By Coni Koepfinger
on the anniversary of
UNTOLD STORIES OF JEWISH WOMEN
A Festival of Plays, Music, and Conversation
March 20-22, 2018
Museum of Jewish Heritage
A CALL TO INSPIRATION
Early in 2018, esteemed playwright, director and theatre festival producer, Shellen Lubin asked me to be involved in UNTOLD STORIES OF JEWISH WOMEN. She commissioned me to write a play about activist and politician, Bella Abzug, for Caroline Aaron to perform. I was very honored to be asked and, lo and behold, a most magical thing happened.
Feminist and National Organization for Women (NOW) founder, Bella Abzug was known for her line “ This woman’s place is in the house- the House of Representatives.” She was a lawyer and U.S. Representative from 1971-1977. In 1976, as a freshman at Penn State University, I met women from NOW who asked me to write a scene for them that was to be performed nationally at PTA meetings across the country. A young teacher had lost her job because she decided to solve gender issues with her kindergarten students- the boys made fun of girls at the carpentry table forcing the girls to play in the kitchen. The teacher decided to split up the boys and girls and assign days in kitchen for boys only. One angry dad did not want his son to play in the kitchen but the teacher would not back down, so he had her fired. My play about Bella, PLAYING HOUSE, brought it together for me and made me realize why I am still writing about women’s issues even in the 21st century. I am truly grateful to Shellen Lubin for that opportunity.
CK: Shellen, again, thank you. It was truly a wonderful project. Could you tell us what inspired you to begin the Untold Stories project?
SL: Women’s issues? Still, you say? Because we’re still in a ridiculously under-known place. We’re still 9-25% of the voices heard. We get 9% of the venture capital funding (people of color get 2%), and, depending on the size of the budget and the reach of the project, somewhere between 10-25% of the productions. It’s pathetic. We still too often see women through men’s eyes, and as appendages to their stories.
Susan Merson and I have co-produced a few festivals of short plays primarily from 365 Women a Year: a Playwriting Project. These are plays that are inspired by and/or about moments from the lives of women who should be known, or famous women who are only known in a particular context and there is so much more to know about them. As shifting perspective has always been one of my benchmarks as a writer and director, it has excited me greatly to work with this project, begun by Jess Eisenberg on facebook and including hundreds of writers from around the world, trying to write women back into the history of the world through plays.
When I made a terrific connection with the Museum of Jewish Heritage - A living Memorial to the Holocaust, and with their resident theatre company, NYTF, the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, we decided to do a three day festival completely devoted to historical Jewish women, from the bible through to the transgender Martine Rothblatt--an incredibly incomplete history of Jewish women, but all untold stories--or old stories told from new perspectives--a panorama of Jewish women over the centuries. Susan and I are both Jewish women and have both been actively involved with struggling for shifts in perspective in theatre, both in form and in content.
CK: Who all was involved in the project?
SL: There were over 40 playwrights and plays involved in this project, some that were written or excerpted for us and many that were already written. The 'piece de resistance' was an evening of songs and monologues from various places including an opening poem about Lilith in both English and Yiddish, an excerpt from Indecent (with the permission and delight of the creative team), an appearance by Luna Kaufman--a Holocaust survivor who still writes and speaks so eloquently, your monologue, and a song written and performed by Christine Toy Johnson (with Bobby Cronin) in the voice of Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, the first Asian-American Rabbi (who attended the evening!). Performers included Estelle Parsons, Roberta Wallach, Ilene Kristen, Tia de Shazor, and so many others. It was a spectacular evening, both in its theatrical accomplishment and in its portrayal of the breadth of female perspectives that are available to us.
CK: What was the overall response from the artists involved?
The artists were so pleased to be involved in a project that was such a huge and collective undertaking of women-centric voices.
CK: Any plans for a project like this for the future?
SL: NYTF is pretty consumed with their Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof right now (which really should be seen by all), and the museum has taken some different turns in their focus, but Susan and I are now in deep discussions of what might be the next venture for this project. One thing we have discussed and may try to make happen is a podcast of these pieces and more. Although that would only be audio, it would be a way of bringing these voices and perspectives to a much wider audience.
CK : Tell us about your work right now... what have you done and what’s coming up—-
SL: I am working on a number of projects right now, directing/developing a few projects with some terrific playwrights--primarily Stuart Warmflash and Amy Oestricher--and working on re-writes for a few of my own plays as well as some new songs. And on Monday, March 11, I will be directing the Bistro Awards for Sherry Eaker for the seventh year in a row--a fabulous night celebrating the best in cabaret, jazz, and the NYC nightlife scene.
ABOUT SHELLEN LUBIN:
Shellen has been onstage—as both a singer/songwriter and an actor— for years, both in and out of New York City. She and her songs have been featured on radio (Woody’s Children on WQXR-FM, a one-hour special on WBAI-FM, and various shows on WABC, WOR, and WEVD-FM), cable television, and in Milos Forman's first American film, Taking Off. Mother/Child, her one-woman musical, was called by WBAI-FM: “a dynamite show about the joys, agonies, conflicts, and concerns of combining new parenthood, person-hood, and artist-hood.” Other performing credits include stage (most recently "The Flood" in The Vagina Monologues at Here Arts Center directed by Andrea Bertola), screen (including principal roles in the films Green Card and Taking Off, and Amanda Cole's High Falls).
Shellen recently completed Without a Title, loosely based on Federico Garcia Lorca’s Play Without a Title and Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Her play, Imperfect Flowers, played to rave reviews in Omaha, Nebraska, as part of SNAP!Fest (“a night when acting and lights and music and a glorious script all come together into something bordering on magic,” Omaha World-Herald.) The first act of the play, a one-act entitled Anthesis, also received raves in L.A. when it played at the West Coast Ensemble. Her first musical in NYC, Molly's Daughters, was commissioned by American Jewish Theatre. Other plays and musicals have been performed in productions and staged readings at the Public Theatre, Henry Street Settlement, Manhattan Class Company, Hubbard Hall, 13th Street Theatre, and many other venues.
Shellen has directed numerous plays, musicals, and cabaret acts in productions, workshops, and readings, most recently the 28th-34th Annual Bistro Awards, Tyler’s Theory of Love by Stuart Warmflash in the E.A.T. Festival, This Year’s Model by Donna Hoke at NJ Rep’s Theatre Brut, Buck Naked by Gloria Bond Clunie at Ivoryton Playhouse, Door Opens Walk Thru by Susan Merson at 13th Street Repertory Theatre, Between Pretty Places (a musical Ghost Story by Susan Merson with music and lyrics by Shellen Lubin and additional music by Matthew Gandolfo) at Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice, CA and at Here Arts Center in NYC, and many more.
ADVOCACY FOR WOMEN & THE ARTS
Shellen is 1st Vice President & Past President of the Women in the Arts & Media Coalition, Inc. which brings together many unions, guilds, and associations, to work for women in the industry, expanding their voice, their vision, and their clout. She is also a past VP of the League of Professional Theatre Women, for which sheCo-Chairs the Mentoring Committee. She is also a member of the National Theatre Conference, where she chairs the Women Playwrights Initiative.
Shellen is a proud member of most writers’, directors', and performers’ unions in our industry
PLEASE NOTE: the below event is happening in 2019!