Change Of Focus
JET board decides to beef up its youth outreach programs.
After 27 seasons of professional theatrical productions geared toward Jewish audiences, the Jewish Ensemble Theatre (JET) is heading in a new direction. The theater will present two main stage plays instead of the usual four and expand its youth outreach programs to schools and other audiences in Detroit and other areas throughout Southeast Michigan.
The new initiative will be led by JET Board of Directors President Jim August, who has come full circle after serving as the first JET president when the theater was established in 1989 by actress and founding artistic director Evelyn Orbach and a group of prominent theater and community leaders. The mission was to provide the community with professional theatrical productions that explored a wide range of issues through a Jewish lens.
From the stage of the cozy 176-seat Aaron DeRoy Theatre in the lower level of the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield, audiences enjoyed musicals, comedies and dramas intended to provoke stimulating after-theater conversation or raucous laughter, depending on the production. Playwrights ranged from Pulitzer Prize winners, such as the late Wendy Wasserstein (The Sisters Rosenzweig), to up-and-coming acclaimed local writers, such as Joseph Zettelmaier (The Scullery Maid).
JET is the oldest continuously operating professional Jewish theater in North America, and August and other JET supporters feel it’s time for a different focus.
“Our overall programming has been the same for 27 years,” August said. “We need to change, too.”
He says interest from some of the theater’s major donors prompted JET leaders to evaluate operations and develop a new strategy with more emphasis on youth programs. In past seasons, the theater had three main initiatives: four or more main stage productions; the Dorfman Family Foundation Y.E.S. (Youth Education Services), which includes three anti-bullying plays and an annual production of The Diary of Anne Frank; and a week of staged readings of new plays.
This season, there will be two shows in the spring of 2016: Kalamazoo, a comedy about two 70-something would-be lovers, one Jewish and one Catholic; and Dancing Lessons, a critically acclaimed play about two offbeat New York neighbors who discover they have more in common than the apartment building they inhabit.
As in past years, The Diary of Anne Frank will be performed for student groups from schools throughout Metro Detroit at the Berman Center for the Performing Arts. This season’s shows are scheduled for Feb. 25-March 9, with a public performance Feb. 28. To date, more than 100,000 students have seen Anne Frank, which is subsidized to make the tickets affordable to school groups.
The staged readings at the DeRoy Theatre will continue, with additional readings in the works at new venues geared for new audiences and special interest groups.
To further the goal of reaching more audiences with the anti-bullying plays, JET has formed a new partnership with the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Metropolitan Detroit, an organization that advocates for social justice locally and worldwide. According to Executive Director Robert Cohen, the JCRC will serve as a “connector” between the JET and local school districts and other agencies by using its contacts in the city of Detroit as well as in Chaldean, Latino, African American and other ethnic communities.
“This is a perfect vehicle for us to collaborate on,” Cohen said. “There’s a universal need for work on the bullying issue. We plan on helping the victims, the perpetrators and the bystanders.”
The anti-bullying plays have been seen by more than half a million students, with plans to expand both the audience numbers and the geographic areas. Three age-appropriate plays are included in the repertoire: Word, for middle and high school students; Mean Girls, for upper elementary and middle school girls; and I Was Just Kidding, for elementary students. According to August, the post-show talkbacks help solidify the messages conveyed in the plays.
“It’s an extraordinarily effective medium with young people,” August said. “The students really respond; it really gets to them.”
JET Executive Director Chris Bremer, whose position will remain unchanged, is looking forward to the new season and the changes it will bring.
“The JET has been around for 27 years, and we plan on being here for another 27 years,” Bremer said. “We plan on getting our financial house in order and our priorities set, and this is the ideal time to do this.”
According to Bremer, an average stage production may cost $35,000-$50,000, not including the ongoing overhead expenses of maintaining the theater.
“If we were to charge what it actually costs, our ticket prices would be double,” he said.
August acknowledged financial issues were also a factor in the decision to cut back on stage shows and expand the focus on youth outreach.
He said the JET budget has been about $600,000 for several years, including production costs as well as overhead.
“Regional theaters always depend on donor support, and that’s become more difficult as our audience gets smaller. We have to take positive, aggressive steps,” August said.
“The timing of some very major [for us]bequests have helped us control the losses and provided an occasional surplus. This year’s budget is about $400,000 reflecting lower production costs from fewer major productions and cuts in overhead.”
Letters were sent to season ticket subscribers announcing the JET’s programming changes, and patrons were offered various options for requesting refunds or having their subscriptions adjusted.
“People reacted in different ways,” August said. “Some changed their subscriptions, some donated the money to the theater and some asked for their money back.”
Long-term subscribers Jim and Sandy Hack of West Bloomfield were disappointed when they learned about the new plans.
“We thought their shows had improved lately,” Jim Hack said. “We still plan to support the JET, but we don’t understand why they can’t attract more patrons.”
Hal and Wendy Goldberg of Bloomfield Township had decided not to renew their subscription before hearing about the shortened season.
“We thought the plays had become repetitious,” said Hal, who approves of the theater’s decision to focus more on school outreach.
Serving under August are three co-vice-presidents, who previously served as co-presidents: Mary Lou Zieve, Elaine Sturman and Betty Pernick.
“It’s time to try something else, to go out and draw attention to the programs. It’s an important piece of our mission, helping and reaching young people,” said Zieve, whose late husband, Mort, was JET’s second president. “We want to engage them in conversations.”
Zieve hopes the new focus may also attract some younger people to take leadership roles.
Another outreach idea on the JET drawing board is pop-up dinner theater events: professional performances in temporary locations set up for short periods of time.
“We want to expand our audience by performing in different locations,” said August, adding that the JET will not give up its current location in the DeRoy Theatre.
While the theater has been fondly known as “The JET” for more than two decades, August would like a return to its full name, Jewish Ensemble Theatre, especially with audiences outside the traditional Metro Detroit Jewish Community.
“There’s a Jewish tradition of storytelling and values,” he said.
While the 2015-16 season will include fewer main stage plays than in the past, the number of plays may increase in future years.
“At some point, one sits down and looks at the finances, history and support of the entity,” said Zieve. “We want to reach different people. Anything is possible. We have a lot of possibilities and ideas on the table.”
By: Ronelle Grier, Contributing Write