Illuminating the Human Condition

Artwork by Marilee Tolwin, courtesy of the Jewish Women's Theatre
Artwork by Marilee Tolwin, courtesy of the Jewish Women's Theatre

Although I enjoy fiction with great plots and characters, I have always been drawn to the compelling truths that can be revealed by true stories. That may be why I am a huge fan of the innovative Jewish Women’s Theatre.

The stories its writers, actors and directors bring to life are based on real experiences of real people. Founder and artistic director Ronda Spinak says that JWT’s inspiring storytelling style is meant to illuminate the human condition. I can attest after seeing about 10 of their shows on a wide range of themes that audiences recognize that unifying purpose in every performance.

The format is called “salon theatre”—there are no sets or costumes, just talented and diverse professional actors who quickly captivate their audiences. Nadège August, one of JWT’s Abby Freeman Artists-in-Residence, explains that empathy for the characters is key. From Gen-Xers, to Millennials to Baby Boomers, men and women of all ages are able to see elements of themselves, their families and their own lives enacted with humor and compassion.

Diverse casts of professional actors bring Jewish Women’s Theatre stories to life. From left to right: Brie Eley, Kimberly Green and Heidi Mendez

JWT tells stories that speak universal truths about life, love, disappointment, hope, heartbreak, triumph and the entire range of human experience, as viewed through a Jewish lens. Some have made me laugh, while others have made me cry, but I always come away moved and uplifted.

Spinak does not shy away from difficult topics. Themes for this season’s shows include mental health in “Mapping of the Mind,” and the treacherous terrain of “Sex, Addiction & Love in the 21st Century.” Some topics are lighter. The range of past shows over 11 previous seasons includes “The Matzo Ball Diaries,” “Chutzpah & Salsa” and “A Very Happy Goyisha Hanukkah.” Others focus on Jewish communities not often featured on stage, such as “Saffron & Rosewater,” which presents the immigration experiences of Jewish Persians.

Based in Santa Monica, JWT performs in locations throughout Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. Its first southern tour in 2019 brought live Jewish theatre to my hometown New Orleans and to other cities including Mobile, Alabama, where my immigrant grandparents lived. From JCCs to synagogues, college campuses, museums and private homes, JWT creates a remarkable sense of intimacy in varied venues.

JWT storytelling is also accessible through its podcast, which in addition to some of the shows, has interviews with the people who create them. The podcast is high on my list while I’m working out at the gym. I just have to be careful when I start laughing out loud.  JWT’s contemporary take on a Passover classic, “Dayenu Remix,” has become a must-read at my family seder.

JWT features a fresh perspective with a Jewish lens. Artwork by Marilee Tolwin courtesy of the Jewish Women’s Theatre.

If you happen to be visiting L.A., there are workshops, art exhibits and more at JWT’s performance space known as The Braid. My husband and I saw a fabulous staged reading of Wendy Wasserstein’s “Heidi Chronicles” there recently, part of a weekend festival dedicated to the works of the beloved playwright.

At a time when so many are searching for authenticity and a sense of what connects us, JWT is taking Jewish storytelling to a new level. From its beginnings in a backyard to its upcoming bat mitzvah year, JWT has grown to become one of the leading Jewish theatre companies in the U.S. Don’t miss a chance to see them in person or better yet, bring them for an unforgettable live performance in your community.

Do you have a great story to share? Take a look at JWT’s guidelines for submissions. And if you know a creative 20-30-something person looking to be part of an exciting Jewish arts community, the NEXT@The Braid Emerging Arts Fellowship is a terrific opportunity.

About the Author
Shelley is a consultant who has held executive and board leadership roles in the San Francisco Bay Area/Silicon Valley Jewish community. She led development of the Palo Alto Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life, was board president of Hillel at Stanford, and has served on the advisory boards of the Jewish Chaplaincy at Stanford Medical Center, the Taube Center for Jewish Studies and the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture. At Stanford she was the university's Director of Business Development and Executive Director for Public Affairs at Stanford Health Care. She began her career as a journalist and currently focuses on strategic communications and writing. Email: hebert.shelleys@gmail.com
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