Hayley Finn, the incoming artistic director of Theater J, is looking forward to experiencing the convergence of two of her life’s passions — Judaism and theater. Most recently the associate artistic director of the Playwrights’ Center, a renowned incubator space in Minneapolis for new play development, Finn said she plans to continue Theater J’s long commitment to introducing new voices into the Jewish theatrical canon.
Over three decades, Theater J has refined its mission, which “celebrates, explores and struggles with the complexities and nuances of both the Jewish experience and the universal human condition,” Finn, 48, said last weekend during a quick visit to the District to meet with staff at the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center and check out its preschool for her 5-year-old son. “I fell in love with the mission. I love the way it’s articulated; that it centers the Jewish experience and the universal human condition, and ethical questions of our time.”
Finn continued, “I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on … how [the mission] resonates with me personally. I’m a very mission-motivated person, so I needed that to know for sure that this was the right move for me.”
She noted how Theater J’s reputation for staging new works while also re-thinking what Jewish theater means in the 21st century aligns with her own thinking and background.
Finn grew up attending the flagship Reform Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan. “It was very wonderful … in that temple because that’s where I had my first experiences putting on plays. I was acting as Queen Esther in the Purim play. And one year, things got a little more progressive and I was Mordecai.”
Following bachelor and master’s degrees from Brown University, where she studied with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel (“How I Learned To Drive” and “Indecent”), Finn returned to New York and worked with a number of small downtown theater groups on new play development.
Jewish theater stands at an inflection point, she said last weekend. Finn is committed to nurturing the next generation of Jewish playwrights.
“I’m very interested in the stories to be written, the people who are writing them.”
She hopes to uncover works that “expand ideas around Jewish identity” and she points to a current Theater J initiative, developed under her predecessor, Adam Immerwahr, called Expanding the Canon. The initiative is focused on stories from writers who are not Ashkenazi Jews, who make up between 90 and 95 percent of the U.S. Jewish population.
“I’m interested in work that moves us forward in all our complexities and questions what we currently assume,” Finn said. “My dream is to build out a body of work that we are able to present at Theater J, but also can go to theaters across the country.”
And beyond acclimating herself to the workings of the Washington-area theater community and Theater J, Finn plans on taking time to seek out a synagogue that is compatible with her family’s Reform practices and need for an educational program for her son.
She is also excited about the theater’s relationship to the Edlavitch DCJCC, saying that the community expands opportunities for partnerships and connections.
“I love that this theater exists in a larger community context,” Finn said, noting how many regional theaters desire the already built-in community that Theater J has. “The dream of a regional theater is to be in community with or in conversation with the [larger] community. Here we have children in the preschool, seniors … intergenerational learning happens. This holistic approach takes care of our whole humanness across generations.”
Asked where Jewish theater fits in to the broader context of 21st-century American theater, Finn replied, “It is important to have a theater designated for work that is looking through a Jewish lens at the values, the questions the culture asks. It is important to preserve that home for Jewish [audiences] and for non-Jewish [audiences] to be in conversation and share those stories.” ■
Lisa Traiger is WJW’s arts correspondent.