When Barbara Brooks started the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, the national landscape was dotted with Jewish theatre organizations. Now, as the MJTC embarks on its 25th season, it has become the longest standing independent professional Jewish theatre organization in the country.
“It was founded to provide an opportunity for Jewish and non-Jewish people to come together and learn about Jewish history and culture and see the common themes,” Brooks said. “We have the common issues that we are challenged by, and the universality of the human experience; I wanted non-Jewish people to know that there was not a barrier for them to come. And that has come to fruition.”
The MJTC has put on around 100 shows – including nine world premieres in its first 24 years – from its first performance of Barbara Lebow’s A Shayna Maidel at Cretin-Durham Hall High School. It has also opened the door for performers to make their directorial debuts. Miriam Schwartz, who first performed in 2013, is directing the season opener The Mikveh Monologues, which opens Aug. 21.
“It has been an incredible artistic home. I can’t imagine where I’d be without working there,” said Schwartz, adding that her work there has helped her solidify herself in the Twin Cities’ robust theater scene. “I have such immense respect for what Barbara has done. She’s tough. She’s tenacious. And at the same time, incredibly receptive to feedback.”
Schwartz said that, from an actor’s standpoint, Brooks makes it a priority to compensate so that top-tier talent in the Twin Cities would want to work there. She also said the quality of productions is a draw.
“I think she does pick seasons that are more interesting than other Jewish theaters around the U.S.,” Schwartz said. “Pieces with more depth and complexity. She’s really developed the most amazing subscriber base. There is no more loyal, enthusiastic audience.”
Heidi Fellner, another regular actor at MJTC, said that the audience is key.
“The MJTC maintains a very close relationship with its audience, and that feels very unique in this arts community,” she said. “When actors talk about their experience working here, the audience’s engagement with every production is brought up, without fail. As a performer, you can feel when an audience is with you–not as passive observers, but experiencing each moment as it unfolds. Being able to reconnect not just with a live audience, but with a highly engaged live audience always makes you better, and helps recalibrate even a seasoned performer.”
Brooks, who has a master’s degree in music therapy and experimental research with music and autistic children, takes a great deal of joy of digging into the data of 24 seasons of audience surveys.
“Our season passbook has been on an upward trajectory for its entire history – last year we had a 13% increase,” she said, adding the growth in season subscriptions runs counter to national trends. She’s also learned the audience is nearly 50/50 Jewish/not Jewish. “This data has elucidated for us who our audience is, and who our ticket purchasers are. People come because they want to be entertained, and they want to be educated. One letter from someone said ‘I learned more in that performance about Jewish culture and history than I learned in my entire high school and college classes.’ These are the kinds of things that have kept me going.”
Fellner said that the types of plays that Brooks chooses have been key over the years.
“The hesitancy to take more risks with new work results in fewer roles for women, and far fewer well-written roles,” she said. “Because the MJTC’s audience has more of an appetite for the new and different, the unexpected, and most importantly, plays that are relevant to our evolving story, it results in better, more interesting, more risk-taking roles.”
Whether it’s looking five years ahead or 25, Brooks knows what she has in mind.
“It’ll be the same kinds of work,” she said. “It’ll be mission-driven. I would like to see the theater do more new work and nurture more Jewish plays to fruition, whether they be submissions or commissions. I think there are a lot of stories to tell, and there are a lot of scripts out there. New playwork is very important.”