Washington Jewish Week
December 21, 2006
'Poetic and charming'JDS teacher/playwright selected for London exchange
by Lisa Traiger
Every once in a while, one reads a play that has a conceit that operates on such a grand level but also operates on an absolutely beautiful personal level as well," says Ari Edelson.
He's speaking about Anna Ziegler's Novel, a new play by a young Jewish playwright based in Bethesda. Earlier this month, Ziegler's Novel inaugurated Theater J's freshest play reading series, "Newish/Jewish," which the Washington DC Jewish Community Center theater company hopes will promote young Jewish playwrights by offering them a place to meet, to talk and to present their works for interested audiences.
Novel was also recently selected by Old Vic New Voices, a London-based U.S./U.K. exchange program that helps develop new works by both American and British playwrights.
Playwright Ziegler, 27, teaches creative writing to 11th- and 12th-graders at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville and to students at George Washington University in the District when she's not working on her plays.
Edelson, artistic director of Old Vic New Voices and a New York director, as well, was taken with Ziegler's play, which was selected from what he described as a short list of young American writers numbering between 60 and 100.
Ziegler was one of two writers selected to spend a week in London working on refining a single play with a full cast and director at hand to incorporate daily script changes. The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born and raised Ziegler recently returned from that intensive week in London, where Edelson directed a group of British actors on refining her work and inching it further toward a full production, although no date has yet been set.
Theater J's staged reading of Novel, directed by Shirley Serotsky, gave Washington audiences a glimpse into Ziegler's writer's voice, for which she has been lauded.
Novel, the playwright explains, concerns a middle-aged genetic scientist who attends a genetic disease conference at the Baltimore Marriott. At the same hotel, there's another conference of unusual world record holders. But unlike the famed Guinness world record holders, these folks have achieved more fanciful records: the person who has dated the most men, the person who has seen the most sunsets and the person who hiccups the longest, for example.
The scientist is inspired by these unusual accomplishments, enough to begin his own creative pursuit, a novel, in fact, just as he starts to grapple with the pain and grief of losing his wife.
"When I first read Anna's work last spring," says Theater J literary director Hannah Hessel, "I thought she had such an interesting voice. On one level, it's very grown up, yet there's also something very youthful about it. And there's something special in the way that different characters connect, something in her storytelling that is quite poetic and charming."
While the Newish/Jewish play reading series seeks out new voices for the Jewish stage, Hessel says the parameters are somewhat fluid. She looks for emerging writers in their 20s and early 30s, who, she says, "we think will become important voices in future years." While there is no requirement for these writers to be Jewish, Hessel does want works that take on contemporary Jewish subjects.
Ask Ziegler about the Jewish factor in her work and she hedges, if only just a bit.
"I wouldn't say that my work is specifically Jewish," she says, "but I haven't tried to escape the fact that I am Jewish. It's what I know." She notes that she grew up in a very Reform Jewish household and had a bat mitzvah ceremony, defining her background as "somewhere in between a religious and a culturally Jewish upbringing."
She continues: "In Novel, the protagonist is a Jewish man named Harry Rubin. I guess a bunch of my plays do deal with a kind of Jewish experience."
One of her plays, Leftovers, she loosely based on her experiences teaching at a Jewish day school. It concerns teenagers grappling with what it means to be Jewish.
Edelson sees the breadth in Ziegler's work. "The Old Vic is a large space," he notes, "and when a playwright can speak to both British and American audiences with the same text, that's the first step in our thinking about writing for a larger stage. It's not about how many actors are in the play. It's about whether or not the play itself speaks to different audiences at one time."
Novel, he says, is able to reach across a spectrum of ages and experiences and touch audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.