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A Moving Experience

Riva Pomerantz

The darkened theater is packed with every conceivable shade, shape, and hue on the female Jewish spectrum, from tichel to dreadlocks, jumpers to jeans. Intent on the moment when the black stage will reveal a promised look at the soul-journey of the baalas teshuvah, there is an electric atmosphere here, as if every woman in the room is perched to lose herself in a melting pool of camaraderie, inspiration, and yearning.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Garish in the harsh spotlights, the opening scene of Escalators bursts forth with the cast holding poles that depict the landmark symbols of their confusing struggle, as they dance to the beat of the raging music — heavy rock with Yiddish lyrics. A television, a pair of jeans, a cheeseburger, compete with a Shabbos scene and a long, pleated skirt. What unfolds is a battle to the death; will Torah and connection to G-d triumph, or will the cheeseburger prevail?

There is no scenery, no curtain, and very few props; it is acting and ingenuity that carries this play into a new realm. The scene billed “First Shabbos Ever,” when one actress blithely asks, “Why are the women wearing black bathrobes?” elicits laughter. Humor meshes with raw pain and angst as the journey progresses.

“Becoming a baal teshuvah was the most involved, deep, intense, self-reflective process I had ever encountered, and in the process, my whole world changed. I had questions about my identity and who I was. I’m inspired to make theater about deep and moving experiences and so that’s where I started with Escalators. This whole idea of ‘returning’ was one that really spoke to me,” says Sara Kohn, the show’s creator and one of the cast. She was moved to produce Escalators to depict the stories of countless baalei teshuvah, woven together to portray a unique whole that illustrates the teshuvah process through monologue, dance, song, and theatrics.

 

Merging Worlds

While becoming frum definitely means casting off the old, today it’s clear there’s no need to hang up those dancing shoes forever. The phenomenon of kosher entertainment for chareidi women has burgeoned to staggering proportions with every Chol HaMoed featuring countless videos and productions on a wide variety of themes and topics. But live theater is rarer, and rarer still is the opportunity to watch professional performers bring the skills they acquired and honed in the secular theater industry to the religious stage. They are dancers and singers, acrobats and actresses. They have danced on Broadway and Off-Broadway, for audiences around the world before embarking on an existential journey that leads them to a new reality and new horizons. And many have found that while the cheeseburger and jeans get the definite boot, creativity is here to stay, albeit with a Torah twist.

“Theater wasn’t necessarily a part of my religious upheaval,” explains Sara. “My focus was to really learn Torah and to grow and work on myself. So I took my theater and put it in the backseat, never threw it out. I knew I’d come back to it at the right time after focusing on my spiritual development. Naturally, there did come a time to move back into it.”

A performer from a young age, lively Australian-born Sara describes herself as directing plays “ever since I could read!” She has a strong formal background in drama and theater, eventually identifying “physical theater” — telling stories through movement, dance, aerial work, and acrobatics — as her passion. She even did a stint with a deaf theater company where they performed entire shows in sign language. Coming to perform for an all-female frum audience is definitely a world apart from secular, mainstream theater, but Sara says she doesn’t feel deprived in the least.

“It’s delightful to perform for frum women. When you perform in a theater, you go on a journey with the audience and you can often gauge the reaction. Frum audiences are so warm and supportive; they want to be on this journey with you. Also, because of the cultural difference, religious people don’t go to theater as much and therefore they’re more appreciative than the secular world can be.”

 

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