Creating Reading Hebron by Jason Sherman

by Brian Quirt

In the fall of 1994, I was programming short works for the Toronto Theatre Centre’s Under the Umbrella Festival of new theatre. I asked Jason Sherman if he had a topic that he would like to explore, he said yes, and we agreed to work together on a play about the Hebron massacre, to be called The Inquiry. Once Jason began to write, the character of Nathan Abramowitz, last seen in Jason’s 1992 play The League of Nathans, popped up. Nathan, like Jason, wanted to know why the Israeli inquiry into the massacre appeared to be a whitewash.

At Under the Umbrella, Reading Hebron, as it was now called, was about Nathan’s search for information that would support his growing belief that the massacre was in fact the logical result of radical Zionism, and was passively condoned by the state of Israel. The play was a frustrated Jew’s condemnation of a place he loved but increasingly could not understand.

Our working method was simple, or at least it seemed so at the time. Jason had a substantial pile of research material on the Hebron massacre. This included news articles, opinion pieces, letters to the editor and a few excerpts from the transcript of the Israeli inquiry. Jason’s efforts to acquire a full edition of that transcript, his frustration at being unable to get hold of such a document in order to be able to closely examine how and perhaps why the inquiry essentially exonerated the Israeli state, appeared in the play in original scenes. Jason and I, working with actors Michael Healey, Earl Pastko and Liza Balkan, wove the material together and quickly staged it at a single long table.

Following those performances, Reading Hebron lay dormant for a year. Jason went on to write the successful play The Retreat. But the issues continued to percolate and we had a second opportunity to explore Nathan’s quest in April 1996 when Playwrights’ Workshop Montreal offered us the resources to workshop and perform Reading Hebron.

It was Passover when we travelled to Montreal and it turned out that Nathan’s mother wanted him to come to the family seder. Nathan resisted and, as Jason wrote, characters such as Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, Hannan Ashwari and Steven Speilberg appeared to Nathan. He invited them to a seder of his own and tried to reconcile his life as a Jew, seen through the lens of past seders, with his growing dissatisfaction with what being a Jew meant to him. The version of Reading Hebron performed in Montreal became as much about Nathan’s identity as a Jew as it was about the Hebron massacre.

At Playwrights’ we continued the working process of the previous workshop. Actually, workshop is not quite the correct term for what we did. Jason and I came to a mutual conclusion that this play would be created largely in rehearsal. At the Theatre Centre, we edited the found material in the room with the actors; Jason wrote new material immediately before and during the rehearsals.

Similarly, we arrived in Montreal with essentially the piece we had performed at the Theatre Centre. We had talked briefly about the seder idea, but Jason had only written a couple of new scenes. He brought a stack of new research, which we plundered, but our main focus was on creating a fictional seder for Nathan, a seder at which all his fears and doubts about being Jewish, about being a Jew in North America, could be thrown in his face.

That seder scene, in the end, wasn’t completed until six months later. It was only during the rehearsals for the premiere production at Factory Theatre in Toronto that we were able to isolate the exact elements which would comprise that magnificent seder.

Meanwhile, in Montreal Jason wrote many new scenes, including a hilarious but completely irrelevant piece about Mordechai Richler.

Playwrights’ Workshop offered us a very specific form of workshop. Over three weeks we would work with the actors for several days the first week; full time the second week, with two readings at its end; and for two days the final week, again with two readings. I firmly believe in the value of performance as an essential component of the development process. The four readings were invaluable in exploring the new text and the various permutations it took on. Playwrights’ Workshop also provided Lise Ann Johnson as our director, plus some modest production resources. We found the production elements were not useful and having staged it previously in Toronto we knew that our focus had to be on finding the form of the full length version. Lise Ann’s presense enabled me to concentrate on being the dramaturg. Lise Ann handled the actors; I handled Jason. It was, I suspect, a difficult position for Lise Ann, standing between us and the actors, but she managed it with grace.

We left Montreal with an hour-long draft, up from the forty-minute original text. When Factory programmed it in their 1996 season Jason and I were determined to continue with a process that had so far been very effective. Jason wrote a few new scenes just before rehearsals began, we had the actors in for two days to read that material and to discuss design and staging. Jason spent a couple weeks revising and writing and then the rest of the play was created during the rehearsal period. It is not always the best method, but with this material, this topic, and this team, the immediacy of this method was immensely productive. Jason is often inspired by particular actors. This proved to be the case in each of our three rehearsal sessions, and many scenes were written to take advantage of the ideas and abilities of our acting company. The development of a play is a fluid thing. Plays grow in ways never imagined at the beginning. When we set to work on a new play, we must think carefully about designing a process uniquely tailored to that particular piece of theatre. The Theatre Centre, Playwrights’ Workshop and Factory Theatre each allowed us to establish and refine the way we wanted to work. Our collaboration has emphasized for me that designing the process is almost as important as creating the play. I think I knew that before, but it is now an integral component of each new project I undertake. Reduced funds and production deadlines often compromise process. I understand that. I have certainly at times given in to those pressures. But I am less and less willing to do so. How we create inevitably affects what we create. The theatre is a place of infinite possibilities. We must ensure that theatres acknowledge that in the design of their developmental programs. It’s vital.

Reading Hebron was nominated for both the Chalmers and Governor General’s Award and continues to be performed around the world. Reprinted with permission from Playwrights’ Workshop Montreal.

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