Creating Theatrics: The Wit and Wisdom of Jewish Writing¸ a dramatic presentation of extracts from the works of 10 Jewish authors, hasn’t been too big a leap for award-winning theatre director and dramaturge, Gary Abrahams.

Abrahams lived in London from 2003-2007 and would ask writers to create short pieces for actor friends to perform at clubs and bars normally closed on Mondays.

“I would do deals with the managers of different venues to get them for free if we brought in the punters. It was a learning experience for everyone concerned, not to mention great fun. I certainly learned a lot about how to build a whole out of disparate parts,” he said.

Abrahams said that the biggest challenge in putting together Theatrics was choosing from centuries of Jewish writing.

“I’ve been very much guided by the Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival committee which decided to put on three performances of Theatrics in its non-festival year. When I looked at the short list, certain themes emerged such as motherhood, relationships, loss and the experience of being the outsider,” he said.

“Including female voices such as Grace Paley’s and Ayelet Waldman’s was paramount as they too often get left out in a male-orientated world. It was my idea to commission Maria Tumarkin, Russian-Jewish author, to write a short story especially for the show. It’s set in academia with a very up-to-the-minute theme about an academic who wants to expose a colleague who evinces Nazi sympathies.”

Featured authors include four Australians – Arnold Zable, Alex Skovron, Maria Tumarkin and Serge Liberman – together with Nathan Englander, Howard Jacobson, Etgar Keret, Grace Paley, Ayelet Waldman (who is coming to Australia later this year) and Yiddish writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Abrahams said he also wanted to ensure a variety of styles and formats were represented – poems, short stories, novels and essays.

“Some pieces are underscored with a traditional cynical Jewish humour. Other works are not particularly Jewish in either content or style. The pieces range from ‘high literature’ to the engaging story telling of Arnold Zable. Some have a strong autobiographical quality. Others are fantastical. With 10 different works, there will be something that speaks to each individual audience member.

“Some excerpts, such as from Howard Jacobson’s Kalooki Nights, are extremely short. Altogether, the performance runs for only 90 minutes as I wanted to keep the focus sharp.”

Abrahams admitted that he was also on a mission to introduce younger audiences to the authors.

“Younger people, even in the generally book-mad Jewish community, just aren’t reading like they used to. I myself wasn’t familiar with all the authors,” he said.

“As a theatre director, what distinguishes me from my contemporaries is that I am fascinated by text – the ‘word’ – whilst my theatrical colleagues are moving away from text to image-based theatre, which is not driven by a narrative.”

Abrahams said his other big love was music so he was thrilled that live music by Adam Starr would be interspersed throughout Theatrics.

“Starr’s music will gently underscore the performances in some places. Other times it will draw on the energetic tradition of Klezmer music.”

Since graduating from The Victorian College of The Arts in 2009 (Masters of Theatre Practice) Abrahams has worked extensively as a director, writer, dramaturge and actor. He is a recipient of The Grace Wilson Trust Award for writing, The Jim Marks Scholarship for Artistic Practice and The Mike Walsh Fellowship for directing.

Recent directing credits include: Roam, The Pride, Day One. A Hotel. Evening, Laramie.10 Years On and Oh Well Never Mind Bye; all for Red Stitch Actors Theatre. He also directed the recent play The Flock and The Nest, a collaboration between Red Stitch and St Michaels Grammar.

For his own company, Dirty Pretty Theatre, he has directed and written the plays Acts Of Deceit (Between Strangers In A Room), Something Natural but Very Childish, The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant and Therese Raquin. He received a Green Room Award for Best Director in Independent Theatre in 2010, and was nominated in the same category for his work in 2014.

In Theatrics: The Wit and Wisdom of Jewish Writing Abrahams is directing an ensemble of four actors – Deidre Rubenstein, Michael Veitch, Luisa Hastings Edge and Christopher Brown – in a fluid arrangement of scenes, monologues, and direct readings in different styles.

The three performances of Theatrics are at St Kilda’s Alex Theatre, Saturday 22-Sunday 23 August, as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival.

Theatrics is the first show to be held in the 294-seat theatre, one of three new performance spaces created in the transformation of the George Cinema into The Alex Theatre.

A Q&A session with Theatrics director, the actors and some of the authors will follow the 2pm performance on Sunday 23 August.

Theatrics: The Wit and Wisdom of Jewish Writing
Saturday 22-Sunday 23 August