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The play’s the (Jewish) thing

An interactive theater project asks audiences to vote on the best new drama

By Cindy Mindell

HARTFORD – Three excerpts of new plays, two hours, and a whole lot of texting.

That sums up the culminating phase of the Jewish Playwriting Project, an annual international search for the best unpublished Jewish plays. The contest brings works by emerging artists to stages across the country, engaging Jewish audiences with cutting-edge drama that explores what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century.

Created by the Manhattan-based Jewish Plays Project, the Jewish Playwriting Project has vetted 1,1,32 plays by 884 writers in 32 states and nine countries since its debut in 2012. Each year, a new pool of some 200 entries is reviewed by a panel of professional playwrights, dramaturgs, literary managers, actors, directors, producers, and scholars. Ten plays are then sent to panels of judges in several host communities around the U.S., and whittled down to the three contenders that are voted on by live audiences.

Connecticut has offered a Jewish Playwriting Project venue since 2013, when the Greater New Haven Jewish Community Center sponsored the event at the Off Broadway Theater in New Haven, presented by Jewish Plays Project founding director David Winitsky. The event was hosted in New Haven again in 2014 before it found a new home at the Charter Oak Cultural Center in 2015.

This year, Greater Hartford audiences will get to sample three of the plays on Thursday, Feb. 16, as part of Charter Oak’s 12th Annual Celebration of Jewish Arts and Culture. The event is produced in collaboration with the University of Connecticut Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life. A cast of professional actors will present 20-minute selections from the three plays selected by the community judges. Audience members will use their cellphones to provide real-time feedback to the judges and to vote on their favorite work.

The play that garners the most votes from audiences at all host venues will receive featured workshop production this June as part of the Jewish Plays Project’s 6th annual OPEN: The Festival of New Jewish Theater, at the 14th Street Y in Manhattan. The top 10 plays will be considered for further development by the Jewish Plays Project, either as part of OPEN or through other programs.

Winitsky, who introduces the event at each venue, first conceived of the Jewish Plays Project in 2010, when a friend and colleague mentioned the Joshua Venture Group, a social entrepreneurship grant for initiatives that impact upon the Jewish world. Winitsky applied for a grant, and although his Jewish theater concept was not funded, he continued to develop the idea as a fellow at the PresenTense Group for Jewish entrepreneurial projects.

Winitsky launched the Jewish Plays Project in 2011. Since then, the initiative has actively developed 34 plays, 18 of which have gone on to production in New York, Tel Aviv, London, Detroit, and around the U.S.

“For me, an authentically Jewish way to do theater comes down to two things: one about the art, and one about the approach,” Winitsky told the Ledger after the 2013 New Haven program. “For the art, are we talking about things from a Jewish perspective? Whatever a play happens to be about, are we putting about our tradition of intellectual inquiry and deep philosophical debate into the work? And for the approach, are we living our Jewish values as we make the plays? Are we working to improve the world? It’s about putting the ideals into practice at every step.”

The Jewish Playwriting Contest: Thursday, Feb. 16, 7 p.m., Charter Oak Cultural Center, 21 Charter Oak Ave., Hartford. For information/tickets: charteroakcenter.org, (860) 310-2580.

The Jewish Plays Project 2017 Top Ten finalists: jewishplaysproject.org/#/contest/

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