Gesellschaft für TheaterEthnologie - Jan. 01, 2003

Theater. Encounter. Integration? (Book)

Jewish Theater of Austria. Interview with Warren Rosenzweig.
Excerpts from an bi-lingual interview with Brigitte Dalinger and Susanne Schwinghammer, Gesellschaft für TheaterEthnologie (2001).

GTE: Der Begriff Jüdisches Theater ist für mich mit zwei Richtungen verbunden: mit dem jiddischen Theater – mit seiner ganz spezifischen Tradition und Dramatik, also einem Theater, das heute nur mehr wenig präsent und auch kaum aktuell ist – und dann einem ganz anderen Zweig von jüdischem Theater, nämlich einem Zweig des amerikanischen Theaters, den man als amerikanisch-jüdisches Theater bezeichnen könnte. Ich spreche von Autoren wie Paddy Chayefsky, Herb Gardner oder Neil Simon oder Aufführungen, die das American Jewish Theater in Manhattan zumindest noch vor einigen Jahren produziert hat. Wie ist nun die Positionierung des Jewish Theater of Austria? Welche Ziele und Absichten hat es?

WR: When we consider the idea of making Jewish theater today, we can’t really expect to fill the gap between the Yiddish and Jewish theater of the past and now. I don’t think that making Jewish theater today in Austria is about continuing something that was destroyed long ago. New York still offers both forms. In a sense, Yiddish theater is museum theater. The audience that goes to see Yiddish theater in New York is one that suffers from continuous attrition. Smaller audiences turn out year by year. As the people who speak and understand the language die, the interest dies. The interest is two-fold: It’s an interest in what was done in the past – the theater of the past – and it’s an interest similar to that of Yiddish speaking audiences in Europe until the late 1930s: in coming together with a common language and a common background and seeing familiar stories reflected on stage. But today such audiences are older and are dying. We have to see Yiddish theater as a relic – a reminder of what came before. And while remnants of this kind of theater are still extant in New York, this is not the case in Austria. Perhaps the modern kind of work that you refer to as „Jewish American“ could also be called, simply, „Diaspora theater“. It seems natural that in the States, where nearly three fourths of the world’s Diaspora lives, many plays are written that might suggest the label „Jewish“. Many of the artists who imbue their work with a strong sense of Jewish identity live in the States or in Canada, where so much of the Diaspora is concentrated.

GTE: So what exactly is the position of the Jewish Theater of Austria? What are its aims?

WR: The Gentile often wants to know what it is, what it means, to be Jewish. To know about this aspect of identity, one needs experience with people who identify themselves as Jewish. But if there are no such people around, or very few, then a viable substitute is needed. Theater can provide this by substituting one kind of experience with another, experience with Jewish stories, lives, and ideas on stage. But another aim shared by most of my colleagues is the promotion of artistic work that reflects a sense of Jewish identity. The theater scene in Vienna offers a plethora of opportunities for creative exploration. But the idea of exploring Jewish identity on stage finds little support in the current configuration. Being Jewish in New York City is no big deal – something I take for granted. It’s certainly not anything to feel uneasy about. But in New York, the diversity of cultural, ethnic, or religious identities is a welcome part of the social landscape. I wouldn’t say the same is true here where one is often confronted in a negative way with one’s divergence from mainstream conceptions of identity.


GTE: Welche Rolle nimmt für Dich Theater im Allgemeinen und das JTA im Besonderen im Kontext von Integration ein?

WR: One must have experience with the other to have understanding. It doesn’t matter who the other is.

GTE: Integration bedeutet doch auch Verschmelzung: Eines geht im Anderen auf.

WR: Yes and no. Integration is one thing, assimilation is another. There’s a positive side to assimilation, but it can become tyrannical. If it sets a ban on the expression of Jewish identity, it thwarts the process of integrating cultural difference. If a cultural group feels compelled to merge identities with other groups, I’d say the process is more one of assimilation than integration and suggests a dictatorial conception that tends to divide us more than it brings us together. In this sense, assimilation opposes integration. By integration, I think of people coming together while retaining and respecting a degree of difference.

GTE: So you consider theater rather to be a meeting place to learn about – in your case – Jewish culture and Jewish ideas.

WR: We’re only beginning to realize a distinct cultural identity through our work. The project is secular and invites the participation of a diverse audience and Gentile as well as Jewish artists. Yes, it’s a meeting place, but also a kind of laboratory where we use artistic means to experi-ment with an aspect of identity. Its success as a meeting place depends also on the continued support of our sponsors which, until recently, has come mainly from the city of Graz and the province of Styria, along with a number of respected institutions and commercial enter-prises. That’s another vital part of the integration process – having real support from the powers that be.

Copyright © 2003 Schriften der Gesellschaft für TheaterEthnologie