The Jewish Side of Art

Jewish theater professionals make up one-quarter of Artists Repertory Theatre’s expanded resident artist company, which now features 20 of “Portland’s most lauded professionals from a variety of theatrical disciplines.”

“Theatre is an art form born of collaboration, and a theatrical experience is created by the innovative and inspired work of many disciplines,” said Artistic Director Dámaso Rodriguez in a press release announcing the expansion. “Artists Rep honors this core company of resident artists by recognizing their creative contributions to our theater.”

The Jewish artists are director and actor Michael Mendelson, who has been with the company since the first group of resident artists was named in 2008; actor and playwright Linda Alper, who joined the company in its 2013 expansion; and new resident artists actor Susannah Mars, playwright Andrea Stolowitz and actor Joshua Weinstein.

Founded in 1982, Artists Repertory Theatre is the longest-running professional theater company in Portland. In the release announcing this year’s expansion, Rodriguez said he envisions the resident artist company as an artistic home for theater professionals where both artist and company mutually benefit. Artists Rep productions will feature the work of a core group of accomplished resident artists working alongside guest artists from Portland and beyond. The resident artists will populate the stages and back stages of Artists Rep, while continuing to work at theaters elsewhere in Portland and the world.

Keep your eyes open for the following artists or their work in Artists Rep’s eight entertaining plays in the 2014/15 season.

Michael Mendelson
Michael has acted and directed extensively in Portland since 1991, with a four-year break in New York. A frequent performer in ART productions, he is also the artistic director of the Portland Shakespeare Project, which is “in residence” at ART during the summers. He has performed in several Jewish-themed shows, including “BeauJest;” “Bent,” about the treatment of homosexuals in the Nazi concentration camps; and “Address Unknown,” whose 2007 opening benefit- ted the Oregon Holocaust Resource Center.

“I find myself being drawn to Jewish-themed work but have yet to produce or direct any,” says Michael. “Art takes time to evolve and grow into something. I’m looking at potential projects that would take place during the 2016 calendar year.

“For the first time in I can’t remember when, I am not working on the High Holidays … that’s a step in the right direction.”

He says so far the Jewish resident artists “have not really explored that aspect of our resident artistship. …Wouldn’t it be wonderful to create a piece of art together?”

For ART’s upcoming season Michael says, “I’m already in preproduction for “Intimate Apparel” by Lynne Nottage, in which there is a beautiful romance between an emigrant Romanian Jewish man and an African-American woman who creates intimate apparel for a living. It is set in 1905, it’s a gorgeous story. And I’ll be performing in three shows, “Blithe Spirit” directed by Chris Moore, “The Price” directed by Adrianna Baer and “The Liar” directed by Damaso Rodriguez, all of which are classics and are bound to be impeccable productions. I feel very blessed and couldn’t ask for a better season.”

Linda Alper
A graduate of The Juilliard School and a Fulbright senior scholar, Linda has played leading roles at Intiman Theatre, Portland Center Stage, Off Broadway, Mark Taper Forum, Seattle Rep, Baltimore Center Stage and other theaters, including 23 seasons with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Currently, she is working on a new adaptation com- missioned for OSF’s outdoor stage.

“I came to Portland three years ago, but then left for a year to do a Fulbright grant in Asia,” says Linda. “Then I came back here, and we just sold our Ashland house and have bought a home here.”

Linda says she enjoys working with so many Jewish artists.

“Michael Mendelson and I had an instant rapport when we met three years ago, and I’m sure some of that was that we are both Jewish and share a lot of cultural shorthand,” says Linda. “When I work with other Jewish theater folk, I often feel like we grew up in similar families.”

Linda says she grew up in a family that was actively Jewish, religiously, culturally and politically. “My uncles were gun runners for Israel, and my stepfather was a Holocaust survivor.” Though bat mitzvahs were not common when she was growing up, she says she was confirmed and her brothers each became a bar mitzvah.

As she starts her second year as an ART resident artist, Linda says, “I’m looking forward to both of my plays – “Tribes” and “The Price.” The family in “Tribes” is Jewish, and of course, Arthur Miller was a Jewish playwright. I’ve done several plays about Jewish families – “Awake and Sing!,” “Paradise Lost” and “The Diary of Anne Frank,” to name a few. There is a special connection to those worlds and those traditions, since obviously that is who I am in a very deep way.”

Susannah Mars
Susannah has performed in 11 full productions at Artists Rep. The proud recipient of six Portland Drama Critics awards, she also has appeared in productions at Portland Playhouse and Portland Center Stage. On television, she was Drew Wu’s psychiatrist, Dr. Richet, on NBC’s “Grimm.”
Susannah says that growing up, she did not attend synagogue with her family, but that during high school in Los Angeles she attended friends’ bar/bat mitzvahs and enjoyed Passover seder at a friend’s house.

