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A New Beginning
For David Mamet’s American Buffalo, set designer Elspeth Williams transformed the JET stage into a resale shop in Hamtramck.
As the JET theater is forced out of its home at the JCC, it looks forward to what will come next.
After almost three decades in the Aaron DeRoy Theatre at the D. Dan and Betty Kahn Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield, the Jewish Ensemble Theater (JET) will be leaving its longtime home at the end of June, coinciding with the conclusion of its 2017-18 season. A new location for the longest continuously running professional Jewish theater in North America has not yet been determined, but JET officials are optimistic about the coming move.
The change was precipitated by the JCC’s decision not to renew the JET’s lease, which had been month-to-month, after June 30. The theater space will be taken over by Frankel Jewish Academy (FJA), which is located at the JCC, to be used for the school’s performing arts program. According to Brian Siegel, CEO of the JCC, the decision was basically economic, made in accordance with the JCC’s ongoing facility changes and financial goals. A major goal of the JCC is to increase revenue and reduce its footprint within the building, a goal supported by leasing the space to FJA instead of the JET.
Siegel says the decision has been a long time coming, with multiple discussions between JCC and JET leadership over the past two years. Principals discussed the possibility of FJA sharing the space with the JET, but that turned out to be an unfeasible option.
“As we figure out what our season will be, we hope people will be patient and consider it an adventure to explore new venues in southeast Michigan.”
— Chris Bremer
“We’re sad about it, too, but we’ve all been preparing for this for some time,” Siegel said. “What they could pay was less than our costs, and funding the JET is not within the JCC mission. We have great respect for the JET, but we can’t afford to be their donor.”
Siegel added that the JCC is committed to maintaining the theater’s current name in accordance with the wishes of the Aaron DeRoy Foundation.
A NEW ADVENTURE
While the JET’s new home has yet to be determined, Chris Bremer, JET’s executive director, and board president Elaine Sturman see the move as a positive change and opportunity for growth.
“It gave us the push we needed to move forward,” Sturman said. “We probably wouldn’t have left the JCC yet, but because of all the changes going on at the JCC and the Academy [FJA], they’re changing their focus and so are we.”
As the JET searches for a new home, leaders are exploring the possibility of holding some of its productions in multiple venues. Bremer says this will allow the theater to stage different kinds of productions as well as expand its audience base. While no specific shows have been decided on, the theater company is committed to producing at least four main stage plays as well as maintaining the successful student outreach program during 2018-19, its 30th season.
“The type of space will determine what shows we do; we want to match the right show to the right venue,” Bremer says. “As we figure out what our season will be, we hope people will be patient and consider it an adventure to explore new venues in southeast Michigan.”
The first such venture will be a summer remounting of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, which had a successful run at the JET last fall, at the historic Music Hall’s Jazz Café July 13-29.
Bremer says the first priority is finding approximately 1,200 square feet of office space so the JET can continue its administrative operations as it searches for rehearsal and performance space.
“There are some wonderful options we’re investigating right now — it’s the best thing to happen to JET,” Sturman says.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR FJA
Rabbi Azaryah Cohen, FJA’s head of school, said that the use of the DeRoy Theatre will enhance the school’s performing arts program and may also be used for creative activities that are part of other classes.
“In fact, art and creative expression in general are important components in our academic classes and elective programming,” he said. “We want to be able to provide our students with dedicated, well-equipped and purposefully designed space so they can get the most out of these creative experiences.”
Cohen said the availability of a dedicated theater would be advantageous to students who are involved in a range of creative endeavors; including art and creative writing competitions, vocal and instrumental music, fashion design and performance art.
While discussions have been taking place, it has not been determined whether FJA will take over additional space beyond the theater. Both Siegel and Cohen declined to discuss details of the new lease, such as total square footage to be occupied by FJA.
“We are in the process of determining how potential additional space will help fulfill our education vision, which of course also has to coincide with the available opportunities of our landlord, the JCC,” Cohen says. “Since the dedication of our Genesis STEAM Lab [last year] funded by the William Davidson Foundation, we have been moving toward an educational approach centered around project-based learning, collaboration, and critical thinking and design.”
He believes new common spaces designed and furnished to foster discussion and collaboration, experimentation and exploration will facilitate learning experiences beyond traditional classroom walls.
“We welcome the possibility of any additional space, which will only enhance our already exemplary program,” Cohen says.
JET SEASON CONTINUES AT JCC
In the meantime, the JET will finish the remainder of its 2017-18 season in its current location at the JCC. This includes Hard Love, the drama by Israeli playwright Motti Lerner (look for the JN’s review in the April 19 issue), running now through May 6, and Casa Valentina by Harvey Fierstein, which runs May 24-June 17. In addition, the annual Seymour J. and Ethel S. Frank Festival of New Plays will run June 4-25 on Monday evenings.
The relocation also will not affect JET’s Dorfman Family Foundation Youth Theatre, which will continue to tour schools during the relocation with its popular anti-bullying shows, including a recent addition on cyber-bullying, which reached more than 35,000 students this season. Also unaffected is the JET’s annual production of The Diary of Anne Frank, which was performed before 7,000 students at the Berman Center for the Performing Arts and, for the first time, at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
“We have more than 100 school productions per year, and we will continue to grow this audience regardless of our location,” says Bremer, who sees the change as a chance to accommodate both the theater’s traditional base and as an opportunity to attract new audiences. He looks forward to finding a location that is more accessible and allows the addition of theatrical elements that were not possible in the current space.
The theater will hold its annual fall fundraiser Sept. 6 at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, featuring last year’s popular entertainers, the Capitol Steps. According to Sturman, more than 900 people attended last year’s sold-out fundraiser, more than four times the attendance of previous years.
“Our base has extended radically in the last year,” Sturman said. “We’ve done shows the public wants to see.”
She said the JET board members and administrators are looking at venues with better parking facilities and greater accessibility than the JCC to meet the needs of their older audience members.
“The Center [JCC] has been a most supportive landlord and we appreciate that support and cooperation,” Sturman said. “However, the timing couldn’t be better for the theater to make a change and we are excited to begin the next 30 years.”