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August 2, 2017 by

Meet Bryna Wasserman: The Award-Winning Director Revitalizing Yiddish Theatre

Photo credit: Joan Roth

Photo credit: Joan Roth

When award-winning theatre director Bryna Wasserman—her accolades include the 2000 Montreal English Critics Circle Award of Distinction, the 2010 Mlotek Prize for Yiddish and Yiddish Culture, and the 2011 Quebec Drama Federation Award “in recognition of immense contributions to and support of the development of theatre in Quebec”— took the helm of the New York City-based National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene (NYTF) in 2011, she had three goals.

The first was to find NYTF a permanent home. “We’d been wandering Jews for a century, going from one theatre to another,” she says. “There was an urgent need to change this.” The second goal was financial: to put the non-profit NYTF on solid footing. Lastly, she wanted the company’s 2015 centennial to foster a contemporary appreciation of Yiddishkeit.

All of this, of course, had to be done while making sure that the theatre staged at least one annual production and brought performances to diverse communities throughout, and beyond, the five boroughs of New York City.

Wasserman sat down with Eleanor J. Bader to discuss the overall state of Yiddish theatre and the ups-and-downs of running the NYTF. Along the way, the conversation touched on the plight of immigrants under Trump and the challenges facing all non-profit theatres.

Eleanor J. Bader: I read that you were born in a displaced person’s camp in Vienna. Can you tell me a little more about your parents and background?

Bryna Wasserman: My mom was Russian and my dad was Polish. He spent most of the war in Siberia. He had been caught on the Russian side of the border without a military uniform and was imprisoned. During the early years of the war, my mom was part of the Goset Theatre in Moscow, but was sent to the east, to Kazakhstan, because the people who ran the theatre were afraid that Moscow was going to be invaded. Somehow, my father eventually found his way to Kazakhstan, too, and started going to the Yiddish theatre. After the war ended, my mom wanted to go back home, but was warned that it was dangerous to return. She and my dad married in 1944 and wound up in Vienna, in a displaced person’s camp. My mother, Dora Wasserman, [1919-2003] entertained the people there. She was truly a force of nature. I was born in the camp and lived there for the first three years of my life. We moved to Montreal, Canada, in 1950.

EJB: Why Montreal?

BW: My dad had a sister there and we were able to plug in fairly easily. My mother started Yiddish theatre groups for children as part of the Montreal Jewish People’s Schools, and she directed plays for the Yiddish theatre. I used to go to work with her and knew no other world. We were deprived of material possessions, but I did not know that at the time.

EJB: You later studied theatre at New York University, yes?

BR: I did! I came to NYU and the East Village when I was in my early twenties. Both were really special places then. By day, as a student, I’d work at LA MaMa, The Performance Garage, and other important Off and Off-Off Broadway theatres. Then, at night, to pay my way, I worked at the Yiddish-language Eden Theatre on East 12th Street, stage managing and directing. The contrast between the two worlds was interesting, to say the least.

EJB: Was this your first professional job in Yiddish theatre?

BW: No. At the age of 16, I began directing plays that toured all the Jewish summer camps in Quebec.

EJB: Were there differences between Yiddish theatre in Canada and Yiddish theatre in New York?

BW: When I arrived in New York in the early 1970s, I noticed right away that things were not the same. In Canada, Yiddish theatre was far less professional than it was in New York. It was also less contentious. In New York, some Yiddish theatre had crossed over to the Great White Way, Broadway, and there were huge disagreements between those who favored vaudeville and those who preferred more serious drama.

But I have to stress that for me, as a student who was able to straddle these multiple worlds—the contemporary theatre world at NYU and the world of Yiddish theatre—it was all wonderful. And even with all the infighting and issues within Yiddish theatre, I found it incredibly exciting, even thrilling.

EJB: Did you return to Canada after you completed your Master’s Degree in 1975?

BW: No. I stayed in New York and had three fabulous children. I moved back to Montreal in 1997, after my mother had a stroke, and in 1998 took over as the Artistic Director of the Segal Centre for the Performing Arts there. This theatre does five English-language productions, plus one Yiddish-language production for adults and one Yiddish production for children, each year. We also did plays in French because multiculturalism is very important to me.

