WASHINGTON, D.C.: Theater J, the nation’s most prominent Jewish theatre, announced a new artistic director today. Adam Immerwahr, currently serving as the associate artistic director of McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, N.J., was appointed after a nationwide search. Immerwahr’s credits at McCarter include directing The Understudy and The Mousetrap, as well as serving on the producing team that commissioned and premiered Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike and Fiasco Theater’s Into the Woods. He has previously directed productions at the Public Theater, Ensemble Studio Theatre, and the Wild Project. He has directed and developed work for Luna Stage, Hangar Theatre, Bristol Riverside, Premiere Stages, Playwrights Theatre of NJ, PlayPenn, the National Constitution Center, Philadelphia Artists’ Collective, Princeton Summer Theater, and Passage Theater Company in Trenton.
Theater J had been without an artistic director since last year, when Ari Roth was ousted from the theatre after feuding with the Theater J’s parent organization, the DCJCC. (I reported on that story, and on the many conflicting reports about what led to Roth’s firing, earlier for American Theatre). Roth has since moved on to found Mosaic Theater in D.C., while Theater J has been run for the last year by Shirley Serotsky, the theatre’s associate artistic director, and Rebecca Ende, its managing director.
“I am thrilled to announce that Adam Immerwahr will be guiding the artistic vision at Theater J,” said DCJCC CEO Carole Zawatsky. “Adam is an extraordinary talent in the American theatre. He has a record of superb direction, commitment to building community through theatre, working hard to find new voices, and producing groundbreaking dramatic pieces. Adam is the perfect choice to write the next chapter of Theater J’s formidable legacy.”
I spoke to Immerwahr by phone for this Q&A. Questions have been lightly reordered for coherence’s sake.
ISAAC BUTLER: So, congratulations!
Adam Immerwahr: Thank you!
When do you officially start?
I arrive in D.C. on Dec. 1st, and start full-time then.
So for the first few months you’ll be finishing up a season you didn’t choose?
Theater J is in the midst of a season plan by Shirley Serotsky and Rebecca Ende. We’ll start planning for the ’16–17 Season when I get there.
I’m from D.C. Do you know where you’re going to live yet?
(Laughs) Because of my directing schedule, I’m down there for the month of December and then will be working elsewhere as I finish up projects in January and February. I’m directing The Language Archive at Bristol Riverside, and then will be directing The Mousetrap at McCarter Theater. So I’m going down to temporary housing in Capitol Hill in December and I’ll search for permanent housing after that. Do you have advice on neighborhoods?
Every neighborhood is very different from when I lived there. Columbia Heights, for example, is a popular place to live, but when I was a kid, there was a serial killer there.
Yeah. It’s a different place. So in moving from the McCarter to Theater J, I’m interested in what it’s like to go from—and I know these are problematic terms—“general audience” theatre to a “culturally specific” theatre? What do you see as the differences? What are the challenges?
Well, in addition to being the associate artistic director at the McCarter, I’ve been the resident director at Passage Theater, a new works theatre in Trenton which is in many ways community-based. I also run my own company, a senior citizen theatre company, called OnStage. It’s senior citizens in central New Jersey performing the stories of their community back to their community. They perform in nursing homes, assisted living, conferences on aging, penitentiaries. It’s all seniors, none of whom were professional actors, although they certainly are now.
Are you continuing at those companies? What’s happening to them?
I will be of course leaving my role at McCarter, and my OnStage seniors company has recently been absorbed as a community project of McCarter, and will continue on under other leadership. There’s going to be a handoff. I don’t think I can be a resident director of a company in Trenton while in D.C. I will, however, continue directing in various places. I have some projects lined up for the ’16–17 season. I’ll continue to be part of that national theatre community, as well as part of the community in D.C.
It sounds like up until now, you’ve had these parallel tracks in your career.
Yes, exactly. I’ve done some other community and devised projects as well. I also think that while Theater J exists within a Jewish Community Center, it has a large voice that speaks to a wider audience in the D.C. theatre community. It has a long history of programming work through a Jewish lens that speaks to Jewish values, and some of those values are things about healing the world, respect and honoring our neighbors, social justice, speaking for those who don’t have a voice, as well as supporting the Jewish voice and the great Jewish literature of our country, of Israel, and everywhere else.
For me the opportunity to go down to D.C. is very exciting. That theatre is uniquely poised to do bold, provocative, stimulating work that both is from a variety of voices and speaks to a variety of voices both within Jewish and non-Jewish cultures.
I also think there’s an astonishing opportunity in having that unique lens that Theater J has, even though, as you and I both know, there are a number of culturally specific theatres around the country doing astonishing, wonderful work. That to me is one of the things that make it feel like the most exciting opportunity to me. It’s a chance to combine my passions for work inside a community, engaged with a community, and create theatre at the highest possible level. I think those two things can only build upon each other.
And it’s not like every play Theater J does is by a Jewish writer.
Exactly! They just got astonishing reviews for a locally grown play called Queens Girl in the World, not by a Jewish writer. They’re doing The Call this year. They have a long history of using a Jewish lens in a broad way. That’s very exciting. I too think that applying Jewish values to the work that we do, using that lens to explore many communities, makes a lot of sense.
That directly segues into a question that I’m sure is one you’ll wrestle with. As a pretty thoroughly secular Jew, I have to ask: What is the Jewish lens? How do you apply Jewish values to non-Jewish work? If Jewish theatre isn’t just by/for/about Jews, what is it?
