Better Than An Oscar: Putting Art in Conversation with the Jewish Community

Photo by Chantal Pavageaux.

By Jon Adam Ross

[This is the first article in a series about the importance of Arts in Jewish Education, written by grantees of The Covenant Foundation.]

I always dreamed the phone call that would change my life would come from Steven Spielberg. I had the whole conversation mapped out in my head: it involved sharks, a fedora, and an Academy Award.

But when the call came, near the end of 2014, it wasn’t Spielberg on the phone. It was the Covenant Foundation. They were calling to take a gamble on my ideas about art and education; namely, that if we pulled back the proverbial curtain and allowed communities behind the scenes of an artistic process as collaborators from the very beginning – the process could become the product, with the finished art piece being just another element of a dynamic, communal project.

With The Covenant Foundation’s support, we decided to create a national theater series of open-process playmaking putting communities’ own narratives in conversation with stories from the book of Genesis. That series became The In[heir]itance Project. And that phone call? It changed my life.

Together with a team of artists and educators, we started exploring the story of Abraham with over 500 people ages 6 to 96 in Minneapolis/St. Paul. We danced our way through the text with senior citizens and a local experimental dance company; we studied with Rabbis and artists and 3rd graders; we interviewed families around kitchen tables. We rehearsed in a synagogue and performed in an antique store. We gave the box office proceeds to local Jewish arts organizations and held talkback conversations after every performance with local artists, clergy, and community members whose stories ended up in the play. We learned a ton, made plenty of mistakes, and had lots of happy accidents.

We had no idea if people would want to participate in moments of process. In September of 2015, we were told to expect 40-50 people for an open rehearsal of The Abraham Play in suburban Minneapolis on the Saturday night of Labor Day weekend – same weekend as the State Fair. This wasn’t a performance, it was just a rehearsal … in a synagogue. So 50 people sounded great to us! We got ready to rehearse. And people started showing up. And then more people started showing up. And by the time Chantal, the director of the play, interrupted a scene onstage to get ideas from the audience, not only were more than 200 people in the room, we had a lot more than 50 hands in the air with ideas!

The In[heir]itance Project rolled on from there. In Charleston we collaborated with Jews and African Americans to explore the biblical story of Rebecca – a mother who played favorites, much like the city itself has, throughout its history. In Austin we spent time with the Aztlan Dance Company and the University of Texas wrestling team, drilling deep into the story of Jacob, so full of struggle – and expressed as a WWE-style wrestling event. In Seattle we met with 65 pairs of sisters in the Jewish community, aged 3 to 93, as research for a play about Rachel and Leah.

We have found ourselves in living rooms, coffee shops, church basements, and theaters. We’ve met with government officials, interfaith clergy, artists, educators, and even law enforcement. And everyone we’ve met has shown immense appreciation for being included in the process of making art. Turns out most everywhere we go, no one’s ever gotten an invitation to a real rehearsal before, where the work’s not finished and ideas still help. And if they have? They’re usually not asked what they would do differently. It’s empowering. It’s fun! And it could be an answer for the way we think about Jewish education.

Here’s what we’ve discovered: by inviting the community into the play creation process, we’ve allowed them to become involved – not just as witnesses but as participants – in the telling of the story. In education, conferring knowledge doesn’t have to be the only end goal. Our approach gives people a sense of ownership over the artistic process, their own narratives and, most importantly, their community and its inherited sacred texts. The proof for us has been the remarkable enthusiasm for participation in the process. People are literally jumping out of their seats!

We tend to celebrate the end of something instead of the middle. Completion is the goal, achievement the reward. At The In[heir]itance Project, we’re trying a different approach. We challenge those conventions by opening our entire process to our audiences, including them in the work as collaborators and contributors to both content and form. Together with communities we learn, respond, share, shape, and perform pieces of theater that put Jewish text in conversation with a community’s own narratives. In doing that, we are able to illuminate the modern relevance of ancient wisdom and present a vision of today that is in relationship with the world of our ancestors.

Getting to do all that and make theater to boot? I’ll admit it might just be better than an Oscar.

Jon Adam Ross is an actor, playwright and Jewish educator. He received a grant from The Covenant Foundation in 2014. Get tickets now for the Rachel & Leah play in Seattle on April 6th and mark your your calendars for Kansas City performances Dec 2-3, 2017!