For New Theater Company, Shabbat Takes Center Stage
A group of Jewish artists digging deep into Jewish writing and turning it into theater is trying to bring something fresh and smart to the table.
Billing itself as “New York’s first Jewish theater company dedicated to Sabbath-observant artists,” 24/6 launched on December 11 with an evening of short plays called “Sabbath Variations: The Splendor of Space” at The Sixth Street Community Synagogue. The performance consisted of five short plays, followed by a discussion of the life and work of Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose writings inspired the company.
Artistic Directors Jesse Freedman, Yoni Oppenheim and Avi Soroka organized the company in May. They began inviting artists to work with them, and to envision what a Jewish theatre company would look like.
Oppenheim, a director and dramaturg with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from New York University as well as a Master of Philosophy degree from the University of Oslo in Ibsen Studies, explained that the company began by studying Heschel together.
“People proposed ideas for pieces, based on that work, riffing off of it,” he said. The first performance was a work in progress — ideally there would be six plays, followed by an hour of discussion, reflecting the cycle of the workweek followed by a day of contemplation.
Co-Artistic Director Jesse Freedman has a background in magic and trained with SITI Company. Soroka, the third member of the trio, is an Equity Stage Manager who has worked with The Arizona Jewish Theatre Company and American Playwrights Theatre, among others.
Freedman’s background in magic taught him to connect with large crowds from a proscenium stage as well as to just a few people in a basement — a useful skill in the off-off-Broadway universe. He became Shabbat observant in college, right around the time he became interested in theater, following an upbringing he described as “somewhere between reform and unaffiliated.”
In order to find a way to work, Freedman began creating his own material. Religious actors all have to make different choices — some, he said, walk to work, not breaking specific Shabbat laws. The 24/6 company doesn’t rehears or perform on Shabbat.
“I decided I could do nothing else,” Freedman said. “I was unwilling to make a choice between [Shabbat and theater], as many people suggested I would have to.”
At 24/6, Freedman relishes “the opportunity to collaborate with people with similar convictions,” he said. “We are working from a rich tradition, which is a counterpoint to artistic nihilism.”
Oppenheim agreed there is a need for a company like 24/6. “I feel that in the past decade, there are more and more Sabbath observant theater artists coming up. This will be a place where they can develop work, in a schedule that enables them to work,” he said.
Future productions might include unknown classics from the Jewish stage, including the first play written in Hebrew, by Leone de’Sommi, a 16th-century Italian playwright. Oppenheim cites the playwright, also known as Yehuda Sommo, as one of his major influences, along with Jerzy Grotowski and Peter Brook.
“I have a desire to do plays which are not overtly Jewish, looking at them through the lens of our experience,” Oppenheim said. “I personally am interested in certain aesthetics, in the choreography of Jewish life.”