Enter stage right: At-risk youth


Tameka Carter was 16 years old and living in a Watts homeless shelter when she joined The Unusual Suspects Theatre Company, an intensive theater arts mentoring workshop for at-risk youth living in high-crime and impoverished areas. 

“Statistics say that someone with my background should be dead, uneducated, strung out on drugs,” the 33-year-old told a packed ballroom at the Skirball Cultural Center during the theater company’s seventh annual gala. 

And yet, here she is, married to a devoted husband, mother of two, and soon-to-be-published author of a memoir titled “In My Mother’s Bathroom.” All of it, she said, is because of Unusual Suspects. “It saved my life,” she said, overcome by emotion.

Carter wasn’t alone in her praise of the theater company. The night was packed with testimonials from alumni, current participants and local supporters of the nonprofit.

“This is why we do this,” Executive Director Sally Fairman said through tears, after Carter spoke. “You are a hero, an absolute hero,” she told Carter.  “We are building a bridge to the future, and we need your help,” she then told the packed audience.

During the course of the evening, Unusual Suspects raised well over $40,000, with many thanks to emcee and actress Melissa Peterman, from TV shows such as “Reba” and ABC Family’s “Baby Daddy.”

Peterson, a towering blonde, took the stage throughout the night. Mimicking Ellen DeGeneres at the Oscars, Peterson pulled out her phone and took a selfie while onstage, trying to capture the rest of the gala behind her, making sure to get everyone in clear view. “Are we hashtagging and Instagramming?” she asked the audience, hoping to build social-media momentum.

The room was unified by an overall sense of shared interest in The Unusual Suspects, founded by actress Laura Leigh Hughes in the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. She came up with the idea after catching a floating speck of black ash wafting in the air, and holding the cinders of her beloved city in the palm of her hand.

“I watched my city burn around me,” she told the audience. “I knew I needed to do something and give our lovely youth a voice. And here we are, 22 years later!” 

The theater company now serves more than 600 at-risk youths and their families annually and operates in areas such as San Fernando and South Los Angeles, including sites such as Camp David Gonzalez for juveniles in Calabasas. It offers an array of programs, including residencies, intensive workshops (such as improv, storytelling and musical theater) and community enrichment programs.

“We have, in this room tonight, our history!” Hughes said, referring to alumni, directors and volunteers who have been part of  The Unusual Suspects (theunusualsuspects.org) since the very beginning. 

Among those present were Meisha Rainman — the group’s new director of development and former board president of Silverlake Independent JCC — as well as two honorees: Russ Cashdan, a partner at Hogan Lovells, and Paul Hudson, former CEO of Broadway Federal Bank and founder of Paul C. Hudson Consulting.

As waiters began collecting salad plates and clearing tables, preparing for the next course, Hudson poked fun onstage: “I didn’t realize being honored, I wouldn’t be able to eat my salad.” Between the clattering of plates and silverware, Hudson shared the story of how he first came across Unusual Suspects after attending a performance at juvenile hall, years ago with his then-wife. Today, he’s an active supporter of Unusual Suspects and said he was thankful for the opportunity to give back.

The other honoree, Cashdan, Unusual Suspects’ board treasurer and member of Temple Beth Hillel in Valley Village, was presented the award by his three teenage kids, Nicholas, Claire and Margaret. Similar to Hudson, Cashdan first heard about Unusual Suspects by attending a performance at Camp David Gonzalez. 

“When you think of summer camp, this isn’t Camp Gonzalez,” Cashdan said. Entering the facilities through security checks, vaulted doors and towering walls, he witnessed a theatrical experience unlike any he’d seen before. “Many of these kids were from rival gangs,” he explained.

Unusual Suspects alumnus Johnny Ortiz — now an actor on ABC’s “American Crime” — was exactly that sort of kid, and he spoke about his personal experiences with the theater group. 

“Without you guys, I wouldn’t be here now,” he said. 

The 18-year-old said he joined a gang at age 10, and by 15, he’d already been shot and stabbed. He was first introduced to the theater when he was at Camp David Gonzalez. 

“When Unusual Suspects came, it brought back my hope,” he said. 

A reformed gangbanger, Ortiz said he acted alongside rival gang-members in the theater group. 

“I say this to you guys,” he said, looking at the two tables filled with current Unusual Suspects participants — who would perform two improv games and two songs over the course of the night — “the sky’s the limit.”

One of those participants was San Fernando High School junior Erick Perez. Representing a new generation of Unusual Suspects, Perez said it was nerve-racking when he first entered the gala room, facing the prospect of performing, but the nervousness melted away when he got onto that stage, doing the thing he loves the most. 

“Unusual Suspects means everything to me,” he said.

A Jew steps into Christmas


I got offered a part in a Christmas movie over the summer. It’s called “Defending Santa” and stars Dean Cain, Jud Tylor and my movie wife, Jodie Sweetin, best known for playing Stephanie on “Full House.” 

I’m always happy to be on a set. Acting is one of those jobs where you can’t wait to get to work. And I knew as soon as I told my real wife what kind of movie I was doing, she would rag on me. My wife loves Christmas. She grew up in a house that converted itself into a tacky structure covered in lights and plastic Santas during the holiday season, while my house smelled of latkes — its only decoration a small menorah sitting in the kitchen window. Her mother was a Jew. Her father’s Catholic. And Christmas beat Chanukah in the war of the holidays. So, because she married me and I said no to a Christmas tree in our house, she’s held a very obvious grudge. 

The thing is, I like Christmas. I love watching the world transform for it — the lights, the displays, the carols and the movies. “It’s a Wonderful Life” is up there as one of my favorite movies of all time. Christmas was never celebrated in my childhood Jewish house. For the most part, it never mattered to me. I had Chanukah — which often overlapped with Christmas — and eating latkes and doughnuts and opening presents definitely helped fill the void. But we also had a television. And this television projected images of Christmas that made us secretly long for the holiday, looking in from the outside and wanting to gather around the tree and sing Christmas carols with my family. Well, not my family. My three siblings couldn’t get through lighting a candle before they were hurling insults — and sometimes fists — at each other. 

But when you’re Jewish — especially a secular Jew like me whose relationship to being a Jew is mainly cultural — then you need to occasionally draw a line in the sand. I’m not doing it to be antagonistic. I’m doing it because I’d rather my wife and kids not celebrate a Jewish holiday than celebrate a Christian one. Let them wrestle with God and tradition — but let it be our traditions. First figure out what makes sense to you as a Jew before you start appropriating other religions simply to fit in with the majority. It’s not just disrespectful to Jews; it’s disrespectful to Christians. Their holiday, which celebrates the birth of their Lord and Savior, has already been turned into a secular holiday more focused on shopping than on reverence. And the meaning doesn’t get enhanced every time a Jew props up a fir tree in his home and adorns it with lights and a tongue-in-cheek Star of David ornament. 

When I told my wife about the movie, she laughed with glee. It’s the Christmas present she’s always wanted — seeing her proud Jewish husband in a Christmas movie where I actually had to stand up and say the line, “I believe” in Santa, as he stood on trial for being an imposter. They even gave me an, “I Believe in Santa” button to put on my shirt, just in case the point wasn’t driven home strongly enough. But it became a running joke on set. Everyone knew I was a Jew. My name gives me away before I can. And I never failed to make a joke when appropriate. My character, Mark, provided a lot of the comic relief in the movie. He uses humor to deal with difficult situations. Kind of like me. Kind of like Jews. Maybe Mark’s actually a member of the tribe? 

Dean Cain and I became close. He’s a huge fan of Israel — and, almost as important, of my comedy writing. The director, the cast and the crew became friends. The movie got picked up by the Ion Network. (It airs again on Christmas Eve.) And I have no regrets about doing it. It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s a sweet family movie. And I’m glad I was a part of it. 

My kids lit their menorahs this year in our house. And for Christmas, they will celebrate with their Italian grandfather in his house. My daughter goes to a preschool in a church. One local synagogue — after the rabbi requested to meet with me in person because he likes my writing, and then after the staff e-mailed us repeatedly to welcome us into the family —  sent us a rejection letter after I asked about financial aid. I was hurt. I felt embarrassed. And I was angry. Angry that a Jewish school shunned us because of finances — and angry that we hadn’t applied anywhere else because we were under the impression we had already found a school for our daughter.

So, last minute, Delaney Wright, a cute, well-priced preschool in an Episcopalian church, accepted us to their school. They’re nondenominational, and the principal is a Muslim. Sure, the kids cut out paper Christmas trees during the holidays, but they also let my wife bring in latkes and teach the kids about the story of Chanukah. It’s kind of the society I always hoped for. Inclusive, without feeling like it needs to be so politically correct that everyone has to adapt. There’s room for all of us. Even for a Jew in a Christmas movie. 

My Single Peeps: EG Daily


The first time I saw EG I was just starting to train at the Howard Fine Acting Studio.  She looked familiar, but I didn’t put it together immediately.  Then it clicked — Dottie!  From “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure”!  After we became friends and had worked together on various scenes for class, it was always hard for me to resist saying, “I’m a loner, Dottie.  A rebel.”  It still is.

Her family is European.  She’s one of five kids — one was born in France, another in Israel.  She was born in L.A.  “I was raised in a normal, middle-class neighborhood with kids.  We walked to school, whereas my kids now go to school in the Valley, so you have to drive.”

EG was more of a dancer and singer than an actor … “but I learned to be good at it.  And once I graduated high school, I started booking movies.  Lots of cult films.  Simultaneously did music, wrote songs and was on soundtracks.

“I was married maybe seven years — had two kids. [The ex and I] get along fine.  I love my girls.  I put a lot of attention on them — make sure my kids are priority.”

“What did you learn from divorce?” I ask.  She says, “You know that game — ‘Hot, hot, hot, you’re getting cold, cold, cold’ ”?  I nod, yes.  “It’s pretty simple.  If it feels good, it’s hot, hot, hot; if I want to get out, it’s cold, cold, cold.  How does it feel, is the big question.  I think when you’re with the right person, your life gets better.”

We talk about the difficulty in meeting men.  She’s now more known for voicing cartoon characters on projects like “Rugrats,” “Happy Feet” and “The Powerpuff Girls,” so her fans have changed.  “I started doing a lot of voiceover because I was being a mommy, so it sort of just worked itself out for me.  I was able to be there for [my kids], so voiceovers just blew up.  It was fun for them, too, to have the mommy who was the successful cartoon mommy.  I still have a lot of guys who are in love with me from ‘Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.’  I had to weed through a lot of people at that point.”

I ask her what kind of men she likes.  “I like funny, connected, kind and sensitive — not out of touch, [where] you don’t feel like you can share what you’re really feeling.  Someone who’s comfortable with himself and also works on himself and is growing.  Someone who brings to the party, rather than a taker.  Someone who’s your best friend, who you’re super attracted to.  That’s ideal.  And where you feel at home.  I always say, where you feel like you’re sitting in a warm bath.”

“How do you meet guys?” I ask.  “At my car.” I laugh.  “Seriously, I get notes on my car.”  “Do you respond to them?”  She doesn’t.  But I get the feeling she finds it flattering.  “Guys come over to me in stores, in a market, in the gym. … I was at a party and met someone I dated that way.  I don’t have a 9-to-5 job, so I meet people out.  I’ve dated other dads from the kids’ school.  It was cool.

“I’d say he should be between 40 and 55.  I’m in a different place now.  I feel like I’ve been out of the loop, because I’ve been raising children. … Some dating, but nothing serious.  But now I feel like there’s more of an opening for having a partner.  Because what else is there?  Printing up resumes, doing your auditions, but at the end of the day, what else is there besides companionship?”

If you’re interested in anyone you see on My Single Peeps, send an e-mail and a picture, including the person’s name in the subject line, to mysinglepeeps@jewishjournal.com, and we’ll forward it to your favorite peep.


Seth Menachem is an actor and writer living in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter. You can see more of his work on his Web site, sethmenachem.com, and meet even more single peeps at mysinglepeeps.com.

