Project took years of research and cooperation
In recognition of the Jewish Theater Company’s 25th anniversary, two Richfield authors and longtime residents of the city have released a project documenting the organization’s history.
Authors Doris Rubenstein with Natalie Madgy teamed up on the project, “Setting the Stage: Jewish Theater in the Upper Midwest from Its Origin to the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company” – an effort to highlight the theater’s impact on the communities inside the Twin Cities and around the state of Minnesota and beyond.
The goal of the authors was to follow the beginnings of Jewish theater in Minnesota and Wisconsin and how those roots spread from various institutions across the area, including amateur productions, Jewish community centers, and summer camps.
Rubenstein and Madgy both transplanted themselves many years ago from the Detroit, Michigan, area to the Twin Cities and have long-established roots in Minnesota.
Madgy spent many years working with the Minnesota Arts Board, focusing on the grant-making arm of the organization.
“I got familiar with who was out there, who got grants and who didn’t,” Madgy said. “That’s the world I was familiar with.”
Madgy continued with the arts board until 1996, when she returned to the health care field, where she had been previously trained.
But her interest in theater didn’t subside.
She said her affiliation with a group of women who passionately followed theater in the area continued. The group would set a schedule of shows to attend and did so for years.
In 2015, it was Rubenstein who invited Madgy to join her for an outing to the Jewish Theatre Company, and Madgy was surprised.
“Oh, what is this theatre? I have never heard of it.” Madgy remembers asking Rubenstein.
Despite being intimately knowledgeable about the theater scene in the Twin Cities, Madgy was still surprised: “And I had worked in grant-making for 10 years. I was interested in why I hadn’t heard of this.”
Rubenstein said she had always loved theater and writing, but in working as a fundraiser, she said she had tired of writing the solicitation letters.
That’s when she contacted the editor of the American Jewish World, a local newspaper, about working as a freelancer to cover the arts. It was 2003.
“He was thrilled with the idea,” Rubenstein said.
“As a reporter for the Jewish newspaper I became very aware of the Jewish theatre companies that had been established a few years earlier, and I was surprised there were a number of plays with Jewish content that were being performed at secular theaters – the History Theatre, Park Square, etc.,” she said.
The idea of a book about the theater came about when Rubenstein noticed that the local organization was nearing 25 years in business.
“That’s a time to look back and be proud of the work you’ve done,” she said. “But I realized that kind of information would not be enough to make a book – if it was just about the Jewish Theatre Company.”
It was her goal to ask and answer why it was that a Jewish theatre had been so successful over the years in Minnesota, where it has not had the same kind of success in communities with much larger Jewish populations.
A daunting project
Rubenstein was previously commissioned to write a history of a synagogue and said she knew how long it would take to complete a project like this.
“I had to start writing on this book. I realized I couldn’t do it all by myself and knowing Natalie’s knowledge of the theatre community I thought she would be an excellent partner in researching and writing this book. And she was.”
“Doris and I had a conversation. She was coming to it from a different perspective. Here I was coming to it from a more secular perspective of the influences of Jewish life and Jewish culture on theatre in Minnesota,” Madgy said.
Knowing they needed a publisher to take on the project, Rubenstein said they eventually formed a partnership with the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest as their publisher. The society approved moving ahead with the project in 2016.
Getting started and organizing the project was first on the list.
“Natalie is a very good organizer and we had a couple of sessions in her rec room figuring out how we were going to organize this information. We didn’t know what was out there. So, we were just guessing at the institutions that might have something to contribute,” Doris said.
With her connections to the theater community, Madgy said that interviews were scheduled and they both believed that the contributions of these voices would help in determining the direction of the book.
“We just jotted down basic ideas of what we knew and could include,” Madgy said.
From there it was a matter of contacting people to interview – a process that at times could be frustrating.
In addition to their list of potential interviews, the historical society also connected them to the Berman Archives at the University of Minnesota where they found a tremendous amount of material.
“We started our journey at the archives to see what we could find,” Madgy said.
“We found more than we could ever digest,” Rubenstein added.
From there, the task of interviewing any and all who might be available and who may have been involved in the theater was in itself probably the toughest, but most significant task.
In addition to their research in the archives and interviews with connected people, Rubenstein and Madgy also reviewed countless documents, including theater programs and newspaper articles, to gather as much information as possible about the theater.
While conducting interviews, it became clear to Madgy that it was their stories and experiences that would be most rewarding in recounting.
Beyond the Twin Cities
“I think the book touches a bit on the secular aspect, but for me it was really the breakout conversations with the folks I interviewed that was most rewarding. Many found their connections to the Jewish experience through the theatre,” she said.
In all, more than 60 interviews – either in-person, via email or phone – were conducted before the arduous editing task took place.
“We wanted to make this inclusive, not just the Twin Cities. We went up to Duluth and found quite a bit of information about Jewish people who have been involved in both amateur and the programs they have at the Duluth Little Theatre,” Rubenstein said.
“We found people all over the state and institutions that had Jewish content and Jewish participants,” she added.
For Rubenstein, the rewards came from realizing the impact the book would have.
“I think the reward of capturing things that if we hadn’t done it, it wouldn’t have gotten done was very important,” Rubenstein said, “and this important part of the Minnesota cultural heritage would have been either unknown or forgotten.”
The authors are also pleased that while not all of their interviews made it into print, those recordings will be preserved at the Historical Society.
The most challenging aspect was finding the people who were willing to tell their stories. Contacts were made, but many times people wouldn’t respond to their questions.
“Sometimes it took like eight calls to get to people,” Rubenstein said.
For Madgy, watching specific sections of the manuscript edited out was disappointing, though she understands it’s part of the process.
“Having to see certain topics taken out and not included in the book was hard. I know we had a page limit, but there’s always more to be said,” Madgy said.
After several months of transcribing the recordings and organizing them into book form, it also took many rounds of draft submissions, edits and rewrites before the book was published this past summer.
The goal was to have the book published in time for the opening of the last show of the theater’s 25th season this past May.
And while the project was slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the theater season, like all of the state and nation, were shut down.
Because the theater had canceled its season, it gave the authors a bit more time to finish the project.
When the project was finally finished, the authors reflected.
“I find it interesting that Natalie and I were able to come together to do this as two Jewish women living in Richfield, which until the past two years had an extremely small Jewish population.” Rubenstein said. “With the small population of Jews here in Richfield, I guess we’re putting that population on the map with this book,” she added.
Both women are proud of the connections they have made through the project.
“For me, this is giving me a sense of connection to the Jewish community and the historical record,” Madgy said.
“It tied us even closer to our identities as Jewish Minnesotans, Jewish Richfielders,” Rubenstein concluded.
“Setting the Stage: Jewish Theater in the Upper Midwest from Its Origin to the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company” is available through jhsum.org/shop/.