By MARTIN ZEILIG Daniel Thau-Eleff was looking forward to seeing his play about a transgender person, “Narrow Bridge, “ on stage back in March 2020.
“But we were interrupted by the pandemic,” the Winnipeg-based playwright, performer, director, and artistic producer of Moving Target Theatre, said during a Zoom conversation with this reporter on January 26.
Ben Baader, an associate professor of history at the University of Manitoba, and the inspiration for his play, was interviewed along with Thau-Eleff.
Narrow Bridge will now premiere March 11 – 19, 2023 (with a preview on March 9) at the Berney Theatre in the Asper Campus.
Thau-Eleff and Dr. Baader will also discuss the play and its history on Sunday, March 12 at Limmud 2023—Winnipeg’s annual Jewish cultural festival at the Asper Jewish Community Centre — in a joint presentation called “TRANSGENDER AND ORTHODOX: TWO FRIENDS, A JOURNEY, AND A PLAY.”
“The play is a moving and engaging story told with heart and humour,” notes the publicity material.
“The main character, Sholem, transitions genders while discovering Orthodox Judaism. Walking the tightrope of family dynamics, history, activism and Talmud study, Sholem wonders if, as Rebbe Nachman said, “‘All the world is a very narrow bridge.’”
Featuring Elio Zarrillo, Alissa Watson, and Rhea Akler in their WJT premieres, along with long-time WJT favourite Harry Nelken, the play will be directed by “Drag Heals” creator Tracey Erin Smith.
Thau-Eleff’s plays are “personal-political,” meaning they explore an issue “usually related to human rights or social justice, through individual characters’ struggles,” mixing documentary and autobiographical elements into fiction, he says.
“My good friend, Ben, was the inspiration and has been on the journey with me the whole time,” he adds.
“This is the first interview we’re doing right now (about “Narrow Bridge”). Ben is both transgender and practices Orthodox Judaism. He wasn’t Orthodox when we first became friends. I’ve been lucky to be part of this journey.”
Thau-Eleff noted that the idea for Narrow Bridge began some 10 years ago after Baader returned from a national retreat in the U.S. hosted by Eshel.
“Eshel’s mission is to create a future for Orthodox lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals, and their families,” says its website.
“Through its innovative and culturally sensitive programming, Eshel supports LGBTQ Jews, opening hearts, minds and doors in traditional Jewish communities. Eshel envisions a world where Orthodox LGBTQ individuals can live out their lives in the Orthodox communities of their choice.”
Thau-Eleff noted that he met with Baader a short time after the Eshel retreat.
“We were talking about this apparent impossibility that so many people, whom Ben had just met, are living a transgender life within the Orthodox tradition, where there’s a barrier down the middle of the synagogue separating men and women,” he said.
“So, it seems impossible and yet people find a way to make it work. I was really fascinated by that contradiction.”
“Then, I was visiting another city and sitting in a coffee shop with an artistic director, whom I barely knew. We were getting to know each other. At the end of the conversation, he said, ‘Well, I’m interested in your play about transgender Orthodox Jews.”’
Thau-Eleff replied to his interlocutor that it wasn’t a play, just a story.
“Then, I returned to Winnipeg and I told that story to Ben and he said, ‘I would help you write that play’,” the playwright said.
“And, we started talking. I interviewed other trans Jewish and non-Jewish people. I read a few books on the subject and started writing. In 2018, we did a reading of the first draft of the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre’s “So New Festival.” That was great.
“But, a lot of the writing took place between 2018 and the present. Now, we’re back into things.”
Baader reflected that he came back from the Eshel retreat empowered by the “amazing and beautiful community; and how people, who are deeply committed to two different truths, are insisting on living their lives even though they are often shunned by their communities.
“It’s a space of tremendous beauty and courage,” he said.
“At the time being trans was much more scandalous than it is today. It’s less provocative today than it was ten years ago.”
Thau-Eleff added that at Limmud he’ll be talking about the process he uses when writing a play.
“When I launch a writing project, it’s always an opportunity to learn,” he emphasized.
“In this case, I got to learn from Ben’s and others’ experiences, and to explore my own experiences with gender and Judaism.”
Beneficiary agencies of the Jewish Federation have received $210,000 less this year than last year as of September 1
By BERNIE BELLAN
For the first time in at least 10 years the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg has reduced the amount distributed to its 12 beneficiary agencies from what had been distributed the previous year. The funds were distributed September 1 for 2023-24.
