The Jewish Home: Rocking the Stage: How Jewish Women are Reimagining Hollywood

by Rachel Wizenfeld

‘Tis the season – for religious women’s performing arts, that is. From musicals to movies, LA’s Hollywood culture has spilled into the observant Jewish world, inspiring several local women to create exceptional opportunities for frum women and girls to practice and showcase their talentsin a rigorous, yet modest and uplifting environment.

Coming up right before Chanukah is a production of The Drowsy Chaperone, a Broadway musical being put on by the Jewish Woman’s Reparatory Company (JWRC). Organized and led by Margy Horowitz, a local piano teacher and now theater director, the group produces a different Broadway musical each year – this year will be its 9th — where 20 or so actresses, singers and dancers from the community perform to a usually sold-out crowd at a local theater.The annual performance has become a ladies-night out for many women in the community who come to cheer on family and friends in the show, support religious women’s theater, and enjoy a show that’s just for them – no male audience members allowed.

The Drowsy Chaperone tells the story of a lonely Broadway aficionado who plays the record of his favorite musical while the show comes to life onstage, accompanied by his wry commentary. The JWRC production this year features 23 actresses – most of them moms, who run the gamut of religious Jewish life in LA. The cast ranges from women who grew up frum to women who trained and performed professionally and became religious later in life, to women who wouldn’t mind singing in front of men, but love the camaraderie and connection of a women’s-only performance.

“The primary mission is to give an outlet for women that otherwise don’t have an outlet – to put on a play and allow wives, mothers, teachers and professionals who would love to sing and dance, or women who used to be not frum and sang in front of all audiences, and suddenly don’t have an outlet to perform,” says Horowitz.

That’s why she varies the shows, switching off between more drama-centric and song-centric performances, to give women with all sorts of talents a chance to shine. It’s also why she shies away from casting high school girls, who usually have performance opportunities in their schools.

The group started when Horowitz learned from a friend about a women’s-only performance happening in Chicago, where Horowitz is originally from, and decided to launch a similar production in LA. After consulting with Rabbi Steven Weil, then-rabbi at Beth Jacob who encouraged the idea, she and a friend walked up and down Pico Boulevard posting fliers about auditions. They were unsure if anyone would show up, but 20 women did for what became their first performance, The Mikado.

Horowitz makes no personal profit for her work in organizing and directing the play, which requires hours and hours of time – almost like a part-time job, her husband jokes – but she says she loves doing it for the community.

Each year the play gets a little more professional. The first show cost $7,000 total to stage, but the props were minimal and the theater was cheap. Now Horowitz publishes a playbill, rents a professional theater (which costs $20,000 for the week), and rents microphones along with hiring a make-up artist, the occasional musician and other expenses. Total costs run upwards of $50,000, which is offset by ticket sales, ads and donations raised at a yearly parlor meeting.

“It’s expensive but it’s worth it,” Horowitz says.

She says the impact she’s seen on the community has been phenomenal. Women tell her they plan pregnancies around the show so they won’t miss rehearsals, or arrange vacations so they won’t miss the performances. When Horowitz stepped into Bais Yaakov this past year to serve as music director, the girls were coming over excitedly and saying after they graduate and go to seminary they want to come back and audition.

It also presents the Broadway experience and a slice of secular culture in a modest, sensitive environment.

Horowitz selects shows that can be adapted easily to a frum audience, where, somewhat ironically, violence is perfectly acceptable (in last year’s production, 30 people died and no one seemed to mind) but romance is cause for concern. She also wants moms to feel comfortable about bringing their young daughters. Horowitz has tweaked several scripts, changing a prostitute in last year’s Les Miserables into a pickpocket, and adding a secret wedding to Once Upon a Mattress so a child wouldn’t be born out of wedlock.

This year’s show takes place in the 1920s and is inherently clean, so it didn’t require any changes.

Batsheva Frankel, a JWRC performer who studied acting at NYU, said a perk of the all-women’s performances is that you get the chance to play a man (taller women or those with lower voices tend to get the male roles), which she asserts is much more fun, what with the slouching and other male poses. It also can create casting snafus, as couples on stage can look odd if the man is much shorter than the woman.

While the rehearsal schedule is rigorous, requiring several nights a week of hour-long rehearsals, Stefanie Etshalom, a JWRC regular who this year is playing Underling the butler, believes “it’s good modeling for your children – that you go and do something for yourself.”

