The 14th annual First Person Arts Festival, which will host spoken-word performances and poetry slam contests from Nov. 4 through 15 at different venues across the city, will have a distinctly Jewish tenor to it.
This year’s theme is Share Life, and a few Jewish artists are bringing their performances to life with a little bit of chutzpah.
Jamie Brunson, executive and artistic director of the festival, said the theme, which will be touched upon during 18 events and by about 50 artists, aligns with its mission that everyone has a story to tell.
“When we have the courage to share our stories, we connect with each other in the world,” she explained. “Spoken-word slams require you to have some training in poetry and spoken word, whereas with storytelling, you don’t have to have any prior training. Everybody has a story.”
“It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from; if you’re willing to get onstage, you can do it.”
Brunson added that in today’s world, we can have thousands of online relationships — but no real connections.
“These First Person Arts story events give people an opportunity to have real-live connections around their personal experiences. And that, I think, is priceless,” she said. “These shows have been curated by others, and we just thought they had such merit that we wanted to bring them to the festival.”
One of those Jewish performers, Robin Katcher, will share her story as part of the production of Out/Spoken, presented by Story District on Nov. 15 at Christ Church Neighborhood House in Old City, about navigating her relationship with mother when she came out.
Katcher, 43, said it was hard for her mother to come to terms with her being a lesbian. She always wanted Katcher to be safe and happy, but being publicly out, in her mind, put a target on her and put her in mortal danger, marked like her Jewish ancestors.
“Should I hide that I’m Jewish, too?” Katcher exclaimed during her performance, embellishing her narration of her mother by employing a New York accent.
Katcher’s grandparents escaped the pogroms from what is now Ukraine, which is why she thinks her mother is so worried and protective. She eventually understood that her mother will never stop worrying about her, but she can still accept her lifestyle.
Her performance is a true story, but with a little more wisdom and distance.
“That’s just a really powerful way for all of us as human beings to see and appreciate one another, to have an opportunity to reflect on who we are and what is going on in our own lives during that time, and I think it also gives the audience an opportunity to reflect on the stories in their own lives,” she declared.
“As a Jew, the power of storytelling feels culturally imprinted on me, from the stories of the Torah, to the way in which my family connects with each other —m it feels like home to be with a group of storytellers.”
Antonia Lassar tells her personal story from a different perspective: that of a clown.
In her one-woman show, Post Traumatic Super Delightful, which will be performed on Nov. 13 at Christ Church Sanctuary in Old City, Lassar opens up about her experience being a survivor of sexual assault — all while dressed and made up as a clown.
Her intention is in no way to mock sexual assault — in fact, the very title of the play comes from her tacit acknowledgement of the very real diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which not so coincidentally shares the same abbreviation as the show’s title — but to add a bit of laughter to the healing process and ask, “Is there space for laughter in the survivor experience?”
“Clowns are this beating vulnerability of a community and one of the only true honest voices,” Lassar proclaimed. “This clown character is vulnerable and honest and performative in a way that I think can speak to the survivor experience.”
The 24-year-old said she takes her own story and expands it into a much bigger one, looking at how an entire community can be affected by sexual assault.
She also expresses the survivor’s experience, emphasizing the many expectations and pressures put on survivors to act “the right way.”
Although each survivor’s experience is different and laughter is not always the best medicine, she fervently hopes her choice of expression can bring light to the issue in a way that is open and honest, and doesn’t traumatize the audience.
“A lot of survivors, including myself, feel this huge pressure to be something that I never can be,” she related. “This play is not meant to be a healing tool for me. I’ve spent a long time processing this trauma, and I wouldn’t feel safe putting this on stage if it weren’t just part of my own feelings. This is really an outward focus built for community therapy.”
For Lassar, her main form of therapy was based on her own Jewishness.
“I’m really influenced by my Jewish upbringing in that personally, I look for humor in the face of tragedy before anything else, which to me feels like a very Jewish instinct,” she said.
“When I was assaulted, the first place that I ran back to was my spirituality. I discovered God in a much different holier light, in this light of healing. This play actually comes out of a huge spiritual journey.”
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