By Stacey Dresner
West Hartford native Ruthie Fierberg has always loved the theater.
“I remember going to the city once or twice a year to see shows,” she says. “My first Broadway show was Grease and then Les Miz the next day. I also grew up going to The Bushnell. I wanted to soak up shows whenever I could.”
Fierberg has now launched Why We Theater a podcast on the Broadway Podcast Network that looks at theater not just as entertainment but as a vehicle for supporting social justice.
In each podcast, Fierberg talks with a playwright or director about their work, then engages with a panel of experts to discuss the social issues presented in the production. Her goal is to help theatergoers take action to remedy some of the intense emotional issues reflected on stage. The podcast’s first 10-episode season, launched in July, highlights plays with themes that include “colorism” and beauty, LGBTQIA rights, education inequity, Internet addiction and antisemitism and the Holocaust.
Fierberg says she got the idea for the podcast five years ago after seeing “Disgraced,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama by Ayad Aktar about post-911 Isla-mophobia, which she found shocking.
“More and more I’m inspired by shows that talk about social and civic issues, says Fierberg. “I realized…that when we see a curtain come down and think it’s the end, it’s not – it’s actually the beginning. An artist is ‘putting the basketball down in the middle of the court’ and we’re not picking it up.”
One of the plays featured in Fierberg’s podcast is “If I Forget” by Steven Levenson – the story of three adult Jewish children coming home to visit their father on his 75th birthday.
“The eldest is the ‘two-times a year Jew,’ the middle is a Jewish studies professor, completely secular, who looks at Judaism from an intellectual perspective; and the youngest is very religious and very involved,” Fierberg says. “The professor writes a book called Forgetting the Holocaust about how Judaism has become a religion haunted by death and ghosts.”
Family drama ensues.
On the podcast, Fierberg talks with Levenson about the play’s message. Rabbi Shuli Passow of B’nai Jeshrun in Manhattan and Judah Isseroff, a Jewish scholar at Princeton University, join in as the discussion turns to American Jewish identity, Israel and Zionism and antisemitism.
Fierberg says that Judaism is a part of her work “every step of the way.”
The daughter of Randie and Elliot Fierberg, her family is a longtime member of The Emanuel Synagogue in West Hartford.
“I was the co-president of [Emanuel Synagogue’s] USY chapter and it was always very ingrained in us that we had to have Tikun Olam projects, interwoven throughout our programming,” says Fierberg , who now belongs to Manhattan’s Congregation B’nai Jeshrun.
While she loves the theater, Fierberg said her first love is writing. She previously worked for the Meredith Corp., writing for magazines such as Good Housekeeping and Parents. While at Backstage, she wrote feature stories and produced digital videos for events like the Tony Awards, and interviewed the likes of Hugh Jackman, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Platt and Annette Benning.
Most recently she served as senior features editor at Playbill, creating written, multimedia and video content. She left that position in November and has been focusing on the podcast and several video projects.
Fortuitously, in early 2020 as Fierberg was beginning to work on Why We Theater, when Broadway producer Dori Bernstein decided to launch a podcast network called the Broadway Podcast Network and offered studio space, equipment and editing staff to potential podcasters.
“She said, pitch me the idea I’ll do all that work for you,” Fierberg recalls. “I was planning to do my first recording on March 16, and my second on March 18 – I had studio space reserved.”
Then Covid-19 changed those plans.
“We immediately had to switch to remote recording,” she says. “So, I record on one platform and then we Zoom.”
Recorded in her New York City apartment, the podcast can be heard on Apple podcasts, Google Play and Spotify.
Fierberg is already planning the second season
“Part of my goal with every episode is to give tangible, actionable ideas to people; whether that is a question to ask yourself to check your own bias, who to write a letter to, an organization to donate to or volunteer with,” she says. “I want people to realize there is theater out there for everyone that will appeal to whatever their interests are and allow them to ask bigger questions.”