Allen, Spielberg grab Golden Globe nominations


Famed directors Woody Allen and Steven Spielberg led the list of Jewish nominees for Golden Globe Awards.

Allen with his “Midnight in Paris,” a critical and commercial success, was rewarded with three nods: best motion picture (musical or comedy), director and screenplay.

Spielberg’s “War Horse” was nominated for best motion picture (drama) and “The Adventures of Tintin” for best animated feature film.

The Golden Globe nominations, which were announced Dec. 15, are seen as a predictor for the Oscar races.

“Footnote,” which was the best screenplay winner at the Cannes Film Festival for Israeli director-writer Joseph Cedar, did not make the Golden Globes cut.

However, Israel could take some pride in the strong showing of the American television series (drama) “Homeland,” based on the Israeli hit “Hatufim,” or Prisoners of War. The American version, produced by Howard Gordon, earned nominations as best in its category, as well as acting nominations for its stars, Claire Danes and Damian Lewis.

Other notable Jewish talent is also in the running, according to Danielle Berrin, the “Hollywood Jew” blogger for The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.

In film nominations, Jonah Hill of “Moneyball” and Albert Brooks of “Drive” will compete in the best supporting actor category. Up for best screenplay honors is Aaron Sorkin, co-writer of “Moneyball.”

Television picks included HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, in the best drama TV series category.

“Modern Family,” created by Steve Levitan (with Christopher Lloyd) received nods for best television series (musical or comedy).

Evan Rachel Wood was nominated for best supporting performance in the miniseries “Mildred Pierce.”

A woman’s world?


It’s hard to tell, what with the requisite girdles, supervised weigh-ins and protocol panty hose (“not too dark; this isn’t a cabaret”), that the 1960s world depicted in “Pan Am” is supposed to be about the era’s most worldly women.

ABC-TV’s new hour-long drama, which premieres Sept. 25, is set at a lush airport popping in Pan Am’s signature blue. Stewardesses walk in a perfectly synchronized horizontal line (like at a cabaret), each leg in kick-line step as they ascend their version of a stage — the tarmac. The women talk like this: “I get to see the world,” one stewardess, Maggie (Christina Ricci), tells her boyfriend. “When was the last time you left the village?” And the men, awed by the Pan Am breed of beauty and brains, say things like: “Get your fanny to midtown, Sweetheart!”

It’s not exactly the milieu remembered by Nancy Ganis, one of the show’s creators and executive producers, who was a Pan Am stewardess more than 30 years ago. Ganis took to the skies for the first time in 1969 as a wide-eyed 21-year-old in search of the world. Back then, she said, becoming a stewardess was an indication of ambition and intelligence, and many of the women hired were well educated and from privileged backgrounds. On the show, a woman gets props for being “trilingual.” 

“Pan Am hired people to be like the girl next door,” Ganis said by phone from the show’s New York set. “We were supposed to have very high moral standards. We were considered ambassadors of good will, sort of a quasi-diplomatic corps. You came to the job with certain innate skills — how to be gracious, good manners, poise.”

But, even with Ganis at the show’s helm, truth can get lost in translation.

The current cultural fixation on retro fantasies of the ’60s (think “Mad Men”) portrays women as beautiful and submissive. Last May, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd quoted an anonymous entertainment executive suggesting that amid great economic uncertainty, men find comfort in Hollywood chimeras of female subjugation: “[I]t’s not a coincidence that these retro shows are appearing at the same time men are confused about who to be. A lot of women are making more money and getting more college degrees. The traditional … dominant and submissive roles are reversed in many cases. Everything was clearer in the ’60s.”

Ganis thinks the clear-cut gender roles of yore permitted more social graces. “When those lines got blurred in the so-called sexual revolution, I don’t think it liberated women; I think it gave men license to disrespect. There’s been a denigration of how women have been presented in the media; they’ve become more objectified than they were then.”

“Pan Am,” at least on its shiny surface, portrays women eager for opportunity. Working for the world’s most prominent airline was the way — often their only way — to see the world. “It was the best education I could have had,” Ganis said. Having grown up in Detroit “rather comfortably,” as she put it, Ganis had planned on teaching in an inner-city school, but realized she lacked a certain cultural proficiency. 

“How could I teach kids whose life experience is so removed from mine?” she said she wondered at the time. Being a flight attendant was illuminating. “When I ventured out into the larger world, it helped me begin to understand diversity and to appreciate differences,” she said.

Nancy and Sid Ganis. Photo by Phil McCarten/Reuters

The dawn of the airline industry, as depicted on the show, plays out as a nostalgic fantasy. Travel is glamorous and exciting — a world filled with dignitaries, movie stars and wealthy businessmen. Travelers dress up for air travel. Notably absent are today’s cumbersome security measures and ubiquitous TSA uniforms; then, the only acceptable pat-down for a stewardess was a little smack on the behind by a female superior, just to ensure proper girding by the girdles.

Other aspects of air travel are unrecognizable, too. Flights were sparse, and international travel often involved multiple-day layovers, allowing crews to kick back and explore cities. Ganis remembers decamping to the village of a prominent Maasai warrior in Kenya, hiking the Khyber Pass in Afghanistan, partying in Karachi, and boarding a houseboat to Srinagar in Kashmir.

In the show’s opening moments, a fictional Life magazine cover declares this “The Jet Age,” heralding opportunity as much as uncertainty. A real 1968 Life cover featuring Pan Am stewardesses, titled “Aboard the First Flights,” reported on the first direct flights between New York and Moscow, signaling an incipient economic partnership between Russia and the West. In those days, Pan Am travel was so groundbreaking that cities eager for tourism rushed to build runways and hotels. “New Caledonia brought in yachts to put up the crew when women started flying, because they couldn’t put us in Army barracks,” Ganis said. At that time, about half of Pan Am’s flights were special charters, serving an elite clientele that included the White House Press Corps and members of the State Department. The airline ran diplomatic missions to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, helped evacuate American troops from Vietnam and, according to Ganis, secretly airlifted special parties out of Israel when the Six-Day War broke out. “I had a couple of friends who were on those flights,” she said.

The women in charge of the passengers had to be cool in a crisis. “One of the primary reasons you’re on the airplane is to save lives in case of an emergency,” Ganis said. “You had to be prepared for any situation and know how to get out of a burning aircraft in under 90 seconds, with all your passengers.”

The stewardesses’ success hinged on the confidence and trust of those in the traveling class. “We were treated as equals,” Ganis said. “Passengers invited us on their journeys. You never thought of yourself as being subservient.”

Ganis’ husband, Sid, a well-known film producer and president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 2005 to 2009, is also a producer on “Pan Am,” mostly in an advisory role. During a three-way conference call with the pair, he said he’d much rather sit back and relish his wife’s success — after all, she lived the life depicted in the show.

“My wife is in the lead, she’s in the spotlight,” Sid said, en route by train to meet Nancy in New York. “In our lives, throughout 25 years of marriage, she is my equal. At this point in my career, this brand-new thing is happening, and it’s about Nancy. And it’s very, very gratifying for me.”

To which Nancy cooed: “I’m much more comfortable with you in the spotlight.” And then they hung up.

Acting from the heart


USC freshman Shayna Turk, a 2010 graduate and former class president of New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, didn’t expect a nice gesture with a simple purpose to turn into a mitzvah with the power to save and restore young lives. The musical theater summer camp she created seven years ago, Shayna Turk’s Academy of Rising Stars (S.T.A.R.S.), has evolved into a substantial philanthropic enterprise.

Her selfless, charitable pursuit garnered her the title of Young Entrepreneur of The Year in June 2010 and a $10,000 college scholarship from the National Federation of Independent Business Young Entrepreneur Foundation and Visa.

As a child, Turk was an actress, an extrovert and an overachiever. She began to act in plays and musicals at the age of 5 and starred in dozens of productions throughout her youth. When she earned a leading role in the musical “Grease” while her little sister was given a part in the chorus, Turk thought her sister deserved better. This sowed the seeds of her idea for a performing arts camp for kids, where everyone would have a chance to participate, gain confidence and have fun.

At age 11, Turk began holding drama classes for children in her home in Agoura Hills. The idea was to teach them to perform a popular musical and have a public performance at the end of the course. She turned her grandparents’ nearby garage into a theater with a stage.

At the same time, Turk became very close to Delaney Small, a now-8-year-old neighbor who suffered from a congenital heart problem. When Delaney’s mother, Brenda, created Music for Heart, a nonprofit dedicated to helping pay for third-world children to have the same open-heart surgery that saved Delaney’s life, Turk dedicated hours to helping her promote the charity.

S.T.A.R.S. grew in popularity and profitability, presenting multiple live productions per summer and charging a modest sum for tickets. Turk immediately linked her two passions. “I started to donate the proceeds, from the time of my bat mitzvah. I was just so touched and connected to the organization and the family, that I saw an opportunity to help in another way,” she said. 

Ticket sales, camp tuition and donations have enabled her to raise $10,000 over the years to help pay for the surgeries of several Salvadoran children. She has also been to El Salvador twice to visit children with heart conditions.

Turk thinks the charitable aspect of her business helped her win the Young Entrepreneur award from among 4,300 applicants nationwide, and she credits her parents, Gregory, a dentist, and Diana, herself an entrepreneur, with instilling in her the value of tzedakah.

When reflecting on her experience with the children she’s taught at her camp, as well as those whose lives she helped save, Turk said she feels humbled and appreciative. “I didn’t know it would have such an effect on me. It changed my character.” 

Check out Shayna Turk’s Academy of Rising Stars at dramastars.com.

Dating dramas


I’ve decided to embark on an acting career, so I signed up for acting classes. Given that acting is such a competitive business, I comfort myself in the idea that I can also treat acting class as a form of therapy and thus gain added, nonprofessional value. So far, playing characters in difficult situations has allowed me to reflect on my own feelings and behaviors.

For my first assignment, I was asked to recreate, on stage, a personal environment (whether my bedroom, office or living room) — and engage in an activity I like (whether painting, cooking or playing music). The point was to get us actors to feel comfortable on stage so that we could react naturally when the phone rings with an imaginary crisis. The audience doesn’t have to know the identity of the crisis — it’s the reaction, not the story, that’s important.

Eager to do a good job and impress the teacher, I recreated my living room in Israel and thought of a crisis all too sadly familiar to me: A terrorist attack in my neighborhood. When the phone rang, I jumped from my easel, where I was drawing a horse, and went into crisis mode. I immediately began to call friends to find out who was hurt, to check the news on TV and online for casualty updates. I was frantic.

Then the teacher stopped me and said: “Orit! Just sit on the sofa.”

I followed his instructions. On the sofa, I contemplated, without words, the horror of the moment. And the teacher said that’s where I was effective and convincing. In that moment I wasn’t acting. I wasn’t trying to say the right things. I was being.

At my next rehearsal, at a cafe for a scene in which I play a woman trying to seduce an old flame, I repeated the same pattern. As my scene partner hinted to me, my reading was stiff, unnatural and predictable. I only worried that I uttered the lines in the right way. I didn’t capture the emotion of the moment by allowing the part of me who relates to the character influence my delivery of the lines. Then, when we put the script down and just talked, I reconnected with my natural way of speaking and gesturing and sought to bring that into the role.

That’s when it hit me. What applies to acting also applies to dating.

For instance, if I meet a really good-looking and charming guy at a party whom I want to impress, I go into acting mode. I ask myself: How should I behave? Should I walk up to him and say “Hi”? Should I stand there nonchalantly and wait for him to make the first move?

When I e-mail him, I overthink the timing and wording of the letter. I become a playwright. Should I think of a creative subject line or keep it casual? Should I open it with “Hey” or “Hi”? And how should I sign it? With “Best regards”? With just my first initial?

I know I’m really infatuated in a bad way when I actually think of implementing the advice of that lame book “The Rules,” such as: “Don’t stare at men or talk too much” or “Don’t call him or rarely return his calls” or “Don’t accept a Saturday night date after Wednesday.”

