November 19, 2019

Fusing ritual and theater

In Encino, seven actors move across the scuffed hardwood floor of a gymnasium. It’s after 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night, and this is only the third rehearsal for the play “Tefillah or Prayer: A Transition.”

Paul Vroom, a middle-aged actor sporting camouflage shorts and a goatee, plays a Jewish prisoner in the Terezin work camp waiting to be taken to Auschwitz. He addresses the other six actors, who are tightly huddled together. “How do we close the distance between here and there, between this place and life?” he wonders aloud.

The play’s writer and director, Aaron Henne, is also the artistic director of Theatre Dybbuk, an experimental theater group that also partnered with Valley Beth Shalom a year ago on the work “Vessels,” about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Henne repositions the actors, paying attention to their body language as much as to the lines they deliver. In one scene, they hold memorial candles, slowly waving them in front of their faces and across their chests, tracing the contours of their bodies. “Blessed are you who made me,” the actors repeat. 

The flickering light illuminates them, yet the movements seem disconnected. It suggests that they haven’t internalized the meaning of their prayers, thanking God for creating their bodies. Their actions and speech are at odds with one another, creating a powerful sense of tension.

“Pay attention to your physical actions,” Henne tells the actors. “That’s what’s going to make this a journey the audience will want to go on.”

A previous Theatre Dybbuk performance, “Cave … A Dance for Lilith,” was co-produced with the L.A. Contemporary Dance Company in 2012. “I’m a huge believer in the vocabulary of movement,” Henne said. “It’s a vocabulary as much as language is, and it communicates as much as language does.”

Theatre Dybbuk performs new works that are deeply rooted in Jewish tradition, myth and history. It draws its name from a demon that, according to Jewish folklore, possesses the body of a living person and takes control of that person’s behavior, a reference, perhaps, to how a character takes over the body of an actor.

Not all of the company is Jewish, however, including Julie Lockhart, who sees her involvement in the play as an opportunity to explore a faith outside her own. “As an actor, I have to investigate the role that I’m playing. Just like if I were a character in a Chekhov play,” she said.

Henne has worked with many of the actors on previous productions. A longtime member of the Los Angeles theater scene, he chooses his cast based on his familiarity with their work, not on whether they’re Jewish. “I’m not generally asking the question about their culture, religious heritage, background or spiritual beliefs,” Henne said. “I’m asking the question, are they the right performer and collaborator for the role?”

But the idea of using non-Jewish actors in a very Jewish-themed production gets to the heart of Theatre Dybbuk, Henne said. The mission of the group is to “illuminate the universal experience.” It’s theater from a Jewish perspective, but it is meant for everyone. The play will be performed in various sacred spaces, including synagogues in the San Fernando Valley and West Hollywood, as well as at The Pico Union Project (an interfaith cultural center) and an Episcopal church in San Gabriel.

The play combines prayer with poetry from various periods of history. Onstage, Lockhart looks at a candle in her hand as she recites this verse by Yiddish poet Peretz Markish, translated by Aaron Kramer:

From the Bug River, a ferocious blizzard blows,

wiping out every footstep with its lashing snows;

but on menorahs in the shuls of Bialystock,

like worn-out fiddles, they have hung their exile up.

Woven between the actor’s lines are passages from various prayer services, recited by Seth Ettinger, a student cantor at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles. “More people need to go ahead and explore how to bring theater into the service,” Ettinger said. “It’s not novel for Judaism. In biblical times, animal sacrifice was accompanied by a Levitical choir, and a massive band and orchestral arrangements. The Levites had five years of intense training to sing and play instruments perfectly.”

Theatre Dybbuk’s development process is unique. Henne casts the actors before he writes a script. He then meets with the actors, designers, a dramaturg or script consultant, scholars and clergy several times over the course of six months to a year. Each time, he brings more pages of the script and rewrites throughout the process. “These meetings make a huge difference,” Henne said. “They really do affect the shape of the piece.”

During rehearsals, scenes are rewritten and entire sections moved or dropped as needed. The actors treat the script as a living thing that can be altered and improved. “We all offer our ideas and input,” Vroom said. “You’re expected to bring something to the table.”

One of the script consultants is Andrea Hodos, a dancer and performance artist who also works with Jewish subject matter. “[Henne] was honestly interested in people’s responses to the work, with very little ego,” she said. “I was very impressed with his ability to take it in, synthesize it, and trust the people in the room.”

Rabbi Ed Feinstein, Valley Beth Shalom’s senior rabbi, has worked with Henne for about a year on this production. He said he wants artists to be in dialogue with the synagogue, to offer up their wisdom while also gaining something from examining Jewish traditions. 

“It seems to me that the Jewish community long ago tossed the artists out, and for that reason, we really lost our aesthetic. And I think it’s time to bring them home,” Feinstein said.

One of Henne’s challenges in this production was building a narrative out of a daily prayer service, which lacks the structure of a holiday service, such as a Passover seder. A typical prayer service is episodic, with each individual prayer disconnected from the others, Feinstein said, yet each prayer tells its own story.

One example is the Amidah, the silent devotional prayer. “The structure of the prayer represents the journey of the pilgrim in ancient times, from the countryside, say, to Jerusalem, and from Jerusalem to the Holy Temple, and then from the Holy Temple into the inner core of the Temple, the Holy of Holies. Which parallels the journey of the pilgrim from the extremities and peripheries of life into the core of who we are,” Feinstein said. “There are literary cues in the text of the prayer book which suggest narratives that most people don’t know about.”

Henne said he’s fascinated by the intersection of theater and ritual, and the theatricality of prayer. “I begin with the idea that the siddur [prayer book], and the prayer itself, is a container for history,” Henne said, “that these prayers are our way of connecting to the past, quite literally. So that every time we sit down in a synagogue to pray, we are time traveling. We’re communing with our heritage and who we are.”

Ultimately, he wants the audience to see prayer and theater as similar — both efforts to transcend our individual selves and connect with those around us and the world at large. 

“This thing we call prayer is a universal experience of looking to reach beyond ourselves,” Henne said, adding that the same is true of theater. “We’re gathering together as a community to experience something for a reason. Let’s find out what that reason is.”

“Tefillah or Prayer: A Translation” will be performed June 22 at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, June 29 at Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, July 6 at The Church of Our Saviour in San Gabriel, and July 12-13 at The Pico Union Project in Los Angeles. For more information, visit