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Montreal theatre will survive despite extensive cuts

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Aron Gonshor, right, and Sam Stein starred in Di Komedyantn, a Yiddish adaptation of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys at the Segal Centre in 2012. ANDREE LANTHIER PHOTO

The future of the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre (DWYT) is not in doubt, its chair Aron Gonshor says, despite a major cut in its budget, which means that, for the first time in decades, there will be no main stage DWYT production next season.

“The message is: nothing in life is perfect, but the DWYT is proud to be continuing the legacy (of its founder) Dora Wasserman and her daughter, Bryna, and is doing so at the Segal as its partner,” Gonshor told The CJN. Bryna left in 2011 to direct the Folksbiene Yiddish Theater in New York.

“Am I happy about the shrinking budget? Of course not. But people should realize that the Segal is still providing substantial funding … and that Alvin Segal and his family have put in millions over the years, which has allowed us to prosper as we have,” said Gonshor.

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He thinks the preservation and celebration of Yiddish culture can be served through more modest theatrical and other cultural events, as are planned for 2017-18, instead of the annual large-scale show, which typically runs for about a month.

“Dora used to say she would put on a play in a parking lot if she had to,” said Gonshor. “The important thing is to let people know about Yiddish theatre.”

The amateur troupe, which is entering its 60th year, has been a resident company of the Segal Centre, and its predecessor, the Saidye Bronfman Centre, since the latter opened 50 years ago. In that time, the DWYT has staged over 40 different productions, Gonshor said.

The DWYT is one of the few remaining Yiddish theatres in the world and it has a stellar reputation.

Gonshor, a DWYT member since he was a child, hopes the Segal Centre will back a main stage play or musical in the more distant future – something Segal executive and artistic director Lisa Rubin does not rule out – but there are “no guarantees,” he said.

The DWYT production has been part of the Segal Centre’s subscription series (the other plays being English professional theatre) for as long as anyone can remember. In recent years, they have been musicals in translation, such as the comedy, It Shoulda Been You, which closed on June 25 and incorporated a considerable amount of English content. For years now, English and French supertitles have brought in wider audiences.

In earlier years, the DWYT put on dramatic classics like The Dybbuk and God of Vengeance, as well as original works – all of which required actors with Yiddish fluency, who are becoming increasingly hard to find.

Rubin is a member of a younger generation that also cut her acting teeth with the DWYT. She told The CJN that the Segal Centre’s board of directors, chaired by Joel Segal, son of Alvin, decided that Jewish programming must be integral, but Yiddish theatre cannot be the only component of it.

“We have to make sure our Jewish programming has diverse voices,” said Rubin. “The demographics of the community are changing. We have to be inclusive, if we are to engage the community of the future.”

The Segal feels it must appeal to all segments of the Jewish community, as well as expose the general public to broadly defined Jewish culture.

However, Rubin stressed that the Segal Centre, a Federation CJA agency, remains dedicated to Yiddish culture and the DWYT in particular. “The DWYT and the Segal Centre are essentially the same,” she said. “We feel tremendous pride in it and are completely committed to it … it’s our legacy.”

Although DWYT cast members are volunteers, there are “enormous” costs, in terms of both money and effort, in mounting its productions, she pointed out, including the professional crew, sets, costumes, administration and other overhead, starting with simply keeping the lights on.

The board has a new “strategic plan,” Rubin said, to offer other ways of “exploring Jewish identity through the arts.” This includes staging English plays with Jewish themes, such as next season’s production of Golda’s Balcony.

DWYT will put on A Century Songbook, a new work celebrating the 100th anniversary of Federation CJA, from Nov. 26-29. It will also lead the Lyrics & Latkes Chanukah singalong, host a Jewish film series in April and put on a staged reading in the spring, probably of a Yiddish classic that’s appropriate for Israel’s 70th anniversary. Additional activities are being considered, Gonshor said.

The DWYT continues its youth acting program, YAYA, and preserves the extensive DWYT archives at the Segal Centre.

Musicals have been chosen in recent years, Rubin said, because performers do not have to be Yiddish speakers, and many are not even Jewish.

On the Segal Centre’s website, the DWYT is extolled as “a treasured part of what makes the Segal Centre a leading contributor to the cultural and artistic mosaic of Montreal.… Its audiences keep growing, numbering in the thousands for each production, and young actors keep joining.… Its plays … are critically acclaimed.”

Rubin thinks another big Yiddish show will be possible some day. “Every season brings new opportunities,” she said.

Both Rubin and Gonshor – who were interviewed separately – agree that the question of the DWYT’s future has had the positive effect of bringing in younger people.

“It’s rewarding when so many young people say, ‘What can we do?’” said Rubin.

“The DWYT is alive and growing. In the last couple of years, it has attracted a tremendous number of young people, with commitment and passion,” said Gonshor. “They want to do the Yiddish canon, they’re purists, they want to rediscover its beauty and wonder. That does my heart good.”