Theatre at the J – Then and Now

Thursday, April 5, 2018
Posted by: Steve Garfinkel

A True Story! 

Steve Garfinkel
Steve Garfinkel
Theatre Program Coordinator

It happens all the time in fairytales and mythology.  Sleeping Beauty pricks her finger and goes to sleep for 100 years before awakening to the kiss of a handsome prince. The mythological Phoenix bird dies in flames, only to rise again from its ashes.  Today the ancient tradition continues – only this time, it’s no fairytale or myth, but the story of the Theatre Program at the J. 

It was long ago (in 1945 to be exact) that a relatively unknown, 31-year-old Nina Vance was hired to direct a dramatics program for the fledgling YMHA and YWHA – organizations that would later go on to become the city’s Jewish Community Center.  Followers of Houston theatre know what happened for Ms. Vance after that, but few recognize today’s Alley Theatre as an outgrowth of the first Theatre Program at the J. 

Meanwhile, like the princess in the story, the J’s theatre program continued to grow, eventually turning into a more professional company under the direction of David Marko in the 1980s.  As the 1990s progressed, belt-tightening measures at the J finally resulted in putting the organization’s burgeoning theatre program on hiatus, beginning a deep sleep which was to last 20 years.  

Fast forward to the second decade of the 21st century when Evelyn Rubenstein JCC president Barbara (Bobbi) Samuels’ love of theatre prompted her to investigate re-launching the program.  After discussing the idea with Executive Vice President Joel Dinkin and Arts & Culture Director Marilyn Hassid, the process moved forward by consulting with former Executive Director Mark Lit, whose passion for theatre had helped the program flourish in the 1990s. 

Wrestling Jerusalem
Wrestling Jerusalem

His recommendation? Yes, it can be done, but in order to get back to a point where the awakening program can begin producing on its own again, small steps should be taken. 

These included (a) partnering with existing theatres in the Houston community, whose production capabilities are already “up and running,” and (b) bringing small cast offerings from off-Broadway and elsewhere to the J.  This would give Houston audiences a chance to start coming back to the J for high quality theatre offerings.

And so it came to pass that in the 2014-15 theatre season, the J partnered with Stages Repertory Theatre and Black Lab Theatre to present the play Bad Jews.  The production was a huge success, and Theatre at the J was a reality once more. Also offered in 2014-15 were the one-man play Kaddish, and a cabaret musical, 29 One More Time, produced in collaboration with Vital Arts Collaborative.

The Chosen
The Chosen

The 2015-16 season saw two impactful one-man shows – Wrestling Jerusalem  and Wiesenthal.  While Wiesenthal arrived in Houston after a successful off-Broadway run, audiences saw “Wrestling…” at the J before NYC audiences had the opportunity the following spring.  The season was rounded out by two productions offered in collaboration with Houston’s Vital Arts collaborative – Drinks, Desserts and Duets, and the musical, Stars of David.   

In November 2015, I was hired as a part-time coordinator to help grow the Theatre program, and the 2016-17 saw the first two offerings fully produced by Theatre at the J in its new incarnation – a staged reading of Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass, and a fully produced, family friendly adaptation of the classic children’s book, “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins,” the script for which was commissioned by Evelyn Rubenstein JCC. 

Hanna and the Moonlit Dress
Hanna and the Moonlit Dress

Rounding out the season were Uncle Phillip’s Coat, an award-winning solo theatre piece brought in from NYC and a wildly successful offering of The Chosen, produced in collaboration with TheatreLab Houston.  The season also saw the program become a player in the ongoing national conversation on the growth of Jewish Theatre in the U.S. when our Theatre Program joined the Jewish Plays Project and brought its director to Houston to lead a discussion of the plays in its 2018 Jewish Plays Contest.

In its current season, Theatre at the J offered another home-grown production; a multi-media staged reading of Neil Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor, along with two plays brought in from NYC - the family-friendly Hanna and the Moonlit Dress, and the moving, two-man production, Lucky Penny.  Completing the 2017-18 season is Jesse Eisenberg’s deeply probing one-act play, The Revisionist, being produced by Stages Repertory Theatre in partnership with the Evelyn Rubenstein JCC.

And exciting plans are in the works for the program’s 2018-19 season, helping the newly re-launched Theatre at the J and its Houston audiences to live “happily ever after.”


Category: Arts and Culture