Shortly after I arrived at the Segal Centre in 1998, I brought actor Uta Hagen [1919-2004] to the theatre.  She did a wonderful play called Collected Stories by David Margulies that she’d first done in New York. After she performed, all the well-known actors in Canada wanted to perform with us, in our small 300-seat theatre.

We produced new Yiddish plays, as well as classics, all of them socially relevant, and toured Prague, Vienna, and Israel thanks to the moral and financial support of the Segal family.

This was a career highlight for me. To have the privilege of being the Artistic Director of a company that grew from 500 annual subscribers to 4000 meant that the community acknowledged the importance of the work we were doing. It was so gratifying.

EJB: Still, after 20-plus years in Montreal, you returned to New York in 2011. What drew you back?

BW:  First, all three of my children and my two grandchildren were here then. One has since moved to San Francisco.

Secondly, I had wonderful assistants at the Segal Centre but many of them had come to work for me when they were 23-years-old and I did not want them to still be my assistants when they turned 40. I knew I needed to give the next generation an opportunity. When I saw that there was a job opening as Executive Director of NYTF I applied. I served as Executive Director until January 2017 when I resigned to once more focus on directing.

EJB: Before you stepped down as ED, you found NYTF a permanent home at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. This fulfilled one of your goals for the theatre. Do you see it as your greatest achievement?

BW: It was certainly a major one, but there are many other things that I’m proud of. I’m pleased that we brought a production of The Golden Bride, a 1923 operetta about a young girl from Russia who inherits a fortune and comes to the United States, to a new audience, giving them a glimpse of the past.

The current production, Amerike: The Golden Land, looks at early 20th century Jewish immigrants to the U.S. and the trials and tribulations they endured in order to become part of America’s social fabric. I hope it will sensitize people to the plight that immigrants today are facing, especially as harsh government policies attempt to restrict them.

Still, I’m most proud of our 100th anniversary in 2015, called KulturfestNYC. It was produced with UJA-Federation, and brought more than 100 artists from France, Japan, Poland, and Romania to New York. We organized musical performances, film screenings, lectures, theatre pieces, and a conference that attracted academics as well as actors, briefly moving both groups out of their silos. A free cantorial concert in Central Park was attended by Orthodox people who don’t come to events in which women sing on stage. It added another branch to our tree.

Finally, I’m really pleased by FolksbienceRU, a NYTF offshoot what brings Russian Jewish immigrants, all of them under age 30, together to create new theatrical works. They got a grant from the Genesis Philanthropy Group and produce programs that address their feelings as Millennials. It’s amazing: in Russia, they were called Jews; here, they are called Russians. They want to find their place in the world and not be pigeonholed by Brighton Beach. I am their midwife and simply want to make sure their voices are heard.

EJB: Amerike: The Golden Land, your current production, has been extended. What’s next?

BW: We are a theatre with a mission to keep the Yiddish language alive and produce shows with social significance or relevance.

We’re doing a staged-reading on August 3rd of Ben Gershon’s play, When Blood Ran Red, about actor-singer-activist Paul Robeson. I believe that we have to produce new work like this, showcasing contemporary talent, that can be performed in Yiddish or adapted to Yiddish. At the same time, we have to perform the classics because if we don’t, no one else will.

EJB: Is today’s Yiddish theatre in good shape?

BW:  Well, finding enough money is always a struggle but I am encouraged by today’s youth. They don’t have the baggage their parents had and they’re curious. They want to know what their roots are, which is why Yiddish classes offered by YIVO and the Yiddish Book Center continually fill. There are Yiddish theatres in Australia, Canada, Israel, Poland, Romania and the U.S. and it’s great to watch the next generation take over. I’m optimistic. In addition, I feel very lucky to have been able to choose what to do with my life. I’m hoping that in this, my final “trimester,” I’ll continue to be able to help other people blossom, develop, and support Yiddish theatre. 

                       

The theatre’s 2017 play, Amerike: The Golden Land, performed in Yiddish with English and Russian subtitles has garnered rave reviews and runs through August 20th at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan. For more information or to order tickets go to nytf.org or call 212.213.2120 ext. 206.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.