Despite the demise of a previous incarnation of the Sarasota Jewish Theater, director Carole Kleinberg is eager to prove that the community is ready for, and needs, a new, more professional version.
She admits the timing could be better – opening a theater in the middle of a pandemic adds to the challenge – but she is moving forward in leading a revival of SJT with a series of online performances that begin Jan. 31.
“There are 38,000 Jewish households in the Sarasota-Manatee area – that’s households, not individuals,” said Kleinberg, the former artistic director of the late Banyan Theater in Sarasota. “It seems to me in a community with 38,000 households and in a world where haters have been able to crawl out from under rocks and felt permission to spread their anti-Semitism and fear of others, that there should be a vehicle for spreading positive elements of Jewish history, culture, literature and humor.”
She said that Nate Jacobs proved something similar when he launched the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe more than 20 years ago.
“They’re doing the kind of thing I’m talking about by celebrating Black culture and literature without necessarily being only for a Black audience,” she said. “It seems to me we can do that in the Jewish community. We can bring all the creative and joyful and intelligent and deep aspects of Jewish culture to a broad audience. You don’t have to be Jewish to like Jewish theater.”
Kleinberg is the former artistic director of the Banyan Theater in Sarasota, which shut down in 2016 after the death of its founder, Jerry Finn. She also has staged many productions at area theaters, including the original Sarasota Jewish Theater.
Carolyn Michel, a longtime company member at Asolo Repertory Theatre and a frequent performer at Florida Studio Theatre, serves on the leadership team for the new venture and will open the company’s efforts with “Women I Have Loved,” featuring monologues from some of her favorite stage characters and stories about her experiences working with Sid Caesar on Broadway and appearing in theaters across the country.
Michel’s husband, Howard Millman, the former producing artistic director of Asolo Rep and the GeVa Theatre in Rochester, also serves on the planning committee, as does Robert Turoff, who owned the Golden Apple Dinner Theatre in Sarasota for more than 40 years.
On Feb. 28, the theater will present an online version of David Gow’s “Cherry Docs,” about a neo-Nazi accused of murder in a hate crime who is assigned a Jewish public defender. Diane Cepeda will direct actors Jim Floyd and Dylan Jones, best known for local community theater performances. Florida Studio Theatre presented the play in its Stage III series in 2019.
And on March 21, SJT will present a reading of James Sherman’s “From Door to Door,” about changing dynamics over 65 years among a grandmother, mother and granddaughter. Kleinberg will direct a cast that includes Geraldine Librandi, Katherine Michelle Tanner and Sandra Musicante. Rabbi Geoff Huntting will serve as the narrator. Sherman is the author of “God of Isaac” and “Beau Jest.”
Tickets are $18 for each online performance and $36 for the series of three.
The new theater group is partnering with the Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee, which is providing assistance with donations until the new organization can establish its own nonprofit 501(C) 3 Status with the Internal Revenue Service.
“This really fits nicely into our mission to strengthen Jewish life and identity in our community,” said Kim Adler, chief operating officer of the Federation. “One of the ways we do that is providing a variety of different programming that really highlights Jewish culture.” Those events include an annual Jewish Film Festival and the People of the Book author-lecture series. “It seems perfectly natural to add a Jewish theater to the mix of activities,” she said
The original Sarasota Jewish Theater started in 1996 as a program of the Flanzer Jewish Community Center, and it ended when the JCC shut down in 2007 after it was taken over by the Sarasota Family YMCA. The Federation now operates a 30-acre campus that includes the former JCC buildings and is in the process of renovating and reimagining the property.
Jon Meyer, who founded the original Sarasota Jewish Theater and ran it for seven of its 11 years, said such a company can be important to counter the anti-Semitism that has exploded in recent years.
“There are people out there in the world that don’t believe there are Jewish stories to be told, who don’t believe the Holocaust happened or that immigration is not important or that it strengthens our country,” he said. “You not only preach to the choir, you need to reach people who might go out and riot. I hope they will be open enough to come and see those things.”
Kleinberg said she has asked for space on the Federation campus for the theater company (“not exclusive space but a place for performances”), but she said her organization also has to “survive and establish some credibility” once live performances can resume.
Adler said the Federation will “work with Carole and her team to secure a venue where we can do shows.”
The original SJT was essentially a community theater. Kleinberg is establishing a professional theater and aiming to do “high quality work across the spectrum of different kinds of theatrical offerings.”
Surviving would be a challenge in the best of times, but it will be more difficult with initial programs presented only online. But Kleinberg, a former professor of theater in the Chicago area who also served as Asolo Rep’s director of education and outreach, has ambitious plans for the years ahead.
“One of the things on my list is a storytelling workshop offered in partnership with SaraSolo,” she said. “We will partner with other arts organizations and offer a storytelling workshop for adults to have Jewish seniors share their life experience and present that as part of the program. It could become something of a Jewish community archive.”
For more information about the company or to buy tickets: sarasotajewishtheater.org
Contact Arts Editor Jay Handelman at [email protected].