Director Shelli Place Talks MJTC’s Seasonal Favorite ‘Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins’

Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company is offering a new staging of holiday-favorite Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins running through Dec. 19. We sat down to chat with Director Shelli Place about the show.

Hershel is Shari Aronson’s adaptation of Eric A. Kimmel’s award-winning children’s book of the same name. And it’s about …

Hershel who is a poor but lovable trickster, who uses his wits to get by, targeting the rich as well as common folks with his shenanigans. As the play begins, Hershel is traveling from town to town outside Siberia, peddling his genuine, complete Hanukkah kit. When he gets to Helmsbergville he discovers that the townspeople cannot celebrate Hanukkah due to Goblins taking over the synagogue years ago. So with the promise of a great potato latke feast in his honor, Hershel decides to take on the task of getting rid of the Goblins.

This is MJTC’s fifth production of Hershel since 1999. What’s new, what’s old?

The story is timeless. Our show brings it to life for the stage through comedy, puppets, and music. The character of Hershel is actually based on a historical figure, who lived in what is today’s Ukraine during the late 1700’s. He was somewhat of a folk hero who was known for taking on forces much larger than himself with nothing but his humor. His tales read like vaudeville skits from the borscht belt! With that in mind, I decided to put more of a vaudevillian style to the characters and puppets, We took care to make sure that Hershel didn’t appear as a con-man but rather a clever prankster who solves problems on his feet and discovers his own humanity in the process.

In addition, we wanted to give the kids a glimpse into how actors and crew prepare for a show prior to curtain. So as the audience enters the theater, the cast is setting the stage, checking technical cues and reviewing some dance steps. The goal is to get the kids engaged from the minute they sit in the seats.

In 2008, the show won an Ivey Award for Chris Griffith’s superb and imaginative puppetry. For this year’s production, Chris’s designed all new puppets. What was behind that decision and what can we expect in the way of puppet magic?

Chris Griffith is an amazing puppet designer and puppeteer. At our first meeting, he told me that puppetry has gone in new directions in the past decade, where the puppeteers are actually seen by the audience while controlling the puppets and that he was excited about reimagining the puppets with this in mind. This gave me a chance to cast actors who could do great character work without taking the focus away from the puppets but rather become “one” with their puppet.

Was working with the puppets a challenge? 

The process was amazing. Chris had the puppets for us on “day one” and spent time with the actors, teaching them warm-up and recovery exercises for recurring muscle use and how to breathe with their puppets. Once they felt at ease with what they could do with the puppets, we started adding comedic timing and takes with realistic reactions. We found that the more real the reactions were, the funnier they were. Kids these days are much more sophisticated and knowledgeable. They take data in so easily and are always looking for how and why things work. This is a chance for them to see the magic of puppetry from different perspectives simultaneously. Chris and I also wanted to incorporate household utensils as part of the puppets to inspire kids to use their imagination to create their own puppets.

What drew you to this project? How did your previous experience prepare you for it? Does being a mom help?

I was surprised when Barbara Brooks called me for this show. I am known as a director who can find humor in dramas, and stage comedies and musical revues. I hadn’t directed a children’s show in years and never worked with puppets. But actors portray characters and puppets are characters so I just treated the puppets like actors. I have great respect for actors and audiences and I try never to talk down to either, especially kids.

I used to be a casting assistant for commercials in L.A and kids were my specialty. Having a child of my own, I knew the names of every Ninja Turtle and Little Pony and could get whatever was needed out of kids for the directors. I used the same technique as I started working on this script. Approach the kids as you do anyone else, keep it honest and all will be well.

How did you prepare? Did you or the cast have to do any special research?

Preparing for this show was a bit different than most. Of course, I reviewed the book and the Hanukkah traditions. Shari gave us the links to the real Hershel and the tales that were credited to him. When I read them out loud I kept thinking, this sounds like a Groucho Marx bit. So, I did research on various vaudeville/comedy teams I had seen in movies and TV…Abbott & Costello, Laurel & Hardy, even the 3 Stooges! Then I was lucky to land the talents of Neal Beckman, Kim Kivens, Julie Ann Nevill and Joe Wiener, and from there… it just took off.

It provided a great collaboration as the cast came from different backgrounds and generations so everyone chimed in and it was lots of fun developing the staging based on shared memories. I also have to give a shout out to our unofficial Dramaturgs, Kim Kivens and Joe Wiener, who, although come from different “branches” of Judaism, was able to guide us in their family’s traditions to make for a credible and honest staging of the Hanukkah lighting and blessings.

What do you hope Jewish – and non-Jewish kids – take away from Hershel? 

What I love about this show is that everyone can learn, understand and enjoy what Hanukkah is. To a Jewish child, it celebrates their family tradition and enhances it with mystery and fun. To a non-Jewish child it intrigues and educates. And it is entertaining to all, as there is something that appeals to both adults and children at the same time but on different levels.

Performances: Sundays, 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. (Dec. 17 only), Monday-Friday, 9:45* and 11:45* a.m.

*Limited availability, please call in advance. For school group opportunities, please contact the box office at 651-647-4315.

All performances held at the Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Parkway, St. Paul, MN 55116. The theater is fully accessible.

To order tickets, call the Box Office at 651-647-4315 or contact