The Braid announces its 2021 season of storytelling

By Bridgette M. Redman

Joshua Rubenstein performing last season

Never an organization to settle for the conventional, The Braid (formerly known as the Jewish Women’s Theatre) in Santa Monica has announced a season that embraces the virtual while losing nothing of what they are known for.

Their “salon” shows curate stories, mostly Jewish, but all fresh and original voices that touch on specific topics through monologues. It is a format that artistic director Ronda Spinak says they were able to roll with throughout 2020 and will be continuing with during their 2021 season.

“This year translated, thankfully, to the way we do theater,” Spinak says. “Breaking the fourth wall and talking to the audience translates really great to Zoom. We’ve been really fortunate. The house is never huge, but we might have 70 to 100. Now they all get first row seats is what audiences are saying.”

The “way they do theater” is a form of theater they dubbed “salon,” taking inspiration from how women used to gather in the salons of yesteryear. The founders came up with the idea while gathered around kitchen tables brainstorming how they could give a voice to Jewish women and their stories.

“We had no money, we had no space, we didn’t have anything,” Spinak says. “We kind of resurrected this salon, which in many, many places around the world, salons represented a place where people could gather and talk about new culture of the day.”

The salon model is a cross between storytelling and theater with first-person narratives being performed by actors. They originally took these stories to homes, galleries and synagogues, and it grew to where they are today, which includes having their own theater, The Braid.

The 2021 season that begins in January will include four salon shows and several specials. The shows include “AHA! Moment” (January 9 to 18), “Family Matters” (March 6 to 15), “What’s Next?” (May 15 to 24) and “Persian Sunrise, American Sunset” (June 19 to 28). The subscription package includes lots of “extras” and this year is designed so that anyone, regardless of where they live, can subscribe.

“The way we have programmed our season this year, if you live in the Midwest, the East Coast, Germany or Israel, there is an opportunity for you to Zoom in and see a show,” Spinak says. “For a recent event we had people tune in from Canada, the East Coast and Israel.”

“AHA! Moment” narrates stories of when the authors came to a crossroads and had to make a choice. They are meant to be funny, endearing stories of when a person knew life was about to change, for better or for worse.

“The stories will really look at those moments, what choices do we make?” Spinak explains. “Do we move forward or do we not?”

“Family Matters” has a double meaning—both that families matter and the matter of family. They were putting that show together in early December and Spinak says the stories are very compelling.

“There are stories of secrets and betrayal, intrigue and awareness, acceptance and discovery, and all the kinds of stories one would imagine if one were to investigate what matters in a family,” she shares.

“What’s Next?” is being developed by The Braid’s emerging artists group, a cohort of seven young professional artists, theater makers, fine art makers and producers. The title is likely to change.

“We’re looking at the theme of living through history,” Spinak says. “What does it mean to live through a moment in history? Do we know what those moments are when we are living them or is it only in retrospect? The stories are of small personal moments and historical ones.”

“Persian Sunrise, American Sunset” is a bonus show and is about Iranians who are redefining home from Persia to the United States. Spinak is working with a co-producer who is a Persian writer and they are exploring second-generation Persian stories.

“It is the notion that many of the mothers, fathers and grandparents of this generation came from Iran and have this deep longing, yearning and memory to go back and have imparted those memories and stories to the next generation,” Spinak says. “The next generation doesn’t have the firsthand experience so they are bridging the traditions of Persian families living in Iran and then the American traditions of becoming American.”

The stories explore the tensions between the generations and tell stories of identity and what it means to be Persian today, whether Jewish or non-Jewish. Spinak said most of the stories will be Jewish, but not all of them. It was important to her when she programmed these shows that they provide stories that are uplifting and inspiring. While they have done a story on COVID-19 isolation and she knows that some stories will need to deal with what people are experiencing today, she wants to have content that makes people feel less alone and promote community.

“It’s about creating shows that people can identify with so that they feel heard, listened to, not alone and a part of something that we are continuing to work for,” Spinak says.

In a regular season, one not marred by a pandemic, extras include food and a talkback at the theater along with a special gift for loyal subscribers. For 2021, they’ve figured out how to translate that experience with special add-ons for subscribers.

A subscriber package costs $125 and includes all four shows, Q&A with talent post-show, a special storytelling event, exclusive pre-show talks with the founding artistic director and directors, an ability to observe rehearsals, a 15% discount at Los Angeles delis during the salons, a special gift, dessert recipes from associate producer Rose Ziff and Art Talks. The first 25 subscribers received a free two-month ChaiFlicks membership.

“We can’t offer food (this season), so instead we’re offering recipes,” Spinak says. “People who are always bringing food and people like those goodies—we said let’s figure out an additional perk so people feel they’re getting their money’s worth.”

Some of the perks include people having to buy only one ticket per household instead of paying for two if they brought a spouse along to the show. In the past, the theater gave customized gifts such as a spoon, a candle, spatulas, cards, magnets or bookmarks.

“It’s always fun to come up with gifts,” Spinak says. “We also give these gifts to our actors. People love gifts and they love us, so they love getting stuff from us and we love acknowledging our patrons. They’re a great group of people.”

This year they decided to give the gift to everyone who subscribes and since they can’t share food, they’ll give a discount coupon to a deli.

“We’ve tried to translate the experience we want to impart to our patrons into the subscription and that is kind of how we did it,” Spinak says.

Even after they pivot back to live performances in their theater, they will continue to offer streaming shows so that people who can’t leave their home or don’t live in the Los Angeles area can always have access.

“That’s the silver lining for a lot of people who were able to pivot—that we can reach the woman in Israel, the people from Canada,” Spinak says. “Some will stay and be a part of our community, some won’t. We will continue to grow digitally.”

The name change was made official this past year. They announced it at their Bat Mitzvah—a celebration of their 13th anniversary—and made it official on December 1.

“Most will still know us as the Jewish Women’s Theater, but The Braid is the name of our performance space in Santa Monica which we opened in year seven,” Spinak says. “We named it The Braid because we were doing art exhibits, we were doing Shabbat, we were literally braiding art and theater together.”

Their art exhibits were typically connected to the themes of what was explored on stage. This provided ways to deeply engage with the theme using multiple senses and artistic media.

“It is visual, but also auditory,” Spinak says. “It is the notion of braiding together art and theater and culture. It really represents us.”

While the 2021 season is focused on online productions with several non-subscription shows also being available, Spinak said they are already making plans for when people can gather again.

“We all miss being together, sharing as theater does when you are all together and hearing the story,” Spinak says. “But for now, we are blessed in that the way we do theater with the intersection of theater and storytelling translates really well to Zoom.”

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