After 35 years, S.F. Jewish theater to take its final bows

After 35 seasons, the Jewish Theatre San Francisco is going dark — for good.

Formerly known as A Traveling Jewish Theatre, TJT faced insurmountable financial difficulties over the last few years, forcing the board and senior staff to make the call earlier this month to fold the organization.

Before that final curtain, TJT will mount a 2011-2012 season, with new works by former artistic director Aaron Davidman, co-founder Corey Fischer and a medley of the company’s greatest hits, assembled by co-founder and newly installed artistic director Naomi Newman.

“We simply could no longer function the way we are set up,” said executive director Sara Schwartz Geller of TJT’s business model, which depends on foundation and individual donations for 75 percent of its income.

“We didn’t want to change the mission of the organization, but perhaps our mission isn’t what the community needs at this moment. We decided that instead of changing the mission, we would complete the mission.”

It wasn’t from lack of trying. In recent years, to shake things up, TJT staged works at the JCC of San Francisco, changed its name (removing “Traveling” from its moniker) and produced traditional plays such as “Lost in Yonkers,” “The Sisters Rosenzweig” and “Death of a Salesman.”

These experiments met with mixed success.

“We looked at ways to reconfigure, to earn more from earned income,” Geller added, “and we were not able to come up with a model that would enhance [income] without sacrificing the mission.”

From the beginning, that mission consisted of staging original, often avant-garde works grounded in the Jewish experience.

Founded by Fischer, Newman and Albert Greenberg in Los Angeles in 1978, A Traveling Jewish Theatre indeed used to travel, performing in many Bay Area venues and more than 60 cities around the world. In 1982, TJT relocated to San Francisco, eventually obtaining its 88-seat Florida Street theater (leased from the theater collective Project Artaud).

In 2002, Davidman was appointed artistic director, and the theater produced many well-received works. But TJT fell on hard times in 2008. Most of the staff was laid off, and the 2008-09 season was put on hold. A fundraising appeal brought $300,000 in much-needed cash, but eventually the hard times returned.

“We paid off a lot of debt and subsequently had some robust, well-attended seasons,” Geller said. “However, now that foundation grants are down so significantly, we can’t function expecting that same amount from contributed sources.”

Because many foundations operate on three-year grant cycles, she added, TJT didn’t feel the full brunt of the recession until 2010.

Geller hopes TJT will go out with a bang. Slated for the 2011-2012 season is the premiere of Fisher’s original play “In the Maze of Our Own Lives,” which recounts the story of the Group Theatre, the trailblazing New York–based company from the 1930s.

Also set is Davidman’s solo piece “Wrestling Jerusalem,” as well as Newman’s reading of her own original piece about the late author Grace Paley. The last hurrah will be a final weekend of TJT classics past and present, along with panel discussions.

After the company closes, Geller and the founders hope to publish the company’s collected works. With its remaining assets, TJT hopes to launch a fund through the Jewish Community Endowment Fund that would finance budding Jewish theater projects. Also, Geller said, a website will be up in perpetuity to remember and recount the accomplishments of the past 35 years.

That doesn’t take away from the poignancy of the moment.

“We feel collectively sad and proud,” Geller said, “and that this is the right move for us. We just got to a point where we had to accept the reality of the situation.”

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.