The total amount distributed this year was $210,000 less than what was distributed in both 2022 and 2021 and is actually $500,000 less than the total that was requested by the beneficiary agencies. (The amount distributed last year was $216,000 less than what the beneficiary agencies had requested.)
In explaining why allocations are being reduced this year, the Federation reported that “Over the past few years, the Federation and community have collectively faced significant challenges, placing a strain on our financial resources. In response to these challenges, the Federation stepped in during our community’s time of need, dedicating over $200,000 from our reserves to sustain our beneficiary agencies.” (In a later explanation it was clarified that $100,000 was taken from Federation reserves in each of 2022 and 2021.)
It was further noted that the decrease in funds to be allocated to agencies represents a 7% decrease over the previous year. Dipping into reserves was described as an “unsustainable practice.” It was also noted that the Federation “notified our beneficiaries of a probable reduction in the amount of funding available well ahead of the allocation request deadline.
In describing the pressures that the Federation’s Allocations Committee faced this year in coming up with its allocations, committee chair Brent Schacter said that “We knew after the budget process last year we were going to be in a bind.” Schacter further elaborated that the two whammies that hit this year were the ongoing repercussions of Covid along with the rapid increase in inflation.
In discussing the pressures that the Allocations committee faced this year, it should also be noted that although the amount raised by the Combined Jewish Appeal – while not much more than the previous year ($6.3 million as opposed to $6.25 million), the negative effects of the drop in allocations are somewhat mitigated by two things:. A good portion of the amount raised by the CJA is in the form of “designated funds,” given by large donors and, while those funds are not available to the B & A committee to distribute, many of the beneficiary agencies did receive large distributions from those “designated funds.”
As well, the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba increased its total distributions this year by $1.3 million over the previous year. While the Foundation’s gifts were spread among a very wide number of recipients, a number of the Federation’s beneficiary agencies did benefit from the increase in Foundation distributions.
Still, the challenges facing the Federation in meeting the needs of the community are leading to a major reassessment of how Federation planners are implementing budgetary planning.
A number of new innovations have now been adopted by the B & A committee, including:
- New application forms – one for agencies requesting more than $250,000 and one for agencies requesting less
- Beneficiaries were asked to state the anticipated outcomes of projects/programs that receive Federation funding, and to develop indicators so that they can measure those outcomes.
- Site visits took place along with periodic meetings with agencies as a whole throughout the year to ensure that the committee gets a more complete picture of beneficiaries’ activities, challenges, and plans.
In describing the process that the Federation undertook to “streamline” the budget allocation process, Federation President Gustavo Zentner said “Lay leadership and management had a responsibility to look at the business model.”
It was determined that the Federation needed “a more effective way of managing the allocations process,” Zentner stated, including “more meaningful communication with the agencies to bring to light their projects.”
Not only does the Federation want to improve its own fundraising process, Zentner continued, “We also want to help agencies to raise funds on their own.”
Despite the reductions in allocations available to agencies this year, Zentner stressed that “we wanted to address the needs of those members of the community who are most in need.”
Brent Schacter added: “We want to see people dig a little bit deeper” when it comes to giving. The Combined Jewish Appeal is now into its fundraising campaign for the 2023-24 fiscal year.
Six members of the community receive King’s Counsel appointments
A total of 17 lawyers were appointed King’s Counsel by Order in Council on August 29. Six members of our Jewish community were among those appointed. Although appointments as King’s Counsel are usually accompanied by biographical information about those appointed, there was no press release issued by the Manitoba Government announcing the appointments. When we contacted the Manitoba Government news room to ask why there was no biographical information available, the response we received referred to KC appointments announced in February (no surprise there – these are bureaucrats we’re dealing with). When we asked again why there was no biographical information available about the most recent batch of KC appointments we were told “the Province of Manitoba is in the middle of an election blackout and department communications are limited as a result. News Room has nothing further to add.”
As a result, we present here photos of Jewish recipients of KC appointments, but without any further information.
Kayla Gordon inducted on to Rainbow Stage’s Wall of Fame
Myron Love It was in the summer of 1984 when Kayla Gordon was appearing in the Rainbow Stage production of “Kismet,” that the long time actor/director/producer/photographer found herself doing her make-up sitting next to Nia Vardalos, the writer and star of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” fame, who was also appearing in the production.
