Intermission - Nurturing a Jewish Performance Community
Intermission - Nurturing a Jewish Performance Community is a professional development program and community building project that begins with an intensive 3-day training that will include work sharing, creative collaboration space, and facilitated conversations about Jewish and artistic identity, and how those are manifesting in the current reality of the UK. The retreat will also give the participating performance-based Jewish artists an opportunity to engage in informal dialogue and restful rejuvenation in a safe, nurturing space.
What is the mission and purpose of this program?
Asylum Arts is collaboratively creating a professional development program in the United Kingdom that includes a 3-day intensive retreat for British Jewish performance-based artists. The program will address the specific concerns of artists working in performance-based media, particularly the sociopolitical climate Jewish artists face in the UK that has led to the rise in antisemitism. The retreat will create a safe space for the exploration of Jewish and artistic identity, and the many creative manifestations of those identities. It will allow artists to explore what it means to be making Jewish work in these times and why many artists don’t feel comfortable doing so in this current climate. The retreat aims to develop language, strategies, and a community of support to combat antisemitism within the performing arts community.
Intermission is an intensive 3-day training, and will include community building, work sharing, creative collaboration space, and facilitated conversations about Jewish and artistic identity, and how those are manifesting in the current reality of the UK. This will be held in Fall - Winter 2019 and we hope to hold it at Skeet Hill House, a historic Jewish retreat center on the outskirts of London, which will allow the opportunity for rejuvenation while digging into these difficult conversations. This program will be created in collaboration with local cultural institutions, with the Manchester Jewish Museum as our first official partner. We are currently in discussion with other major British Jewish cultural institutions who are interested in joining us and supporting us in this important project.
- Build a stronger network of artists to strengthen the performance ecosystem for Jewish artists, and build a network of support to combat antisemitism
- Build a commitment to reciprocity and collaboration
- Provide a platform for exploring how expected notions of Jewishness and antisemitism play out in the British performing arts community
- Facilitate a nuanced conversation about British Jewish culture, history and identity
- Empower artists to explore the Jewishness of their work by building a support network and community, particularly through mentorship with established figures in the theater world
- Develop strategies and language for Jewish artists to combat antisemitism, feeling comfortable and supported in speaking out
Due to the sensitive nature of the issues to be explored, invited artists will be drawn from the participants of previous Asylum retreats as well as artists that are identified by the current alumni and local stakeholders, with the goal of bringing together 25 artists. We have put together an initial list of 45 artists who we believe will have an interest in this program, and we expect to add to the list as we build our partnership and engage with additional stakeholders. Artists need to demonstrate a high level of artistic excellence, commitment to a professional career and a willingness to engage in this learning community and process. We will be focusing on artists that primarily work in theater-based contexts, including playwrights, musicians, performers, directors, spoken word artists, and comedians. The 25 artists are the primary beneficiaries, but this program will also impact hundreds of thousands of audience members who will experience the future Jewish-themed work of these artists.
Over the past year, a small group of Jewish performing artists, led by Asylum alumni Nick Cassenbaum, have been meeting regularly to provide support and dialogue around their challenges with presenting Jewish-themed work in mainstream performing arts venues in the UK. There are currently no organizational places that are creating a safe space to engage in these conversations, which feels particularly urgent at a moment when diverse Jewish voices are particularly needed.
These challenges are now more relevant than ever with the rise of far-right antisemitism in the UK, and an increased conflation of negative attitudes towards the Israeli government and feelings towards the British Jewish community. 2018 saw an increased number of antisemitic incidents, including a rise of antisemitism within the UK Labour Party. Well known Jewish performers and writers have been confronting this issue of antisemitism, which is referenced in this article. Jewish Communal organizations, including the Jewish Leadership Council have been trying to address the issue on a larger scale but places which once felt safe - especially to liberal creative communities - are now facing challenges.
Currently in the UK, Jewish artists have faced restrictions and negative feedback when trying to present Jewish-themed work in mainstream arts institutions. These restrictions create a cultural atmosphere that is missing deeply important Jewish voices, and any work that is shown tends to fall into simple unsophisticated stereotypes: Jews being funny, Jews as victims, Jews as the Zionist enemy. Artists involved in the small group meetings have shared experiences that include being told that it is “outdated” to make any work about the Holocaust, or that a complex and balanced play about female Israeli border control guards is “too pro-Israel,” or that plays about Jewish families are “not contemporary.” One artist shared that they were at a pitching meeting at a major theater, pitching a play about Jews in London, and the theater stopped them to inform them, “just so you know, this is an anti-Zionist theater.” With the combination of historic antisemitism and the increasing delegitimization of Israel in progressive circles, it is urgent and essential to support artists in creating Jewish culture that tackles these complicated issues and presents interesting and contemporary depictions of Jews and Jewish life.
This British retreat will be a new program for Asylum Arts, but will build on our successful and replicable model for local retreats. This will be our 15th retreat in collaboration with local organizations and stakeholders, and our second retreat in the UK. Our previous retreat, Urban Artist Retreat, in collaboration with JW3, was for London-based multi-disciplinary artists, and was successful in bringing together 21 artists from across the city to delve into their Jewish, British, and artistic identities, building a community of practice that continues to resonate. Other Europe-based retreats have also seeded long-term communities. For example, a group of artists from our 2018 Nordic Jewish Artist Retreat is preparing an exhibition together, and artists from our 2017 Berlin Jewish Artist Retreat meet regularly to celebrate holidays, share their work with one another, and create new exhibitions in collaboration with our partner ELES.
How do you measure the success of your program?
The retreat will be evaluated through a post-retreat survey that will assess the specific goals of this retreat as well as the larger impacts we hope to see through our work. As in all of our retreats, we evaluate the specific pieces of our program, the impact on the artists’ sense of Jewish identity, their connection to the artistic and Jewish communities, acquisition of new skills, and their interest in building collaborations with other participants. Our evaluation efforts are led by Dr. Tobin Belzer from the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at USC and Taube Center for Jewish Studies at Stanford University, and our previous formal evaluation found that six months after attending an Asylum international retreat, the experience has continued to affect artists’ lives. We found a variety of positive outcomes – from both the retreat and subsequent grants – on participants’ skills, knowledge, attitudes and behavior. Findings illustrate the numerous ways in which Asylum is achieving the goals of equipping emerging artists with professional skills, providing support for new projects, fostering collaborations, and creating opportunities for engagement with Jewish ideas.
In addition, the Manchester Jewish Museum’s involvement includes a commitment to work with the artists after the retreat to develop new work that aligns with the museum’s re-opening and expanded mission. The specifics of this commitment are still in progress, but the development of these new works are a crucial first step to disseminating sophisticated Jewish culture to the larger performing arts world in the UK. Attempts to pitch these new projects will allow us to test the strategies and language we develop together during the retreat to speak out against antisemitism even if it goes against the power dynamic in a very precarious working world. Asylum Arts, in collaboration with our partners, will continue to be in conversation with the group of artists moving forward to assess the reactions that they receive and if we need to adjust strategies and offer support during challenging moments.