Can we talk? Gary Abrahams' staged readings of work by Jewish Greats

Creating Theatrics: The Wit and Wisdom of Jewish Writing, a dramatic presentation of extracts from the works of 10 Jewish authors is the first show to be held at St. Kilda’s Alex Theatre (formerly the George Cinema) from August 22-23, as part of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival in conjunction with the Melbourne Jewish Writers’ Festival.

It’s curated by theatre director, actor and dramaturge Gary Abrahams whose productions include Roam, The Pride, Day One. A Hotel. Evening, The Laramie Project – Ten Years LaterThe Flock and The Nest, Something Natural but Very Childish, and The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant.

Creating Theatrics is a collection of excerpts from various literary pieces by ten Jewish authors, which include a combination of Australian writers (Arnold Zable, Serge Liberman, Maria Tumarkin and Alex Skovron) and international authors (Howard Jacobson, Etgar Keret, Nathan Englander, Grace Paley, Ayelet Waldman and Isaac Bashevis Singer).

The production includes scenes, monologues and readings performed by four actors (Deidre Rubenstein, Michael Veitch, Luisa Hastings Edge and Christopher Brown).

We asked Abrahams a few questions about the production, its themes and why text is still important.

What was the main inspiration for Creating Theatrics?

Initially envisioned as a bi-annual event, the Melbourne Jewish Writers’ Festival committee were keen to create an event in the “off” year to follow up from the success of their debut festival (in June 2014). The committee approached me about collaborating on an event that could examine Jewish literature within a performative context. Through many discussions we arrived at the idea of developing a performance evening whereby we could work with professional actors to bring alive a variety of writing by Jewish authors. It would be a sort of curated event whereby I would select a variety of texts and find a way to adapt them for the stage, while trying to ensure that the evening didn’t feel too scattered, but was held together by shared themes.

Were there many changes to the original structure and idea of Creating Theatrics as you developed it? 

It’s been a very organic process. The initial brief was quite open and broad, although we always knew it was something that would involve actors performing the chosen pieces. As the ideas evolved I felt that we wanted to showcase the literature, the beautiful writing of these authors, by injecting a little drama into proceedings, but not so much as to take away from the literary styles of each author. It’s not a “play” as such, but rather an elegantly emotionally driven reading of a curated selection of works performed by some truly wonderful actors.

What was the greatest challenge in putting the show together?

Choosing which pieces to use! The cannon of Jewish authors and authors exploring judaic themes is vast. I was keen to uncover some pieces and authors that might not be so well known to a wider reading audience, and mix them amongst works from authors who might be more well known.

What was your greatest accomplishment in creating the work? 

Apart from finally whittling down the shortlist to ten pieces, I think one of the greater accomplishments was inviting Melbourne author Maria Tumarkin to create a specially commissioned work, and for her to hand in a wonderful and powerful original piece. Creating Theatrics will feature the world debut of that piece of writing, which is wonderful.

Other than being written by Jewish authors, what other criteria did you have for these extracts?

As I mentioned before I wanted a combination of well-known authors and perhaps (and I mean it kindly) lesser-known authors. I also insisted, as did the committee, that there was an even representation of female and male authors. I think sometimes Jewish culture can be dominated by male voices (we can all list a bunch of male authors, film makers, film writers, comediens etc. we know to be Jewish), but there are so many wonderful Jewish female writers and artists who deserve our attention. I also wanted to have a good mix of local and international authors, as well as literary styles. Our final selection includes poems, essays, short stories, songs and excerpts from novels.

Are there certain shared themes?

Inevitably there are shared themes. In curating an event like this you search for those connections. It’s not unlike an art exhibition or a mix-tape of songs — there has to be something that connects the pieces.

The themes that are strongest aren’t all that surprising: identity, belonging, the migrant or exiled experience, self-identity, motherhood. I guess the most surprising theme is that of falling in love (or lust) with people outside of the faith. It can be a contentious issue, even for more secular Jews, and it’s great that several pieces explore those themes, often very irreverently. I also use a piece by Arnold Zable that tells the story of an Iraqi woman who tries to flee to Australia by boat. It’s a contemporary refugee story, and I think it illuminates the theme of exile, which is at the core of Jewish history and culture, beautifully. Finally, the over arching theme that ties all the pieces together is about why we tell stories. Why writers write them. And why readers read them.

Creating Theatrics is very focused on text – why is text-based theatre important?

I think text based work and literature is vital, particularly at the moment. I think our culture is moving away from text… our culture is dominated by visual mediums, from film and television to advertising. We abbreviate everything, we text with emoticons; we’ve truly taken the old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” and allowed it to mean that a picture can take the place of words. We are learning to replace words with pictures, to return to our earliest form of written communication such as hieroglyphics and cave paintings. And in doing so we are losing the very detailed descriptors language offers to communicate our very complex experiences and ideas.

Language is very personal. Our language and the way we choose to use it reveals very deep and personal aspects of ourselves. That’s why literature is so wonderful. Each writer reveals a very unique soul and that soul’s experience and understanding of the world through the language they use and how they use it. In developing Creating Theatrics I’ve been very cautious to maintain the essence of each writer’s relationship to language.

What do you hope people take away from this performance?

Ultimately what I hope an audience can leave with is a sense of how wonderful it is to expand your reading choices and dip and dive into a variety of minds and voices, and how privileged we are to be allowed access to an ever expanding cannon of great literature from different cultures. Yes, this is an evening that focuses on Jewish culture, and it’s great to introduce audiences to that. But maybe it’ll encourage people to explore other cultures through literature too.

The three performances of Creating Theatrics: The Wit and Wisdom of Jewish Writing will be at St Kilda’s Alex Theatre, Saturday and Sunday August 22-23, as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival.

One response to “Can we talk? Gary Abrahams' staged readings of work by Jewish Greats

  1. Gary’s letter to Antoinette sums up my homeland, South Africa, It is sad, guilt-ridden and full of shame.
    Has it been published in any form. As an essay? I would love to buy it and read it to South Africans who are not shamed.

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