Theater that engages the head and the heart

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Shirley Serotsky, who was recently named the artistic director of the Hangar Theatre in Ithaca, wants to produce “relevant, riveting and joyful theatrical experiences.” She certainly has a great deal of experience as shown by her more than two decades of work in the theater, including her time at the Mosaic Theater Company, the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival, Catalyst Theatre Company, Bouncing Ball Theatrical Productions and Theater J. 

Serotsky has some very specific ideas about the type of theater she hopes to offer at the Hangar Theatre. “After a couple of decades creating theatrical experiences as both a director and a producer, I’ve come around to defining the kind of theater I am most invested in, and therefore the work that I am best suited to direct or produce,” she said in an e-mail interview. 

She noted that she looks for stories that “engage both the head and the heart. That might sound obvious, but there have been times that theater trends moved toward cerebral, emotionally distanced work. I could never get into it. For me, the moment when a play breaks open, when the characters suddenly release everything they’ve been holding back, or the instant of a life-shifting reveal, is deeply satisfying. On the flip side, it’s not enough for me to just feel, I want to walk away from a play having thought about something outside of my realm of everyday experience. I want to keep thinking about a story for days after it ends.”

However, Serotsky wants each play to contain even more depth. “I also tend toward work that has some political or social question at its center, but that examines that question in a way that is deeply connected to character, and avoids being didactic,” she added. “I embrace humor. I revel in theatrical mood swings: what, you’re laughing? No, you’re crying. Now you’re laughing again. To me, this is what keeps theater surprising and delightful, much like life itself.”

Works that contain humor and sadness strike Serotsky as being culturally Jewish. “Sholom Alecheim called it, ‘laughter through tears,’” she said. “In fact, he used that phrase to define an entire genre. This was a way to survive, to keep going even when it seemed impossible.” 

This was true of several plays that she either directed or produced when she was at Theater J, a group that describes itself as “theater that celebrates, explores, and struggles with the complexities and nuances of both the Jewish experience and the universal human condition.” 

“In 2012, I directed ‘The History of Invulnerability’ by David Bar Katz,” she said. “The play follows the development of the character of Superman in the 1930s, and really – superheroes in comic books as we know them today – as led by two Jewish creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Superman became wildly popular, and Siegel campaigned to write him into the war; he eventually succeeded, and was able to depict scenes where Superman fought off the Nazis. The historical fiction through-line of the play overlaps with an imagined plot about several prisoners in a concentration camp, who don’t survive. It’s a fascinating story, which both celebrates the innovation and drive of a forward thinking (though flawed) writer and artist, while also acknowledging that even Superman couldn’t stop that aspect of humanity, which could allow for genocide. Both of these forces co-exist in the world at all times: the will to do good, and the drive to rise up by oppressing others. We need to acknowledge and recognize both in order to be clear-sighted about the work that needs to be done to make the world a more fair and just place.”

A play she produced in 2016, “Another Way Home” by Anna Ziegler, proved to be a lighter theatrical experience. “That story fits in the great Jewish tradition of the family play, but with very modern sensibilities about the challenges of marriage and parenting,” Serotsky noted. “In the play, we meet a couple visiting their young teenage son Joey at summer sleep-away camp – also a great Jewish tradition. But Joey is a challenging kid to parent, he struggles to socialize and to manage his anxiety. When the family faces a crisis, the parents have to step back from their own expectations about who they think their kid is supposed to be, and finally, really see – and embrace – him. It’s a moving story, and I think about it often as I progress in my own parenting journey.”

Part of Serotsky’s job includes teaching students of all ages. She finds that work particularly meaningful. “I learn so much by teaching,” she said. “It encourages me to apply language and guidance to craft and technique, and that clarifies my own process as a director and dramaturg. But I also learn so much from the students I work with. I have found that young people are frequently way ahead of my generation when it comes to creating spaces that are equitable, anti-racist, transparent and conducive to being brave and supportive of each other.”

Going virtual during the past year due to the pandemic has also been a learning experience for Serotsky. She sees advantages and disadvantages to the experience. “We’ve been able to connect with audiences, though we’ve been dependent on technologies that are new to us to do so,” she added. “I’ll be honest, we’ve had some pretty frustrating technology failures during this time. I’d say the greatest advantage to creating and sharing work virtually is that we’ve been able to increase our reach well beyond the Finger Lakes region. We’ve had viewers and students from all over the country, and international participants as well – that’s been pretty thrilling to experience.”

She does note that one thing has not changed during the pandemic: “We’ve been able to tell stories, though in a manner that looks quite different than before. We’ve been able to create educational spaces where students can learn from and interact with each other, though we’ve had to be conscious to make sure that we’re staying physically, as well as mentally, engaged.”

When looking ahead to upcoming productions, Serotsky suggests a few that may be of interest to the Jewish community, including “Sweeney Todd,” with words and music by Jewish composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim; and “Queens Girl in the World” by Caleen Sinnette Jennings. “‘Queens Girl’ is a stunning solo show that follows Jacqueline Marie Butler, a Black girl growing up in Queens, NY, from 1962 to 1965, as she transfers from her neighborhood public school to a progressive, predominantly-Jewish school in Manhattan, where she is one of very few students of color,” she added. “During this time, she finds her voice both as a writer and as a budding political activist.”

For more information about the Hangar Theatre’s summer programming, visit https://hangartheatre.org/.