Actors, playwrights, artistic directors and other artists will descend on Philadelphia this week for the Alliance for Jewish Theatre’s (AJT) annual conference.
Theatre Ariel will host the conference from Oct. 21 to 23. Attendees mostly come to market their work, AJT Executive Director David Chack said, but he hopes that when they arrive, they also make connections with other theater makers.
“We really think that the conference does something quite special and provides this group of people with a connection to other people in a very warm and welcoming atmosphere,” Chack said. “It’s not like other conferences where people come and go, dip in and out. They do their thing, go to a few panels, maybe a meal, try to find a person that they did the deal with the last time and then they go home. Our conference really creates an immersive experience. In a way, it’s almost like a theater production itself.”
AJT has held its annual conference in various cities, including Boston, St. Louis, New York City and even Vienna, over the past three decades. This is the first time Philadelphia will host.
The conference will consist of panels, workshops and a keynote speech by Adam Kantor, who has performed in Broadway productions of The Band’s Visit, Rent, Next to Normal and Fiddler on the Roof.
Kantor, who has attended a prior AJT conference, said he might speak about the experiences he has had where his work as an artist met his Jewish identity. These include a trip he took to the Pale of Settlement in preparation for his role as Motel the tailor in Fiddler on the Roof and an immersive Passover experience he put together.
“Questioning is a very Jewish value of the conference,” Kantor said. “One of [Chack’s] most Jewish qualities is his ability to question. [The conference] seemed open and exploratory and community-forming and asking insightful, deep questions about, not only what is Jewish theater, but how can we progress the form and how can we continue to ask questions through the art of theater.”
During the conference’s first evening, attendees will head to Bryn Mawr to get a taste of Theatre Ariel’s work. They will see a showing of TRAYF, the first show of Theatre Ariel’s 2018-19 salon season.
Tovah Feldshuh, who performed the one-woman Broadway show Golda’s Balcony about Golda Meir and who is also featured on CW’s award-winning Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, will receive the Theodore Bikel Award for Excellence in Jewish Theatre at the conference’s dinner on Oct. 22. The four-time Tony Award nominee will return to Philadelphia on Nov. 14 for a play reading of Dancing with Giants at Congregation Rodeph Shalom at 7 p.m.
The evening of Oct. 22 will also include a tribute to Chaim Potok, author of The Chosen and My Name is Asher Lev, among other works, who lived in Philadelphia for many years. Both of his most famous novels were adapted to the stage and premiered at the Arden Theatre. Last month, The Collected Plays of Chaim Potok was also released.
“With his book coming out, and we’re here in Philly, and he was involved in the Philadelphia theater community and lived in Philly, [we felt] that we should honor Chaim,” said Deborah Baer Mozes, founding artistic director of Theatre Ariel.
Chack said Philadelphia felt like a good location for the conference because of the growth of the city’s local theater scene. Mozes has been involved with AJT for decades, and her and Theatre Ariel’s presence in the Philadelphia area and ability to host the conference contributed to the decision.
AJT has asked her to host before, Mozes said, but she hasn’t felt like she could take on the responsibility. This year, though, felt like the right year to do it.
“It felt like a good time in terms of where Theatre Ariel was and a good time for me in terms of being able to really devote the time and energy,” Mozes said. “It also felt like a really good time to be doing this in Philadelphia because, when I started in Philadelphia, there wasn’t much of a theater scene here. Now, Philadelphia is a major theater city with national impact.”
Because Theatre Ariel is committed to presenting new works, Mozes wanted the conference to highlight new play development. Mozes reached out to local theater groups with similar missions, such as InterAct Theatre Company, PlayPenn and Azuka Theatre, about partnering. Members of Philadelphia’s theater community will participate in the conference as panelists and by leading workshops. One of these is playwright Jacqueline Goldfinger, co-founder of The Foundry at PlayPenn, who will lead a workshop.
“Audiences are just enthralled by what Jewish theater can offer,” Chack said. “It’s part of world culture, and we have to celebrate that. We have an incredible gift, and it’s the gift of performance, and we need to keep giving it.”