When I was eleven, I was cast in the musical Ragtime. I’d been doing theater for a few years by then, and had already become a bit disillusioned with the arts; even though I loved rehearsing and performing with my friends, I wanted to focus on making an impact on the world, not spend my time participating in seemingly frivolous theater performances. But just a few hours into the first rehearsal for Ragtime, something in my head clicked. This show, about the intersecting worlds of Jewish immigrants, African Americans, and upper-class white people, showed me that theater itself could be a vehicle for social change. Theater could bring communities together, and start important dialogues.
This realization reenergized my love for theater, and carried me through many more seasons of shows. But by my sophomore year of high school, I started to feel restless again. Sparking conversations about important social issues was important, but it didn’t feel like quite enough. At the time, my theater company was putting on a production of Spring Awakening, a show that deals with issues of mental health, suicide, abortion, sexuality, and finding your own identity as a teenager.
The show resonated very strongly with the entire cast because it deals with struggles that we as teenagers experience on a day-to-day basis. After a few rehearsals, my friend Josie had the idea to use the show as a platform to raise money for a local nonprofit organization, so that we could translate the show’s message into action. Josie initiated a partnership with a local suicide-prevention organization, and after every performance we collected donations that went directly to them.
After taking that meaningful first step with Spring Awakening, I worked with a few of my peers to found the Actors’ Helping Alliance through our theater company. Every season we pick a charity to partner with whose mission is connected to central themes in the show we’re performing. In this way, we spark important conversations in our community, and pair it with giving people the opportunity to do good in very real ways. We put on cabarets to fundraise for our company’s financial aid fund, and we even staged a reading of The Diary of Anne Frank in response to the outbreak of white supremacist violence in Charlottesville last year.
While each of these actions might seem small on their own, to me they represent a cultural shift in my community. Our work is changing the perspectives of actors and audience members alike about the purpose of theater and art, and proving that theater doesn’t just have to be about entertainment— it can generate real social impact as well. Starting the Actors’ Helping Alliance has been my way of pursuing social justice in my community and beyond, and of acting on that feeling I had all those years ago while doing Ragtime.
We take one final bow, and the lights go down. We’re exhilarated and exhausted at the same time, but we have one more job to do. I grab my friend’s hand, step forward, and wait for the lights to pick up again. “Hi, I’m Shira, and this is Molly, and we’re members of the Actors’ Helping Alliance.”
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Minsk, Shira. "Redefining Theater." 20 May 2019. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on August 21, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/redefining-theater>.