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MJTC’s Barbara Brooks: ‘I just felt like we should keep doing the work we do’

The first play of the theater’s 26th season, Kate Moira Ryan and Judy Gold’s “25 Questions for a Jewish Mother,” opens Aug. 15 in the backyard of a private home in St. Paul.

Linda Kelsey, David Coral, Sally Wingert in the 2016 production of "The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife."
Linda Kelsey, David Coral, Sally Wingert in the 2016 production of "The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife."
Photo by Sarah Whiting

Early this summer, as usual, the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company announced its next season. It would start in August, as usual. There would be four productions, one fewer than the past several seasons. As usual, a full-color brochure was mailed to patrons, followed by a postcard.

What pandemic?

In mid-March, when COVID-19 hobbled most arts organizations, MJTC kept on keeping on. Luckily, the third play of its 25th anniversary season, Joshua Harmon’s “Significant Other,” had just finished its run at the Highland Park Community Center, MJTC’s home. Its upcoming production, Charles Varon’s “The People’s Violin,” was postponed.

Starting April 3, Barbara Brooks, MJTC’s founder and producing artistic director, launched a series of Zoom interviews with theater artists she has worked with over the years. “I’m not a technology person,” she said earlier this week, “and I don’t like learning things like a new phone or computer program. I had to learn how to do Zoom. And then, after the first interview, we got great feedback, so we just kept going.”

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The first play of the theater’s 26th season, Kate Moira Ryan and Judy Gold’s “25 Questions for a Jewish Mother,” opens Saturday (Aug. 15) in the backyard of a private home in St. Paul. On Sunday, it will move to the Target Stage at Harriet Island. From there, it will bounce from place to place for eight more performances, ending Sunday, Aug. 30, back on Harriet Island.

Based on interviews with 50 Jewish mothers across the U.S., “25 Questions” features Kim Kivens and Laura Stearns, with Jennie Ward as director. Brooks describes it as “a comedy that has some substance to it, which are the types of comedies I like.” She knew it could be done outdoors, rehearsed and performed with social distancing. There’s no set, and the actors use mics. “We didn’t want them projecting super loud or being too close to the audience.”

Barbara Brooks
Photo by Sarah Whiting
Barbara Brooks
Maybe you’re thinking, “Oh, nice, a play in a backyard!” Which is not normally a big deal for summer in Minnesota. But this is not a normal summer. If you’ve heard of another theater opening a season with a live, in-person play, please share. As far as we know, MJTC is the first and only in the Twin Cities — and that’s a very big deal.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

MinnPost: By the weekend of March 13, when everything closed, you were between plays. What did your 2020 look like?

Barbara Brooks: We had cast “The People’s Violin” and started production meetings. We had a set and the scenic designer was fairly well along. We had to cancel that.

I had plays in my mind for the next season, although I had not made final decisions. We were hoping to announce the season at our 25th anniversary gala on June 3rd. That was the second thing we had to cancel. It really truncated our 25th anniversary celebratory events. We didn’t get to leverage everything we had hoped with the 25th year.

This is the first summer that I will not have gone back to New York. And New York is just such a part of me. Growing up there and having roots there, it’s so in my blood. Every year since I left for graduate school, I’ve gone to New York at least once, always in the summer. So it really feels like a loss for me personally.

At the beginning of the pandemic, when New York was one of the first cities to feel it, it was heartbreaking to watch the news. I had to ship my brother on Long Island hand sanitizer because he couldn’t get any. So not going to New York makes me feel very sad.

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MP: In early April, you started a weekly series of Zoom interviews with artists who have worked with your theater.

BB: I felt that it was super important for us to continue to be engaged with our audiences. Because, through the history of the theater, we’ve had continuous audience growth. And I think part of that is the relationship we have with our audience.

I wanted to be able to continue that, particularly at a time where people had to isolate themselves. And so I just got this idea: We’ll do artist interviews!

MP: And then, on May 25, George Floyd was killed. What was your response?

BB: It obviously struck me as so tragic. But it also has gotten me thinking about who I am as an individual, and how I have led my life, the choices I’ve made professionally, and just becoming aware of racial equity in a different way. It has made me more aware of even small actions I might take or small things I might say that come from a place of not recognizing what they might mean to someone else.

Miriam Schwartz, Michael Torsch, Adelin Phelps, Michael Hanna in the 2016 production of "Bad Jews."
Photo by Sarah Whiting
Miriam Schwartz, Michael Torsch, Adelin Phelps, Michael Hanna in the 2016 production of "Bad Jews."
MP: Do you think his death and the global reaction will shape your work at the theater?

BB: Yes, it will have an impact. We did a board retreat last Sunday, and I recommended to the governance committee that we look at racial equity and diversity, acknowledge them in a greater way and do work in that area. I mean with the community at large, in a more global way, as well as within the Jewish community.

We serve both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. Last season, we had more non-Jewish than Jewish ticket purchasers. I think part of that was the shows we did. “Significant Other” brought in a younger, more diverse audience. Our holiday show, “Hanukkah Lights in the Big Sky,” was about racism in Billings, Montana, based on true events, and the audience data indicated more non-Jewish than Jewish.

We’re very limited in scripts that are out there. This may be the impetus to commission more new work.

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MP: Is MJTC financially healthy?

