When Aaron Henne decided to form a new Jewish theater company, he knew he needed to push boundaries and make bold statements to challenge the traditional image of what constitutes Jewish theater. So now, with its first major production, Henne’s aptly named Theatre Dybbuk is attempting just that, with “Cave … A Dance for Lilith,” a collaborative, imaginative piece conceived in partnership with the L.A. Contemporary Dance Company.
Henne, who grew up on the East Coast in a Conservative Jewish household and once considered becoming a rabbi, wasn’t always so intent on bringing his Judaism into his theater work. For years he worked various local stages including the Colony Theatre, Center Theatre Group and others, developing scripts. His own plays, like “Sliding into Hades” — a riff on the Greek myth of Orpheus —won awards for their creativity, but their subjects certainly weren’t Jewish.
It wasn’t until he took a trip to Israel for his sister’s wedding a few years back that Henne began to think more seriously about Jewish theater. “I recognized that in the U.S., and in Los Angeles, there’s very little Jewish theater that is really specifically speaking to me, as a culturally Jewish, not particularly religious, Jewish person,” he said in an interview. Henne began to think about how he could change that. “I realized, oh, I bet there are others out there like me who’d love to engage with live performance and theater that deals with Jewish themes and topics but maybe haven’t found anything that’s speaking to them.”
And so, Theatre Dybbuk was born. According to Henne, the theater’s mission is to “illuminate the universal human experience by creating provocative theatrical presentations based on Jewish myths, folklore and history.”
To that end, Henne began reading up on Jewish folklore and was surprised by some of what he found. “I came across, in my research, some stories about Lilith, and didn’t realize how prominent she was in Judaism for a long time,” said Henne. “I didn’t know yet what I wanted to do with it, but I was fascinated.”
Henne was particularly interested in midrashic tales that told of dual creation myths in the book of Genesis and cast Lilith as the first wife of Adam. Rebellious, some tales said, she ran off and become the mother of demons, popping up repeatedly in Jewish folklore as a child-stealer, double dealer and generally shady character. Later, she was rehabilitated by Jewish feminists, who cast her instead as a rebel against a misogynistic Adam. The conflicting natures of Lilith seemed a gold mine to Henne.
He knew that whatever he did, it couldn’t be too ethnocentric. “Sometimes culturally specific theater, be it of any culture, not just Judaism, can be exclusive instead of inclusive. And that was the other thing I was interested in, actually creating a Jewish theater company that is inclusive, that’s about speaking to a larger cultural conversation, not just Jewish people.”
In Lilith, Henne found the perfect vessel through which to speak about the notion of the outsider and the stranger, themes that cut across cultural lines. “It’s definitely about otherness. Lilith, in a way, becomes a placeholder for the idea of the other,” Henne said, adding that he was fascinated by man’s tendency to reject that which he doesn’t understand, “the idea that there is another who isn’t me, and I don’t know how to reconcile that, so what I need to do is demonize.”
It quickly became apparent to Henne that Lilith’s story would be ripe for a multidisciplinary piece. “There’s all this multiplicity in the Lilith stories, where there’s doubles of Lilith, there’s dark Lilith. ... As I started to think about notions of multiplicity, I thought, well, what better way to get at that than to work with dancing, because dance is terrific at multiplicity. You can have two actors say something, and there’s four or five dancers engaging in what’s being said and suddenly you see four of five layers of meaning.”
To further his goal, Henne turned to his friend Kate Hutter, co-founder and artistic director of the L.A. Contemporary Dance Company. Henne had worked with the company on two previous projects and felt they’d be perfect for “Cave.” The project would be the dance company’s first Jewish piece, according to Henne, a fact of which he is proud. The production will feature an original score by Eric Mason, and it will include two actors and five dancers onstage, though, as Henne points out, “I should say seven performers, because in a piece like this, the line between who’s a dancer and who’s an actor gets very blurred.”
After “Cave” premieres this fall, Henne will turn his attention to a few other projects he’s got planned for 2013 and beyond. One is an exploration of Shabbetai Zevi, the 17th century founder of the Sabbatean movement who claimed to be the Messiah; and another, yet untitled, project will explore the Jewish connections of Cervantes’ “Don Quixote.”
More than anything, Henne hopes the Dybbuk Theatre will change perceptions of Jewish theater in Los Angeles. “People hear ‘Jewish theater,’ and their vision of what it may be might be different than this,” Henne said. He’d like to give people more than what they’re expecting.
“What theater can do really well is actually challenge us, ask us to not be comfortable, to have to pay attention, to focus in a way that other [art] forms don’t ask us to.”
“Cave ... A Dance for Lilith,” a co-production between Theatre Dybbuk and the L.A. Contemporary Dance Company, runs Nov. 9 through Nov. 18 at the Diavolo performance space at the Brewery in downtown Los Angeles. For ticket information, visit theatredybbuk.org.