That’s a wrap: Sitzer retiring from NJT after 22 years

Samuel Davis and Kathleen Sitzer star in the New Jewish Theatre production of ‘Driving Miss Daisy.’ Photos: Eric Woolsey

Ellen Futterman, Editor

After 21 seasons and more than 100 plays that reflect the human condition through a Jewish lens, Kathleen Sitzer, artistic director of the New Jewish Theatre, will retire in June, shortly after the close of NJT’s 2017-18 season.

Sitzer, 72, has been at the helm of NJT since it became a small professional theater under the auspices of the J roughly 22 years ago. 

When I asked, “Why now?” Sitzer said she “had toyed with the idea of doing two more seasons, working until I was 75.” But she decided “it was time for me to quit while I’m ahead and still healthy enough to travel and pursue other interests.” Married to Bill Sitzer, a semi-retired lawyer, Kathleen Sitzer also plans to spend more time with her five grandchildren, one of whom is a 1-year-old, and perhaps teach theater in lifelong learning programs.

But first up in retirement: acting, which is how Sitzer got started in the theater business. She will return to NJT in the fall in a three-person play called “Raging Skillet,” which centers on “the true-life adventures” of a lesbian punk-rock Jewish caterer. Sitzer will play the lead character’s Jewish mother who comes back from the dead after 25 years. She notes slyly, “Obviously this is not a drama.”

She and I sat down earlier this week to look back on her more than two decades at NJT.

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A little history lesson, please. Had there been a separate theater department at the J before you arrived?

There has been theater at the J since the early 1900s, at least. It’s been in various guises and at various locations. When (the J) was down on Union and Enright, it was the Rooftop Players. I know when they came to the Millstone Campus in ’63, there was a group called Center Players. Then, about seven years before I started, the person who was theater coordinator at the J decided to try a black box theater. They were called the Shalom Players. 

These were all community theater programs and as community theater, had a different mission, which was to serve community members who were interested in doing theater. 

When did the change come from Jewish community theater to Jewish professional theater?

I was hired in 1996 during the last season of the Shalom Players. When NJT started in 1997-98, I had two primary goals: one was to professionalize the theater and the other was to give it a very clear and strong Jewish focus. That meant the renaming and rebranding of it. I am certainly leaving feeling I have accomplished both of those goals, and they were accomplished fairly early on.  

Did NJT always have five shows in its season?

No. We started with three plays and have grown the program substantially over the years. The first season, I think, we did three plays over two weekends, with three or four performances each weekend.

What are you most proud of accomplishing in your role as NJT’s artistic director?

The artistic growth of the theater. We are considered the premier small professional theater in the area. The artistic quality is at the very top, barring none.

I’m also very proud of the respect we have garnered within the theater community. People love working with us — directors, designers, actors. They are treated fairly; they are respected.

Is there any play looking back, knowing what you know now, that you wouldn’t have produced?

Oh, you mean the play that shall not be named?  Yes, it was a revisualization of a Shakespeare classic that just didn’t work.  

Was there a play that got away, or almost got away? 

We are constrained by budget and size. If there is a show, especially a current show that I’m interested in, the licensers will always talk to (Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Artistic Director) Steve Woolf first. Understand, I’m not upset or being critical; that’s just the way the business works. 

In our second season, we wanted to do “Never the Sinner.” Steve had the rights. He ended up releasing it and not doing it, and we ended up doing it during our third season. It was so successful we ended up remounting it again last season. That’s one where it got away and I got it back. 

I wanted to do the “The Lady with All the Answers,” which is the one-woman show about Ann Landers. Again, (Steve) had the rights. He didn’t produce it and he released the rights, but another (local theater) company jumped in before I could get my request in. So that’s one that definitely got away.

Was there a play that you went into with a lot of trepidation but it turned out better than you expected?

I’d say the play that most vividly fits that description was “The Disputation” by this English academic (Hyam Maccoby). I read it and it was a compelling story, but it was so talky. I was sure audiences would stay away in droves. It turned out to be one of our most successful productions in terms of audience response. It’s the story of a trial between King James of Spain and [the Jewish Sage Rabbi] Nahmanides during the Inquisition. The arguments in it were so compelling. So sometimes you have to go against your instincts. Conversely, there are shows I thought would sell like hotcakes and they just sat there. 

Were you ever concerned about running out of material?

Never. There is a wealth of incredible material. We belong to an international network of Jewish theaters. There’s a lot of networking and a lot of sharing. I get unsolicited scripts constantly. I also think our mission is broad enough that we can do things that are somewhat tangential but still fit our mission. 

What about Holocaust plays? How receptive are audiences to them?

That’s tricky. “Diary of Anne Frank” is an iconic play. It’s also a great education piece. We did a student performance every week during its run. There are a lot of Holocaust plays that I would like to do, but our audience doesn’t have the appetite for it very much. We can do a Holocaust play every few years, but I don’t want to push it. 

What’s the formula to a successful season?

We open with something that will bring audiences in, either something familiar or something lighter and warm; like this year opening with “Tuesdays with Morrie.” Typically, we want to close with something a little bit lighter or possibly a comedy — something that will have audiences leaving the season with a positive feeling so they will return next year. The three shows in the middle are up for grabs. 

What will you miss the most?

I love the process of putting the season together, of selecting the plays, of making those decisions, of casting them, putting together the artistic teams. That is the core of what I do. I will miss that.