It’s well past 10 p.m. on a Wednesday evening, and the halls of Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) are filled with the sounds of creativity. In one room of the Encino Conservative congregation, the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony winds down its rehearsal, packing up instruments as its musicians prepare, finally, to go home.
Farther down the long corridor that traverses the center of the synagogue, in the temple’s social hall, a different kind of noise can be heard. Men and women chanting. The sounds of feet stomping. A cantor singing. The sounds of Theatre Dybbuk preparing for its newest piece, “Between Darkness and Light: Selichot,” which will premiere at VBS after Shabbat on Aug. 31.
When Aaron Henne, artistic director of Theatre Dybbuk, was approached by his friend, playwright Michael Halperin, about doing something at Halperin’s synagogue last year, he wasn’t sure what to expect. “This is an unusual and lucky collaboration,” Henne confided, as he wound down after the show’s first run-through. “It’s really been inspiring to see what a synagogue can be.”
After speaking with Halperin last year, Henne met with VBS’ senior rabbi, Ed Feinstein, who suggested that Theatre Dybbuk do a theatrical sermon during a Friday night service. So Henne put together “a 25-minute piece called ‘Vessels,’ ” which dealt with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and was performed in April on the 75th anniversary of the event. That piece brought in a crowd for the Friday night service, and, afterward, Feinstein suggested that maybe Henne and Theatre Dybbuk would like to do a larger piece at the synagogue. And thus, “Between Darkness and Light: Selichot” was born.
“Unlike most services, Selichot doesn’t have an exact, set order,” Henne explained. That flexibility made the service ripe for theatrical interpretation.
“I use a process that is a development process. … We cast a show before a single word is written,” Henne said. “I write it, but we’re all having conversation about the topic and the structure.”
Although all of the actors in the piece are professionals from outside the VBS community, “both the cantor and the rabbi have been involved since the beginning of the piece and helped to influence its shape.” And the clergy team will be heavily involved in the performance.
The piece is a mixture of movement, gesture, monologues, chanting, music and prayer that serves to enhance the basic Selichot service, which is woven into the body of the piece. Themes of forgiveness, death and life resound. Sometimes the performers transition directly from theater to prayer, breaking out in the Shema, for instance. The cantors of VBS will chant during the piece, and the congregation will participate by praying along with them.
“The High Holy Days are a supremely existential time,” Henne explained, “and Selichot in some ways is the most existential part of that. Traditionally, the service takes place at midnight. You are literally caught between night and day, between death and life.”
The performance will take place in the chapel at VBS, and that has been an interesting and exciting change for Henne, who’s been working in professional theaters for years. “It’s kind of, in a fun way, a reminder of what theater can really be, which is people in a room. We don’t need 400 light cues and 200 sound cues; it’s about what we’re creating with our bodies and voices.”
And the project has even helped Henne get closer to his Jewish side. “It’s been interesting as an artist to re-engage with the notion of what ritual does,” he said. “We are here to connect you to your spirituality, to help you get in touch with who you are.”
For Feinstein, the choice to invite Theatre Dybbuk back to VBS was an easy one. “A thousand years ago or so, we rabbis threw the artists out of the synagogue. Artists, like prophets, are dangerous to a community’s stability. So we dismissed them. And we are poorer for that. We need to restore the creative artistic spirit that once animated synagogue life. We need to bring the artists home,” he said.
Theatre Dybbuk is part of a larger plan, he said. “VBS is working to create a home for the Jewish arts,” Feinstein said. “Not just a place for artists to be, but a real dialogue and collaboration between the artist and the community. We are hoping to continue our relationship with Theatre Dybbuk in future projects. And we are hoping to extend this collaboration into the visual arts, music, writing and other forms of creative expression.”
“Ritual is a form of theater. It is meant to move us emotionally, to inspire us, to teach us,” Feinstein explained. “The tragedy is that for some time, our ritual hasn’t been good theater.”
Henne, for now, is anxious to see how the new project will be received by the congregation and hopeful that it will have a profound effect on those who see it. “We don’t know what the morning’s going to bring,” he said. “We’re still in the middle of the night.”
“Between Darkness and Light: Selichot” will be performed by Theatre Dybbuk on Aug. 31 at Valley Beth Shalom. Services begin at 7:30 p.m. Free.