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Conversation with Sarah Gancher

Playwright talks about the world premiere of her play “Seder” – and her love for Budapest’s Jewish historical district

By Stacey Dresner

In 2006, playwright Sarah Gancher moved to Budapest, which she calls “a city with a rich Jewish history, but few Jews.”

Gancher fell in love with Budapest’s historic Jewish quarter, the 7th District. Basically left to ruin after World War II, the 7th District is now home to a growing population of young Hungarians – artists, musicians, writers – and many of its abandoned buildings and their courtyards are home to an underground bar scene or “ruin pubs” as well as theater spaces and art galleries.

Gancher’s two years in the 7th District and the people she met there inspired her to create The 7th Project, a series of seven plays, installations, and performances “examining the past and present of Budapest’s 7th District through an outsider’s eyes. Together, these pieces ask how local ideas about Jewishness have evolved as the neighborhood has transformed.”

One of those plays, “Seder,” had its world premiere at Hartford Stage of Oct. 19 and will run through Nov. 12. The Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford is the community partnership sponsor of the production.

Directed by Hartford Stage Associate Artistic Director Elizabeth Williamson, the play is set in Budapest in 2002 and revolves around a secular Jewish family holding its first ever Passover Seder in which a family member’s dark secrets are revealed.

A native of Oakland, California, Gancher holds a Masters of Fine Arts from New York University. Her plays have been produced or developed at London’s National Theatre, Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre, Budapest’s Quarter6Quarter7 Festival, The Public, New York Theater Workshop, The Atlantic,  Steppenwolf, New York Stage and Film, Ars Nova, Women’s Project, and Telluride Theatre, among others.

She is the winner of the New York Stage and Film Founder’s Award, the AR Gurney Prize, the Clifford Odets Ensemble Play Commission, and residencies from the Hermitage, Jewish Plays Project, Tofte Lakes, and SPACE at Ryder Farm. She has been a playwright-in-residence at Budapest’s Quarter6Quarter7 Festival, which presented Hungarian language staged readings of three plays from her 7th cycle (Seder, Klauzál Square, and Five Mothers.)

She frequently collaborates with devising ensembles such as Colorado’s Telluride Theatre, Hand2Mouth from Portland, Oregon, NYC’s The TEAM, and Blue Man Group. She also has an ongoing collaboration with rock band The Bengsons, writing two musicals with them: The Lucky Ones, and Hundred Days, which had its New York premiere at the 2017 Under the Radar festival at the Public.

She has worked behind the scenes at The Colbert Report, The Metropolitan Opera Guild, The Big Apple Circus, and Norway’s Stellapolaris, among others. As a jazz violinist, Sarah has played in groups from New Orleans to Budapest.

Gancher lives in Queens, with her husband Rick Stinson and their four-year-old son Isaac.

She recently spoke to the Jewish Ledger about the genesis of “Seder.”


JEWISH LEDGER: Tell us about your Jewish background.

SARAH GANCHER: I’m half Jewish and I was bat mitzvahed. I am from the Bay Area so my family – we are very sort of secular lefty. My Jewish grandfather was the president of his Conservative synagogue but my father was a complete hippy and basically stopped practicing. My mother had a meditation practice in Haight-Ashbury, which is sort of Jewish in its own way – what we call “Jew-Bu” on the West Coast…sort of Jewish Buddhists. My sister and I sort of brought them back to becoming a little more practicing, because we got interested through day camp and the bat mitzvah process and all that kind of stuff.

I actually ended up becoming a bit more practicing than my family, and certainly moving to Hungary was a big part of that. I became really interested in Jewish identity in general in conjunction with, but also separate from, the religious or spiritual aspect of Judaism. And certainly, falling in love with this particular neighborhood, the 7th District, and becoming a part of this community of young Jews that were rediscovering their identity and their generation as the children of people that had stayed during Communism and had basically decided that Jewishness was not a part of their lives anymore, was really good for me.

My primary way of engaging with Jewishness right now is artistic. But in my life that is also my primary way of engaging with anything spiritual or intellectual. If something is really important to me or I feel like I have a lot to learn about something, I write about it and Jewishness is no exception.


JL: Why did you move to Budapest?

SG: It was a bit random actually. I went there on the way to a brass band festival in Guca, Serbia with my boyfriend at the time, who is my husband now, and we stayed along the way with some friends in Budapest. We just really fell in love with the city and liked the people we met there.

We were both working very intense full-time jobs at the time. I was working a 60-hour-a-week job at the Metropolitan Opera, running a bunch of different education programs, and I was running a theater company and freelance writing on the side. There was no time. And he was in the same situation. And when we came back we had this crazy experience where he just turned to me one day on the street and said do you want to just move to Budapest? And I said, “Yes.”

We saved up, we had a couple of freelance writing gigs at the time that would have sent you on vacation for a week or two in New York but which you could actually live well on [in Budapest].

So we both quit our jobs and moved. It was pretty crazy. It was a real sort of blind leap but one of the most important things we ever did.

We were there for two years and change and we really only came back because I got into grad school, which I hadn’t expected to do on the first go-round.


