Melding Judaism and theater with Johanna Gruenhut


By Lindsay VanAsdalan

Even when Johanna Gruenhut isn’t directing a Jewish play, “fingerprints of Judaism kind of find their way, because that’s how I understand the world,” she says.

Now, Gruenhut, 41, associate artistic director of Theater J in Washington, is directing “Compulsion or The House Behind,” featuring a man driven — even to obsession — to adapt “The Diary of Anne Frank” into a play.

This will be Gruenhut’s first production at Theater J since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“After two years of being away from the art form, it feels really beautiful to be able to come back with a play that celebrates the power of the stage,” she says.

The show premiered Jan. 26 during the 75th anniversary year of the publication of “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

In her daily role, she reads scripts, manages the literary desk and administers grants, including a new one that commissions seven Jewish playwrights to write new works representing ethnically diverse voices.

This month, the theater launched a new grant called Expanding the Canon, with the aim of sharing diverse Jewish stories beyond those of white European ancestry.

“So that we can explore what it means to be Jewish and what it means to look Jewish … because you know there’s so many people all over the world,” Gruenhut says.

Growing up in Manhattan, she attended Ramaz, a Modern Orthodox yeshivah day school on the Upper East Side. There, she poured over Hebrew and Aramaic texts in her Talmud class, finding sources, examining every interpretation and engaging in healthy debate.

In researching sources, authors and inspiration for her plays today, she is reminded of that foundation.

“That idea of turning over every page — all the nuances — and trying to understand turns of phrases,” Gruenhut said, “it’s fueled, in a way, of like what I really loved about Talmud class.”

When she landed a role in a touring show about the Crown Heights riots by Jewish playwright and director Elizabeth Swados, that experience served to solidify her interest in theater and strengthen her Jewish identity.

She was the youngest member of the cast at about 12 or 13 years old. Being there broadened her perspective of other cultures. She was able to explore her own background and beliefs apart from school.

“Being Jewish out in the world is different, and also figuring out what that means for you can be different,” she said.

Theater J provided her an opportunity “to meld these two forces in my life [theater and Judaism] that are so important and powerful to me in how they shaped my outlook,” she says.

Her first experience with Theater J was back in 2015 when she was tapped by Artistic Director Adam Immerwahr to direct “Actually,” a play that was timely in its portrayal of consent laws on college campuses.

“It opened right during the Kavanaugh hearings. So it felt like it really had a pulse for what was happening in the world,” she says.

Their working relationship continued through 2020 – when more than one of Gruenhut’s shows had to be postponed for COVID-19. That gave her the opportunity to get plugged in as associate artistic director.

“I read a lot of scripts, so I’m figuring out what plays are coming in and what plays might be exciting for Theater J,” she says.

“Adam and I were just talking about different artists,” she continues, “different playwrights and different plays that interested me. He asked me about ‘Compulsion,’ and I said, ‘Oh I love that play, I’d love to do that play,’ and then it was COVID postponed or COVID canceled.

“COVID interrupted.”

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