Michael Nathanson, the artistic director and general manager of the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre, was surprised to learn he was nominated for a 2009 Governor General’s Award for writing the play Talk.
The provocative, emotionally honest play about the collapse of a friendship between a Jewish man and his non-Jewish friend in the aftermath of 9/11, because of their opposing viewpoints about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, premièred in Winnipeg in 2007.
As a result of the award nomination, Nathanson, 43, said interest in the play has soared. “There are now 10 theatres looking at producing the play. The play will be put on by the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company in Toronto [in March]…That is the upside of the nomination. It confers a legitimacy on the play that it wouldn’t have otherwise.”
Nathanson’s engaging 80-minute play about two buddies, Josh and Gordon, whose friendship goes awry when the word “Palestine” is mentioned, is based on the playwright’s own personal experience.
Nathanson was in New York the day two planes plowed into the World Trade Center. He and his bride, Rebecca Brask, had been married the month before in Manitoba and wanted to tie the knot again stateside to jump-start her quest for immigration papers that would allow her to live in the United States. Convinced there were more deadly attacks to come, the pair fled New York within a week.
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, Nathanson received an e-mail from one of his pals in Italy loaded with anti-American and anti-Israel diatribes.
“I was dumfounded, given that he knew I was Jewish and what I had just lived through,” Nathanson recalled. “When I questioned him, he went insane on me, accusing me of not letting him express his opinion and of being a fascist.”
A confused Nathanson began to sort out his own feelings about the event by penning a dialogue about the situation. The thought-provoking and, at times, humorous debate in Talk has been fictionalized, although Nathanson said parts of the script resemble some of his actual conversations.
“Although the play deals with the Middle East conflict, its main focus has to be about the relationship between the guys and how it falls apart. If we don’t feel their loss as friends, then the play doesn’t resonate as well as it should,” Nathanson said.
“It never occurred to me that I would be nominated for the [Governor General’s Literary Award]. I didn’t know that Playwrights Canada Press put it in for consideration. When my wife phoned to tell me Talk was a GG finalist, I didn’t quite believe it… It was very surreal.”
Nathanson added that he initially “pitched the play” to every Jewish theatre in North America, noting that it was a marketing challenge. He recalled that one rejection letter stated, “As soon as the conflict in the Middle East is settled, we’ll be happy to present this show to our subscribers because it will be less controversial then.”
Meanwhile, his relationship with his friend in Italy soured. “We had communication for a while and seemingly worked through our differences. However, when the Winnipeg Free Press published an article about Talk… he read about it online… I received an e-mail from him that was very angry… I have not heard from him since.”
Currently, Nathanson is writing a comedy, One of Ours, which is set for a first reading in May 2010 with Winnipeg Jewish Theatre producing the world première in April 2011.
“The play has four characters and is set at West Hawk Lake. It’s about a Winnipeg Jewish family. There are two brothers, a wife and one of the brothers brings home an unexpected guest. It deals with the issues of family businesses and generational divides.”
Nathanson began his career acting on television at age 13. His plays have been staged in New York, Dallas, and at festivals across Canada.
In Winnipeg, Michael has written for Theatre Projects Manitoba, CBC Radio and the University of Winnipeg. He has written two animated, 50-episode Internet-based series for Little Fox, Korea.
Talk will run in Toronto at the Jane Mallett Theatre from March 3 to 20. For tickets, call 416-366-7723.