Playwright Stacey Dinner-Levin, her husband Michael Paul Levin and their four children.

A Theater Family: It’s a Bit Meshugena.

The Twin Cities Jewish community is very proud of home-grown sibling pair Joel and Ethan Coen. Aside from the Coen Brothers, the only other Jewish performing arts clan from the Twin Cities I know of is the Dinner-Levin family. If you’re a theater-goer and haven’t heard of them, you’ve probably seen them. The Dinner-Levins are a family of 6, all of whom have been involved to varying degrees in Twin Cities theater. They are the Twin Cities version of  the Von Trapps. Only Jewish. I was lucky enough to interview matriarch Stacey Dinner-Levin, a playwright, disability activist and Jewish Mama Rose. Here’s her look into how exposure to theater shapes a whole family dynamic.

KB:  You’re a playwright and Michael, your husband, is an actor.  You’ve got four sons and all have been involved in performing or are working professional actors. Many TC Jewfolk parents would be interested in knowing how they can get their children to the professional stage. How did it happen for your boys?  

SDL: My children were raised in the theater. If Michael was performing in something that they would understand and enjoy, they always attended, so they saw a great deal of theater and met other actors. They had the privilege to explore the sets of shows Michael was in and go backstage.  The boys also attended a fine arts magnet school. Where other families sign up their boys for sports, our sons did school and community center plays. The boys got a great deal of experience auditioning and being cast at a young age. The boys really started to surprise us with their natural talent and their ability to make superb choices in character development at a very young age. It’s like Liza Minnelli said, “The name gets you in the door, but you have to earn the part.”

KB: You mentioned that the boys started out performing at community centers. Did they ever perform at the JCC?

SDL: Geordy, our eldest son, started in the theater program at the St. Paul JCC when he was very young. He has autism. At the JCC, they were fully inclusive and Geordy showed a passion for it. Theater was very instrumental in teaching him social skills and self control. For a child who has a communication disorder, theater gave him the words to say. Since he was very skilled at reading and memorization, it was really quite perfect for him. Theater is so cooperative, so the cast typically embraced him and guided him.  It was a perfect match.  Both Spencer and Ryan, who are working professionally, started like Geordy at the St. Paul JCC.

KB: Given you’re a playwright and everyone else acts, have any of you ever worked on a show together?

SDL: I wrote a play called Autistic License about the challenges and joys of raising Geordy. It’s our story. So Michael played Geordy in the original production. Geordy played Geordy in the Blank Slate Theatre production and Spencer played Ryan in that production. It’s a bit meshugena.

KB: I bet it can get really chaotic when you’ve got two or three family members working in different shows at any given time and you’ve got to coordinate many different schedules.  What was one of the most chaotic moments?

SDL: It’s always chaotic at home and we are constantly driving and picking up kids from shows, rehearsals and auditions.  As kids, it was constant and there isn’t a “theater season” like there is in certain sports, it’s an all year activity. With Michael in his own shows and rehearsals it can be really nuts. I think one of the worst times was when Michael was doing summer stock so he was gone and Spencer was cast in a summer Fringe show, but was also rehearsing Brighton Beach Memoirs with his brother Ryan at Bloomington Civic. I realized that Spencer’s rehearsals were scheduled on the same night at different ends of town and rush hour was involved…and well let’s say that almost killed me. But now, the boys are growing into adults and they drive and are moving out to live independently.

KB: You mentioned Brighton Beach Memoirs, a great coming of age story of a nice Jewish boy, written by Neil Simon. What is some other work you or your family has done that might have been of particular interest to the Jewish community?

SDL: Michael has worked at Minnesota Jewish Theater Company and on multiple Jewish community related projects. Years ago he was given a City Pages nod for one of the best performances for “The Immigrant,” a role that required him to speak in Yiddish for part of the play. In addition to Spencer and Ryan playing Stanley and Eugene in Brighton Beach Memoirs, Michael played both Stanley and Eugene as well at different points in his career. It was very special for me to have seen Michael do the role and then to watch my boys do it as well.  Spencer also played a young Neil Simon in Lost in Yonkers at TRP.

KB: What is everyone doing right now?

SDL: Michael is currently playing Otto Frank in the Diary of Anne Frank at Park Square Theatre as part of their educational theater program that brings schools to the theater. It runs through April 29. Spencer just wrapped The Aliens, and Ryan just closed Silence of the Lambs and is currently rehearsing Fiddler on The Roof at Artistry. Geordy just did a wonderful theater workshop at Children’s Theater Company with his day treatment program and he will be playing Beast in Beauty And The Beast with his day program soon. Lukas is in high school and does not aspire to do theater as a profession although he has appeared in a couple of commercials. He is currently auditioning for the St. Louis Park High School spring play. He has been very active with that program and loves it. He says he wants to be an attorney. Hopefully he will be an entertainment attorney, we could use one.

 

[box type=”shadow” align=”aligncenter” ]This article was made possible in part with support from the Howard B. & Ruth F. Brin Jewish Arts Endowment, a fund of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation’s Foundation, and Rimon: The Minnesota Jewish Arts Council, an initiative of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation.[/box]

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