Then, if we go out on a date, I try to be, or at least act, put together, cool, perfect. I don’t allow myself to become vulnerable. I don’t honestly share my likes and dislikes, my strengths and insecurities. I worry too much about what the guy wants to hear rather than what I truly want to say. In short, I’m not myself. I’m acting.

Contrast this behavior with a guy I’d consider only as a friend. I can chat it up with him for hours and talk about whatever concerns me, without worrying about what he thinks of me. I write whatever I feel like in an e-mail without proofreading it 10 times. I complain about my day, my problems, my hopes, my dreams. Strangely, my guy “friends” are those who end up falling in love with me.

I think it’s because when I’m myself with the opposite sex, I create real moments — the Oscar-worthy moments that light up a screen or a stage because the audience sees the real character — her pain, joy, uncertainty, triumph. I let go of the script and show what’s between the lines — and what’s inside my heart.

So I’m learning to change my approach — not only in acting class, but in the real-life drama of my dating life. I think part of the challenge is finding the right “scene” partner — the supporting male who can bring out my true character, who doesn’t make me feel the need to read from a script or follow rules.

Maybe by learning to be more natural and hence creating authentic moments not only stage, but also over coffee or dinner with the men I date, I’ll earn my real Oscar — a shining golden man to take home.

Orit Arfa is a Jewish Journal contributing writer based in Israel who is spending the summer in Los Angeles. She can be reached via her Web site: www.oritarfa.net.

Theater: Tolins draws on his own mentorship ‘Secrets’


“Everything I write is a question of identity,” Jonathan Tolins says over tea after a yoga class in Sherman Oaks. “What choices do you have? What roles do you take on?”

Those concerns are readily apparent in a body of stage- and screenwriting that has touched on the Jewish family and sexual politics (“Twilight of the Golds”), the geography of gay life (“Last Sunday in June”) and the distinctive tangle of love and human frailty that gets exposed through the process of adoption (“Martian Child”).

While the work he has done for film and television (including several episodes of “Queer as Folk”) has afforded him a comfortable life, “My heart is in playwriting,” Tolins says. “What I love most — ambiguity and complexity — I can do best in the theater.”

Tolins is indeed at his best in “Secrets of the Trade” (currently running at the Black Dahlia Theater through April 20), a work that the playwright calls his “baby” and his “favorite” out of all the things he has written.

While the underlying thread of “Secrets of the Trade” is somewhat autobiographical — like Andy Lipman, the play’s Broadway-smitten central character, Tolins as a teenager wrote a fan letter that led to a tempestuous, revelatory mentor relationship with an older gay man — the playwright’s interest in “Secrets of the Trade” extends well beyond the points at which the storyline intersects with his own narrative.

“It’s a play about family,” Tolins says, “particularly the expectations one has with one’s child.”

That angle of artistic inquiry leads Tolins into some rich but very rough terrain — just the place an artist wants to be. It comes as no surprise then that Tolins gets the transformative and sometimes combustive alchemy of mentorship exactly right as he explores how Andy’s relationship with his mentor affects the other members of his family.

That rightness shines nowhere more brightly than in an exchange between Martin Kerner, the gray-tinged lion of the New York theater whom Tony-winner John Glover brings to life with plenty of snarling and purring, and Joanne Lipman (Amy Aquino), mother of recently-out-of-the-closet Andy, the brilliant Harvard undergraduate and cast-album aficionado whose spark Kerner has decided to nurture.

“What is this world of talented gay men passing on their secrets?” Joanne asks Marty as the two of them face off in Marty’s office.

Marty assures Joanne that while erotic attraction figures into his relationship with Andy, there are no secrets — sexual or otherwise — passing between him and her son.

“I’m simply giving him permission to become himself as fully as possible,” he says.

When Joanne wonders what Marty gets out of the bargain, he replies, “I get to look into a beautiful, intelligent face that sees none of my personal failures.”

This scene in the play’s second act is as much about Joanne’s loss — of her son’s unquestioning admiration, of her status as a “cool” teacher at the Long Island high school where she works, of her own youthful aspirations as a dancer — as it as about Andy’s sexual and artistic awakening.

Earlier, in the first act, as Joanne and her husband Peter (Mark L. Taylor) discuss Andy’s blossoming relationship with his idol, Joanne confides that it has been a long time since she has seen the look in the eyes of a student that says, “You are opening up new worlds to me.”

“I never thought I’d see that look on a kid’s face again,” Joanne laments. “Now I have, and it’s not for me.”

Tolins says he counts Joanne’s revelations among “the moments I feel I got just right. That’s why I got such great actors” — including relative newcomer Edward Tournier, who as the play’s starry-eyed, apple-cheeked purveyor of “that look” turns in work that displays a maturity beyond his meager years.

Still, getting those moments of parental anguish “just right” entails some apprehension as well as satisfaction for Tolins. He and his partner, writer-director Robert Cary (“Ira and Abby,” “Anything But Love”) recently adopted a 4-year-old girl named Selina.

The sweet love of childhood, the pain that often accompanies the separation and disillusionment of young adulthood and the deeper love that comes with an adult child’s mature appreciation of his or her parents are all in the mix for Tolins.

“These are themes that any Jewish parent will recognize,” he says.

Trust the man. He knows.

“Secrets of the Trade,” Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun. 7 p.m. Through April 20. $25. Black Dahlia Theater, 5453 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (323) 525-0070 or visit

Theater: Mark Feuerstein is the “Some Girls” guy


After studying theater on a Fulbright scholarship, Mark Feuerstein played a series of affable Jewish leads on sitcoms such as “Conrad Bloom” and “Good Morning, Miami.” His characters were “fumfering menshes who, though well intentioned, let their neuroses get in their own way,” said the 36-year-old actor, a graduate of Princeton and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. “But because they were sitcom characters, they had to be guys of a certain type, meaning clean and neat and perfectly well-intentioned.”

Feuerstein is relishing the opportunity to portray a less savory type of guy (named Guy) with dubious intentions in Neil LaBute’s “Some Girl(s)” at the Geffen Playhouse through March 9. The character is the latest specimen of the American male according to LaBute, whom some perceive as a leading chronicler of men behaving badly.

Guy is a 30-something author who travels the country visiting former girlfriends, ostensibly to “right wrongs,” on the eve of his nuptials to a 22-year-old nursing student. He says he wants to apologize for hastily dumping the women (and for writing about his conquests), but only reopens old wounds in each ex.

Feuerstein is not the first Jewish sitcom actor to portray the character; when “Friends” star David Schwimmer originated the role in London in 2005, The Evening Standard noted his Guy was “prone to guilt and worried self-scrutiny in a style not that dissimilar to a Woody Allen or Jules Feiffer Jewish hero.”

Guy is actually a narcissist masquerading as a wuss, and Feuerstein finds his own Jewish persona helpful in depicting the antihero as a wily emotional terrorist.

“It’s like he’s disguised as the ‘nice Jewish boy’ — slightly insecure, honest, funny, self-deprecating — to disarm the women and get them to lower their defenses,” said the actor, who also comes off as funny and slightly self-deprecating. “How could a nice Jewish boy possibly hurt you? But the façade is really a manipulation, a game to see if he can deepen her level of connection to him, in order to keep his relationship options open.”

As Feuerstein toted a backpack to a 12-hour rehearsal recently, he said he was focusing as much on learning his lines as making sense of his character. LaBute — who is also directing this West Coast premiere of his off-Broadway hit — hired him when another actor left the production last month.

“I cast Mark because he’s not just a gifted actor and comedian, he’s also an extremely likable person, and that translates well onstage,” the playwright said in an e-mail. “We need to believe Guy capable of all that he professes (his many conquests/relationships/women) and also be someone that fits the description given of him along the way — most often that of a ‘boy’ or ‘boyish,” and, in spite of all the s— that spills out of his mouth (or his physical actions), he has to make us smile…. Most audience members, the female ones at least, will watch him and simultaneously think, ‘That guy is a prick, but I could change him,’ and that sentiment is exactly what allows him to continue doing what he’s been doing.”

Feuerstein honed his comic skills doing impressions for his relatives during his childhood in a competitive Jewish family. Feuerstein’s father — who was raised above the family shoe store on the Lower East Side — attended Harvard law school along with his brothers. Mark grew up on the Upper East Side and became a bar mitzvah at the Orthodox Park East Synagogue; his parents debated whether to send him to the Ramaz yeshiva, but opted for the prestigious Dalton School so he could, in his words, “get on the right track” for a stellar law career. (At Dalton, he became the state’s wrestling champion.)

At Princeton, Feuerstein’s “track” swerved when he auditioned for a play; he went on to attend clown school (in person he is an uncanny mimic) before landing roles in TV shows such as “Caroline in the City” and “Sex and the City” — he played one of Miranda’s least-talented lovers — and in films such as “What Women Want” (he shared a memorable slapstick scene with a pre-“Passion” Mel Gibson).

Feuerstein said he was intrigued by “Some Girl(s),” in part, because it “speaks to parts of myself I remember from dating.” Now married and expecting his second child, he said he spent much of his single life searching for The One, but says he may have led some women to believe he was more interested than, in reality, he was.

“If I played a role in the theater of dating, it was perhaps the man who might go the distance, and that’s what Guy does on a much more insidious level,” he said. “The first word of the play is ‘always,’ and the last word of the play is ‘always.’ Guy is selling the future to a woman in order to get her love, to later decide what he is going to do with it.”

For tickets and information, call (310) 208-5454 or visit www.geffenplayhouse.com

‘Meadow Soprano’ explores her Jewish spirit in Israel


Meadow Soprano, Jewish?

“Everyone assumes I’m Italian,” says Jamie Lynn Sigler, 26, with a sigh, pausing over her hummus lunch at the open-air market in Jaffa, one of the stops on her Birthright Israel tour. “Even kids on the trip keep asking, ‘Are you Jewish?'”

Sigler, who played the daughter of Mafia kingpin Tony Soprano on the acclaimed HBO show “The Sopranos,” grew up in a Jewish home in Jericho, N.Y., going to Hebrew school and having a bat mitzvah.

Her father’s family immigrated to America from Greece and Poland. Her mother, who is Puerto Rican, converted to Judaism.

But it was only during her recent visit to Israel that she said she felt a true spiritual and emotional connection to her roots.

“It’s one of the most beautiful, inspiring places I’ve ever been to,” Sigler said. “I now have a greater understanding and motivation about preserving my Jewishness.”

Among the highlights she noted were riding camels in the desert, dining on roast lamb in a Bedouin tent and exploring the back alleys of Jerusalem’s Old City.

Sigler said she was especially moved during her visits to the Western Wall, where she was surprised by her tears, and to Yad Vashem, where the Holocaust and its history suddenly felt deeply personal.

“I started to think, ‘What if I was there, what if I had been ripped away from my family?'” she said.

Sigler said Israel had been a fairly abstract concept before the trip, with her images limited to the coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict portrayed in the media.

On the Birthright trip, which brings Diaspora young people between 18 and 26 to Israel for free 10-day tours, her group was accompanied part of the time by a small group of Israeli soldiers.

Through them, Sigler said she heard about a much different life than the one she and her friends lead in America. She was taken by their sacrifices and the pride they have in their country and history.

“It’s so different but so inspiring to be part of that, I would want to move here and join the army, [too],” said Sigler, her face dominated by a pair of large designer sunglasses.

She bonded quickly with the other birthright participants; Sigler and her new friends kidded about returning to Israel together and renting apartments in the same building.

She compared these fast and seamless friendships to her experience with the cast and crew of “The Sopranos.”

“It’s a similar dynamic — people loving what they are doing,” she said.

Sigler acknowledged it’s been difficult realizing that the show, considered to be among the seminal works of television drama, is finally over after six seasons. She has plans to move to Los Angeles and continue her acting career.

So would Tony have allowed Meadow to come to Israel?

“Probably not,” she says.

Her friend, noting that Tony’s mob rivals were out to kill him by the end of the series, interjects: “What are you talking about? It’s probably safer for Meadow in Israel than near her father.”

Sigler laughs, saying that’s probably true.

