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The Soul Doctor

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By: Sharman Yarnell – mtltimes.ca

WassermanWho would drive back and forth from New York to Montreal to create moments of enthusiasm and electrifying theatre on a Montreal stage? Someone who recognizes the importance of musical theatre to the spirit and soul. Someone who maintains a strong attachment to our city and its theatre-going population, that’s who. Bryna Wasserman.

Many years ago her mother, Dora Wasserman, formed the Yiddish Theatre. (Now called the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre.) In those early years she worked out of Gratien Gelinas’ theatre, The Comedie Canadienne.  The company moved into the Saidye Bronfman Centre in 1973. Dedicated to preserving a language that was very nearly eliminated by the Holocaust, the company has grown over the years, even leaving it’s Montreal base and touring England, Austria and the Czech Republic.

The Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre is alive and well, thanks to her daughter, Bryna, and remains ensconced at the Segal Centre. Every season, the Segal has at least one Yiddish production – over the years Montrealers have been introduced to over 85 shows from classics to original pieces, dramas and musicals. And proof that it is thriving, is the number of new, young thespians joining every year.

On now at the Segal is Soul Doctor, co-directed by Wasserman who now lives in New York. Wasserman was apointed the Artistic Director of the Leonor and Alvin Segal Theatre and the Yiddish Theatre in 1998. In 2007 she became the Artistic&Executive Director of the new Segal Centre for the Performing Arts. She left the Segal in 2011 to take over a new position as Executive Director of the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre (the oldest theatre company, Yiddish or english, in New York) and has driven back and forth from New York to Montreal to share the directing of Soul Doctor with Rachel Glait. Soul Doctor was recently performed in New York at Circle in the Square.

The Montreal cast is made up of amateurs with daytime jobs – it’s lively, enthusiastic and great fun! And it braggs some excellent voices to boot!

Wasserman has been a stalwart at the Segal for many years, directing not only yiddish productions, but mainly those in the english mainstream of the theatre season. Her first directorial job was West Side Story at Pripstein’s camp at the age of 16! She’s come a long way since then.

Her move to New York to become Executive Director of the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre, was a shock to many in the business as she had guided the Segal with her innate sense of theatre and business combined. To say she is missed by many is an understatement –

She has a wonderfully insightful take on musical theatre. She refers to it as an “extraordinary art form. The musical is to theatre what poetry is to literature, you sing when words fail you or when words are not enough.” She recognizes musicals as being a collective experience: “You have the director, the choreographer and the musical director.” But behind all this technicality of song, dance and drama, the New York theatre is special in that it adds true to life characters in the performance of the roles. Wasserman brings all this to the Segal here in Montreal.

Her mother tongue is yiddish. She spoke the language at home with her family and english when at school. All the direction, and the rehearsal process of the productions are done in english but the research for the shows is done in yiddish.

When asked what makes her return to Montreal and the Segal, “Montreal is home and being away from it only enhances the Segal experience.” While in rehearsal for Soul Doctor, she was also organizing a huge fundraiser in New York for the Folksbiene Theatre – hence the overnight drives back and forth.

While Dora created this wonderful Jewish experience for the stage, Bryna lifted it to another level. She proudly recognizes her mother’s contribution to the theatre scene in Montreal, particularly the Yiddish productions. When Dora was no longer directing, Bryna recalls “It was always a delight to have her in the audience, in the front row” – her ever eagle eye watching the shows.

Do you have to be Jewish to attend, or understand yiddish? No. In the words of a very wise lady: “Theatre has nothing to do with language. If language is the problem, it’s not a problem. If a play is good, you will feel it.  You don’t need to understand the language on stage.”

All Yiddish productions have super-titles in English and French. My introduction to a yiddish production at the Segal was Pirates of Penzance. Because I knew the show so well, I had no need to read the super-titles. In fact, a lot of what you hear in yiddish can actually be understood.

Dora Wasserman would be thrilled to know that her theatre not only is keeping the yiddish language alive, but is still very much part of the Montreal theatre scene and continues to give back to the community, of which she was so much a part. Soul Doctor continues at the Segal until June 29.

For more information on Soul Doctor – segalcentre.org

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