By BERNIE BELLAN At the age of 24, Dan Petrenko became the youngest artistic director of any of the member theaters of the Canadian Professional Association of Canadian Theaters (PACT) when he was hired this past November as the new artistic director of Winnipeg Jewish Theatre.
Dan was actually in London, England, having just moved there two and a half months previously, when he was contacted by a recruiter for the WJT, who asked him whether he might like to meet with the WJT board (via Zoom) to discuss the possibility of his becoming the new WJT artistic director.
The WJT’s previous artistic director, Ari Weinberg, announced in June 2022 that, after seven seasons as WJT artistic director, he would be moving on to a new position in Ontario.
Now in its 35th season the WJT has had only five artistic directors prior to Dan Petrenko: Bev Aronovitch, Kayla Gordon, Mariam Bernstein, Michael Nathanson, and Ari Weinberg. The WJT is the only professional theatre company in Canada dedicated to developing and producing new Jewish works.
Recently, we sat down with Dan Petrenko to discuss the path he took to his present position.
Dan was born in Israel, the son of Jewish parents who had moved from their hometown of Odessa in Ukraine.
A formative influence in his life, he says, was his grandmother, who had been a pianist in Ukraine. She had aspirations early in her life to study in a music conservatory, but the antisemitism that was pervasive in the Soviet Union prevented her from achieving that ambition. Instead, she had to travel all the way to Siberia in order to obtain training to become a pianist.
In 1991, Dan’s parents made two momentous decisions, he says: They got married and they moved to Israel, settling in Givaataim.
As Dan describes it, “For the first time in their lives, my parents felt they could be Jewish.”
Life in Israel was good for the Petrenkos, but things changed for the worse in 2006 when Israel became engaged in a major conflict in Lebanon.
Dan and his sister were enrolled in a kindergarten in Givaataim when, one day after dropping Dan and his sister off, his parents heard on the radio that a bus had exploded right next to their children’s kindergarten.
“They didn’t want to leave Israel,” Dan observes, but, like other Israelis who wanted to find someplace safer in which to raise their children, his parents decided to leave, eventually moving to Toronto.
Arriving to Toronto, however, had a paradoxical effect on the Petrenko family, Dan explains.
“In Israel you didn’t have to be Jewish; everyone was.” But coming to Toronto, with its polyglot ethnic mix, awakened a desire in the Petrenkos to embrace their Jewish heritage.
“It was in Toronto that we celebrated our first Passover seder,” Dan says. “We also started going to synagogue for the first time.”
As well, the Petrenkos started keeping kosher and observing Shabbat, something Dan says he adheres to.
Still, when I asked Dan whether he went to Jewish school in Toronto, he says he didn’t.
His first real immersion in a Jewish milieu in Canada, he explains, came when he went to a Jewish summer sleep-over camp near Toronto, called J Academy.
“It was specifically for kids from Russian-speaking Jewish backgrounds,” he explains.
In time Dan went on from being a camper at J Academy to becoming a counsellor, and eventually a senior staff member.
It was also during his high school years that Dan says he began playwriting and directing. In fact, when he was still in high school, Dan wrote a play called “Train for Two,” which was based on his own family’s experience in the Holocaust. Later, he was able to mount a successful production of that play when he was only 17 and had started his own youth theatre company called JDY Theatre.
I asked Dan from where he derived his artistic sensibility?
He answers that, as a young boy, his grandmother had taken him to the opera and to ballet, so developing an interest in theatre was a natural progression.
Even through his years at the University of Toronto, where he double majored in Theatre and International Relations, Dan remained the artistic director of JDY Theatre.
By the time the Covid epidemic began in 2020, however, Dan had moved on to become artistic director of another theatre company: Olive Branch Theatre, which is described as “a non-profit professional company dedicated to providing opportunities for new-generation artists.”
In 2022 Dan returned to university to obtain his masters degree in Theatre. That same year he directed a production of “A Night on Jewish Broadway” in the newly renovated Leah Posluns Theatre in the Bathurst Jewish Community Centre.
This past fall, Dan decided to move to London to pursue opportunities in the West End theatre district.
While in London, he received that unexpected request from a recruiter for the WJT.
It turns out that Dan already had an extensive knowledge of the WJT, as he explains: “I had written a paper on the WJT while I was in university.”
His meeting with the WJT board via Zoom must have been an impressive one for, as Dan says, “I was offered the job the same day.” (He also says he has no idea how many other people might have been considered for the job as WJT artistic director.)
By the same token, the immediate positive reception Dan received from the WJT board was reciprocated. “After meeting with the board,” he says, “I felt this was an organization I wanted to be a part of…So far I feel I’ve hit the jackpot.”
We also have a story by Myron Love about WJT’s upcoming production of “Summer of Semitism,” but we wanted to ask Dan about the play. Since he was hired after the 2022-23 playbill had been announced, Dan won’t be at the helm of the play. (It will be directed by Winnipeg’s Krista Jackson, a former associate artistic director at the Manitoba Theatre Centre.)
The play was written by Ori Black, a young Torontonian. “It’s been in development for six years,” Dan explains.
“It’s a play about belonging – or not belonging,” he continues. “Is it only in a time of crisis that we think we’re part of the Jewish community?”
The play is set in an overnight summer camp (Camp Mazel), where four friends who grew up together and who are now tasked with running the camp, find they have to deal with an unexpected challenge having to do with antisemitism. (We won’t reveal the exact nature of what that challenge is.)
Tension develops among the four camp leaders stemming from the fact that one of them isn’t Jewish.
As Dan puts it: “They’re all brothers, but the question is: ‘Who belongs…who really fits in in a time of crisis?”
The show is intended to provoke a wider discussion of antisemitism and how we respond to it. Dan notes that following two of the shows – on April 30 and May 4, audience members will be invited to participate in a talk-back session.
Tickets for “The Summer of Semitism” can be obtained from the WJT, either online at https://www.wjt.ca or by calling 204-477-7478.