There’s no business like shul business


” target=”_blank”>”V’shamru,” which he composed in 1967 as part of a play he put on in rabbinical school, is sung around the world. For many, his version — “V’shamru, v’ne-ei Yisra-e-el, e-e-et ha-Sha-a-a-bbat” — is the version.

Despite his renown, Rothblum is humble.

“He practices the Jewish concept of tzim-tzum,” musician Craig Taubman said. “It’s the ability to make himself smaller. When you lead with that model, you create an opportunity for other people to shine.”

In 2001, Rothblum introduced an alternative monthly service featuring Taubman, a member of the congregation. Hundreds now flock to the service, called “One Shabbat Morning,” which involves nontraditional elements like acting out the Torah portion and a band jamming on drums and electric guitars.

Those who know Rothblum call him “Moshe” or “Rabbi.” Boni Gellis, Rothblum’s assistant of nearly 11 years, calls him “my rabbi.”

“I like to call him ‘Boss,'” said Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe Bernhard, who, after 10 years at Adat Ari El, will take Rothblum’s place as senior rabbi. Rothblum has taught Bernhard many lessons over the years, including how to interact with a congregation and preserve tradition.

Rothblum, married for 36 years, with two sons, has also shown his protégé how to balance synagogue and family life.

“He has a very gentle touch,” said Bernhard, 40. “It’s not like he tries to pound these lessons into me. It’s been more by offering up words of wisdom.”

People can relate to Rothblum, said Steve Getzug, 46, who has been a congregant at Adat Ari El for about 14 years and has served on the board.

“There’re the Rabbi Schulweises of the world who are sort of on a different plane. … They’re inspirational, but half of what they say may elude you,” Getzug said. “What I like about the rabbi is that he appeals to me in language that I can understand.”

Grown-up Ringwald gets ‘Sweet’ again — thanks to Fosse


It was kind of a surprise for people to see me in a teddy,” Molly Ringwald says. “It’s, um, not exactly the kind of thing I’m most associated with.”
 
If theater-goers were surprised by her turn as a debauched showgirl in “Cabaret” a few years ago, they may be equally startled when she plays a dance hall hostess — in more cleavage-spilling attire — in the 1966 Bob Fosse musical, “Sweet Charity,” at the Pantages Theatre in October.”It’s, um, not exactly the kind of thing I’m most associated with.”
 

Ringwald is most associated with the 1980s John Hughes teenage melodramas that crowned her the princess of wholesome adolescent angst and made her “cultural shorthand for a certain kind of innocence,” The Los Angeles Times said in 1999.Paying homage were thousands of female groupies, a.k.a. “Ringlets,” who dyed their hair Ringwald-orange and copied the actress’s famous pout and thrift-shop threads. When Time magazine made her its cover girl in 1986, the caption read, “America’s Sweetheart: Ain’t She Sweet?””It’s, um, not exactly the kind of thing I’m most associated with.”
 
The so-called “Molly Trilogy” (“Sixteen Candles,” “The Breakfast Club,” “Pretty in Pink”) remains so iconic that VH1 recently named Ringwald the No. 1 teen star of all time. People magazine feted her in an Aug. 28 story celebrating “Pink’s” 20th anniversary; Paramount just released a well-received DVD of that film; and American Cinematheque will highlight “Breakfast Club” in its “Teens on Screen” series at the Aero Theatre Sept. 20-24.”It’s, um, not exactly the kind of thing I’m most associated with.”
 
No wonder the San Jose Mercury News began its announcement of her “Charity” national tour with a tongue-in-cheek “Like, omigod! Totally awesome ’80s teen queen… will star.””It’s, um, not exactly the kind of thing I’m most associated with.”
 
Ringwald will play Charity Hope Valentine, a nice but tarnished rent-a-girl who remains optimistic despite a series of humiliating misadventures.”It’s, um, not exactly the kind of thing I’m most associated with.”
 
As the show opens, the “boyfriend” she has financially supported steals her purse and throws her into a lake. She meets a movie star, only to have his friends dub her “cheap”; she attempts to better herself with cul-chah at the 92nd Street Y, but gets stuck in an elevator with a claustrophobe.”It’s, um, not exactly the kind of thing I’m most associated with.”
 
All the while, she yearns to escape her sleazy job at the Fandango Ballroom — drinking and dancing with “jokers” who engage in “groping, grabbing, clutching, clinching, strangling, handling, fumbling,” according to one of the burlesque-meets-Bacharach songs. Charity’s problem, a gal pal opines, is that she “runs her heart like a hotel — you got guys checking in and out all the time.””It’s, um, not exactly the kind of thing I’m most associated with.”
 
The character is a far cry from “Candles'” virginal Samantha, who is mortified when her grandmother proudly (and publicly) remarks upon her growing chest.Yet observers say the vulnerable aura Ringwald still radiates has enriched the often-flawed characters she has portrayed since reinventing herself as a theater actress around 1999.”It’s, um, not exactly the kind of thing I’m most associated with.”
 
“Molly has a history of playing these sensitive characters, so … she has a great understanding of someone who longs for somebody or longs to be loved,” “Charity” director Scott Faris told The Journal.”It’s, um, not exactly the kind of thing I’m most associated with.”
 
Scott Eckern of the California Musical Theatre agrees.”It’s, um, not exactly the kind of thing I’m most associated with.”
 
“What makes [‘Charity’] so successful is the vulnerability and [innate] innocence of the leading character,” he told the Sacramento Bee. “Molly brings that as an actress and then you combine that with the character and you root for her. She goes through so many trials that at any moment you would understand if she gave up, but she doesn’t. She picks herself up and moves forward.””It’s, um, not exactly the kind of thing I’m most associated with.”
 
Ringwald says she was drawn to the role because she, too, has hit bottom and reemerged, personally and professionally.”It’s, um, not exactly the kind of thing I’m most associated with.”
 
“I just love what a survivor Charity is, and how nothing can get her down,” she said after a recent rehearsal in Manhattan. “Everything can happen to her; the whole world can speak in opposition but she just keeps saying, ‘I’m here.’ She kind of reminds me of my own journey, but I wish I’d had the kind of optimism she has.”
 
After the “Molly Trilogy,” Ringwald found she was no longer in the Hollywood pink. Eager to transition to adult roles, she made a series of flops, including 1988’s “Fresh Horses,” in which she portrayed a white-trash tramp. Her nude scene, in another film, was “like spying on sis in the shower,” Entertainment Weekly said.
 
Ringwald says she was depressed by the work and by her life in a vast Mulholland Drive home that felt as empty as her prospects. She felt rejected by the film industry — and by a boyfriend with whom she was involved in an unfulfilling relationship. “I felt disconnected from everyone and everything,” she says.Her solution, at age 23, was to sell her home, to place her belongings in storage and to accept an offer to star in a modest film in Paris. She intended to return home to become an average co-ed at USC.”It’s, um, not exactly the kind of thing I’m most associated with.”
 
“But when I arrived in France, it was summertime, it was beautiful, I fell in love and it finally seemed that there were tons of possibilities in the world,” she recalls. “I felt like I could do whatever I wanted — I could even stop acting — which is exactly how you should feel at that age.”
 
She married her now ex-husband, a French writer, and eventually resumed acting, mostly in dreadful films such as 1995’s straight-to-video “Malicious” (she played a knife-wielding psycho).

‘Hybrid’ Actor Crafts ‘Everyman’ Show


Is it possible for an everyman to be a leader? Can an everyman be a woman?

Ameenah Kaplan, who calls herself a “hybrid” — the product of an African American mother who converted to Judaism and a Jewish father — is directing, choreographing and co-producing “Everyman for Himself.” Appearing weekends at the Unknown Theatre in Hollywood, the show is a hybrid itself, in that it blends music, dance, theater and capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian dance form that incorporates self-defense maneuvers. Kaplan also wrote and conceived the production and, indeed, thinks of herself as an everyman.

Shaped by Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” Kaplan, 31, grew up in Atlanta, where she was bat mitzvahed and confirmed and where, she says, she would “float into different communities and never really fit into any of them.” As the only non-Christian among blacks, the only black among Jews, she says, “you’d be in a room and nobody sees you.”

Everyman, the title character in her show, played by Michael Gallagher, is both invisible and conspicuously visible. Where the other ensemble players paint their faces and wear togs like members of an African or Indian tribe, Everyman looks like a stiff businessman, donning a tie, starched shirt and long pants.

“Go with the flow,” is one of the adages he reads from a book, yet Everyman never quite fits in. He is singled out by one female character, who engages in a kind of martial arts match with him that is equal parts seduction and boxing.

None of Kaplan’s characters have traditional names; instead, they sport generic titles like Ball Girl, Judge, Bee and Boss. With the beat of African drums playing in the background as the ensemble characters teach Everyman to dance, there is the sense that we are witnessing an ancient ritual among primal beings.

In the production notes, Everyman is billed as a Buster Keaton/Charlie Chaplin “genius/fool”; he appears awkward, a modern man, exposed as if for the first time to the world of conformity that dates back to our days as early Homo sapiens in the Horn of Africa.

“People are essentially primal anyway,” says Kaplan, sitting on a couch in a lounge down the hall from her actors’ rehearsal hall. Wearing a head wrap that conceals her afro, Kaplan says, “We’re all simple and alike at the bottom. My acting training taught us that. Come into the room, get your shoes off and build the actor from the ground up.”

We share more than not, she says, pointing out “the visceral body connections celebrating those things that bring us together — sound, energy, drums, heartbeat, blood flowing.”

Kaplan has the slim, athletic body of a dancer; she has played numerous TV and legitimate theater roles, and sees herself first as an actor. She smiles when asked if she was somewhat conflicted over not playing the lead role herself, but she says that Gallagher embodies Everyman. She also stresses that every actor in the show contributes as much as the others. All of the actors play multiple roles: “The ensemble is the show. There are no supporting roles. No one’s playing crossword puzzles backstage. There are no cigarette breaks.”

One scene flows into the next, each one carrying totemic significance. The smallest prop — whether it’s a book, a jacket, a ball or a handkerchief (a nod perhaps to “Othello”) — becomes a talisman in this primordial landscape, where the characters speak very few words and those they do are often monosyllabic.

Everyman may be more Jesus than Adam. He must choose whether to fight or kill another man. Unlike the others, he is consumed with grief.

“What he’s going through is the human condition,” says Kaplan, whose work ethic really comes through in person. Reluctant to leave her actors for an interview, Kaplan never loses her graciousness and generosity; she has the maturity and seriousness of one who knows that, without her, the play will not proceed. Even during the brief interview, she wants to make sure that the actors are OK. At one point, she tells the stage manager that the actors will need her to be there for the next scene, involving some dance routines that they have not tried before.

As the interview ends, Kaplan, the everyman, springs to her feet with the physicality of Keaton. She will direct her cast without any crossword puzzle or cigarette breaks. She is anything but invisible.

“Everyman for Himself” plays Friday and Saturday nights at Unknown Theater, 1110 Seward St., near Santa Monica Boulevard, through April 29. For tickets and information, call (323) 466-7781.

 

Nation & World Briefs


‘Paradise’ Golden; Weisz Blooms

The Golden Globe awards, often seen as a curtain raiser and preview of the Oscar ceremonies, picked a tense drama about two Palestinian suicide bombers as best foreign language film on Monday night, while shutting out Steven Spielberg’s “Munich.”

“Paradise Now” by director-writer Hany Abu-Assad is the first Palestinian film to receive wide critical recognition and is considered a serious contender for Academy Award honors.

“Munich,” the controversial movie about the Israeli hunt for the killers of its athletes at the 1972 Olympics, was earlier nominated in two categories. Spielberg vied for best director and Tony Kushner and Eric Roth for best screenplay, but none got the final nod from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which sponsors the Golden Globes.

In the movie acting categories, Britain’s Rachel Weisz, the daughter of Jewish refugees from Europe, received the best supporting actress award for her role in “The Constant Gardner.” Philip Seymour Hoffman was honored as best actor in the title role of “Capote.” In some references, Hoffman is listed as Jewish, in others as of mixed Catholic-Protestant background.

