Arts Desk

With Saturday Shows, Theater J Gets With the Times

Two weeks ago, Theater J made history when it performed a play on Saturday afternoon at its home in the D.C. Jewish Community Center. It was the first time the company had performed on Shabbat—the Jewish calendar's day of rest—in that venue.

It was kind of a big deal, mostly because even progressive synagogues like Sixth & I don't host nonreligious programming on Friday evenings or Saturday afternoons. But despite the whole making-history thing, Theater J seemed eager to downplay the break from religious custom. "Okay, we’re not going to make a big deal of this," wrote Artistic Director Ari Roth (pictured) on the company's blog, "because it was a quiet roll-out; a gentle announcement."

OK, so Theater J isn't trying to puff this up. But the decision to show a play on Shabbat is still interesting, and here's why: It involves a lot of loopholes. For one, there are no day-of ticket sales, and no concessions can be sold, because of course, exchanging money isn't permitted on the Sabbath. For the same reason, the company's actors get paid at another time for that day's show. And what about Orthodox actors? They can't drive to the theater on Saturdays before sundown, and even showing up could be a no-no, since performing is essentially work. Roth says the JCC would make accommodations to actors who live farther than walking distance from 16th and Q streets NW. To the second point, he is blunt: "It ain't work! It's playing! You're playing."

This wasn't a decision made quickly. "It was a multi-, multi-, multiyear process," says Roth—one shaped by the JCC's Policy Committee and the center's recently hired CEO, Carole Zawatsky, who looked at precedents set by other Jewish centers outside D.C. It began to feel like the right decision to make, not only because it met existing demand for Saturday matinees, but also because the playgoing experience could be considered apropos for a day that's supposed to be enriching. As time went by, Roth says, "it was a project that found more and more proponents."

Though, Roth points out, Theater J still won't perform on Friday after sundown. Why? "We would in a sense be competing with people's Friday night dinners, with synagogues who are offering services, etc., and there would be less cooperation in the community," he says. "Performing on a Saturday afternoon, we are ... competing with soccer and Little League, but that's about it." He plans to tack two Saturday shows onto each Theater J performance in this season, and next year, he wants to include the shows with the company's subscription offerings.

So far, the decision has gone over just fine, the director says. After the first Saturday show—a performance of the mammoth Our Class—no one came forth, waving their fists, crying abomination. Roth chalks it up to slowly shifting tectonic plates in the Jewish community. Of course doing plays on Saturdays hasn't been controversial, he says.

"You probably are thinking of the 20th century," says Roth. "The way Jews do their thing is changing in the 21st century." He points to the nontraditional programming that fills the pews at Sixth & I each week. "One person's violation is another person's spiritual gesture."

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

Blog Widget by LinkWithin
  • BC

    So what percentage of the Jewish community actually observes these Shabbat traditions? No working, no shopping, no driving? At a time when live theater is struggling to retain, let alone build, audiences, choosing to offer Saturday matinees should be about as non-controversial as anything could be. And the actors shouldn't have to "play" without pay.

  • Ally Schweitzer

    The actors are paid for their Saturday performances; they're just not paid that day.

  • Ari Roth

    Hey, BC - It is indeed a pretty non-controversial issue here at the J, as the contemplative, culturally-uplifing spirit of the Sabbath (for those who care) is being preserved and even enhanced by the sharing of a play. And just to clarify, all actors, crew and front of house staff do, in fact, get paid eventually for the hours/performance they log -- but they don't get paid THAT DAY. Just as audiences pay for the show; just not THAT DAY. Just as orthodox Jews pay for the electricity that's used--that's on before the Sabbath and continues to run during the Sabbath--the bill gets paid; just not on THAT DAY.

  • esthermiriam

    At the same time that the mode of Sabbath observance in the Jewish community now includes some variation on the traditional theme of rest and renewal, it's worth noting an often non-Jewish and certainly secular generation is using the Sabbath model as it "unplugs" for a while from the constant tasks and distractions of the 21st century to make room for family,friends and time spent creatively.

  • croth