By: Matthew Greenwald
The formal unveiling of Beit T’Shuvah’s Theatre Arts Department has finally arrived. Spearheaded by artistic director James Fuchs, the program is a crucial extension of recovery through artistic expression, an innovative and dynamic component of our highly unique treatment model. Residents develop and take a production from the ground-up, becoming involved in all facets of theatre; writing, acting, staging, technical support, promoting the production, and ultimately, the performance. Along the way they not only develop unique skills, but also learn valuble lessons about themselves through self-expression and teamwork.
The theatre department, in concept, actually started ten years ago, when James went to Harriet’s office, and told her about a play he developed called Figaro’s Divorce. He wanted to use half professionals and half Beit T’Shuvah residents for the production, and Harriet loved the idea. “Over three months we found rehearsal space, held auditions, built sets,” recalls James, “Not only did we get a play done, but we took people who had no experience in theatre through a process. Normally you might achieve this after you had a program, this was really before…we were building the program in its infancy. Once we did the performances, and were successful, Rabbi Mark was hot on the trail of something Beit T’Shuvah could write, produce and perform.”
Ironically, around this time renown Los Angeles Cantor and songwriter Craig Taubman called before Passover of that year and requested a performance of some kind, not necessarily a musical, but a short play. So, Cantor Rebekah Mirsky and James got together to write a couple of songs that might work. A month later, they brought in playwright/composer Stuart Robinson, and Freedom Song was born…and the rest is history. “Freedom Song can be overwhelming to some people,” comments Tricia Nykon, who has been brought aboard as a department intern to assist James, “but it can also be the thing that holds them to the community. My thing is to get people involved in the groups and programs, because they don’t know what moves them, or what they feel passionate about until they actually do them.”
Aside from existing groups such as Theatre Junkies and the ongoing production of Freedom Song, the theatre department has partnered with the USC Applied Theatre Arts Program for Theatre of the Oppressed, which includes some of their students who are in the Masters’ Theatre program, doing groups at Beit T’Shuvah once a week. “We’re also starting to work with Cornerstone Theatre Company,” adds Tricia “and we’re putting on a play with them called Bliss Point. We’re talking to other theatre companies about doing similar productions, in order for this department to grow. I’m very, very excited.”
In terms of recovery, there is a natural consequence to involvement in theatre that is similar to music: you acquire the means to express yourself. “I think for myself in recovery,” observes James “my most cherished thing is self-expression. I wish that for myself and for others; that’s a part of life that people need for themselves. Some people get in careers where that ends; and for 40 years they live in a different ideology.”
In a way, theatre is more accessible for people than music. Also, people don’t necessarily have to be actors; there’s always need for technical support: lighting, staging, sound, etc. The ultimate goal is to introduce people to theatre, and to the community aspect of theatre. “We’re also introducing method acting,” offers Tricia, “which is drawing upon your own experiences to feel for a character, and this is a central element in recovery. I think this is a great way to show people how to feel about their own experiences.”
It’s been James’ mission now for the past year and a half to make this happen. It’s been a slow build, but it’s gathering momentum. When people go through the production process, they find out something else about themselves. They learn about the tradition of theatre, but more importantly, teamwork interaction and self-expression. It’s a great way to show people how to feel about their own experiences…and ultimately, recover in a group setting. “We all feel like outsiders so much of the time,” concludes Tricia, “and the relationships here in the Theatre Arts department forge an even greater sense of community.”