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Michael Price: Creating community on-stage & beyond

Michael Price stands in front of the Goodspeed Opera House in Chester.

Michael Price can’t find the dividing line between his Jewish identity and his theatrical life. Price is executive director of Goodspeed Musicals, a position he first took in 1968.
“You walk into my office and you see a lot of Jewish stuff on the wall and you know who I am. I have used the theater as a platform for doing good works in the Jewish community; it gives me a wider audience in terms of the integration of what I do as a Jew and what I do in the community at large. Our audiences know that Goodspeed is a secular organization, not a Jewish organization, but a community organization run by a Jew.”
Price, who lives in Chester, has crafted a rare professional life, one that is an interweaving of his Jewish identity and values, his political values, and his theatrical life. “The Jewish community is essential to any arts endeavor,” he says. “I find it difficult to separate my work in the theater and my work as a Jew.”
That involvement has long roots and is based in a strong belief in community. “It’s in my DNA,” he says. Price grew up in a liberal Jewish home in Chicago, the son of an Orthodox father and a secular mother. His father’s mother and four siblings all lived in the same neighborhood, a tight extended family. “Our lives worked around the Jewish calendar, necessarily – that was the definition of family,” Price says. “Our family revolved around the Jewish community. We were always involved, always members of a synagogue. When B’nai B’rith was strong, my father was president of B’nai B’rith lodges in Chicago.”
It was Jewish activities – his synagogue youth group, NFTY summer camps – that opened up the local Jewish world to him, “my entry into all things Jewish,” he says. He carried that virtual passport with him after graduating university and taking theatrical shows on the road as a stage manager. “In every town, the Jewish community was my link to being home,” he says. “Wherever I was, I found Jewish people involved in the arts and in their community.”
Price left the road and settled in the area 42 years ago and married into an active Jewish family two years later. His wife, Jo-Ann Nevas Price, is the daughter of the late Leo Nevas, an attorney who successfully busted the town’s “Gentlemen’s Agreement” in the early ’40s. The couple became involved in the broader Jewish community, lobbying Connecticut congress-members to stop the sale of jet fighters to Saudi Arabia in the ’80s. “That’s when it really clicked for me,” Price says.
His continued involvement in Israel and in Jewish organizations reflects his personal values. There’s the American Jewish Committee, which Price calls “the foreign embassy of the American Jewish community.” In addition to its international human-rights thrust, the organization works to strengthen contemporary Jewish life by building bridges between the Jewish communities in America and Israel, and the political structures in countries around the world. Price has participated in several delegations that met with foreign officials. “I feel that I get more out of the organization than I give,” he says. “It makes me an educated Jew and speaks to me in ways that make me act Jewishly.”
Price is involved in the Union of Reform Judaism, helping promote the organization through communications, branding, and fundraising activities. “I believe that URJ gives back to member synagogues enormous structure and resources, especially synagogues in rural areas,” he says. “No individual synagogue can develop educational curricula or teaching tools on its own. URJ’s presence in Washington, D.C., via its Religious Action Center, represents the values and concepts of the Reform Jewish community as a whole.”
Then there are the local organizations. Price is past president of JFACT, the Jewish Federation Association of Connecticut, and has been involved since the organization began as the Jewish Communal Relations Council of Connecticut. JFACT is the coordinating body of the nine Jewish federations throughout the state, giving a voice in the General Assembly on issues important to the Jewish community, like civil rights and quality eldercare.
Price is also a longtime board member of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven. “It’s important to be connected; no Jew lives alone,” he says. “You need 10 people to say Kaddish. A synagogue is a community, a Jewish federation is a community. These are institutions that require that we all work together to meet our needs. No one synagogue will run a home for the aged or a Jewish Family Services or dayschools. It takes a community to do that.”
Price serves as commissioner of culture and tourism for Connecticut and accompanied State Rep. Joe Courtney on an economic trade mission trip to Israel last year. “I went because I wanted to make sure Joe had the right view of Israel,” he says. “I also went in order to sell tourism in Connecticut, and had several wonderful meetings with travel writers in Israel.”
There are many ways to be involved in the Jewish community, Price says. “Being a Jew can mean defending, like what the Anti-Defamation League does, or being on the offensive, like Leo Nevas or the American Jewish Committee’s proactive work with inter-group relations,” he says. “Jo-Ann and I have always made sure that being Jewish is important to us and our children. It’s that peoplehood that provides a worldview of life and of values.”
The Goodspeed is dedicated to the musical, and it can be difficult to find productions that reflect contemporary Jewish life. In 2008, the theater staged “13,”  a new musical about b’nei-mitzvah. In May, it will produce “Cutman,” a musical about a Jewish boxer. It was the intersection of music and Jewish identity that spoke to Price. “The big fight takes place on Kol Nidre, and there is a counterpoint of ‘Avinu Malkeinu’ in the Jewish boxer’s head, with  the rap music of the African-American he’s fighting. I’ve rarely stood up at the end of a production and said, ‘We’ve got to do this.’

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