As the artistic director for the West Coast Jewish Theatre, Howard Teichman has dedicated his life in the theater to bringing Jewish thematic plays to the second largest Jewish community in the United States. During his tenure as artistic director, Howard has either produced or directed numerous memorable plays that have drawn both critical acclaim and audience pleasure. Plays like Bar Mitzvah Boy, Fugu, and Broadway Bound reveal the variety of approaches he has taken to reach his goals of Yiddishkeit, social relevance, inclusion, and – of course – entertainment. Howard took time from his busy schedule to interview in April 2020.
When did your theater company first begin its long career? What led to its creation? What’s your mission? Were you involved from the beginning?
Howard Teichman: West Coast Jewish Theatre began in the mid-1990s. Our founder Naomi Karz Jacobs wanted to bring Jewish theater to the Los Angeles area. The theater started out performing staged readings with celebrities in people’s homes. Ed Asner, Harold Greene, Shelly Berman and many other well-known actors gave of their time to perform Jewish thematic plays. The readings eventually moved to different synagogues in the Los Angeles area. We did find a home for quite a while at the Wilshire Blvd. Temple in West Los Angeles.
Our mission is to portray Jewish history and foster a respect for our Jewish culture and heritage. It’s through the medium of theater that we keep alive the works of Jewish writers, both past and present, and also encourage new Jewish playwrights. We want to portray to the non-Jewish community the unique qualities of the Jewish people, as well as those qualities that are shared with everyone, making us all equal in the family of man.
I was involved at the beginning of West Coast Jewish Theatre. I was on the Board of Directors. I also produced and directed shows for the theater. I wrote a play on behalf of the West Coast Jewish Theatre for the first ever Yiddishkeit Festival held in Los Angeles in 1999.
West Coast Jewish Theatre’s history is truly a journey of survival. As I stated before, we began as a theater performing staged readings. After a while we partnered with other theaters in town to present full-length productions. We worked with groups like Pacific Resident Theater Ensemble and co-produced with David Ellenstein and other individual producers. When Herb Isaac became our artistic director in 2003, we began to produce our own shows. We performed at the Egyptian Theatre for a few shows, and we performed at the Miles Memorial Playhouse for one show. In 2006, we moved to the Pico Playhouse, where we found a home until 2017. While at the Pico Playhouse, we presented some of the best theater in Los Angeles. We were fortunate to have worked with some of the best actors, directors, and designers that Los Angeles has to offer. If you go to our website, we have cataloged all the good work that we created during that time frame.
In 2018 we returned to the Miles Memorial Playhouse for a couple of shows. Right now, we are searching for a permanent home. I hope it’s a joke when I say, “We should change the name of our theater to the “Wandering Jewish Theater.”
I left the West Coast Jewish Theatre for about eight years and became a resident theater director at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills. In 2009, I was offered and accepted the position of producer for the West Coast Jewish Theatre. In 2010, I took over the reins from Herb Isaac when he retired; and I became the artistic director and producing manager.
When did you close the theater due to COVID-19? Were you in the middle of a run?
HT: We closed our theater to any further productions on March 1, 2020, when we could see the writing on the wall. We had just concluded a staged reading series at the Miles Memorial Playhouse and were in the process of negotiating with them for another series of staged readings in May and in July. We were also negotiating a full length production opening in October.
Over the past weeks, how has COVID-19 impacted your theater?
HT: Just as it has impacted everyone else in town. We are closed for business until it is safe to congregate as a society. Since we only rent spaces at this time, we are not burdened with the expenses of theater property; however, we continue to reach out for donations to keep the flame alive for our theater.
Are you going anything right now to keep your live theater going? Streaming? Having virtual meetings? Planning for your next show when you reopen? Auditioning? Fundraising?
HT: We have recently created a video for all social media platform for our theater. We are in the process of editing an overview montage of what our theater has accomplished over these many years. Hopefully, we will be performing staged readings on the platform and offer a variety of Jewish theatrical content. We are in the process of developing our next season. We continue to fund raise. We have a grant writer on staff who is reaching out to various foundations with the hope of procuring monies.
What do you think will be the impact of COVID-19 on live theater in general in Los Angeles? Do you forsee any permanent changes?
HT: Until there is a vaccine or a medication that can prevent the spread of this disease, audiences won’t feel comfortable returning to any publicly-held event. We can only hope that the world’s great scientists come up with something that can kill this virus. Theater is a living being that demands the audience’s participation. Theater has existed for many centuries and has overcome plagues of the past, as well as upheaval, war, and totalitarian governments that censor the free spirit of theater. Theater will continue to shine a light on the human condition as long as man is willing to tell stories and present them in the style, form, and genre that we know as theater.
What do you need right now to keep going forward? What would you like from the theater public?
HT: We need patience, tolerance, and hope. What I would like from the theater public is their resolve that they will return to the theater in droves once it is safe. The public must support and contribute to their favorite theater in order to keep theater alive in Los Angeles and elsewhere. Small theater in Los Angeles is truly at the mercy of the public. Large houses have money and contributors, while small theaters are getting along on shoestring budgets and not enough support from city, state, and federal governments. We need their help now more than ever. History has shown us that a healthy theater scene reflects prosperously on the health of a society.
What are some of your future plans?
HT: We plan on staying alive and healthy so that we can produce in the near future. We hope to find a permanent home for the West Coast Jewish Theatre. We want to develop new works and open a new season. We must increase our fund-raising events, and we will reach out to the community at large. We will also increase our Board of Directors.
This article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.