Chosen (by the) people

Audiences pick a winner in the Jewish Playwriting Contest

The quest to find the best in modern Jewish theater is coming to the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto on Tuesday, March 29, in the form of the Jewish Playwriting Contest -- a participatory theater competition that lets audience members vote for which of three plays is their favorite.

The contest is part of the Jewish Plays Project (JPP), the New York-based brainchild of David Winitsky. He founded it five years ago with the goal of working with and encouraging emerging Jewish playwrights, helping them to develop their ideas and advocating for their plays to make it to mainstream stages.

Feeling like too many Jewish plays were stuck in a sort-of "mid-20th century movement," with an overabundance of Holocaust and immigration stories, Winitsky and his team are particularly interested in developing plays featuring fresh and contemporary Jewish voices.

"We were looking for writers who were starting to write about Jewish identity and Jewish ideas in a way that was new," he said. "What was needed was a way to develop work that was sensitive to the Jewish content."

He said he increasingly sees artists pondering what he called purpose-centered Judaism, considering questions such as, "Here's this ancient set of ethic rules. How do we make it live and purposeful for today's world?"

Palo Alto audiences will see and vote on 20-minute excerpts from "Redder Blood" by Helen Murphy Pafumi, "Treif" by Lindsay Joelle, and "The Hebrew Ladies Burial Society" by C.P. Englander.

The first is about a young woman with an Israeli mother, a father who's recently converted to Islam, a rabbi brother, and a new boyfriend. It has roots in both a Midrash (rabbinical literature) story and the playwright's own life.

"Throughout the play God speaks to her in her head. It's a really fun play, really lovely, about the notion of divinity and accepting your own specialness in the world," Winitsky said.

"Treif" is about two young men driving a "Mitzvah Tank" around New York City, trying to "get Jews together to do Jewish things. It's totally adorable," Winitsky said. They encounter a man keen on converting to Orthodox Judaism but find out he may not be who he seems. Set in 1991, against the Crown Heights riots, it's a tale of acceptance and identity.

"The Hebrew Ladies Burial Society" is about a group of older Jewish women in the South who do Jewish preparation for a burial, a "fascinating, beautiful ritual that's rarely seen. It has a very lovely 'Steel Magnolias' quality, in a very unique environment," he said.

The Jewish Plays Project stages an annual Open Festival of New Jewish Works in downtown Manhattan. The winning play from the Jewish Playwriting Contest is performed in a workshop production for the general public and industry leaders there.

Ultimately, the Jewish Plays Project aims to get its plays produced at theaters all over the world. In the past five years, Winitsky said, out of 29 plays, 13 have gone on to productions in London, Tel Aviv, and all over the United States.

The contest was started as a way for Winitsky to "take the temperature of what was out there," discover new work from Jewish playwrights throughout the world, and let audiences help select the most promising, he said.

The Jewish Plays Project selects 10 finalists out of the hundreds of submissions, then sends them out on tour to be winnowed down. For the Palo Alto performance, local producers put together a panel to choose which three would be performed. Each of the three gets one point for being chosen, and the winner will earn two more. At the end of April, after the tour is done, the play with the most points goes to New York.

Audience voting takes place via cellphone.

"It's the rare theater event where you have to bring your phone and keep it on," Winitsky said.

This is the first year the contest will come to Silicon Valley but Winitsky hopes it's not the last.

"It's a really vibrant, interesting community. The innovation spirit is everywhere in town; the startup mentality," he said. "That JCC is unbelievable."

By contest's end, the tour will have gone to nine different communities, each getting a voice in which show goes to the Big Apple.

"What I'm trying to do is give as many people as possible a chance to interact with these plays, rather than be in some Jewish ivory tower in New York," Winitsky said. "At the end of the day, about 600 people will have weighed in on what new Jewish theater should look like."

What: Jewish Playwriting Contest

When: Tuesday, March 29, at 7:30 p.m.

Where: Oshman Family JCC

Taube Koret Campus, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto.

Cost: In advance, $7 students and members; $10 general admission. At the door, $15.

Info: Go to Palo Alto JCC.

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