Paul Newman, who is half-Jewish, was recognized as best supporting actor for his role in the television movie “Empire Falls.” — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Oprah Selects Wiesel Book

Oprah Winfrey will visit Auschwitz and make Elie Wiesel’s “Night” her next book-club selection. The New York Times reported that Winfrey, the talk-show host, will visit the site of the death camp with Wiesel later this month. “Night” chronicles Wiesel’s experiences at Auschwitz and Buchenwald. The edition of the book selected by Winfrey is a new translation by Wiesel’s wife, Marion.

High Court Upholds Suicide Law

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Oregon’s assisted suicide law. The high court ruled Tuesday that Oregon’s law, permitting doctor-assisted suicide, was not a violation of federal drug laws. The Orthodox Union had filed a brief in the case, siding with the federal government and against euthanasia. Numerous other Jewish groups chose not to weigh in on the case, but have been interested in the case’s impact on end-of-life issues, a controversial subject in the Jewish community.

Six justices ruled in favor of Oregon, which allowed doctor-assisted suicide in a 1994 ballot initiative. Justice Anthony Kennedy said former Attorney General John Ashcroft went “beyond his expertise” in enforcing drug laws to prevent the Oregon decision. He was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Chief Justice John Roberts joined Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas in dissent.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency

 

He’s Got the Look


When Sam Feuer was a boy, he fell in love with “E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial” — and with performing — since he lived as an outsider in two cultures. Born in America to Israeli parents, the family moved to Israel when Sam was 9.

“Since I was a kid, one of my dreams was to be in a Steven Spielberg film,” the now-31-year-old actor told The Journal at a Starbucks in Beverly Hills.

Hollywood is a place where dreams sometimes come true. Or at least it’s the type of place where unlikely events are more likely to occur. For example, Sidney Pollack walks by the cafe — not unusual because his office is nearby, but then again, he just passed on a film that Feuer’s production company, Sixth Sense Productions, had sent Pollack. Another unlikely event: Feuer, after only three years in Los Angeles, got a part in a Spielberg film.

Not just a Spielberg film. “Munich,” to be specific. Perhaps Spielberg’s most controversial film, “Munich,” which opens Dec. 23, tells the story of the revenge killings of those responsible for the Munich Olympic massacres in which 11 Israelis were murdered. Feuer plays a small but pivotal role as Yosef Romano, a 32-year-old weightlifter who was shot dead by the Palestinians in the village.

Although there are a number of Israelis in the film, Feuer is one of the few Angeleno Israelis in it — and he’s probably the only one without an agent.

“Maybe because I’m like an agent myself,” said the crew-cutted, dark-eyed actor with all the confidence of the Israeli air force pilot he once was. Like many Israelis in America, Feuer has the gift of “scrambling”: in other words, he’s enterprising. Agentless, he got himself roles in TV series like “JAG,” playing … what else? An Israeli soldier.

“You come to Hollywood and you have to find your niche; you have to find something that will separate you from everybody else,” Feuer said. In the beginning he auditioned for parts playing Italians, Greeks and Spaniards, but he wasn’t getting called in. It was only when he started going for the few Israeli parts that he started getting booked. “I bumped into Israelis and they’re like, ‘So you’re the one who got that part.”

Now that he’s in “Munich,” Feuer hopes he’ll finally sign an agent, and that the roles will keep on coming. Unlike many up-and-coming actors here, one doesn’t get the feeling the self-confidence is just a veneer.

“I think a lot of people get the bug [for acting], but I don’t think they sacrifice for what they want to accomplish,” Feuer said. “If I went to the military and still come out wanting to be an actor, you know I really want to be an actor.”

 

Tova’s Songs Good for Yiddish’s Image


 

As a youngster in Calgary, she was the Yiddish valedictorian of her high school. As a theater major in Edmonton, she was “the first Jewish Medea.” Later, she became known across Canada as a character in a popular prime-time drama.

Now Theresa Tova is Canada’s reigning diva of Yiddish song, and she’s on her way to Los Angeles.

Tova will bring her smoky contralto to Gindi Auditorium at the University of Judaism on Dec. 24 in a concert that will culminate the California Institute for Yiddish Culture and Language’s sixth annual Winter Yiddish Intensive, “The Art of Yiddish,” this year subtitled “Knights, Mystics, Partisans & Scribes: Heroes of the Yiddish World.”

While not well known on the West Coast, Tova has a following on the East Coast, across Canada and in Yiddish and jazz circles. About 15 years ago, she began singing Yiddish standards such as “Belz,” “Papirosn,” and “Sheyn vi di Levone” infused with jazz syncopations and a sensuality that turns nostalgic reminiscences into walks down a dark street, and love songs into pillow talk.

“She lends a whole new image to Yiddish music,” said the institute’s director, Miriam Koral.

Tova, 50, was born in Paris, the daughter of Polish Jews. Her father’s family survived World War II after fleeing to Russia, while her mother, who lost her entire family, fought with the Polish partisans.

The family moved to Canada when Tova was a baby, and she grew up in Calgary, whose Jewish community was large enough to support three synagogues and two Jewish day schools. Yiddish was her mama loshen, and she attended the Yiddish day school in town. She then studied acting at the University of Alberta.

“I didn’t know I had a Jewish accent until they told me,” Tova told The Journal.

Her greatest visibility as an actor came as a regular on the Canadian series “E.N.G.,” a newsroom drama that ran from 1989 to 1994. It was during this time that Tova started performing as a cabaret singer.

She had a steady gig at a Toronto gay bar and, just for fun, would sometimes sing a Tin Pan Alley song in Yiddish. One night, a representative of a Jewish gay and lesbian group recruited her to sing for the local Holocaust Remembrance Committee.

“The next thing I know, I have these five Jewish matrons with bouffant hair sitting there in the gay bar checking me out,” Tova said. After that, she became a frequent performer at events for Jewish organizations.

In her performances, Tova mines the realism and grit of Yiddish lyrics. “I love the sexiness, the earthiness of this music; I love the stories,” she said.

Her live performances and two CDs also include Yiddish translations of American standards such as “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” and “Night and Day,” cabaret favorites in English, and, recently, a contemporary song by New York poet Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman, “Der Saksafon Shpiler,” about a sax player on a subway platform.

Tova has been criticized for giving the classic Yiddish tunes too much of her own sassy personality and musical stamp, but she replies that she’s applying her actor’s skills to the material.

“That’s the way I hear it in 2005,” she said. “Are we just historical preservers, or do we want to keep this language, God forbid, alive?”

Besides, she suggests, other people who first heard these songs as youngsters are willing to come along for her ride. When they hear the jazz beat, Tova said, “those old [folks] are sitting there saying, ‘Hey, this is a sexy tune!'”

Well acquainted with the Jew’s outsider status in society and acting roles far removed from her own experience, Tova uses Yiddish music to be Jewish and to be, well, Tova.

“I can stand on a stage 60 years [after the Holocaust] and announce who I am … we ain’t hiding any more,” she said. “To be able to come back to this music and back to who I am is such a joy.”

Theresa Tova and the Strauss/Warschauer Duo will perform Saturday, Dec. 24 at 8 p.m. at the University of Judaism, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. $40. For tickets, call (310) 745-1190.

 

“ART OF YIDDISH” EVENTS

The sixth annual Winter Yiddish Intensive presented by the California Institute for Yiddish Culture and Language (CIYCL), to be held Dec. 18-24 at the Skirball Cultural Center and the University of Judaism, will focus on “Heroes of Yiddish Culture.”

The week kicks off with a Sunday “Yiddish Experience.” Each weekday morning will feature Yiddish language classes at four different levels of reading ability, plus two levels of conversational Yiddish. In the afternoons and evenings, scholars and entertainers from across the United States, as well as Europe and Israel, will present lectures and workshops on a number of cultural topics.

Admission is available to the entire program and any of its components. To see a brochure with program details and ticket prices, visit www.yiddishinstitute.org or call CIYCL at (310) 745-1190.

Too Jewish to Play Myself


People see me as your “typical Jewish woman,” and maybe it’s true: I’ve got curly hair, opinions on every subject and I do not go camping. Plus, even after years of speech classes, I still have an identifiable New York nasality in my voice. When I walk into a room, someone always greets me in a Yiddish accent: “Velkom, dollink hev a seat, enjoy!”

(The last person who did that was a Chinese friend, who ought to know better!)

This Jewishness has often been an obstacle in my professional life. My agent submits me for a movie, but the director — Harold Shlomansky — won’t see me because he feels I’m too Jewish. I hear that all the time, but this is for the part of a rabbi. Shlomansky is only seeing non-Jewish actresses because — as he puts it — he wants to be sure that the character is likeable!

A while back, I read for a commercial, which I knew I would book. I had worked with the director, Stu Lefkowitz, before and my agent told me he was looking for an “Annie Korzen type!” Wow! Talk about a sure thing! Well guess what? I do not get the job. Stu Lefkowitz hires a perky little blonde. I am too Jewish to play myself!

So I guess I am a living stereotype, and the worst thing about it is having to suffer through the never-ending barrage of jokes about me and my kind. Some of them are funny, and relatively benign: Why do Jewish women watch porno films until the very end? Because they want to see if the couple gets married.

The jokes I object to are not so kind: “A guy has a heart attack. His doctor tells him to avoid any excitement, so he marries a Jewish woman.

The jokes are lies. And lies hurt.

And who is it that tells these lies? Who is it that has such loathing for Jewish women? Who is that writes the jokes? It’s those nice Jewish boys I grew up with, that’s who. They are the guys, like Philip Roth’s Portnoy, who dream of a blonde goddess who will help them enter mainstream America, who will help them seem less “ethnic.” It doesn’t work. They still are who they are.

It’s like the old joke about about Hymie Greenblatt, who changes his name to Standish Merriweather III to get into the country club, but on the application, when asked his religion, he fills in “Goy.”

The great film director Sidney Lumet, who started out in Yiddish theater, proudly describes his wife as “WASP heaven … whose people literally came over on the Mayflower.” I’ve never understood what’s so special about the Mayflower. My people also came over on a boat. But the Sidneys don’t see it that way.

Last year I interrupted a comedy act because the Jewish comic was doing a bit about Anne Frank — describing her as an “ugly little JAP.” She was writing letters home from camp, complaining about the bad food and unflattering uniforms. The big joke was that the camp was called Auschwitz. Get it?

In the midst of all this hilarity I lost my cool and told the comic to get off the stage. I called him an “abomination,” which is weird, because I didn’t even know I knew that word. It sounds so biblical. The crowd shushed me, and someone told me not to be so rude. The comic finished his act to rousing applause and I crawled home, depressed and humiliated.

I got many hate mails the next day from the comic and his friends. One of them said, “You are the living personification of why Jewish men have contempt for Jewish women.” Oh, great! So now it’s all my fault!

There’s only one thing that consoles me when I ponder how unfairly women like me are maligned by our own men. There was one piece of good news for Jewish women in the last century, and his name was William Jefferson Clinton. He risked his marriage, his career and the stability of the United States government: all for a sexual obsession with a dark-haired, zaftig, Jewish girl. For this reason alone, he got my vote!

Annie Korzen is a comedy writer-actress who is best known for her recurring role of Doris Klompus on “Seinfeld,” and her humorous essays on NPR’s “Morning Edition.”

Kids Page


Josh Fields, 8, of Thousand Oaks, won the “My Amazing Summer” essay contest.

He wins a gift certificate to the store of his choice.

I went to Yellowstone National Park two days after school ended. It took two days to drive all the way to Yellowstone. We drove through beautiful scenery in five states that I had never been to before, including Idaho and Montana.

In Yellowstone, I saw bison, moose, elk, a bear, trumpeter swans and baby bald eagles. I saw geysers, mud pots and hot springs. I became a junior ranger, which made me very proud. I saw the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, Lower Falls, Mystic Falls, the Prismatic Springs and Excelsior Geyser. I also went to Virginia City, which is an old gold mining town. I had a tour of the town and I went gold mining.