More importantly, Etshalom asks, “Where else can you sing in public as a religious women?”

The Drowsy Chaperone will be playing at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center on November 23-24. To purchase tickets, which range from $15 to $40, visit http://www.jewishwomenstheater.com.

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Another creative, women-led project in the works is the production of Operation: Candlelight, a professional action film with a cast made up primarily of religious girls and women (there are a few men as well). This is the third feature film written and directed by Robin Garbose who runs Kol Neshama, a performing arts conservatory for religious girls based in LA.

Garbose, an award-winning filmmaker and director who previously directed for the TV series’ Head of the Class and America’s Most Wanted (in which criminal encounters were reenacted in the hopes of catching real-life fugitive convicts – the show had a 65% success rate), is now famous for her women’s-only musical movies, A Light for Greytowers and The Heart that Sings. She’s currently raising funding on Kickstarter.com to finish editing and production for Operation: Candlelight, which tells the story of a band of misfits at an Orthodox Jewish girls school who become an unlikely troupe of heroes at the heart of a rescue adventure. Visitors to the Kol Neshama website (www.kolneshama.org) can view the movie’s dramatic trailer, which offers a hint of the suspense, spirit and enthralling storyline, in which all the stars are well-trained (and adorable!) religious girls.

Most of the actresses in the film are graduates of Kol Neshama, which Garbose created 14 years ago to be the Jewish answer to Juilliard.

Patterned after a classical conservatory, Kol Neshama primarily operates as a summer camp in which experienced teachers instruct junior high and high school girls in a variety of techniques: singing, acting, dancing, theme study, improvisation and vocal technique.

“The actor needs to develop in all these areas in order to be a craftsperson,” she says, “and we teach this on a professional level.”

To a point, however. In Juilliard, Garbose says, there’s an unspoken awareness that at some point a woman will need to expose herself on stage – getting undressed is considered overcoming a woman’s personal obstacles and is lauded as showing vulnerability and being fully present on stage.

“From the Torah perspective, it’s not looked at that way at all…while human emotional vulnerability is also what we’re striving for, certain ideas have to be weeded out,” Garbose says.

“I look at media and art and I see the tools as neutral; it’s what you do with them.”

After working to train all these actresses, the next natural step was to create actual performance opportunities, in the form of films, plays, dance sets and more.

“I’m really interested in creating original and kosher media,” says Garbose, who adds that she saw a tremendous need for artistic and performance opportunities for frum women.

“It’s twofold. The women and girls absolutely have a need to express themselves and have something to say, and then there’s a sort of international cultural dialogue that we need to be participating in as well.”

While Garbose dreams big, her main limiting factor is money. Even with significant in-kind donations in the form of high-end cameras, costumes and props donated by major studios, an average film still costs $250,000 to produce, with additional funds needed to market and distribute. In 2004, when Garbose shot A Light for Greytowers, she got a sizeable grant from the Jewish Community Foundation, but such funding is hard to come by.

“In the frum world, the precedent for supporting the arts doesn’t exist yet – we’re not on the radar,” she says. “And then in the secular world, they’re saying, ‘what’s this women’s-only stuff?’ We found ourselves looking for those few-and-far-between donors that really got us going.”

Are people seeing a value to her work? The glowing reactions now are a far cry from the original skepticism she faced when she started out as a pioneer in frum women’s filmmaking. After just two years, though, people began to see how Kol Neshama was helping girls transform in their self-esteem, confidence and maturity.

“The arts are an incredible tool for education,” Garbose says. “I wasn’t doing the Wizard of Oz, I was doing ‘Portraits in Faith’ by Marcus Lehmann, so when girls had the opportunity to play these characters, for them it was bringing it to life for them in a whole new and powerful way, and audiences were coming to see the plays and becoming inspired in their Yiddishkeit, and that really impacted the powers that be,” referring to community rabbis who supported and encouraged her work.