“I’ve always been drawn to those beautiful rituals, and have made a seder when I’ve been able, with my family,” says Susannah. “We always celebrate Hanukkah, too.”

She says Beth Israel Rabbi Michael Cahana and Cantor Ida Rae Cahana invited the entire cast of “Fiddler on the Roof ” from Portland Center Stage to their home “for a gorgeous Sabbath dinner, including their darling three daughters. They have provided me with some wonderful support in doing research on Judaism for various projects I’ve worked on around town.”

Susannah says she had a lot of fun sharing Hanukkah traditions with the staff and audience at Artists Rep during the three-year run of her show “Mars On Life; The Holiday Edition.” “I did a set about Hanukkah, including lighting candles with prayer, with the audience. I had a Jewish guitarist, Ross Seligman, and he and I did a song titled ‘Hanukkah Blessings.’ I dressed up like a latke and sang ‘I Am a Latke,’ which was a big hit. One season we did ‘I’m Spending Hanukkah in Santa Monica,’ another big hit. … I told stories about my Jewish Grandma Helen and my mom Barbara, which was lovely for me, and I think for the audience, too.”

Heading into her first season as a resident artist at Artists Rep, she says, “This is my first season in that capacity, and I am thrilled to see how and where I’ll fit in.”

Andrea Stolowitz
Andrea Stolowitz’s plays have been presented at theaters nationally and internationally. A recipient of Artists Repertory Theatre’s $25,000 New Play Commission, Andrea premiered her newest work, “Ithaka,” at Artists Rep in 2013. An MFA playwriting alumna of UC-San Diego, Andrea has served on the faculties at Willamette University, The University of Portland, Duke University and UC-San Diego. She is a founding member of Playwrights West.

She will spend her first year as an ART resident artist in Berlin on a Fulbright scholarship and other funding. But that won’t hinder her role as a resident artist. “The resident artist position is great because it is not an ‘assignment with a term end’ but rather a relationship. We are all artists with lives that take us in and out of Portland. The point is that our home bases are in Portland, and we have a relationship with a theater in Portland that wants to support us in an ongoing way in our individual and group pursuits.”

“As a resident artist I am always involved with ART,” says Andrea. “I will be continuing to work with other resident artists and the artistic staff as I continue working on ongoing and new projects. … I will Skype in to the resident artist meetings when timing allows.”

While in Berlin Andrea will be a playwright in residence at English Theater Berlin, where she plans to develop a new play that deals with Jewish identity. She first wrote about Jewish identity in her successful 2003 play, “Knowing Cairo.” “It had a lot to do with Jewish identity. I will not have gone back to that topic in such an overt way until I start the new play in Berlin. I did figure out more about my identity and expect that all to cement in Germany.”

Of working with Jewish artists in Oregon, Andrea says, “I am always shocked to find Jews in the Pacific Northwest, and when I do it is such a great surprise. Then I think ‘they get it; they get me.’ ”

Joshua Weinstein
Born and raised in Tallahassee, FL, Josh moved to Portland in 2011 for the 2011/12 Portland Playhouse Acting Apprenticeship. He has been involved in youth theater teaching and directing for Portland Playhouse’s Fall Festival of Shakespeare, Oregon Children’s Theatre and Exploration Summer Programs at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. At ART he has performed in “Red Herring” and “Foxfinder.”

Regarding “Foxfinder,” Josh says the show “speaks to many different instances throughout human history of systematic oppression and fear as a means of control; the creative team left it ambiguous so the audience could draw their own conclusions about what the Fox (and thus, the Foxfinder) represents (religion, government, news media, etc.). For my part, I did draw comparisons to the Hitler Youth – this idea that William Bloor (the character Josh portrayed) was trained and raised within a system sheltered from the horrors of its ultimate effects by blind patriotism.”

When he himself was a youth, Josh attended a Reform synagogue in Tallahassee. “For so long as a kid, I didn’t understand why we went or what the point was,” says Josh. “Then, in ninth grade, my middle sister (19 months younger) and I decided we did want to become bar/bat mitzvah, so we studied for a year and a half with Rabbi Romberg and held a b’nai mitzvah ceremony in May of 2004. My Torah portion was the B’midbar, the first chapters of Numbers, where Moses takes census of all men able to bear arms. I ragged on Rabbi for a while about getting a “boring” Torah portion (it was, after all, just Moses reading off a bunch of names). Then, I began to understand the importance of Moses (or even God) calling someone by name – for the census, they do not tally stones or count heads, they call each member by his name. Ever since, the idea of a name as more than just a title but a vessel for one’s being has remained with me.”

Nowadays, Josh says he examines his spirituality through the lenses of art and yoga and considers, “How does my art connect meaning and purpose to this world?”

As he begins his first year as an ART resident artist, Josh says, “I’m excited and just little nervous to see the rollout of the RA company in action. We’ve got a lot of incredible talent on and offstage next season, so it will be a real treat to see what we can do!”


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