After I got home I went to an acting camp called Kids Acting Out West, and we did “Cinderella.” I was a bodyguard. I made lots of friends at the camp. This is the process of what I went through: First, I had auditions. After that I got assigned my part. I practiced and played with my part. We had two successful shows. All in all, I had a great summer!

 

Young Jews Can Act Out — on Sundays


After landing the lead in several school plays at Sinai Akiba Academy in Los Angeles, Leora Weinstock, 13, decided she wanted to be a professional actress. Her mother, Judith Weinstock, combed the city in search of just the right acting teacher. It wasn’t long before she made a startling discovery.

“All of the acting classes for teens in Los Angeles seemed to be on Saturdays,” recalled Weinstock, a Los Angeles lawyer. “But we’re shomer Shabbos.”

Then Weinstock stumbled upon Jewish Children’s Theater, an acting program targeting children from observant Jewish families. Most classes are on Sundays at the Westside Jewish Community Center, which is located on Olympic Boulevard south of the Fairfax district.

A few years ago, writer-producer David Brandes (“The Quarrel”) and his wife, actress Deena Freeman Brandes, faced the same obstacle as Weinstock with their own daughters, who are also actresses. To solve their dilemma, the couple founded the Jewish Children’s Theater in early 2004.

“I wanted my daughters to be studying the craft while auditioning,” Freeman Brandes said. “Since they couldn’t go to classes on Shabbat, I thought, ‘What if I teach the classes?'”

Freeman Brandes, 49, played April Rush on TV’s “Too Close for Comfort,” guest-starred on shows like “The Golden Girls” and “Newhart” and has appeared regularly in commercials and video game voice-overs.

Now, Freeman Brandes says teaching is her “second calling,” a claim she backs up with boundless enthusiasm, an encouraging smile and an ability to listen to student input.

In a city where nearly everyone is an aspiring actor, writer or director, it is surprising perhaps that Jewish theater programs for serious child performers are few and far between. A few local organizations, including The Stacey Cane Youth Theatre, a musical theater workshop, and Kol Neshama, a summer arts program for Orthodox girls, pride themselves on providing serious training and putting on Jewish-themed plays.

In addition, several Jewish day schools have drama departments. Their focus, however, is typically on producing shows rather than the serious training of actors.

Jewish Children’s Theater emphasizes teaching acting technique. Through acting exercises and improvisation, Freeman Brandes’ students learn how to act, rather than how to memorize lines and build sets.

While sessions usually end with a low-key performance for parents, the focus is on acting techniques, improvisation, theater games and even a commercial workshop. Classes begin in the fall, and kids are welcome to join mid-session.

In a special summer class called “Fairy Tale Workshop,” Freeman Brandes repeatedly reminded her young students not to turn their backs on the audience during improvisations.

“Remember to open up!” she instructed a girl who was pantomiming the story of “The Three Bears.” The girl promptly adjusted her stance as she continued to improvise. In this particular workshop, children ages 5 through 14 created a new take on a fairy tale. During winter break, the program will offer a similarly structured workshop called “Superhero and Princesses Camp.”

While the Jewish Children’s Theater is billed as a class for the child professional “or kids who just want to have a fun theater experience,” the Brandes’ feel their classes offer much more. “It’s kind of a theater experience for life,” David Brandes said. “It gives kids confidence and they learn to think on their feet and express themselves.”

Since enrolling at the Jewish Children’s Theater last year, Leora Weinstock has gotten an agent, averages two auditions a month and recently completed her first professional gig, a part in a short film for Los Angeles-based Jewish Impact Films.

Weinstock attributes her success to her classroom experience.

“I think that because of Deena’s classes, I’ve gotten more confident during auditions,” said Weinstock, her blue eyes sparkling. “I feel like I’m a better actress.”

Classes begin Sept. 11. For more information on Jewish Children’s Theater, call (310) 556-8022 or e-mail deenabrandes@hotmail.com. For more information on the Stacey Cane Youth Theatre, call (818) 422-0966. For more information on Kol Neshama, call (310) 659-2342 or visit www.kolneshama.org.

 

Write of Passage


My first crush was the Pikesville library in Baltimore, Md. Every Saturday after synagogue, my parents would usher me into the small, ancient red brick building quietly ensconced along one of the less-developed business roads in Pikesville. I would spend what seemed like hours quietly roaming the young-adult stacks and painstakingly choosing the “friends” I would bring home with me for the week.

One week, I would ambitiously attempt to devour the entire “Box Car Children” series; another I would host a Judy Blume marathon and vigilantly try to sneak the purportedly trashy “Deenie” home in between my “Sheila the Great” and “Blubber.”

After racing through all of the books with still a few days lingering between my weekly trysts, I would start reciting the books aloud, memorizing passages and acting out the various characters. Sometimes, I gawkily went so far as to continue the books in my innumerable journals. I’d imagine my own ending to the “Narnia” books and give the “Bobbsey Twins” new mysteries to solve.

My first audience was my far-too-willing parents and my far-too-unwilling younger brother. At dinner, after my parents asked us how school was and my brother, David, retorted with the perfunctorily pithy “fine,” I immediately glimpsed my window of opportunity and launched into a new playlet. Everyone assumed I would outgrow this “little phase” of needing attention.

The day of my bat mitzvah proved otherwise.

November 1986. It was raining outside Beth Am, one of the only pre-century temples that stood proudly in a yet-to-be-gentrified, fairly unsafe neighborhood. My hair was curled like Farrah Fawcett’s and my bat mitzvah book — yes, book — whose cover I had designed and whose 11 pages I had meticulously written, was ready.

A burnt orange cover, my thematic Thanksgiving color of choice, enveloped the little novella, which proudly stood in nine piles of 11, waiting for people — my people, my audience — to read during the ceremony. As I stood up on the bimah, I took people through my book of poems, stories and Jewish anecdotes.

It was then that I realized an audience of 99 sure beats an audience of three. My dream was to both act and write.

For a while, I put writing on hold, because acting was a lot more glamorous. Yet glamour easily tarnishes and after coming out to Hollywood, the Mecca of the film industry, I acted in a lot of plays, yet somehow felt unsatisfied.

I felt limited by the words the dead male playwrights were giving me. I was Jewish — where was my voice?

It wasn’t until I met Mark Troy, a Jewish playwright who later became my fiancé, that I realized the power of the voice within me. He inspired me to write my first play. He simply put the mirror in front of me and echoed the timeless adage: Write about what you know.

Admittedly, I knew my women inside and out. They were fiercely impassioned, obnoxiously intelligent, a little zaftig and a lot Jewish.

They were me.

My plays are a reflection of my life. My first play, “First to the Egg,” was the classic boy-meets-girl; however, the boy was a nerdy schlemiel sperm and the girl was the self-important conservative egg, whom he was trying to woo. Life reflected art and art reflected life. My genesis as a playwright had fertilized and conceived.

Growing up in a middle-class Jewish neighborhood in Baltimore has given me lots of fodder for my work. Dad’s a specialist on Middle East policy and Mom’s a teacher, so our dinner-table conversations were fraught with arguments, lessons and thought-provoking anecdotes. Of the five plays I have running around the country, all of them employ pseudo-intellectual/quasi-political and far-too-educated characters based on my own Jewish upbringing.

Currently, at the Elephant Theatre, my play, “Ellipses…,” is about two people who can’t finish their sentences; yet they manage to communicate better than most people.

My family rarely finished their sentences because everyone had so much to say, articulate, declare, pronounce, state, verbalize. Dad was always spewing on and on about Arab-Israeli politics, Mom would argue the benefits of communal dressing rooms at Loehmann’s, and I would champion my vegetarian ideals by disputing whether or not an egg should replace the shank bone on the seder plate.

Like the Freedman’s, the couple in “Ellipses…,” including the Jewish saleswoman who tries to help them pick out a wedding dress, are plagued with ellipses. These characters have so much to say, that they can’t finish their sentences because their minds are working too quickly.

I attempt to explore, investigate and play with my voice in various plays. Currently playing in Northern California is “Looking for Atticus Finch,” a play I wrote with Mark Troy, investigates a Jewish girl’s coming of age at Haverford College (my alma mater) and her ultimate search for a real hero. In Pennsylvania, one of my favorite plays is running: “Serial Killer Barbie,” which explores a young Jewish girl’s evolution from kindergarten to high school as she confronts anti-Semitism head on with her wit, anger and strychnine.

Who knew once upon a bimah that my coming of age was truly reflective of my adult coming of age as a writer?

Being a writer is a process. Being a Jewish writer simply furnishes a lot more schtick with which to bless my characters.

Colette Freedman’s “Ellipses…” runs through June 15 in Circus Theatricals One Act festival at the Elephant Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111 or visit

Nimoy’s New Trek


In a recent Tel Aviv seminar, Leonard Nimoy — famous as “Star Trek’s” logical Mr. Spock — described the Vulcan way he behaved while playing Golda Meir’s husband in a 1982 TV movie.

“I had a question and the director blurted, ‘It doesn’t make any difference, you’re wrong for this part anyway,'” the 74-year-old actor-director said. “But I just walked away, let it fizzle out and went back to work.”

Nimoy — who was Emmy nominated for that role — was back in Israel as part of the Jewish Federation’s Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership film master class program. During his five-day trip, he conducted two “Inside the Actor’s Studio”-style seminars for student actors and directors.

Nimoy said he was eager to participate because he finds current Israeli cinema to be “fresh, well-executed and relevant to the culture,” compared to the “primitive” films he viewed in the early 1980s. He was equally impressed by students at the Beit Zvi drama school, who asked questions such as “How did you approach your work?” and “How did you find your way into a character?”

Nimoy, in turn, described his use of Stanislavsky’s Method, as taught by the late Jeff Corey, in which an actor uses personal experiences to emotionally tap into a scene. The technique also emphasizes finding major themes in a piece to determine a character’s connection to them. Spock, for instance, drew on “Trek’s” dissection of individuals simultaneously “exploring outside of themselves and achieving self-discovery.”

“I also talked a lot about subtext,” Nimoy recalled. “For example, what does a character mean when he says the simple words, ‘I love you’? Is he saying, ‘I love you,’ meaning the other person doesn’t, or ‘I love you,'” because he feels unloved?”

Eventually someone asked why Nimoy gave up acting and directing in favor of photography and philanthropy eight years ago. The artist traced his decision to sitting, for hours in a hot trailer in Morocco, flies buzzing about, while playing the prophet Samuel in the TV movie, “David.” “I decided, ‘I’m done with this,'” he said, in decidedly un-Spock-like tones. “‘There’s no need to continue, because I’ve had all the creative expression a person could ever have dreamed of in a career that’s spanned more than 50 years.”

The Nimoy Concert Series presents Sheshbesh, The Arab-Jewish ensemble of the Israel Philharmonic, June 26, 3 p.m., at Temple Israel of Hollywood. For more information, call (213) 805-4261. For more information about the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership, visit www.jewishla.org/html/io_partnership.htm.

 

At Method Fest, It’s All About the Acting


 

When it comes to film festivals, Calabasas is far off the beaten path for the Sundance crowd. But there’s method to the madness of film lovers who beat a path to Calabasas in the first week of April.

The seventh annual Method Fest claims to be the nation’s only festival that specifically celebrates actors and their performances. This year’s lineup includes significant works with Jewish themes. There are films about the Holocaust, contemporary Jewish families and Israeli-Palestinian issues among the 25 feature films and 47 short films. The festival also features panel discussions, workshops and special events.

In a region where film festivals proliferate on just about every street corner, the Method Fest has a distinct name that conjures up images of intense thespians engaged in bizarre rituals. In fact, the acting techniques pioneered by Constantin Stanislavski, a Russian actor and theater director, essentially taught performers to draw from their own experiences and emotional memory to create characters grounded in psychological realism. Known as “The Method,” Stanislavski’s teachings have been re-interpreted by most of the major acting schools, including those founded by Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner.

