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art in migration, May 01, 2005
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Jewish Austria - Jan. 01, 2001

Austria and its Jewish Theater – Then and Now

The broken pencil in the logo of the Jewish Theater of Austria vividly describes what this international project is all about. Taping broken pieces together; bringing new life to a creative that was violently interrupted. Austria and Jewish theater: An exciting story that has nearly been forgotten.

From 1900 to 1938, Vienna had a small but extremely active Jewish theater scene that brought cabaret, musical theater, operettas, sketches, and full-length dramas to the stage in Yiddish, Hebrew, and German.

Yiddish ensembles such as the Jüdische Bühne and the Jüdische Künstlerspiele brought together actors from all over Eastern Europe, performing mainly operettas, melodramas and Yiddish revues in which not only song and dance, but also the problems of the day played an important role.

Jewish Theater Then…

Yiddish theater in Vienna had several functions: It offered immigrants from the eastern parts of the former Austro-Hungarian empire and from Eastern Europe a meeting place where they could communicate with each other in their mother tongue. At the same time, it allowed the most successful Yiddish ensemble of Vienna, the Freie Jüdische Volksbühne, to leave the confines of Vienna`s largely Jewish second district to play also for Gentile audiences on other prominent stages.

German-language ensembles like the Jüdisch-Politische Cabaret and the Jüdische Kulturtheater portrayed the troubles of the time, presenting plays and other texts about anti-Semitism and, after 1933, about conditions in neigboring Nazi Germany to the public. The Jüdisch-Politische Cabaret also influenced Jewish community election results in Vienna, rallying for the Zionists, who subsequently won the elections. The Jüdische Kulturtheater had a regular and active performance calendar, but also served the important function of providing a stage for immigrants, offering engagements to Jewish actors who had been forced to flee Germany.

All Jewish theatres and ensembles, regardless of which language they performed in, worked to promote a conscious Jewish identity. Furthermore, they sought to build bridges between assimilated West-European Jewry and Jewish refugees from the East who came to Vienna, especially during and after WWI, and between Jews and Gentiles, by bringing them closer to unfamiliar aspects of Jewish life through top quality dramatic productions.

Jewish Theater Now

This, too, is the aim of the Jewish Theater of Austria: To use theater as a means of presenting and reintegrating Jewish culture as a part of Austrian culture. The diverse components of an evening of theater – language, drama, stage, setting, costume, and music – are the perfect media for counteracting prejudice and mystification in a thought-provoking and entertaining way.

Warren Rosenzweig, Artistic Director of the Jewish Theater of Austria, was born in New York and lived in Austria from 1982-1990 and again since 1998. As a director and playwright, his work has appeared on stages in new York, Berlin, Vienna, and other cities. The former director of New York`s foru-time OBIE-award-winning Off-Broadway Forum for Experimental Theater and Perfromance Art, BACA Downtown, he has also directed and produced shows in Austria an elsewhere, often inspired by and with the participation of individuals of "ostracized cultural groups" within the larger social landscape. It may well have been this preoccupation that led to the idea: the founding of the Jewish Theater Austria.

What is the delineation of Jewish identity in a society where ignorance of and inexperience with contemporary Jewish culture is the norm; where the repression of national guilt is fostered by populist politicians; where anti-Semitism remains a prevalent social malady, despite the low visibility of an extremely decimated Jewish population. What does "Jewish" mean and to whom? How is it reflected in cultural life? What is "Jewish theater"? These and many other questions provide the sparks of inspiration for this important project.

An Antidote Against Intolerance

Rosenzweig conceived the Jewish Theater of Austria as "an antidote against the recurring mood of intolerance reflected in the social climate of Austria today." With this in mind, he and his team have planned several events in celebration of the new Synagogue of Graz, including a fresh, unconventional interpretation of Arthur Miller`s social drama, Incident at Vichy, for the theater`s official opening in March 2001. Set in Vichy in 1942, this powerful, but lesser known of Miller`s plays confronts us with issues that are as timely today as they were in 1964 when the work was written.

The team of over 120 dedicated supporters includes many of the finest actors and other artists in contemporary Austria, but also members of the international community and prominent individuals in the arts, academia, and religion. Among honorary members are the internationally renowned playwrights Joshua Sobol and Tony Kushner, as well as Simon Wiesenthal, Vienna Chief Rabbi Paul Chaim Eisenberg, Jewish Community President Ariel Muzicant, Vienna Archbishop Cardinal Cristoph Schönborn, and former Archbishop Cardinal Franz König.

By sharing the stories and exploring the depths of mysteries that have so pivotally influenced the history of civilization and by providing new perspectives on the often propitious, often turbulent relations between Jews and Gentiles, the Jewish Theater of Austria represents more than just a cultural and artistic renaissance for Austria, but can also plant new and vital seeds of communication and understanding.

JTA Is Looking for Manuscripts

Guidelines for Submission:
Full-length and one-acts in English or German, performance art, experimental work, musical theater, cabaret. Cast: 1-9. Response time: 2-5 months. Scripts not returned to addresses outside Austria. Provide video if available. Submissions must be preceded by query. Please send a short description.

Brigitte Dalinger and Hermann Götz

© 2001 Juden in Österreich

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