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Theatre dybbuk is taking on a big task. This summer, the five-year-old company will bring "Exagoge" to three different stages in Los Angeles. "Exagoge" is an ancient play written by Ezekiel the Poet circa 2nd century BCE that tells the story of Exodus. The thing about "Exagoge," though, is that much of the original script has been lost. Using the bits that remain, theatre dybbuk founder and artistic director Aaron Henne has been building a new-meets-old work. That alone comes with its challenges.
Henne says the goal is to work with the structure of Greek tragedy that informs the original piece and bring in modern themes of migration, disenfranchisement and cultural identity.
"I got really interested in Hellenistic Judaism," says Henne. He could see parallels between the Jewish diaspora in the Hellenic world and today. While searching for a play from the era, Henne, a playwright and director himself, found "Exagoge." There's a lot of research involved in bringing this to the stage. Henne got into reading about Hellenistic Judaism and reached out to scholars to help him better understand the period. He also had to research Greek theater to help the writing process. "Even if it doesn't stick to 'the rules,' it at least understands those rules, so when it breaks them or deviates from them, it's in the spirit of trying to honor how an ancient piece of theater might have worked," he explains. Finally, he had to ask, "What's our story here in America?" That helped create a link between a very distant past and the present day.
With "Exagoge," and theatre dybbuk in general, Henne connects his Jewish heritage with his passion for live performance. His family came to the United States primarily from Ukraine and Russia in the early 20th century. "Much of that history has been lost or under-explored," he says, but what Henne does know has made an impact.
Generations of ancestors on his father's side of the family were rabbis. His own great-grandfather, though, immigrated to the United States and opened an egg and dairy delivery service in New Jersey. At one point in his early 20s, Henne thought he might study to be a rabbi. "While it would have been a beautiful path, it wasn't the one for me," he says. Still, this history influences his artistic pursuits.
"I think that that history has influenced my work in that there's a deep connection to the fact that I do come from a line of people who were community leaders and engaged in scholarship from a Jewish perspective," he explains.
He adds further that his maternal grandfather was a kosher caterer in New Jersey, which adds to the connection he feels to Jewish history.
Henne was raised primarily in New Jersey and then spent most of his high school years in Walnut Creek, California. He headed to Los Angeles to attend Occidental College and has lived in the city -- "with the exception of a sojourn here and there," he qualifies -- for 20 years. After years of working as a director and playwright, he decided that he wanted to start his own theater company. "I started noticing that a number of the ideas that I was having were related to my Jewish heritage and culture and history," he says. "[I] sat with it for a while and then I thought, well, maybe that's it. Maybe this is really a company that should take a profound and deep look at Jewish history, ritual and folklore."
Theatre dybbuk launched in 2012 with "Cave… A Dance For Lilith," which was co-produced by the L.A. Contemporary Dance Company and looked at the mythology of Lilith. For "Tefillah," prayer services inspired the performance and the company toured the piece through three Los Angeles synagogues, as well as an interfaith Pico-Union Project and an Episcopal church. Another one of the company's major productions was "Assemble," which was party of Leichtag Foundation's Sukkot Harvest Festival in Encinitas last October.
Henne describes the company's theatrical style as being quite particular. "We ask a lot of our audience," he says. That, he adds, is in response to the constant distractions of 21st century life.
"We do work that actually has very dense and often very packed dialogue and text combined with precise and stylized movement," he says. "That means that when you're watching our work, we're asking you to engage on a number of levels at once. If you turn away for a moment, you very well might miss something that's actually important."
For "Exagoge," the production will feature mask work as well as music from the Leimert Park Choir.
In addition to the large performances, they also run educational programs for children and adults and work with synagogues on programming that ties to holidays. Henne refers to theatre dybbuk as "a holistic arts and education company."
"We may work sometimes with religious organizations, but we are not a religious organization," he says. "I think that's an important distinction. We are first and foremost an artistic organization that is having a universal conversation from a Jewish perspective."
Part of their goal is to bring the conversation that comes with their performances to a broad audience. For this reason, they'll be performing "Exagoge" at Temple Israel of Hollywood in June, Grand Park in July and UCLA's Fowler Museum in August. All performances will be outdoors to pay homage to Greek theater.
Top image: A theatre dybbuk production of "Tefillah." | Photo: Taso Papadakis.