“Acting has finally become a craft and an art,” acting teacher Lorrie Hull said, “thanks to modern psychological discoveries and the dedicated men and women who have explored, taught, directed and used acting techniques that lead to truthful, believable behavior.”

Hull has written extensively about Method acting and will be conducting a workshop on the Meisner Technique at The Method Fest.

“Actors no longer need to depend on the fickle muse of inspiration,” she said.

The event’s main attraction is the cinema itself. Though not a Jewish film festival, a number of offerings have compelling Jewish-related themes.

“The Tollbooth,” written and directed by Debra Kirschner, explores a recent art school graduate’s relationship with her traditional Jewish parents and two sisters. As Sarabeth Cohen struggles as an artist in New York City, one of her sisters announces she’s a lesbian and the other has married a man who can’t seem to earn a living. Originally conceived as a modern-day “Fiddler on the Roof,” the film evolved into a hybrid autobiography.

“It definitely became a slice of life based on many of my own experiences,” Kirschner said. “I also really wanted to explore what it means for progressive, feminist women to have a Jewish identity.”

Another film, “Aryan Couple,” written and directed by John Daly, tells the tale of a wealthy Hungarian Jewish family that signs over its fortune to Nazi SS leader Heinrich Himmler in exchange for safe passage to Palestine. Based on a true story, the film centers on a crucial dinner party and lacks the dreary lighting and graphic details of suffering that’s generally associated with Holocaust flicks. Instead, there’s a focus on individual relationships, beautiful scenery and a depiction of Himmler as a relative gentleman in comparison to the infamous Adolf Eichmann and his Nazi cronies.

“I didn’t want this to be a typical Holocaust film,” Daly said. “I wanted to set the film in the spring and have beauty all around as a backdrop to the Nazi horrors.”

Daly’s film stars Martin Landau, but the majority of the actors are not household names. “It’s great that this is a festival that celebrates fresh faces, faces that you don’t see in every film,” he says.

The festival has been put together by executive director Don Franken, who, seven years ago, partnered with a couple of independent filmmakers to celebrate “what we feel are the core ingredients of film: great acting and strong stories. We felt that so many films were going the way of special effects [with] actors simply strolling through their performances,” Franken said.

Franken remains a passionate advocate for “those great independent films that never get out into the marketplace. The purpose of this festival is to give those films exposure,” he said.

That’s the hope of Matthew Klein, who co-wrote and stars in “Breaking the Fifth,” which makes its premiere at the festival. Klein’s film tells the story of an eccentric playwright trying to resurrect his career.

“You never know who’s going to see your film and where it’s going to go next,” Klein said.

“A lot of the larger film festivals are now allowing themselves to be manipulated by the studios,” he added. “What I like about The Method Fest is that it’s embracing the bare bones art of filmmaking and giving talented people who don’t have the big agents a chance for exposure.”

As for the future, co-founder Franken hopes that The Method Fest will eventually be considered a “destination festival, like Sundance, where people camp out for a week. We feel we have the right theme,” he said. “Because what do people remember most about a film? Sensational acting.”

The Method Fest runs from April 1-8 at select theaters in Calabasas. Tickets can be purchased in advance at (800) 965-4827 or at www.ticketweb.com Screening times and other information about the festival can be found at www.methodfest.com.

 

A Towering Achievement


At a willowy 5-foot-10 1/2, Jennifer Rosen ticks off the quandaries of growing up supertall, female and Jewish: At her Miami Beach religious school she scraped her knees on the desk, which practically stuck to her backside when she stood up. At her Conservative bat mitzvah, she danced with boys who had to lean their heads on her chest. While reciting her Haftorah, she even towered over the rabbi: "He was wearing a bad toupee, and I was looking down on it," said Rosen, now in her 20s.

Her height felt all the freakier because Jews are generally more vertically challenged than, say, Swedes.

Rosen, who now wears high heels, eventually embraced her stature. It’s a journey she recounts in her debut monologue, "Tall Girl," a visiting production at The Groundlings Theatre, directed by Groundlings founder Gary Austin. The tall tale is a more G-rated version of the kind of comic monologue, celebrating the liberated self, epitomized by shows such as Margaret Cho’s "I’m the One That I Want."

In the highly physical piece, Rosen plays herself and a variety of characters, such as classmates who called her Big Bird and Daddy Long Legs. Throughout her childhood, she said, "There were stares and people pointing at me and thinking I was older. I felt extremely awkward, unsure of what to do with my limbs."

Her mother shlepped her to endocrinologists and also to acting class, which helped draw the painfully shy teenager out of her shell. After graduating from Stanford, she studied at Manhattan’s Circle in the Square theater school and with Austin, who taught her to use her long limbs to comic advantage.

"Initially, Jennifer was more self-conscious," recalled the director, who has also coached stars such as Helen Hunt. But as he helped her develop "Tall Girl," she "became much more committed to using her whole body, not just while playing herself but in the extreme character work."

These days, the poised Rosen still stands out at Jewish singles events such as Friday Night Live, where she’s taller than many of the guys. "But that no longer bothers me," she said.

"Tall Girl" runs Tuesdays through March 30. $15. 7307 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 934-4747.

And the Rabbi as Himself


Rabbi David Baron of Temple Shalom of the Arts, the synagoue attended by the big and medium-sized names in the entertainment industry, has a starring role in the new Universal movie, "Along Came Polly."

Well, not exactly starring, but he plays the rabbi officiating at the wedding of Reuben Feffer and Lisa Kramer, portrayed by Ben Stiller and Debra Messing, respectively.

Always a quick study, Baron delivered his dramatic lines, "Kiss the bride" and "Break the glass" to the great satisfaction of director John Hamburg.

Regrettably, the marriage is short-lived, even by Hollywood standards, when the blushing bride tumbles into bed with a hunky scuba diving instructor on her Hawaiian honeymoon.

"Sadly, a number of marriages I perform end in divorce, but normally not quite as quickly as in the film," the rabbi joked.

"Polly" is about a risk analyzer for an insurance company (Stiller), who in his own life is pathologically adverse to risk. All that changes, following the aborted honeymoon, when he meets free-spirited former classmate Polly, played by Jennifer Aniston.

Baron, the actor, was discovered by "Polly’s" producer, Stacey Sher, whose own wedding ceremony to music director Kerry Brown was conducted by Baron last year. The couple is still happily married.

At the Sher-Brown nuptials, Baron recalled, usher Danny DeVito escorted maid of honor Cameron Diaz to the bimah. Due to the height disparity between the two, Danny’s arm ended up around Cameron’s tush, to the palpable envy of the males in the audience.

Portions of Baron’s last Yom Kippur service were televised nationally and recorded for the benefit of homebound worshippers.

"Along Came Polly" opens in theaters Jan. 16.

Hello Torah, Please Welcome Art


A newly religious female artist came to Chana Rochel Shusterman and told the Orthodox counselor that she was torn between her artistic drive and her religious sensibilities.

“I’ve stopped painting,” said the artist. “My favorite subject to paint is intimacy, and now that I am Orthodox, I just don’t feel that painting intimacy is appropriate.”

Shusterman’s advice? Continue painting, but re-adjust her notions of intimacy.

“I told her, there can be great intimacy in two clothed women sitting and learning to talk to each other, and it can be through nuance that you show the ‘innerness,'” Shusterman said. “That turned her understanding of what was possible and she began to paint again.”

For many religious artists, this painter’s dilemma — the conflict between art, with its concentration on ego, and religious Judaism, with its devotion to Torah — is not an anomaly, but a constant struggle. How does one reconcile fealty to talent and personal expression, with loyalty to a religion that is by its nature, didactic and restrictive? Is it possible to remain true to both and produce art, not kitsch? Beyond the philosophical considerations, there are practical ones, too. Can one be a true artist and not be immodest or perform on Shabbat?

Yes, say the women of Netivot Women’s Torah Study Institute, who are at the forefront of combining art and Torah to produce an enhanced experience of both, and are encouraging members of the community to learn how to do the same. On Sunday, Nov. 2, Netivot is having a “Yom Iyun on Torah and the Arts” (intense day of learning), which will include acting, writing, dance and music workshops that all focus on Torah and serving Hashem, followed throughout the year by a series of courses on the same. The project is called “Parochet, Revealing Torah Through the Arts,” and its aim is not to produce performers, but to facilitate people in fusing their talent with the spirit of Torah.

“I feel that we are trailblazers,” said Robyn Saxe Garbose, who trained in drama at Julliard. “Los Angeles is fertile territory [for this]. New York is stuck in intellectual elitism which definitely permeates the artistic community, but I think there is an openness here — what New York would describe as ‘granola eating’ — that they don’t have, and it’s pioneer territory for new ideas and a merger of creativity and consciousness.”

Garbose is going to be presenting the “Spiritual Transformation Through Acting” workshop at Parochet, and like the other presenters, she was forced to reassess her artistic drive after becoming religious. Garbose had been an accomplished theater director when she became baalat teshuvah, and suddenly she found that that career was no longer satisfactory to her.

“You can’t work at the theater and not work on shabbos,” said Garbose. “I was directing plays by Shakespeare and Chekhov and contemporary writers but [when I became religious] I felt that there was nobody who was resonating anymore with my experience of the world and where I wanted to go.”

So Garbose started writing her own plays and founded Kol Neshama — a day camp-cum-religious all-women’s theater company — to perform them.

The other Parochet presenters found themselves on similar paths — they were all forced to reassess accomplished careers when their newly found religion no longer intersected with their art. Vanessa Paloma, who will conduct the music workshop, found that becoming religious meant she could no longer attend singing auditions or performances on Shabbat. But instead of that holding her back, it forced Paloma into a new direction — studying and teaching Ladino and Jewish music.

“[Being religious] encouraged me to organize and to do my own projects, not other people’s,” Paloma said.

Joelle Keene, a journalist who will be presenting the writing workshop, found that when she became religious, her previous writing subjects no longer mattered to her and she only wanted to write articles about God, Torah and spirituality.

“I would send them in and the editors would call and say, ‘This is beautiful, but it doesn’t fit — we don’t have a God section in the paper,'” said Keene, who took her talents elsewhere, becoming associate editor of OLAM Magazine, a spiritual publication, and writing religiously appropriate musicals for Garbose’s theater company.

These women don’t aim to become religious Picassos or Madonnas — instead, they want art and Torah to have a symbiotic relationship with one another, where each is necessary to the other.

“We can’t use the talent that God has given us to be in service of other things, like materialism,” Keene said. “We have to serve God with what He has given us. Arts are part of the humanity that God gave us. If you close it off from Judaism, it [Judaism] is not complete.”

The “Yom Iyun on Torah and The Arts” will take place at
Yeshivat and Kehillat Yavneh, 5353 W. Third Street, Los Angeles, on Sunday, Nov.
2 from 12:30-6 p.m. For more information, call (310) 286-2346 or go to www.netivot.org .

A Personal ‘Uprising’


“Uprising,” the TV miniseries about the Warsaw Resistance, is being released in theaters Dec. 7, and on DVD and VHS Dec. 18. Some actors shared with The Journal their personal experiences on the set.

Alexandra Holden (Frania Beatus)

People laugh when I tell them I played a Polish Jew in “Uprising.” I’m a blond, blue-eyed Minnesotan of Scandinavian descent; what was Jon Avnet thinking casting me? I was worried. I wasn’t sure I deserved the role. I thought it may be more relevant to a Jewish girl, that it would mean something more to her.

However, my biggest (and silliest) fear was that the viewers would spot me as an impostor.

Fortunately, the two-week rehearsal period created a sense of togetherness among the actors that became, to me, one of the most extraordinary aspects of the entire experience. From the very first day, the fears that had plagued me evaporated. I immediately felt a sense of equality that I’ve never experienced in a work situation. It soon didn’t matter who was or wasn’t Jewish. I didn’t think about it anymore. It didn’t matter what my background was, or what I looked like. What mattered was that we were all there “for one purpose” and we united over that purpose.

