Actress keeps 10 personas in step in Fall Down Get Up

Officially, it’s a one-woman show.

But when Naomi Newman takes the stage this week with her new play “Fall Down Get Up” at San Francisco’s Traveling Jewish Theatre, things will get a bit crowded up there. Over the course of the evening, Newman assumes the personas of 10 very different women.

It’s not multiple personality disorder. It’s just Naomi Newman doing what she does best: bringing to life diverse and compelling characters, both dramatic and comic. This time, they include a Yiddish theater actress, a former African slave, a German bohemian poet, a bag lady and others.

What links them? For one thing, through intense improvisation and workshop, Newman created the characters for shows she’d done in the past, such as her acclaimed “Snake Talk: Urgent Messages from My Mother.” Corralling them all in one play is, for her, like throwing a family reunion.

More importantly, as the show’s title suggests, the characters tell personal stories in which they prevail over seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

“They come from books, from history, from my imagination,” says the actress of the characters in the play. “They’re archetypes from the past.”

The curious title — “Fall Down Get Up” — has deep personal meaning for Newman, who experienced two nasty falls while developing the play. One occurred on stage at Traveling Jewish Theater in the middle of a performance last year, causing her to freeze with “embarrassment and humiliation.” As she noted later, she had “no time to dwell there, or to examine scrapes and bruises. With the help of my fellow actor, Corey Fischer, I quickly got up and finished the scene with greater conviction than ever before.”

The other fall was more serious.

In January, Newman tripped in front of her house, badly scraping her nose, cheek and forehead. Later that night, her wrist began to throb with excruciating pain. But rather than just pop a Tylenol, she tried something different.

Newman relied on her years of meditation practice to avoid resisting the pain and instead “be with it.”

Soon enough, as the pain slowly subsided, she began to imagine all the wounded people of the world and her place among them.

“Part of the process,” she says, “is to open up to whatever is happening, no matter what, to be curious about it.”

That close encounter with pain ramped up Newman’s artistic goals for “Fall Down Get Up,” which she premiered last fall in an earlier version at Barnard College. Over the course of the two-act play, Newman dramatizes her characters’ traumas and personal battles, culminating in a celebratory coda.

Among Newman’s memorable women: Rifka, a Jewish immigrant/kitchen philosopher (based in part on Newman’s own mother). There’s Elsa Lasker-Schuller, a real-life German Jewish poet who saw the rise of fascism and left Germany at age 64 for pre-state Israel with nothing but the clothes on her back. Then there’s Fredl Shtock, a young Yiddish poet who came to America and somehow flourished.

What’s it like for the veteran actor and co-founder of Traveling Jewish Theatre to fly solo? “A shift happens when you’re on stage alone,” she notes.

“When you’re acting with others, you’re like a basketball team, with the energy moves synergistically. In a solo show, the relationship is with the audience.”

After 25 years as a doyenne of Bay Area theater, Newman is still as excited as ever about her life on the stage, especially when she has so many lovely fictitious characters to keep her company.

“They’re old friends,” she says of the women that people “Fall Down Get Up.”

“It’s so interesting to see how they change and interact with each other. I really feel they know a lot more than I do, and I’ve learned a lot from them.”

Fall Down Get Up” plays March 3-21 at Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida St., S.F. ; and March 25-28 at Julia Morgan Theatre, 2640 College Ave., Berkeley. Tickets: $18-30. Information: (415) 285-8080, or atjt.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.