Petaluma’s Jessica Litwak is changing lives through theater
If Jessica Litwak had a home, it would be Petaluma.
The globetrotting playwright, director, actor and teacher spends so much time away that she doesn’t yet feel entitled to say she lives here. But she does, having moved from New York City seven months ago.
Litwak is currently directing “Luna Gale,” by Rebecca Gilman, at Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma. The drama, which premiered in 2014, opens Oct. 11 for a three-week run.
The play plunges us into the troubled world of social services. For Caroline, a veteran social worker played by Liz Jahren, the case against Peter and Karlie (Zane Walters and Miranda Jane Williams), two teenage drug addicts accused of baby neglect, seems straightforward. But when she hands the baby over to Karlie’s mother (Gina Alvarado), surprises are in store for the characters - and for the audience. The other actors in the play are Kellie Donnelly, and Petaluma’s John Browning and James Pelican.
Litwak has not seen previous productions of “Luna Gale,” nor has she directed other plays by Gilman.
“I like working fresh on material,” she said. “I’m treating the play as an ensemble piece. Upon reading the play I was attracted to the subject but wanted to bring compassion and depth to all the characters. There are no bad guys in this play. I hope the audience will feel both compassion and susceptibility.”
Susceptibility? This word offers a clue to Litwak’s core convictions about theater. For forty years she has honed the power of live theater to not only entertain but awaken social consciousness in the audience. Whether writing a play about the Israel-Palestine conflict, acting the role of Emma Goldman (the pioneer anarchist and feminist) in a trilogy of plays Litwak wrote, or directing a play like “Luna Gale,” she always seeks to arouse the audience.
“Luna Gale” is, she admits, a serious play dealing with painful problems that often seem beyond resolution.
“But I find that if you can engage the audience, they don’t get down,” she said. “As a director, I want them to feel they have agency.”
Litwak and her cast are primarily focused on the relationships in the play.
“I asked the actors to do deep research on all kinds of addiction,” she said. Each actor has also done lots of character research, so that as a group they can create a reality that resonates as real.”
“Luna Gale” playwright Gilman was the first American playwright to win an Evening Standard Theater Award, the oldest theater award in the United Kingdom. She has also received the 2008 Harper Lee Award. Her most widely known works are “Spinning Into Butter,” a play that addresses political correctness and racial identity, and “Boy Gets Girl,” which was included in Time Magazine’s List of the Best Plays and Musicals of the Decade.
Litwak grew up in San Francisco. She has been familiar with Sonoma County since childhood because her family spent summers in Valley Ford. When her father, the novelist and memoirist Leo Litwak (“The Medic: Life and Death in the Last Days of WWII”), died last year, she returned to San Francisco to manage his estate. She decided to relocate to Northern California but felt San Francisco was too expensive.
Upon her arrival in Sonoma County, the Arlene Francis Center for Spirit, Art & Politics, in Santa Rosa, offered her a one-year residency. Last March at the center, she staged her Emma Goldman trilogy, “Love Anarchy and Other Affairs,” “The Snake and The Falcon,” and “Nobody Is Sleeping,” for Women’s History Month.
She will soon direct five short plays at the center, under the auspices of Climate Change Theatre Action, a worldwide series of readings and performances of short climate-change plays. The series is presented biennially to coincide with the United Nation’s conference on climate change. The 2019 series will continue through December 20, with the participation of 35 countries and 44 states in the U.S.
Litwak’s next stop will be Los Angeles, where she will perform her one-woman comedy, “The Fear Project.” The theatrical experience includes pre-show interviews and a post-show discussion with the audience centering on 13 questions about fear that Litwak has asked people all over the world. This play is a good example of what she calls “socially engaged theater,” in which the audience is directly involved.
Litwak has also been commissioned to write a play for the centennial of the suffrage movement, which achieved the vote for women 100 years ago. She will base the work on the life of Selena Solomons, a California suffragette.
“For the past 10 years I have focused on social change through theater,” Litwak said. “I believe theater can change lives.”