Some small part of the Jewish culture became a part of me, and my commitment to the group and the project grew and grew. I would have done just about anything for the film, and I am extremely proud to be a part of it. It’s an experience that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

Hank Azaria (Mordechai Anielewicz)

When you do any historical drama, especially one as accurate and devastating as “Uprising,” you get a tremendous history lesson. You also get the honor and excitement of applying that knowledge the best way an actor knows how: by portraying a role that helps tell the story.

One of our jobs as actors is to imagine: “What if we were really in these circumstances?” As a Jew, with a great uncle that died in Treblinka, this job was made much easier and at the same time, much more difficult to endure.

During a break in filming, I went to Prague for a few days. Amazingly, I ran into an old professor of mine from Tufts University, Sal Gittleman, who taught Yiddish literature and German expressionism. Back in college, he reminded all of his Jewish students — and there were a lot of us — that no matter how assimilated we are during times of persecution, it is our oppressors, not we, who decide how Jewish we are. It was a lesson I never forgot, and one that I was very proud to help bring to light in “Uprising.”

Mili Avital (Devorah)

I didn’t just want to be a part of “Uprising,” I insisted on it. As an Israeli actress working in Hollywood, I felt something after reading the script for the first time that I have never felt before. This was the story of a group of people fighting to exist as Jews in a world that doesn’t want them. Fighting to create a new type of Jew; a modern kind of Jew, who dreams to create a new society of people that are helping each other to exist freely and on their own. It was the story of the nation I come from, the origin of my blood, my spirit.

As we American and English actors were walking around the set and exploring its structure, I felt uncomfortable, as if they were studying my own body in a lab. Why is this the history of my nation? Why isn’t it like the one of the American actors who come from the country of Gold Rush and endless land, or the English actors of royals and teatime. I was furious.

When it was suggested during our rehearsal process that I sing Israel’s national anthem as part of the research, I suddenly felt different. I felt the joy and pride, as it was reminding me who I am: an Israeli Jewish actress that is here to tell this story of the amazing bravery, courage and faith of my people, as it is the story of all human beings fighting for life.

Stephen Moyer (Kazik)

From the moment I started reading the script of “Uprising,” I have been enthralled with it. My character in the film was not just one of the protagonists, but much of the script was based on his own experiences. Not only was it a true story, but I was to meet the man I was playing and spend time with him talking about his incredible experiences.

No amount of research and attempts to understand Jewish culture can quite prepare you for meeting the man you are playing. Kazik’s generosity of spirit is impossible to encapsulate in these short paragraphs, but to say that he made my job easier would be an understatement. He gave me complete free rein with his own life … only ever offering words of encouragement and never advice.

It was an extraordinary story that was being told, and I had been incredibly lucky to get the part. Jon Avnet’s casting of me in the part was all the more surprising. As a Jewish director tackling incredibly sensitive material, it was a bold step, and one that I am extremely grateful for.

Watch Your Language


Jewish Journal theater critic Charles Marowitz writes from Malibu.

Watch Your Language

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, with front-runners such as T.S. Eliot, Christopher Fry and Archibald Macleish, there was a concerted effort to revive language in the American theater. The buzzword was “heightened speech” and, although all of these writers essentially wrote verse, producers tried to steer clear of the word “poetry.” They sensed that American theatergoers would recoil from any attempts to have anything as exotic as that foisted upon them. Just as, at around the same period, when they were risking capital on shows like “The Most Happy Fella” and the early works of Gian Carlo Menotti, they avoided the word “opera.” Music-drama seemed a safer rubric.

That movement didn’t amount to very much. T.S. Eliot’s far earlier verse play “Murder In The Cathedral” was perhaps its finest flowering and “The Cocktail Party” with Alec Guiness in the lead was visibly chic for a few seasons. Fry’s “The Lady’s Not For Burning” was a sophisticated novelty which stirred the pot for other verse-experiments but Macleish’s “J.B.” didn’t exactly enflame the town. By the ’60s, with Method Realism solidly entrenched in all English-speaking theaters, the whole movement kind of sputtered out.

But the desire to restore the supremacy of poetic language (which dominated English theater from the 16th to the 18th centuries and gave us rich harvests from writers such as Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson, Webster and Dryden) has always been a cherished hope among a few theatrical stalwarts and it is that hope that seems to underlie David Ives’ linguistically playful series of short plays entitled “All In the Timing” now arrived at the Geffen Playhouse after a successful run off-Broadway and elsewhere.

Groundbreaking as they are alleged to be, there is something of old-styled revue about Mr. Ives’ sketches that contain an ingenious parody of the work of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson, a fanciful series of riffs on how two young people try to pick each other up at a coffeehouse, an item about an ingenious con-man (not unlike Mr. Ives himself) who gains advocates for a new universal language, a surreal restaurant encounter between two men and a waitress that maligns the characters of American cities such as Philadelphia, Los Angeles and New York, an extended “hairy dog” story about three laboratory chimps trying to re-create literary masterworks, and an historical oddity about Leon Trotsky’s axe-murder in Mexico.

Above, Tom McGowan in “Variations on the Death of Trotsky,” an episode from “All in the Timing.” Below, Steve O’Connor and Elizabeth DuVall in “Good.”

More unique than his language experiments is Mr. Ives’ theatrical style. Whereas other writers try to refine their material from one draft to the next and give you something like a finished product, Ives delivers all the variations simultan-eously and lets you decide your own preference. This technique works fairly well in the short haul as in “Sure Thing” (the coffeehouse pick-up sketch), but feels laborious when he rings three or four variations on Who Slammed the Ice-Pick into Comrade Trotsky’s Skull. The unqualified success of the evening is the Glass-Wilson take-off that is theatrically bold, satirically on-target and imaginatively mounted by director John Rando. The most ambitious piece is unquestionably “The Universal Language” in which the author’s portmanteau words based on French, German, be-bop, slang and acoustical puns almost succeed in creating a fresh, new diction of their own. (e.g. “Harvard U” (how are you), “Of corset” (of course). Rando’s production is remorselessly frolicsome, its two most ebullient performers being Tom McGowan and Kimberly Williams.

I applaud Ives’ instincts to cleanse the theater of mundane, naturalistic reflections on our mundane, naturalistic lives and to shoot for something higher and more stylized, but his sense of comedy is often oafish and doesn’t keep pace with his technical ingenuity, and his subject-matter is almost as earthbound as that of the conventional theater he claims to abhor. Behind the zaniness of Dada (which Ives’ work forcibly brings to mind), there was a philosophic attitude both to life and art that gave point and purpose to the linguistic experiments of Jarry, Vitrac, Tzara and Breton. Ives’ ingenuity does seem to be “All In The Timing.” Would it were also in the content.

A very “diffident scuttle of Frisch” (to fall into Ivesian vernacular) is C.P. Taylor’s “Good” at Theatre West. Cecil Taylor was a cuddly, frizzy-haired Glaswegian Jew and dyed-in-the-wool Socialist who spent most of his life selling phonograph records to music shops around Scotland. His musical obsessions, like those of his fellow Brits Peter Barnes, Peter Nichols and Denis Potter, regularly wormed their way into his plays. I directed his very first production, “Happy Days Are Here Again,” at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre and developed a strong affection for his gentle, sardonic humor. “Good,” his most mature work, demonstrates how even the most unspeakable evils can be rationalized and ultimately justified so long as personal emoluments sweeten the mix. Taylor’s play, one of the most sympathetic analyses of the Nazi character written by a Jew, survives despite a company of anemic actors and a plodding, lusterless production.

Design for Living


In Act Two: Scene II of Noel Coward’s “Design for Living,” Gilda,the object of everybody’s affection, gives a thumbnail critique of anew play by Leo, one of her rotating lovers.

“Three scenes are first rate, especially the last act,” observesGilda. “The beginning of the second act drags a bit, and most of thefirst act’s too facile — you know what I mean — he flips along witheasy swift dialogue, but doesn’t go deep enough. It’s all very wellplayed.”

Coward may have been satirizing the sort of review many of hisplays received from London’s more dyspeptic critics, but the linesfit the author’s 1933 opus like a well-tailored glove.

Coward created the characters of Leo, Gilda and painter Otto –bounded by an endless fascination and love for each other — as avehicle for himself and his great friends, Lynn Fontanne and AlfredLunt. It must have been an experience to see the three thespianssavoring the non-stop dialogue.

The plot in brief: Leo and Otto have been inseparable friendssince their days as struggling artists in Paris, with Gilda as theirmutual inspiration, friend and critic. Gilda chooses to live withOtto, but one evening, when the painter is away, Leo arrives, onething leads to another, and he stays for the night. Otto, embitteredat the treachery, exits.

Eighteen months later, Otto repents and shows up unexpectedly atthe London flat, shared by Leo and Gilda. Leo happens to be away, onething leads to another, and you know the rest.

The strains of the triangular relationship exhausts even Gilda;she departs, and ends up as the wife of middle-aged New York artdealer Ernest Friedman, longtime pal of the three main characters.Two years later, Otto and Leo pop up unexpectedly, when the artdealer is away, and …we’ll leave the denouement for the viewer.

Coward described his three protagonists so precisely that it’s nouse trying to improve on the author. “These glib, overarticulate andamoral creatures force their lives into fantastic shapes andproblems, because they cannot help themselves,” he writes. “Impelledmainly by the impact of their personalities each upon the other, theyare like moths in a pool of light, unable to tolerate the lonelyouter darkness, and equally unable to share the light withoutcolliding constantly and bruising one another’s wings.”

“Design for Living” had its world premiere in New York to avoidthe more straight-laced British censorship, and it would be nice torelive the sense of daring, the thrill of the risque, that initiallygreeted the play.

Though still frequently amusing, and occasionally impressive forits flights of verbal facility, time has not treated the play kindly.Mores and attitudes have changed too profoundly, the shock value isgone, and if the play were to be made into a movie, it would rate, atworst, a PG-13.

Still, there are some delicious moments, none more so than in thethird act, when Leo and Otto jointly crash Gilda’s party and confoundthe guests with some over the top repartee.

It is a compliment to A Noise Within: Glendale’s Classical TheatreCompany, that the ensemble injects considerable liveliness, and evensome edge, into the current production.

Under the sharply paced direction of Sabin Epstein, Jenna Cole asGilda, Francois Giroday as Otto, and Art Manke as Leo, make usbelieve that these glib characters are alive and that we have someconcern for their problems.

Mitchell Edmonds essays the role of Ernest Friedman with hiscustomary vigor and aplomb, and Ann Marie Lee steals her scenes asthe hapless maid, Miss Hodge.

Nostalgia buffs will appreciate the high fashions of the 1930s,recreated by Alex Jaeger. Anna Pasquale smoothly transitions thesetting from a grubby studio in Paris to an upscale London flat to achrome-encrusted New York penthouse.

“Design for Living” runs through Nov. 23 in repertory withShakespeare’s “Richard III” and Moliere’s “The Learned Ladies.” Fortickets and information, phone (818) 546-1924.

Film Fest to Commence This Week

The AFI Film Festival will screen more than 50 films through Oct.30. Two films of interest:

Orna Raviv’s 92-minute 1996 feature “Dogs are Colour Blind” fromIsrael, takes place during one comic night in Tel Aviv. A youngcouple returns home to find their house has been broken into. He setsout to watch a basketball match with his friends; she sets out toinform the police, and various madcap adventures ensue. The filmscreens October 24, 3:30 p.m., at Laemmle’s Monica Theatre; and Oct.27, 2 p.m., at Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.

Michael O’Keefe’s 1997 documentary, “Raising the Ashes,” describesa gathering of 150 people at Auschwitz for five days of reflection onthe Holocaust. After appreciating Auschwitz as the scene of thegreatest crime of the 20th century, the film demonstrates how thedeath camp and places like it can become sources for healing.Screenings are Oct. 24, 11:45 a.m., at the General Cinema GalaxyTheatres in Hollywood; and Oct. 27, 10:30 a.m., at the Galaxy.

Tickets are $7.50 for each screening. Festival passes cost $350.For tickets and information, call (310) 520-2000. — NaomiPfefferman, Senior Writer