I would just change that slightly to “what are the Jewish lenses”—there’s a wide variety of Jewish cultures.
Two Jews, three opinions.
Exactly. (Laughs). Also, Jew as a definition can be a linguistic definition, a cultural definition, an ethnic definition, and it could perhaps even be a national definition. I don’t think there is just one Jewish lens to apply, which makes things exciting.
But some of the Jewish values that Theater J holds dear, that I am excited about exploring, is doing work that is ethical, that speaks to ways that we can heal the world, that reflects the world back to us in ways that we can understand and discuss it, that is provocative and engages, that asks us to ask deeper questions and delve deeper into the issues facing both Jews and non-Jews. That demands that we ask moral questions and challenge ourselves.
At the same time, I think there’s also room at Theater J and a need at Theater J to celebrate the uniquely Jewish voice. Whether it’s writing plays about Jewish characters or not, we need to do work that honors the perennial struggles of the Jews, our horrible tragedies of the Inquisition, the Diaspora, and the Holocaust. We need to do work that celebrates the great triumphs of our culture, too.
So we should probably talk about your predecessor, whose ouster I covered for American Theatre. Have you had conversations with people at the JCC or Theater J’s advisory council about what kind of discourse around Israel is and is not going to be on the stages?
Well, absolutely. During the entire interview process I was able to get to know the staff of Theater J, the council, which is an advisory council but still deeply involved in shepherding the growth of the institution, along with the staff of the DCJCC. I wouldn’t be taking a job in which I felt like my ability to do the kind of programming that stimulates and excites me was in doubt, or if I felt that Theater J’s terrific legacy of creating envelope-pushing theatre were threatened.
It is clear that all of those constituents—the staff, the council, as well as the DCJCC—are committed to continuing to produce work that explores difficult questions about Israel, that explores the major issues Jews are facing in America and abroad, and to continue doing so in ways that are bold and provocative. We also want to program terrific plays that are worth seeing.
So you feel like you have the ability to program what you want to program.
Well, I feel like I should dispute the nature of the question a little bit. I don’t know any artistic director in the country who programs in a vacuum. There’s always a board, a set of funders, major constituents, partners. They always have to have a voice that informs the work. Institutions like Theater J and other regional theatres exist to serve a greater good. I feel like that there’s an alignment between myself, the staff, the leadership at the DCJCC about what kind of social good Theater J can serve.
And that may or could include controversial or critical takes on Israel and Zionism?
I have absolute faith that there is room to program and, in fact, a great deal of freedom to program works about the State of Israel, including works with complex and nuanced and challenging ideas about the State of Israel.
I’m a Jew, you’re a Jew, we’re talking about a Jewish theatre. The State of Israel is one huge, hot-button issue, but it’s not the only one. What are other issues you think we’re confronting today?
First of all, there’s the current situation that Jews in Europe are facing. There’s the shifting cultural identity of Jews in America. There are constant questions of how we as a people continue to lead the most moral lives in an increasingly noisy and challenging time—how we as Jews address issues like economic disparity in this country, social justice in this country and the world. What are our obligations as ethical thinkers in those situations? How do we face as moral, ethical people the enormous racial inequality in this country? I find these to be Jewish issues. We should be exploring these subjects.
There’s also this incredible wealth in the national Jewish repertoire that already exists that begs to be explored. There are pockets that are worth exploring in a greater depth than most theatres in America are interested in doing right now.
Do you mean new plays? Underappreciated canonical works?
Yes and! I am talking about both. It is time to do a deep dive, a critical dive into the canon of the Yiddish theatre.
It really is an interesting world, those plays.
It sure is! It’s an enormous world of theatre. By World War I, there were 22 Yiddish theatres in New York and 2 vaudeville theatres. They were producing work for decades. That’s part of our repertoire.
I’m not sure what form that work takes. I’ve been reading the plays. Is it about commissioning translations or adaptations of that work? Is it about engaging playwrights from all sorts of backgrounds to create their own responses? I’m not sure, but there’s a lot of opportunity there in a mostly lost canon of work.
On top of that there’s Miller. There’s Odets. There’s Sylvia Regan. There’s a canon there, as well. Of course there’s also new plays.
As Jews, we’ve never existed as a vacuum; we’ve always been connected with our neighbors, our cultures, those around us. It’s important that we not only program Jewish characters. It’s important to use our resources and open our doors for those who aren’t being seen as prominently.
We are in the middle of a very intense, necessary conversation about diversity on all levels of the industry. Right now it’s really focused on playwrights, but I don’t think it will stay there. As Jews, we’ve done well getting our stories out, given what a small percentage of the population we are. As the artistic director of a Jewish theatre, how do you feel we can address this diversity question that’s blooming now?
This is a vital question, and one Theater J has long grappled with. There’s a legacy of doing work by non-white writers, female writers. Rebecca and Shirley have programmed a season that’s more than 60 percent female playwrights.
I think Theater J has been doing all that, and doing it really well. There are many issues familiar to the Jewish experience—immigration, assimilation, living with the mainstream culture and one’s own traditional culture, family, heritage, how we confront and examine our own cultural history, dealing with language—these are all deeply connected to Jewish identity. In many ways, seeing and exploring plays that wrestle with these issues allows us to see ourselves better. It allows us to think about programming at Theater J in a way that continues to be on the cutting edge of asking bold and provocative questions, stimulating, engaging, and opening up the doors for a wide variety of voices.