"Everyone puts Purim on the calendar, but sometimes the spiel gets short shrift," says Kutner, a staff writer for "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart." In the 18th century, Kutner notes, Purim spiels were "full theatrical productions with a cast of thousands. It's a 600-year-old tradition. And there's no reason it can't be done at a high level of planning and production value."
Kutner's initial foray into spieling came in 1995, when he was a student at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem, and he continued to write spiels when he moved to Los Angeles, where he and his wife, Sheryl Zohn, also a comedy writer, were involved with the Shtibl Minyan in Pico-Robertson. When Kutner moved to New York in 2002 to take his job at "The Daily Show," he had no immediate connection to the New York Jewish community, so he created "The Shushan Channel," a collection of Megillah-infused reinterpretations of current television shows, with titles like "Pimp My Steed" and "The Amazing Shlep."
"Creating [these] productions created a Jewish community for me," Kutner said. The repertory has attracted a regular cast and crew of actors and writers, including some Daily Show performers and people Kutner has worked with since college. One of those is Stephen Levinson, who is a co-founder of the comedy Web site supermasterpiece.com and a designer for shushanchannel.com. After incorporating some initial feedback, "the team" (Kutner, Levinson and Levinson's brother, Joel Moss) started offering the spiels around the country.
"What amazes me is the range of groups, from teachers to old age homes, who have been interested," Levinson says. "I wish we could attend all the performances, it would be wonderful to see our sketches in those venues."
The leadership of the Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia had considered using a Purim spiel to unite their synagogue's different minyanim, but found the task daunting.
"Enter the Shushan Channel," says Rachel Gross, its executive director. "People enthusiastically volunteered in every age group, taking on a sketch and bringing friends to help build the audience," she said.
As the spiel's coordinator, Gross appreciated that the packages came with prop and costume lists, casting guidelines and "everything we needed. We are really grateful they've created this timely, funny, inexpensive, professionally-written, easy-to-use product," Gross says.
Spielmakers nationwide can choose from the Shushan Channel Standard Package (10 pieces for $500), or build a custom selection that is budget- and community-appropriate.
"A spiel written by professional Jewish comedy writers makes people more interested in coming to celebrate," Kutner says. "We do hip, contemporary riffs on the Purim story, which makes it relevant for people who might not be megillah-fluent.
"We view making Jews laugh on Purim as the 614th mitzvah. And when it comes to that mitzvah, we're ultra-Orthodox."
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