JCC collaborates on Jewish playwriting competition

JCC collaborates on Jewish playwriting competition

Series of projects aims to identify new voices and explore new issues

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Zohar Tirosh-Polk of Brooklyn, center, is announced as the winner of the competition by Jewish Plays Project director David Winitsky of Maplewood and Carol Berman, director of the JCC’s Gaelen Center for the Arts.
Zohar Tirosh-Polk of Brooklyn, center, is announced as the winner of the competition by Jewish Plays Project director David Winitsky of Maplewood and Carol Berman, director of the JCC’s Gaelen Center for the Arts.

Would the audience choose Zohar Tirosh-Polk’s Six, the story of an Israeli couple darting back and forth between their current romance and the 1967 Six-Day War? Would they prefer The Wicked Son by Cecilia Copeland, a play about the complexity of modern Jewish identity, or A People, Lauren Feldman’s montage of Jewish voices heard across generations and centuries?

About 65 people would use their cell phones to determine the winner of the competition for the best new play about Jewish identity, as conceived by the Jewish Plays Project. To decide, an audience watched staged readings of excerpts from the three plays at the Leon & Toby Cooperman JCC in West Orange on March 24. They then texted the name of the work they wanted to see more of.

The Jewish Plays Project, established in September, was conceived as a launching pad for new Jewish theater, to develop a project from an idea to a work ready to be produced.

“There is no contemporary Jewish theater in New York City right now,” said local director David Winitsky, the Maplewood resident behind the project. “There is the Folksbiene [Yiddish Theatre], which is authentic and does wonderful stuff, but they are not doing new work, for the most part. We are tapping into the fact that people want to get their plays to New York.”

The project has a number of local connections. Two of its three starting projects are housed in the local Jewish community: the March 24 competition at JCC, and a JPP contest focusing on works with Holocaust themes, a collaboration with the Holocaust Council of MetroWest. (See “Playwright’s script gives new voice to survivor,” page 13.)

Alan Feldman, executive director of JCC MetroWest, and Carol Berman, director of its Gaelen Center for the Arts, helped bring the project to the JCC, where the JPP is a “resident project.” Earlier, Winitsky earned a business development fellowship from the New York Community Entrepreneurs Partnership, sponsored by PresenTense and the UJA/Federation of New York, and a young professionals grant from UJA-NY.

The competition had a broad scope: non-musical, non-Yiddish plays about Jewish identity specifically not about the Holocaust. Winitsky said he was hoping for about 50 submissions; instead, about 175 were sent in from all over the world.

A panel of artists weeded through all the plays to pull those that fit the criteria and had artistic merit. A panel of about 30 local community members who volunteered to read the plays and participate in the project culled the list down to 40, then 10, then the top three.

“The conversation about Jewish identity inspired by these plays was thrilling. They are the most exciting discussions I’ve ever had,” said Winitsky. “At the core, that’s what I want this to be about. I want people to walk away saying, ‘Huh. That’s a new idea about Jewish identity in the 21st century.’”

The evening of staged readings had a lighthearted tone. “It was really fun to have a live crowd, and everyone was really excited, having fun, laughing,” said Winitsky.

The winner is slated to become part of the Jewish Plays Project’s third endeavor: development of a play through a residency at the 14th Street Y in Manhattan. The focus there will be on collaboration among different members of theater communities that might include a writer, a puppeteer, a dancer. “It’s more than just a text-based performance,” said Winitsky.

Winitsky, a theater director who has worked on and off Broadway, holds an MFA in directing from Northwestern University. For the past 10 years he has been combining his career with an exploration of Jewish identity issues. The large number of contest submissions gave him perspective on “what is on our minds as a collective people,” he said. Three overarching categories emerged in the works, according to Winitsky: plays about Israel, plays about non-traditional Jews (Jews of color, gays and lesbians, working-class Jews), and plays geared toward teen and college audiences.

And when the votes were tallied, the winner was Six, by Tirosh-Polk of Brooklyn.

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