Three hours before curtain time: The stage is set as the fashionable living room of Wendy Wasserstein’s 1992 Tony-winning play, The Sisters Rosensweig. With little more than a week left of its October run at the Jewish Ensemble Theatre (JET) in West Bloomfield, the transformation of the stage is a wonder to behold. Not only for the sheer brilliance of its scenic design by Jennifer Maiseloff, a homegrown Detroit talent of remarkable range, but also for the fact that the production opens JET’s 25th Anniversary Season. Just as the play, under the direction of JET’s Artistic Director, David J. Magidson, has withstood the test of time, so too has JET.
“We’ve done it! And they said we wouldn’t last,” notes David in the pages of JET’s 2013-2014 Season Program. Acknowledging tough times for the arts, David states with pride that he’s been associated “in all ways with this great venture” for the past five of JET’s 25 years, thanks to “a gratifying community support base.” As regional theaters are going dark around the country, and with the demise just last year of five more Jewish theaters, JET holds claim to being the longest continuously operating professional Jewish theater in North America.
A quarter century of putting on award-winning plays is something to cheer in itself. But show after show, season after season, JET continues to demonstrate the magic at work in their mission: not only to produce theatre of the highest aesthetic standards, but also to provide a stage for the “exploration and ideas that confront issues through the lens of Jewish principles” that cross over into universally shared values.
Make no mistake.
“JET is a force for Jewish cultural identity and continuity,” says Gail Mayer, a community leader and long-time patron of the theatre. Passionate in her new role as President of the JET Board, Gail is adamant, “Theater is part of the cultural glue that keeps us together.”
As audiences have come to learn, JET is a cultural jewel – albeit a hidden one — set in the Aaron DeRoy Theatre on the lower level of the Jewish Community Center. With the addition of the Berman Center for the Performing Arts which opened in 2011, the public doesn’t always make the distinction between the two separate theater facilities now operating independently at the JCC. “Make no mistake,” says Gail, “We are not the Berman! JET is not affiliated with the Berman in any way, nor is it a beneficiary of any organized Jewish community funding.”
Founded in 1989 by actress and original Artistic Director, Evelyn Orbach, along with a group of community leaders, JET was established as a fully independent theater company and remains today as one of only two professional theaters in Oakland County operating in compliance with standards set by the Actor’s Equity Association. Funding comes from season subscriptions and individual ticket sales, from community grants and endowments, as well as from the generosity of patrons through JET’s own fundraising efforts.
With more than 600 subscribers this year, JET operates on a budget of $675,000. Ticket sales pay for about 50% of what it costs to run the theatre. Contributing organizations include the Henry S. & Mala Dorfman Family Foundation, Max M. Fisher Jewish Community Foundation, Stephen, Nancy & Sam Grand Philanthropic Fund, Kresge Foundation, MASCO Corporation Foundation, MCACA-Michigan Council for Arts & Cultural Affairs, National Endowment for the Arts; Shubert Foundation and the Ben N. Teitel Charitable Trust.
Artistically speaking. . .
The intimacy of JET’s 167-seat DeRoy Theatre often plays to our advantage,” observes Chris Bremer, JET Managing Director. “It’s interesting how close proximity to the actors on stage really draws you into the theatrical experience. The emotional impact is so much stronger from the vantage point no further than the sixth row.”
The key, of course, is the quality. According to Chris, what the audience sees on stage has to be such that it never loses that suspension of disbelief, that feeling of being there in the moment, “so that when the lights go down, the audience enters the world of the play and takes the journey with us.”
“I enjoy the challenge of creating unique designs that engage and entice audiences with each play that I work on inside the JET, says scenic designer, Jennifer Maiseloff. “I’m looking forward to designing the sets for the next two plays in the current season.”
Breaking new ground
As the curtain closes on The Sisters Rosensweig, highlights of JET’s 2013-2014 season include:
- 4000 Miles, a 2012 Pulitzer Prize Finalist by acclaimed American playwright Amy Herzog, directed by Christopher Bremer, November 6 – December 1.
- The Scullery Maid, a World Premiere by Michigan playwright, Joseph Zettelmaier, and directed by Joseph Albright, December 18 – January 12. JET developed the play in earlier readings of the script about a Jewish servant in the court of King Edward III in 1300’s England.
- Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting, by Ed Schmidt, co-produced with Plowshares Theater Company, directed by Plowshare’s Artistic Director, Gary Anderson, January 29 -February 23. A daring fastball script, sure to win young audiences, the play offers an imagined exchange between Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey and four icons of African American culture — Jackie Robinson, actor-activist Paul Robeson, entertainer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and boxer Joe Louis.
- Other Desert Cities, a 2012 Pulitzer finalist, by Jon Robin Baitz, in a co-production with Ann Arbor’s Performance Network, April 23 – May 18. David Wolber directs this drama about family secrets revealed in a daughter’s memoir.
- The Diary of Anne Frank, by Francis Goodrich and Albert Hackett, adapted by Wendy Kesselman, JET’s 18th annual production for thousands of Southeast Michigan school children, staged at the Berman Center for Performing Arts, March 24 – April 4, 2014.
“The JET production of The Diary of Anne Frank is just one example of our outreach efforts to educate young audiences and to cultivate the next generation of theater-goers,” explains Chris. “Over the years, that single JET play has been performed for hundreds of thousands of school children in theaters throughout the city and, for many of those children in the audience, The Diary of Anne Frank is the very first time they’ve ever seen a full-length professional onstage performance.”
Reminding us that Jewish Ensemble Theatre has been named an Anchor Organization by the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs (MCACA), Gail added that JET has received this prestigious recognition for its outreach programs that send three touring shows into elementary, middle and high schools.
JET’s Youth Education Services – JET/YES – is an initiative developed to support schools in their anti-bullying programs. To date, JET has reached over 500,000 youngsters with powerful performances of three commissioned plays, I Was Just Kidding – for elementary students, Word for middle school and high school and Mean Girls for upper elementary and middle school girls. Commenting on the need for private funding to help schools defray the cost of the performances, Gail observes, “We can’t stress enough the importance of these enrichment programs and the need to address the issues of bullying as early as kindergarten, because it starts so young now on the playground.”
With the goal to build the JET community, and with barely three months into her term as President of the Board, Gail has set sights on establishing the JET Cultural Community Fund – a community endowment for the arts. “Cultural opportunities are as essential to a community’s growth and well-being as are economic and social opportunities,” she says, “Our culture is what holds us together and keeps our community vibrant and strong.”
“JET is alive and well,” says Chris, “but if I had just one message to fly out there, it would simply be this: Come. See a show. Once you get through the door, you’re going to find an intimate theatre – and a close-knit family, doing wonderful work in the community.”