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Women's theater group draws on own experiences

| Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2007

It's been a while since Kol Isha spoke up.

This Pittsburgh Jewish women's theater company -- its Hebrew name translates as "voice of a woman" -- was last heard from publicly when it produced "Spirits of Valor" in 2001.

Since it was founded in 1995 by Barb Feige and Amy Guterson, Kol Isha has met weekly to bring together a diverse group of Jewish women of different ages and lifestyles who embody a variety of Jewish perspectives, practices and beliefs.

Using improvisational techniques and lots of discussion to build acting skills and create theater pieces, the women of Kol Isha explore their experiences to better understand each other and explore barriers to Jewish unity.

"What you have is women meeting, creating together, getting to know each other's lives so the stereotypes have to fall away," says Elizabeth Boltson Gordon, a Point Breeze resident and long-time member of Kol Isha.

Most of the time the women of Kol Isha talk among themselves.

Occasionally, they invite the rest of us to hear the results of their conversations.

That opportunity comes Wednesday when Kol Isha Theatre begins performances of "Imagining Bubbe," written by Gordon and directed by Guterson, of Squirrel Hill.

"The process is what we get out of it," Guterson says. "The product is what the community gets to share with us."

Drawing on the memories, regrets, stories, dreams and imaginings of the women of Kol Isha, "Imagining Bubbe" explores the multidimensional relationships between grandmothers and their granddaughters.

"Imagining Bubbe" developed over the past 4 1/2 years and was originally sparked by Guterson.

"I was close with my grandmother who has Alzheimer's disease, and I was missing her," Guterson says. "It hit the group well. They all had so much to say about grandmothers."

The discussions got Gordon thinking about her own multigenerational relationships.

"How will my grandchildren know me• The fabric of how we lived is so different. Is there a way you can grasp that?" she says.

The play presents stories both fictional and real that grew out of the group's memories, discussions and improvisational exercises.

"I see it as a braid or challah. It weaves three strands together to create a picture. It's about understanding your ancestors," Gordon says.

One strand consists of lists -- names for grandmothers, the things they cooked, the ways they resembled their grandmothers -- or didn't, the food the grandmothers fed them, the marriage advice they offered.

The second strand, derived from the group's improvisational encounters, brought the grandmothers and granddaughters to life.

"Each relationship is different," Guterson says.

"You get a sense of the variety, of an infinite number of possibilities the pair can take on. These people lived through incredible things," Gordon says.

The third strand is vignettes that are like small plays as recipes for chopped liver gets handed down from generation to generation or a young bride's search for a wedding dress generates her grandmothers' reminiscences about their own weddings.

"Some are extremely touching and some are hysterically funny," Guterson says. "Some of Act 2 is very intense. Not all the grandmothers are so pleasant. But you see why because of the choices she had to make. It's about not connecting. The granddaughter cannot understand because the grandmother cannot share. But we get glimmers."

Although "Imagining Bubbe" grew out of the experiences and memories of Jewish women, its themes and stories are universally approachable, Gordon says. "It's the very particular that makes it universal"

Not all ensemble members appear at all performances.

As with earlier productions, Kol Isha accommodates those of the company's Orthodox actresses who choose not to perform when men are present, by dividing the performance schedule into those for mixed audiences and those that admit only women.

"Imagining Bubbe" will continue that tradition with six performances for mixed audiences and four for women only.

"Initially it was because we wanted all the women to feel comfortable. The focus was to be inclusive within ourselves," Guterson says.

The female-only performances attracted a diverse audience of women. "We had talk-backs, and the women would not let us go home. They found they could finally identify with something," Gordon says.

When men came, they also profited, Gordon says. "The feedback was the men were touched by this," Gordon says.

Photos: Heidi Murrin/Tribune-Review

Sarah Twerski (left), portraying Bubbe Minnie, and Cindy Harris, portraying Maxine, rehearse for the upcoming Kol Isha Theatre production of "Imagining Bubbe."

Amy Schwartz (standing) portrays Charlotte, with Judith Sanders as Bubbe, in the production.

Additional Information:

'Imagining Bubbe'

Presented by : Kol Isha Theatre

When : Wednesday-March 11. Performances for female-only audiences at 8 p.m. Wednesday and March 8, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 25 and March 10. Performances for male and female audiences are at 8 p.m. Feb. 22 and March 1, 8:30 p.m. Feb. 24, 7:30 p.m. March 4 and 2 p.m. Feb. 25 and March 11

Admission: $15; $10 for students and senior citizens

Where : Katz Performing Arts Center, Jewish Community Center, 5738 Darlington Road, Squirrel Hill

Details : 412-421-7786

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