Fiddler production tries to channel the spirit of Marc Chagall

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On the first night of rehearsals for her upcoming run of “Fiddler on the Roof,” director Barbara Segal decided to play show and tell with the cast.

“I brought in my grandfather’s tallis and my grandmother’s candlesticks,” says Segal. “I brought in my dad’s tefillin, photos of my grandmother as a girl, a book of Chagall paintings.”

It was important for Segal to demonstrate a link between the beloved Broadway musical and her own family history. After all, her grandparents came from Eastern European shtetls just like the show’s fictional Anatevka, and now, directing “Fiddler” at the San Anselmo Playhouse, she’s almost come full circle.

“It allowed me to share a lot of my heritage,” says Segal, who calls herself a “teaching director.” That’s no surprise, considering she teaches drama at San Rafael High School, where her student productions are highly regarded.

“Last year we did ‘Fame’ for the spring school production,” recalls Segal. “Buzz Halsing from the board of the San Anselmo Town Players saw the show, and afterwards introduced himself. Then he asked if I would guest direct at San Anselmo.”

That invitation led to the current show, From the outset she envisioned a show different from the standard-issue community theater production. “My concept,” she says, “was not to create a dirty, realistic shtetl, but to create the remembered shtetl of the imagination, the one that Chagall painted over and over again.”

To emphasize the point, she ordered her cast and crew to take in the recent Chagall exhibit at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art.

Not that everyone needed a Jewish 101 education. Jewish cast members include Israeli-born Ben Wolpe (Perchik) and Jerry Michaels (Tevye). And here’s one for the mispoche file: Dan Rogoff (Lazar Wolf) is joined by son Duncan, who plays Mendel the rabbi’s son.

The San Anselmo theater’s family-friendly quality is a big attraction for Segal. “I like this company because the focus is on family involvement. They go for theater experiences that bring families together.”

For Segal, family means a lot. “I have stories ingrained in my memory,” she says. “My grandmother told me about her town: how soldiers came through, and during the worst of it, she looked out a window and saw a neighbor’s head rolling down the street.”

Segal’s grandfather came to America in 1907, fleeing the pogroms. Many other family members perished in the Holocaust.

Segal fell in love with theater as a child. She earned a master’s in fine arts from the University of Hawaii, then taught theater at Columbia College in Sonora and directed independent theater. She moved to Marin in 2000. “I feel like the pied piper of theater everywhere I go,” she laughs. Theater is “better than movies: It’s live, compelling, vital, energetic, a profound experience.”

Though she grew up in a home that honored Jewish religious and cultural traditions, Segal has since found it challenging to maintain some of those traditions.

“Being in the theater makes it difficult to be an observant Jew,” she says. “But the strongest element that affects my life is tikkun olam; it’s our responsibility while here on earth to make a contribution, and I believe theater does that. It looks at the human condition, puts it out there for people to examine and asks what we do to change things. Theater has that ability to change people profoundly.”

San Anselmo Town Players’ “Fiddler on the Roof” runs Jan. 7-11 at the Playhouse, 27 Kensington Road, San Anselmo. Tickets: $10-$16, at San Anselmo Recreation,

1000 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., or call (415) 258-4640; Ticketweb, (866) 468-3399; or at the door. Information: www.thetownplayers.com.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.