Jewish drama students stage their own plays to combat hate

Based on their own experiences at drama school, the series of six short plays will be performed at London’s Kiln Theatre next month


A series of six short Jewish plays is to be staged at London’s Kiln Theatre next month, featuring work by some of the country’s top Jewish dramatists, including Alexis Zegerman, Amy Rosenthal and Ryan Craig.

Commissioned by Jewish drama graduates Dan Wolff, 23, and Sam Thorpe-Spinks, 29, the series will attempt to address such questions as “how do we define ourselves as Jewish?” and “how is that changing?” The material will be performed on 8 and 9 August.

The idea was sparked by what the show’s two actor-producers describe as the antisemitism they experienced while studying at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

“Dan and I were the only two Jews in our year and it very much felt like we were the only two who knew about Jews. We experienced moments while we were there that were largely antisemitic,” said Mr Thorpe-Spinks.

Some of the comments were “half-joking” he continued during an online conversation with the JC. The instances ranged from mild insensitivity to offensive behaviour.

One example happened during an acting class in an exercise about emphasis and articulation.

“The exercise involved throwing pennies onto the floor,” explained Mr Wolff.

“Naturally there were loads of pennies all over the floor [by the end] and someone came up to us and said ‘I bet you’re going to be picking all of these up after the class’.”

“I wrote a document about every little instance,” added Mr Wolff. “I don’t know if I still have it. It went on for pages.” On another occasion the students and staff were working on The Merchant of Venice in a way that Mr Wolff describes as “ridiculous, insensitive and awful”.

“You can’t do that play with 30 people in a room when two of them are Jewish and when the director isn’t Jewish. That’s absurd. After a few days of disquiet I said, ‘We need to talk about what we’re doing here because this is traumatic for certain people’.”

Yet although the intervention was apparently listened to, it made little or no difference to how the play was explored, according to the graduates. Today they know a Jewish student at the drama school who confirms “micro-aggressions” or decisions on casting, and other comments continue to be “way inappropriate, insensitive and borderline antisemitic”.

Despite the hurt the graduates were made to feel — other comments included one about how “Jews run New York” and another from a member of staff about them not having to worry about prices because they must be rich — their hope is not to look back at the experience in anger.

Instead they want to provide an environment in which Jewish theatre practitioners feel they can explore their Jewishness and have “complete licence to just write about being Jewish”.

The result is called Emanate Presents: An Evening of New Jewish Writing. It is described as “six original short scenes penned by established Jewish playwrights featuring a cast of early-career Jewish actors”. A Q&A session will follow the first show.

The show’s venue was embroiled in controversy in 2014 (when it was known as the Tricycle).

The theatre objected to the Jewish Film Festival, which it was hosting, receiving a small part of its funding from the Israeli embassy.

The event was cancelled and the theatre later apologised for calling on the festival to hand back the money as a condition of it hosting the festival.

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