What are the halachic issues with producing a frum, female-only film? Since the onus of kol isha (the prohibition of a man listening to a woman’s voice) really falls on the man, Garbose is only required to post “For Women and Girls Only” online and where the movies and plays will be shown. Other interesting religious traditions come into play as well. In New York, movies have been forbidden by chassidish leaders to be shown publicly in Williamsburg, but they are permitted in Borough Park, so for past screenings of her movies, chassidish women came in droves to Borough Park and Crown Heights. Another concern was having both women and men appear in a film, instead of having women dress up as men (like they do in plays), which caused concern for some chassidim. The question was elevated all the way to the dayan (judge) of Bobov (a chassidish sect), who ruled that though it wasn’t their standard, it wasn’t asur (forbidden) because of how it was handled. Great care was taken so that men were only involved when necessary to the plot, and those scenes were handled with rabbinic supervision. Garbose tries to be sensitive and have only married couples play across from each other in a film. In a case where it doesn’t work, such as in Candlelight, where actress Rivka Siegel’s (Krinsky) real-life husband wasn’t available to act, Garbose cast Siegel and her stage husband in separate scenes, so they never appear together.

After 14 years of running Kol Neshama, Garbose now has a bevy of trained actresses all over the world who have become cultural ambassadors of their own, through directing and choreographing plays, creating short films, doing music videos, and remaining in contact with Garbose and her continual projects.

Hadas Forgy, a Kol Neshama graduate who now lives in Chicago with her husband and children, says that her experience at Kol Neshama was of considerable impact. “Since being there, I’ve worked for at least four to five different schools directing plays, choreographing…it really did let me know that this is something I could do for the rest of my life,” she says.

Rivka Siegel (Krinsky) is a familiar face in the Garbose films (she appears in all three and was the lead in The Heart that Sings). An LA native who attended Bais Chaya Mushka and now works here as a painter and illustrator (rivkasiegel.com), Siegel says that acting helped break her out of her natural shyness and become outgoing and comfortable with herself.

She also notes that starring in a film requires more focus than acting on stage. In Candlelight, where Siegel plays a kidnapped mother of two, she would be getting teary-eyed and emotional in preparation for her scene when someone would crack a joke or the director would call “cut!” and the mood would break. The audience also feels bigger while acting in a movie. Onstage in a play, one can barely see the audience through the darkness, but with a film, there are at least a dozen other actors, camera crew and techies around. With all the distractions, “it’s a lot harder to stay in character,” Siegel says, “but I love it. There’s so much adrenaline.”

The time for Jewish women’s theater is now, says Garbose. While the buzz phrase “The Jews invented Hollywood” remains, it seems as if everything has been done in Hollywood except for authentically Jewish films. Fill the Void, an acclaimed movie by Israeli director Rama Burshtein that came out earlier this year, is another example of a recent movie depicting authentic Jewish life.

“That’s the next frontier, and I hope I have the merit of being a director that can bring these films to fruition,” Garbose concludes.

To learn more about Kol Neshama and help fund Operation: Candlelight, visit http://www.kolneshama.org.

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More Performance Opportunities for Frum Women

In addition to JWRC and Kol Neshama, a local dance studio and performing arts program called A Time for Dance offers drama, dance and vocal classes for girls in elementary school through high school, and dance classes for women.

Sheila Meyer, director of A Time for Dance, says the program offers the same quality you would get in any other performing arts studio with professional and experienced instructors, except in a noncompetitive yet challenging environment that’s also tznius.

In addition to developing technique, the girls’ program culminates in an end-of-year performance – this year’s is The Wizard of Oz – which showcases their work.

Many Kol Neshama girls attend Meyer’s program during the year, and she says the training they receive at both programs really shows during high school productions when she can pick out in a moment who’s had training and who hasn’t. In most high school productions, the girls are simply learning quickly to deliver their lines, while at A Time for Dance (along with Kol Neshama) they’re getting technique and training to become an actress.

“They were more confident and had better stage presence,” Meyer says, “even if they came just for one year…the fact that they’re part of a team and practicing and performing, it seals the deal.”

For women, Meyer organized a religious women’s ballet group called Yachad Dance Ensemble, which every other year puts on a full-length, choreographed ballet portraying a Jewish theme. Last year’s was “The Spirit of Shabbos,” in which each dance piece represented an aspect of Shabbos such as “Aishes Chayil” or candle lighting, amid song, personal stories and drama, and the performance prior was called “Crown of Creation” about women in Tanach. Nearly 450 women attend these powerful performances and all proceeds go to tzedakah.

Meyer, who dreamed of opening her own dance studio since she was a child, says that performing is “something that really changes your life.”

Learn more or view the class schedule at http://www.ATime4Dance.com.

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