MONTREAL — When Bryna Wasserman announced in the spring of last year that she was leaving the Segal Centre for Performing Arts after 15 years, the news was especially unsettling to lovers of Yiddish theatre.
In addition to being the Segal’s artistic director, Wasserman was director of the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre (DWYT), which her late mother founded more than 50 years earlier.
“We were in shock,” admits Aron Gonshor, now the Yiddish theatre committee chair. Wasserman was moving to New York to be executive director of the Folksbiene Yiddish Theater. The future looked cloudy, even though she was to maintain ties as DWYT’s honorary artistic director.
Although most agree that Wasserman can never be replaced, Yiddish culture at the Segal today has not only survived, but is flourishing, thanks in large part to financial support from the Alvin Segal Family Foundation and a small group of dedicated volunteers.
In addition to the annual DWYT main-stage production in the spring, directed by Audrey Finkelstein, a DWYT veteran despite her youth, there is also year-round Yiddish programming. The “I Love Yiddish” series kicked off this month with Gonshor and Sam Stein starring in a staged reading of Komedyantn, a Yiddish version of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys.
The show, held in the Segal’s Studio, was oversold, Gonshor said. It was originally scheduled to run over two nights, but the duo was nervous about the box office. They needn’t have been.
“We’ll probably reprise it in the winter or spring,” he said.
The Segal has a new co-ordinator of Yiddish programming, CJAD radio broadcaster Dan Laxer. While not fluent in the mamaloshen, he is a graduate of Jewish People’s and Peretz Schools and Bialik High School, so “I can handle a fairly simple conversation in Yiddish.”
He has a longtime association with the DWYT through his wife, actor Michelle Heisler, who is director of the Segal’s YAYA program (Young Actors for Young Adults), which is devoted to passing on the Yiddish heritage to children and teens.
“Part of my job is to help bring in a new, younger audience,” said Laxer, 45. With English and sometimes French subtitles now used, Laxer is looking beyond the Jewish community.
“To paraphrase an old ad, you don’t have to be Jewish to love Yiddish theatre. If I can go to an opera in Italian or German or French, how is it any different to see a play in Yiddish?”
The next production in the series is a staged reading of a Yiddish version of Michel Tremblay’s beloved play Les Belles-soeurs on Dec. 3 and 4.
This marks the 20th anniversary of the DWYT’s original Yiddish play, Di Shveigerins, with translation by Pierre Anctil and Goldie Morgentaler.
Most of the original 15-member, all-female cast is returning, said Gonshor, a dentist by profession, who comes from a Yiddish-speaking home. He was a member of the late Dora Wasserman’s children’s troupe in the early 1950s, forerunner of the DWYT.
The collaboration between Dora Wasserman and Tremblay was hailed as an intercultural breakthrough, and it was the start of a warm friendship until her death in 2003.
“Tremblay said that, of all the languages Les Belles-soeurs was translated into, this one came closest to capturing the original’s flavour,” Gonshor said.
Gonshor emphasized the “staged” in these productions. There are sets and costumes, and the actors do act. “Done well, you forget that they are holding a script,” he said.
All actors are amateurs volunteering their time, Gonshor noted, but this and the other Yiddish programs benefit from the Segal’s professional crew and its top-quality facilities. Di Shveigerins is professionally directed by Rachelle Glait.
“I Love Yiddish” will continue with a cultural event almost every month, featuring local or out-of-town talent.
As the Segal evolves into a major Montreal cultural institution, the continuing health of its Yiddish component speaks to Alvin Segal’s commitment to not letting it lose sight of its Jewish roots, Gonshor said.
It was Segal’s love of Yiddish theatre that attracted the philanthropist to the then-Saidye Bronfman Centre in 1998, he said.
“We are trying to maintain Dora’s vision of community theatre: theatre for the community by the community,” Gonshor said.
The year-long programming provides a much-needed opportunity for a surprisingly large number of would-be Yiddish artists to hone their craft, he said. Many excellent performers have also been recruited who know little or no Yiddish, he added.
“The issue is not where do we find the artists, but what do we do with all the ones we have?” he said.
“We keep hearing that live theatre, generally, is in crisis. People were talking about Yiddish being under stress 100 years ago, yet Yiddish theatre here is in better shape than ever.
“We have an audience, and whether they understand everything doesn’t matter. They want to be part of Yiddish theatre.”
This season’s main-stage DWYT production in June, part of the Segal’s regular subscription season, is Tales from Odessa, an original play based on the stories of Isaac Babel.
Josh “Socalled” Dolgin, another younger recruit who came up through KlezKanada’s ranks to become a hot indie artist, is writing the music and lyrics.
All this, Gonshor stressed, is not to suggest that Bryna Wasserman is not sorely missed. She continues to act as a consultant to the DWYT, and he hopes that will continue for as long as possible.