BB: We’re completing our financial statements, and it looks like we’re going to be OK. We have never had a debt, and our individual supporters and some family foundations have been really great. We keep a lot of data, so we know who hasn’t made a contribution at the end of the [fiscal] year and we contact them. We were concerned because everyone’s finances were hit, and we didn’t know how people would respond. But for the most part, people were very generous and wanting to ensure that we were going to be OK.

Last spring, we were supposed to add another part-time position, an associate producing artistic director, which we didn’t do because of the pandemic. But we plan to do that in the fall. That will allow more time to devote to commissioning.

We trimmed the budget for this year. But immediately I thought it would be really important to keep our staff, because I wanted to keep programming. We needed the staff in place to do development work and get the season announcement ready. So I really wanted to keep the staff, and also I felt like they should be kept. On a personal level, I wanted to do that. We got a PPP loan very early. We were lucky.

Warren C. Bowles, Riley O’Toole, JuCoby Johnson in the 2017 production of "The Whipping Man."
Photo by Sarah Whiting
Warren C. Bowles, Riley O’Toole, JuCoby Johnson in the 2017 production of "The Whipping Man."
MP: Most theaters are not having seasons, at least not with live and in-person productions. The Guthrie shut down until March. Why was a 2020-21 season so important to you?

BB: We’re not the Guthrie. We don’t have the overhead they have when they open their doors. I just felt it was a great opportunity.

Our August slot has been a bit experimental and unconventional. Several years ago, we did the solo show “Rose” with Sally Wingert that played in people’s houses. Last summer, we did the “Mikveh Monologues,” which moved around. So this just seems so logical. Why not do something outside? It could be safe, and people could gather together. Quite honestly, I don’t know why more theaters aren’t doing it.

Of course, we could not plan for fall and winter in the theater. Our second play of the season, “Operation: Immigration,” a big hit at the Fringe in 2019, will be filmed. I never thought I’d get into filmmaking, but you never know!

MP: Did you ever consider just shutting down for a while, maybe doing some gardening or learning to knit?

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BB: I don’t think I ever thought we shouldn’t do anything. I just felt like we should keep doing the work we do. Whenever I think about the theater, I think about the mission, and I felt like now is an important time to be doing things that can promote tolerance and keep artists working and engaging people together.

There was a time while we were getting ready to get into “25 Questions” where we just kept having more challenges and I thought, “Am I crazy? Should I stop now?” But I just kept going.

MP: Are you by any chance a workaholic?

BB: I don’t know that I would call myself a workaholic. I am definitely a Type A. And I’m very focused and intentional with what I do. Although I have to say that with “25 Questions,” I’ve become more flexible and able to roll with the punches and let things go.

Laura Stearns and Sean Carroll in the 2019 production of "O my God!"
Photo by Sarah Whiting
Laura Stearns and Sean Carroll in the 2019 production of "O my God!"
MP: You were about to go into live, in-person rehearsals when your director, Jennie Ward, tested positive for COVID-19. Talk about that.

BB: That threw me for a loop. Rehearsals the first week were by Zoom, and then people were going to get together with masks, social distancing at least 6 feet, and always outdoors. I thought it was a good idea to have everyone tested before then. When Jennie texted me and said, “Please call me as soon as possible,” that was one of the moments when I thought, “Is what we’re doing a mistake?”

I briefly thought about bringing someone else in, but the timing was so tight. Our amazing stage manager, Samson Perry, was able to hook things up so she could watch rehearsal and direct [remotely] until she was cleared according to CDC guidelines.

MP: What is the biggest challenge you’re facing right now?

BB: Making sure this show goes up and performs safely for the audiences and artists. Presenting “Operation: Immigration” as a theater piece, but in a film format. Hoping that our budget is enough to see the season through.

You plan and you create a budget, but it’s based on projections and there’s always risk assessment. Will our individual support come through as we are projecting? Will our ticket sales come through as we are projecting? Our ticket sales projection for the year, our line item, is sliced tremendously.

MP: Is there a silver lining?

BB: The response we get from audiences. They’ll send a check or a note. When they call on the phone to get tickets, they’re just so reinforcing. “We’re so happy you’re doing this.” “Thank you so much.” “We so appreciate it.” That really keeps me going, because it says that people find the work meaningful. And the artists seem very appreciative for the opportunity to perform.

MP: What is the first thing you’ll do when it’s safe to do whatever you want?

BB: It would be nice just to go out and have dinner. And I’ve never been to Israel. We had planned a trip to Israel and Jordan in September. So that’s something we’ll want to do. And, of course, get to New York.

But what I look forward to most after the pandemic is hugging my son, Mathew. He’s my most favorite and best production ever.

***

MJTC’s 26th anniversary season includes live outdoor performances of “25 Questions for a Jewish Mother” (Aug. 15-30); a filmed, pay-per-view online presentation of “Operation: Immigration,” written and performed by Avi Aharoni, based on the life of his late father and directed by Robert Dorfman (Oct. 17-25); a filmed, pay-per-view online presentation of “Musical Revue,” an original show with music by Jewish composers, conceived by Barbara Brooks and Kevin Dutcher (Feb. 13-21, 2021); and “The People’s Violin,” postponed from last season, directed by Warren C. Bowles and (fingers crossed) presented live in MJTC’s theater at the Highland Park Community Center (April 24-May 15). A season passbook and individual tickets are available now. FMI and tickets.