New Jewish Theatre celebrates 10 years

BY JASON L. YOUNG, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

The Sarah and Abraham Wolfson Studio Theatre in the basement of the Jewish Community Center looks remarkably similar to its appearance a decade ago. Its intimate setting allows for a maximum of 99 audience seats that spill onto the stage.

That marks one of the few similarities to the work done in the studio before 1996 and what occurs now as the New Jewish Theatre enters its 10th season.

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“My goal was to increase the professionalism of the program and to make very clear that it was a Jewish-theater program, to increase the Jewish content,” New Jewish Theatre artistic director Kathleen Sitzer said.

Before she took over the JCC’s theater program and established the New Jewish Theatre in 1996, the Studio held both Jewish-specific and non-Jewish shows. The old JCC program used only community actors, and the attendance fluctuated throughout its existence, which dates to back before World War II.

Equity (union) actors, directors and stage managers commonly work at the theater now. Attendance has skyrocketed with 60 subscribers in its first year to more than 900. Instead of putting on a total of 15 performances of three plays throughout the year, the NJT plans four productions with 15 shows each plus several staged readings during the 2006-07 season.

All four of the Theatre’s productions a year ago garnered nominations — a total of five — for the inaugural Kevin Kline Awards, the St. Louis metropolitan equivalent to the Tony Awards. Steve Isom, executive director of the awards, noted no other theater group received nominations for their entire season.

“You’re not going to New Jewish and see a turkey,” he said.

Gary Wayne Barker took home the Kline for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Boolie in the NJT production of Driving Miss Daisy.

The options and the quality of the NJT attract and keep people from throughout the community. Evelyn Myers and her husband, Louis, attend theater productions throughout the St. Louis area, but never miss a show at the NJT.

“It has grown quite a bit over the years in professionalism and attendance,” Evelyn Myers said. “We like the intimacy of it, but also for a small-box theater they bring such wonderful talent and the plays they select are really outstanding.”

Holidays and other obstacles forced this season’s opening to Nov. 29 when the NJT opens with The Sisters Rosenzweig. Among this season’s shows sits Via Dolorosa, a production Sitzer said had no chance when she took over the theater. She added that not until about six years ago when the theater’s reputation with the Jewish community and St. Louis theater community escalated to a point of respect could she put on a show like Via Dolorosa.

The one-man production tells the story of a playwright’s perspective of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It might seem less-than-sympathetic to supporters of Israel with its non-advocate approach, but Sitzer insists the reputation the NJT built over the past nine years allows her to try more controversial topics.

It also represents an unwritten mission of the New Jewish Theatre — to “build a bridge of understanding and tolerance and education within the broader community for different cultures,” Sizter said.

The future promises more growth. A master plan for the Jewish Community Center indicates a move to a space where the current auditorium sets. The NJT will occupy only a part of the area but should increase its seating capacity by about 25 spots. Sitzer also plans to eventually take the company from a professional, non-equity theater in which only a handful of union members participate throughout the season to a full-equity company within a few years.

“We are a niche theater, and if you’re going to be a niche theater you have to know who you’re audience is and you’re going to have to give them what they want,” Sitzer said. “We have clearly done that.”

NJT’s Salon Readings include the drama “Hard Love,” Sunday, Oct. 29; the tragic “Love in a Thirsty Land,” Tuesday, Oct. 31; the hilarious “OY!” Thursday, Nov. 2; and the poignant “The Last Schwartz,” Saturday, Nov. 4. All readings start at 7:30 p.m. and are held at COCA’s Anheuser-Busch Black Box Theatre. Individual tickets are $14 for one reading, $10 for additional readings.

NJT’s 2006-2007 season includes Wendy Wasserstein’s “The Sisters Rosenzweig,” Nov. 29-Dec. 17; “Via Dolorosa,” Jan. 24-Feb. 11; “Women’s Minyan,” Mar. 14-Apr. 1; and “What’s Wrong With This Picture,” May 2-20. Subscriptions are available at $68 to $88 and Individual tickets are available at $18 to $25. For more information, please call (314) 442-3283 or visit www.newjewishtheatre.org.