JL: What was it about Budapest and the 7th District that drew you to it?

SG: At the time we moved to Budapest the city was so largely un-renovated and unrestored and there was something about being able to see all the different layers of history and to really clearly see the passage of time in this place that I think was really enchanting for us… It was a very beautiful city. It’s a place that we didn’t know a lot about, so it sort of felt mysterious at the time.

And there was this neighborhood, 7th District, which is a little bit like the “Lower East Side of Budapest,” considered by many there to be “The Old Neighborhood.”

It’s a Jewish neighborhood where there aren’t any Jews anymore, although there are increasingly now. But at the time when I moved there, it was still a pretty empty place. And a place that was being revived and gentrified with a lot of exciting nightlife and young people. There is this phenomenon there called “ruin pubs” where young people were setting up shop in these abandoned buildings with huge courtyards and just turning them into these epic performance spaces, cafes and bars. It was just really, really vibrant and so the reinvention of Jewish identity was very much a part of that revitalization in this completely unique and unexpected and cool way.

It was really fascinating. The idea that this neighborhood that had been an immigrant neighborhood during the Austo-Hungarian empire, and then had become a very heavily Jewish neighborhood and then had become the Nazi ghetto, was now kind of a place for people to go to a concert on a Saturday night was like, “what?” It was sort of confounding in a really delicious way.


JL: And there is a growing Jewish community there now?

SG: I would say so, or there is growing interest. At this moment in Hungary there’s probably a little bit less though because political antisemitism is very much on the rise in Eastern Europe, which is very complicated particularly in Hungary in terms of how people align politically. What that means for where young Jews find themselves on the spectrum is pretty complex. I think that in the years right after the fall of the Berlin Wall there was a big sensation of freedom where people felt liberated to connect with this aspect of their identities in a way that they hadn’t felt before and I don’t know if that same kind of freedom is being felt right now.


JL: How did you come to write the play “Seder?”

SG: I had a neighbor in Budapest who had worked in the building, 60 Andrassy. Everybody knows that it used to be the headquarters for the Arrow Cross party, which was the Hungarian Nazis, and later became the seat of the AVO or the Hungarian KGB. I didn’t find out until recently that before it was the Arrow Cross headquarters it was a Jewish museum. I thought it was crazy that they set up the Arrow Cross headquarters literally and intentionally in a building that had been a Jewish museum.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, a couple of years went by and in 2002 it became a museum called The House of Terror that was dedicated to looking at Nazism and Communism as twin terrors.

My neighbor Erzike had worked in the building as a young woman, as a secretary. When she went to see the museum when it opened, she went down to the basement where it had been revealed there were all these torture implements dated from the ‘50s, and there is a wall [of photographs] of perpetrators and she saw her face on it. Which is the opening moment of the play now.

That was an image I couldn’t get out of my head. And I thought that I would like to write about it. So that idea got combined with the idea of a secular Jewish family having their first ever Passover Seder as a family, led by a very well-meaning but bumbling American neighbor. And the Hagaddah through the course of the Seder ends up triggering different memories – flashbacks essentially – that focus on this idea of liberation and slavery and this question of whether or not she deserved to be on the wall.

What was her complicity? What were the ways that she tried to resist this regime that she was a part of? Is it right or just for her to be counted among the perpetrators? And obviously by extension, what are we all responsible for that we might not be directly involved in that is a part of our system?


JL: It sounds very dramatic – but I’ve heard that it’s also very humorous?

SG: Actually, this is the left turn of it all, that it is actually very funny. That is just who I am as a playwright. I usually don’t write things that don’t have a really healthy dose of humor in them. And I think especially when you write about Jews it is just wrong to not have it be funny at least in parts.


JL: The world premiere was at Hartford Stage. Did you have a relationship with the Hartford Stage before this?

SG: No I haven’t, but [Director] Elizabeth Williamson is someone I have known of for a really long time. We actually went to undergrad at the same place at the same time and have many mutual friends in common and I think we have just kept track of where each other are in the world. But we really sort of came together as friends through working on this play, which has been a real pleasure for me. She knows a lot about theater in Eastern Europe and its theater traditions and she, stylistically, is so perfect for this play. Her vision of how this play takes place in this specific space and how it is going to function for this audience is just incredibly exciting and compelling. I feel really, really lucky that they are premiering it.

I think it’s going to be a beautiful thing. And the cast – it’s like getting to write your concerto on a Stradivarius; the cast they have assembled is truly amazing.


JL: Considering the moral issues at the center of the play, do you think it is timely with what is going on in the world right now?

SG: Yes, to what extent are we responsible for speaking up or trying to make things better and to what extent to do we have any power to change things. What are the things that our society does that we don’t allow ourselves to look at?

There is a lot of stuff about this that relates to what is going on with the Harvey Weinstein issue, because a lot this focuses on a relationship that this character had with her boss that may or may not have been consensual… Sort of like something that she wasn’t actively resisting against but did not choose herself. It’s a real gray area… in terms of the gender dynamic of her story, it has become a lot more timely, sadly.

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