David Winitsky calls himself a “late in life Jew.” Raised in a Philadelphia suburb, Winitsky describes the Jewish sensibilities of his childhood as abiding concern over who threw the biggest bar-mitzvah. Years later, he found his personal connection to Jewish life through theater. “Theater is how I learn about the world. Nearly everything I’ve learned about Jewish ritual, history, ethics, and values has come from making theater,” explains Winitsky.
Winitsky started the Jewish Plays Project (JPP) to create this same access point to Jewish wisdom for his colleagues: young playwrights, directors, and actors. Since its inception in 2011, the JPP has vetted 913 plays from 650 writers in twenty-eight states and nine countries and engaged in “Jewish dramaturgy” with over 260 artists (age 28-35) nationwide.
When Winitsky entered the UpStart Accelerator two years ago he was still honing in on the core of JPP’s vision. “I did a lot of work to figure out what we were doing that was truly unique. I realized that JPP is only partially about Jews creating theater. We’re about using theater to spark a contemporary conversation about our ethical and moral tradition, with a group of people who have never really thought that conversation was theirs to have” said Winitsky.
Every step of JPP’s annual playwriting contest is geared towards engaging thousands of people in this conversation. Through learning sessions and personalized coaching, JPP works with playwrights to develop meaningful Jewish content in their contest submissions. It engages a committee of 60 playwrights and artists in poring over submitted scripts and selecting the top ten plays that best wrestle with Jewish thought. These ten plays then hit the road, going before hundreds of audience members in nine cities around the country. In each city the Jewish Plays Project visits, 100-150 people will read and view sections of these plays, and vote on which ones should continue to the next city. “It’s not only about what’s the “best” play. It’s about which one is sparking the most important Jewish conversation.”
This week, JPP announced its ten winning playwrights. These 10 writers are 70% women; come from 4 countries, 7 states and 3 continents; and are grappling with every corner of the Jewish experience. From a buddy-comedy set in the Rebbe’s Mitzvah tank to a dramedy about organ donation, from a poetic lamentation on the nature of war to a romantic romp about a woman who hears the voice of G-d, these writers are struggling with what “being Jewish” means in 2016.
The winning play receives the featured workshop in JPP’s New York-based OPEN Festival of New Jewish Theater, a gathering of leading theatrical talent and Jewish thought leaders (this year, the Covenant Foundations Pomegranate Prize winners will be invited to participate).
“JPP uses a lot of different platforms to get people engaged – our annual contest, coaching, productions, Shabbat dinners. Our time in the UpStart Accelerator has been about honing in and delivering on our promise – to provide young theater artists with the opportunity to wrestle with Jewish tradition in the rehearsal room.”
David Winitsky and the Jewish Plays Project are in the second year of the UpStart Accelerator.
See the full list of JPP’s winning ten plays.
Learn more about the Jewish Plays Project.