Secret of a full-house synagogue

By Tracy-Ann Oberman, February 21, 2014

I recently went back to the theatre to see a show not once, but twice. Yes, I loved it that much.

A British theatre company called Punch Drunk has created a spectacular piece of theatre that originally opened in a disused building near Paddington Station for a few months and has now extended its booking period into a year. How have they achieved what other companies can only dream about?

The company was set up at the turn of the century (ooh, I love writing that) in 2000 by Felix Barrett, whose mission statement was to encourage more people into the theatre by breaking down traditional expectations. Rather than taking a seat, lights going down, curtains opening and a story unfolding, he wanted his audience to be challenged, surprised into working a bit harder.

Punch Drunk’s immersive theatre certainly makes you work. The current show, The Drowned Man, involves a masked audience being taken into a world that they walk through, discovering and exploring bits of a story that unfolds out of sequence, eerily, beautifully and disjointedly. It somehow works as a cohesive, experiential, whole. It’s a piece of theatre that I certainly “lived” . Imagine being in a spellbinding dream/nightmare. It’s addictive. The woman walking next to me told me she’d seen it seven times and flew back from the States to see it on the last occasion.

This segues into my last shul experience. How does any synagogue invite people into a spiritual, immersive moment that keeps its regular attendees but also encourages new blood into coming back for more?

As a young girl growing up in Stanmore, and a regular synagogue-goer at that, shul was a spectator sport. I liked what was going on down in the main service: the majestic Ark and the austere Torah scrolls being disrobed of their fine velvet cloaks and silverware, and then the ancient texts read out. How I longed to kiss the Torah as it travelled through the men’s section. It looked so ritualistic and spiritual. Sadly, sitting in the high-up ladies’ gallery and helping out serving the kiddush didn’t do it for me. Shul was austere, aloof and rigid.

My current shul, however, is a bit like Punch Drunk in that it’s smashing the old rules, while adhering to tradition. It’s currently having a forum to discuss whether women should be allowed to partake in the service. Who knows the outcome, but the fact they are even having the debate is exciting.

I love watching the interactivity of Saturday mornings at this shul. The rabbi is warm, wise, funny and inclusive. The bimah is still the focus but it has toddlers running up and over it during the service, women are allowed to stand near the back of the men’s section to watch at closer range. The songs are beautiful, rough and rousing. While devout prayer takes place, a community can also watch a barmitzvah boy shyly wave at his mum and have her wave back at him and everyone cheer.

This feels like religion alive, relevant, surprising and theatrical. It’s immersive shul-going. I like it.

    Last updated: 1:24pm, February 21 2014