Wasserstein describes life in theater, at Jewish-American writers conference

Oct. 22, 2001 1:10 p.m.

To view a Webcast of this conference, click here.

Playwright and essayist Wendy Wasserstein delighted her audience with tales from her life in the theater and from her idiosyncratic Jewish family at the opening lecture of a three-day conference, "Celebrating Jewish-American Writers," which started at Princeton on Sunday.

Wasserstein, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her 1989 play "The Heidi Chronicles," talked about her mother, Lola, whom she called "the funniest person I know." She described her childhood in Flatbush, Brooklyn, where she attended the Yeshiva Flatbush, and how her mother's love of the theater was sometimes at odds with a Jewish upbringing.

"My mother insisted that I take dancing classes every Saturday at the June Taylor School of Dance. Now the rabbi thought you were going to temple every Saturday, and he certainly didn't think you were going off to the June Taylor School of Dance. And I told my mother about this problem, when the rabbi came by on Sundays and said, 'Did you go to shul?' and she said, 'Well, just lie.'"

When Wasserstein asked her older brother and sister what to do, "they pretty much said that I should learn to be more imaginative." Which, of course, she did. A friend once told her that "I was very lucky because I was born into so much material," Wasserstein said.

Wasserstein said the element of Jewish writing that most resonated in her work was the simultaneous presence of "what's comedic and what's serious," of embracing "fancifulness in the face of terror."

Wasserstein recounted some moments when producers tried to mute her work's identification with Jewish themes, sometimes to amusing effect. She recalled the reaction of one producer to her musical, "Miami," which is about her family's excursions to that city. "He came to see it and took me out and said, 'Wendy, can't you make these people Irish? It doesn't look good for the Jews.' And I said, 'I just didn't hang out with a lot of Irish people.'"

The conference continues Monday and Tuesday, with the keynote address by author E. L. Doctorow, titled "Literature as Assimilation," at 4:30 p.m. Monday. At 8:30 p.m., comic strip artist Ben Katchor will give an illustrated lecture titled "Halftone Printing in the Jewish Press and Other Objects of Idol Worship."

At 2 p.m. Tuesday, artists Will Eisner, Jules Feiffer and Art Spiegelman will explore the work of Jewish cartoonists and artists in a roundtable discussion called "COMIX!!" All events take place in the Film and Dance Theater at the Frist Campus Center.

For the complete conference schedule, click here .

Contact: Marilyn Marks (609) 258-3601