“We both were playing opposite each other in the comic roles as the Ayahs to the Wazir (the main lead), and we began talking about our plans for the future,” Gordon recalls. “Nia was talking about moving to Toronto and joining the Second City company. As for me, I was in a comedy troupe in Winnipeg and just found out I was pregnant with my first child. My plan was to stay in Winnipeg, even though I was a bit jealous that she was going off to pursue her dream and I was staying put. That was my ‘Kismet’ and I never looked back.”
Rainbow Stage is where Gordon began her career in musical theatre at the age of 17 in a production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” After a career of more than 40 years, both on stage and behind the scenes – it is fitting that one of the leading lights of community theatre in our city has been recognized for her contributions by Winnipeg’s longest-running theatre company. On Wednesday, August 17, Gordon was one of the five inductees to Rainbow Stage’s Wall of Fame under the “Builder” category. The award is given to someone who has been part of nurturing and building our theatre community.
“It was a wonderful surprise,” says the honoree. “It brings my career full circle.” Previous honours for Gordon include the Leadership Award from the Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Theatre Educator’s Award from the Winnipeg Theatre Awards for her long-time leadership within the arts community.
Gordon reports that the induction ceremony, attended by about 100 friends and family members of the inductees and Rainbow Stage staff, was held just prior to the opening night performance of “The Little Mermaid,”,the second of three shows the company is putting on this summer and early fall.
“It was also special to have one of my grandchildren, my husband Art Maister, my mom Ethel, and my aunt Evelyn Hecht at the induction ceremony,” she adds. (Evelyn also performed at Rainbow Stage in the 1950s.)
Gordon notes that while she appeared onstage in seven Rainbow Stage productions – from 1977 to 1993, she was honoured not for her acting, but for her role as a nurturer of talent through teaching acting and musical theatre at the University of Winnipeg for 18 years, as well as teaching at the University of Manitoba, Prairie Theatre Exchange and The Manitoba Theatre for Young People – also, later as the Artistic Director of Winnipeg Jewish Theatre for over 10 years and Winnipeg Studio Theatre, which she founded in 2006.
“I get a lot of satisfaction watching actors I’ve directed and students I have taught and nurtured performing at Rainbow Stage and other venues in the city,” Gordon notes. Many of them have gone on to work professionally and have appeared across Canada, as well as in Broadway productions. Some of them include: Alexandra Frohlinger (Soul Doctor/Broadway), Samantha Hill (Phantom of the Opera/Broadway), Jaz Sealey (Aladdin/Broadway), Andrea Macasaet (Six/Broadway), and Nyk Bielak (Book of Mormon/Broadway).
Gordon was an actor and high school drama teacher at West Kildonan Collegiate for the first 15 years of her career. By the mid-1990s she found herself becoming more interested in working behind the scenes as a director/producer. In 1994, she became the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre’s second artistic director – succeeding WJT founder Bev Aronovitch – a role she played until 2006. Following her time at WJT Gordon observed that local theatres were not hiring many female theatre directors.
“I realized that if I wanted to work as a director, I would have to create my own projects,” she recalls. So, she started Winnipeg Studio Theatre (WST) in 2006. Soon after forming the company, she invited her longtime theatre associate Brenda Gorlick to run the StudioWorks Academy, a program for emerging artists.
In 2021 she stepped down from her position at WST. “I am still interested in directing – but without the added pressures of being a producer or the full-time responsibility of running a professional theatre company,” she observes. “I like having the freedom to pick and choose the projects I want to work on.” I still plan to work on independent contracts directing theatre and creating entertainment for special events or fundraising activities in the community.”.Last year she produced and directed the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg’s Negev Gala tribute honouring Gail Asper and Michael Paterson. As well, stepping down from her responsibilities with WST has also allowed Gordon to devote more time to her other passion – photography. “I have been interested in photography since I was 15,” she recounts. “My father Ralph had a dark room in our basement.”
Over the past couple of years, she has achieved accreditation with the Professional Photographers of Canada in four different areas of photography: street photography (her favourite), portraiture, performing artists, and figure study. And, last year, she co-authored a coffee table book – “The Murals of Winnipeg,” with fellow photographer Keith Levit as a fundraiser for Take Pride Winnipeg, with 80 pages of photos, which sold out in two weeks and the funds will go to emerging mural artists. (That story can be found on the jewishpostandnews.ca website.)
Kayla is grateful to have stayed in Winnipeg and she sums up her career, and how and why she managed to work in theatre all these years with a quote from Henry Winkler (aka ‘The Fonz’) “I live by tenacity and gratitude. Tenacity gets you where you want to be, and gratitude allows you not to be frustrated along the way”.