With antisemitism on the rise, it is crucial that Jewish people are meaningfully included in telling Jewish stories

Following a backlash over a UK production of Falsettos, theatre director Adam Lenson explains why there needs to be better representation of Jewish people in the arts

Monday 02 September 2019 12:52 BST
Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams and Alessandro Nivola in 'Disobediance', a film cited as having positive representation of Jewish voices
Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams and Alessandro Nivola in 'Disobediance', a film cited as having positive representation of Jewish voices

Everyone deserves a chance, at some point in their lives, to see their experiences represented correctly onstage or onscreen. A new production of Falsettos a musical about a dysfunctional Jewish family set during the Aids crisis – to the best of our knowledge, includes not a single Jewish person among its core cast, creative or production teams.

Two weeks ago, I, together with other Jewish artists, published an open letter addressing this; it was signed by actors and creatives including Miriam Margolyes and Maureen Lipman. We had noted and appreciated a culture shift where minority cultures were gaining traction in the long and important fight to define their involvement in the telling of their own stories. Our open letter included various examples of misrepresentation of Jewish characters and erasure of Jewish stories but centred around the case study of Falsettos. We wrote that while non-Jews can and should play Jews, that doing so in processes absent of any other Jewish voices can lead to misrepresentation, caricature and misunderstanding.

We found it particularly problematic that no Jewish voices are meaningfully included in the process for this particular production, since it is a show which is so clearly about Jewish life – specifically about the planning and celebration of a Bar mitzvah. We felt that at a certain point, gentle self-deprecation like the opening song, “Four Jews In A Room Bitching”, turns somewhat darker when the joke is on us – but not by us.

The show’s production company is Selladoor – their attitude has been to ignore, obfuscate and block our concerns rather than listening, reflecting or apologising. With Jews representing only 0.5 per cent of the British population, and at a time of rising antisemitism, we’re asking to be protected as a minority and given the right to be a part of telling our own stories, rather than have to watch them being told (and mis-told) to us and for us.

“With regards to our cast, like all employers in the UK we are required to run recruitment processes that are free from bias or discrimination with regards to religion, race, gender, age or any other protected characteristicss," their statement said. "We do not ask any of our prospective cast members about any of the aforementioned characteristics, and do not think that it would be appropriate to do so,” the statement said.

“The representation and respect of cultural heritage on stage is of the upmost importance and something we take very seriously. We have complete trust in our creative and production teams to ensure that this production properly represents all of the wonderful characters created by William Finn and James Lapine.”

Selladoor and others have also tried to turn this into a conversation about casting when we very clearly stated in our original letter that we absolutely believe that non-Jews can play Jews. What we were actually seeking was meaningful inclusion in the overall creative team of those with a clear understanding of the Jewish experience.

A Jewish "Cultural Consultant", Steven Dexter, later announced that he was working with the producers, but only after our letter had been published. Further enquiries led to confirmation from the show’s PR that he is not part of the show’s creative team and has had limited involvement in the process. In addition, Selladoor have not mentioned his existence in either of their statements. If they truly believed representation was important then an early reassurance of his presence would have gone some way to allay our concerns.

When we wrote the letter we hoped that this production would act as a case study in a wider conversation about meaningful Jewish inclusion in Jewish narratives. We imagined that this particular production company would acknowledge the complexity of this issue and reassure us that they had listened and would aim to do better next time.

While it is possible for artists without lived experience to be sensitive, intelligent, and to research in detail, we believe it is difficult to truly “know what you don’t know”. Only authentic minority voices integrated into a process can speak for the complex and rich traditions, rituals, history and culture found in their stories. In addition, a non-Jewish audience probably won’t pick up on the things that are missing or incorrect. If watching this production is a rare opportunity for non-Jews to see a Jewish family portrayed onstage, then surely there is a clear responsibility to ensure it is done as accurately as possible.

Our letter was in discussion for a long time before Falsettos and is about much more than this one show. There are other examples of caricature, stereotype and misrepresentation throughout popular culture. But there are also examples of Jewish work that has benefited from diverse, mixed Jewish and non-Jewish creative teams and casts such as Friday Night Dinner, Bad Jews and Disobedience, all of which have been well-received as authentic by Jewish audiences.

We have been extremely grateful and inspired that other minority voices and groups have amplified our message and spoken up for us in this debate. However, it is also a shame that majority voices and other producers and artistic directors have remained mostly silent.

We are optimistic that we can help other production companies avoiding making a mistake of this magnitude in future. We will support them by creating open forums, best practice documents, and guidelines so that these mistakes are not repeated. We will also work alongside and support other minority voices to ensure that meaningful inclusion in marginalised narratives is never taken for granted. Everyone deserves the chance to see their experience represented onstage. That chance was taken from us this time. By speaking out, we hope to prevent that from happening again.

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