Interview: David Schneider

David Schneider enjoying the best seat in the house during rehearsals for Making Stalin Laugh

David Schneider enjoying the best seat in the house during rehearsals for Making Stalin Laugh

David Schneider has tried plenty of things in his career, most with success. He has acted in TV comedy, directed, written for film, stage and radio, performed stand-up and appeared in movies. And if there was a World Cup for tweeting he would definitely make the England squad.

Although he acknowledges that he has flitted from one thing to another in his career, there has always been a constant passion. And, perhaps strangely for a completely non-religious Jew, that passion is the Yiddish language.

Schneider studied for a PhD in Yiddish drama at Oxford and once even performed a Yiddish comedy routine for Jewish Book Week. He admits that he sometimes takes this interest to unusual lengths. "Once I was in Ikea and there was a Charedi man there with his son. I actually followed them around the store because I wanted to hear them speaking Yiddish, even though all they were saying were things like 'Did you remember to bring the voucher?' and 'I can't get any phone signal on my mobile'."

It is no surprise then that he rates his latest project, Making Stalin Laugh - a play about the Moscow State Yiddish Theatre which opens at London's JW3 centre this month - as the most important work of his career. His interest in the company dates back to his student days. "When I was researching my PhD this company kept coming up," Schneider recalls. "There were three or four Yiddish companies in Russia back in the 20s and 30s but this one was right up there with the big boys. In particular, there was an actor called Solomon Mikhoels. When Shostakovich wrote his memoirs, he said Mikhoels was the best King Lear he had ever seen, which was quite something for an actor performing in Yiddish."

The Moscow State Yiddish Theatre suffered from Stalin's brutal and often irrational purges. Mikhoels himself said that Russia was not an antisemitic country because there, everyone was liable to be rounded up and killed. In 1948, he himself met that fate. Although the authorities said he died in a car accident, it is believed he was a victim of the NKVD secret police. The rest of the company were shot in 1952 - actors, directors and writers. Schneider makes the analogy that it would be like Dame Judi Dench, Sir Ian McKellen and Zadie Smith all being executed on the same day.

Yet although the company and Yiddish theatre itself in the Soviet Union met a grisly end, Schneider emphasises that Making Stalin Laugh is intended as a celebration. "In the 30s there was the great terror and it was absolutely random and brutal. However, people got on with their lives and made theatre. And despite the times, these were actors with egos, who complained about being upstaged and who had affairs. They made jokes and they celebrated life."

Schneider stresses that Yiddish theatre at its height was big business and its leading characters were huge celebrities in their world. "Theatre companies would sometimes rehearse a play for over a year - there would be 50 in the orchestra and 40 actors on stage. It was a huge deal."

He adds that actors like Mikhoels were dominant characters. "A lot of the actor managers in those days were dictators. In order to create good art you need the dictator in you - you need to tell people this is the way it's going to be done. There are good dictators and bad dictators. Obviously Stalin was terrible."

The fact that these legends of Yiddish theatre are now to have their place on the JW3 stage is something which, Schneider says, makes him feel emotional. "I just feel that this is a memorial to these people, and a big two-fingered salute to Stalin and to what happened. To me it's just wonderful that this lesser known annihilation is remembered and their careers celebrated."

And to produce this kind of work is also something which makes him feel proud professionally. "My natural writing bent is to comedy and this allows me to be a proper writer, a grown-up writer, writing about the dark side with a bit of emotional depth."

Schneider feels the play represents a kind of coming of age for him. Although having said that, it does not mean that writing for the stage will be his life from now on as he is constantly being pulled in different directions. A counterpoint to the emotional, dark world of Yiddish theatre is his success in broadcasting his thoughts in 140 characters or less on Twitter. In this particular world, success is measurable in terms of followers - and Schneider has 178,000.

He has seized on his Twitter fame to become an adviser to the corporate world on social media. "It justifies all the time I have wasted on Twitter over the years," he reasons. "There were times that I would spend 20 minutes honing a tweet - who has that kind of time? I've had periods - one as long as a year - when I have not tweeted at all because I get obsessed with it and can't get anything else done."

But Schneider has put this all to good use now. "The idea is to work for brands and show them how to do social media. It's really taking off. Brands need to be good online these days. It's not enough to do a TV campaign and so many of them don't know how to use Twitter to their advantage."

He adds with a chuckle that so varied is his work that his daughter is somewhat mystified as to what he does for a living. "She sometimes says to me: 'What do you actually do?' She's 16 so it's not like she doesn't understand stuff like that. There's always food on the table and I think she is trying to work out where it all comes from."

One would certainly have sympathy for her. After all, who would have thought there was money in Yiddish these days?

Making Stalin Laugh opens at JW3, 341-351 Finchley Road, London NW3, on June 15. www.jw3.org.uk

    Last updated: 11:27am, June 6 2014