russian-Jewish author Maria Tumarkin for the event. It’s about a female university professor who wants to out a colleague with Nazi tendencies.”

Kister says that while all the writers are Jewish, the content will not only reflect the Jewish experience.

“The excerpt from Arnold Zable’s story, for instance, is about a contemporary asylum seeker from Baghdad, while Alex Skovron’s poem is about a moment between a teacher and his foreign-born student,” she says.

“All the stories speak to larger, universal themes about motherhood, love, friendship and loss – sometimes from a Jewish perspective, sometimes not.

“What they do have in common is the high quality of the writing. The actors will not be wearing costumes as we wanted the power of the words to shine through.”

Theatre director and dramaturge Gary Abrahams is in charge of bringing the project to the stage.

Abrahams, 36, was born in South Africa and grew up in Johannesburg. He moved to Melbourne to study at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), and continued his acting career in London for several years.

He returned to Melbourne to complete his masters degree of theatre practice at the VCA and established independent theatre company Dirty Pretty Theatre. He also worked as a director and writer for Red Stitch Actors Theatre and the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC).

“We wanted Theatrics to be a different type of literary event, more of a performance using professional actors,” explains Abrahams.

“Many of the works have been adapted to give them a dramatic quality, but it’s not a full-scale production with sets and costumes. It’s a mood reading event with the focus on the authors and their works.”

The production will also feature live music by Melbourne composer Adam Starr.

Abrahams says that the MJWF initially compiled a “very long” short list of works and authors to be considered.

“I read all the pieces that were suggested – there was a lot of reading! Eventually I decided that we were not putting on the definitive study at Jewish writing, but that we wanted to show a wide range of writing styles, including novels, poems, short stories and dramatic monologues.

“We looked at what the live presentation would add to the writing. As I read the works, certain themes became apparent such as motherhood, migration and identity.”

Abrahams is thrilled that the cast includes Jewish actress Deidre Rubenstein, who recently performed in the MTC’s hit stage play North by Northwest.

“It was a coup that Deidre agreed to come on board – she is one of Melbourne’s most successful stage actresses.”

Abrahams has worked closely with Luisa Hastings Edge and Christopher Brown at Red Stitch and through his own theatre company, Dirty Pretty Theatre.

“It was important to have a cast of professional actors who could do justice to the works.”

Later this year Abrahams will direct Bad Jews at the Alex Theatre, St Kilda and the MTC’s Buyer and Cellar.

“I have been lucky to work consistently in recent years and hope that this will continue,” says Abrahams.

Kister says that Theatrics is building on the success of the inaugural biennial MJWF held last year.

“In our non-festival year, we’ve been determined to raise the bar, as well as reach a broader audience, by partnering with other festivals,” she says.

“We worked with the Auckland and Sydney Writers Festivals to bring out New York author and critic, Daniel Mendelsohn in May.”

MJWF has joined forces with the Melbourne Writers Festival to present Theatrics.

Theatrics: The Wit and Wisdom of Jewish Writing is at the Alex Theatre, 135 Fitzroy St, St Kilda on August 22 and 23. Bookings: www.ticketek.com.au.

REPORT by Danny Gocs