Hayley Finn is on a mission. As the recently appointed artistic director of Theater J, which makes its home at the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center in Northwest Washington, DC, she felt called to the theater by its mission, which “celebrates, explores, and struggles with the complexities and nuances of both the Jewish experience and the universal human condition.”
“I am a very mission-driven person,” she told me recently. “I fall in love with a [company’s] mission: When I was at the Playwright’s Center in Minneapolis, I worked there for a very long time because I believed so deeply in that mission.” According to its public materials, the Playwrights’ Center’s mission is to “sustain, develop, and advocate for playwrights and their work to realize their full artistic potential.” Finn, who stands at the cusp of Theater J’s new 2023/24 season, the first she has fully programmed, is ready to realize new potential at Theater J, the nation’s largest and most prolific Jewish-centered theater.
“I, of course, knew about Theater J and its reputation for many years and admired the work that had been happening there,” she shared. “I really appreciated the fact that there were new [Jewish-focused] stories that were happening. New content was coming out, particularly around the Jewish experience and Jewish identity, although not exclusively. Sometimes other stories in conversation with the Jewish experiences were also produced.”
What most excited Finn was Theater J’s ongoing commitment to presenting and commissioning new work and new Jewish-oriented stories. “This opportunity seemed like the perfect match for me because I had this history of working with playwrights and working on over a thousand plays in new-play development. Plus, my personal interest as a director had been around the Jewish experience, Jewish identity, or other identities that have been marginalized.” It felt like a match, and mission, made in heaven. Finn said, “I saw an opportunity here for an artistic home and for the work that I could do” in the future.
New Start, New Season
While she began working on a part-time basis from a distance early in 2023, Finn and her family — arts administrator and performance artist Andrew Dolan and their school-aged son — are now settling into their new Washington, DC, home, just a few blocks from Theater J’s 16th Street building in the Dupont Circle area. Within tight constraints of far less than a year, she programmed a seven-play season featuring four world premieres, two East Coast premieres, and one musical.
And six of this season’s plays are penned by female-identifying playwrights.
When asked if she consciously set out to program a woman-centric roster of writers, Finn initially demurred. “Well, I think, even now, female playwrights are underrepresented throughout the country. I’m interested in giving voice to people who have not had a voice on the stage. And, these are all really fantastic plays that need to be seen.”
She then added, “I knew that I wanted to highlight some female artists. I was excited about giving them a platform; that was important to me. At the same time, it was important just to tell the stories that I thought would be great for the stage. It is exciting that we have so many women in this season.”
Realizing the Mission on Stage
First up at Theater J’s 236-seat Aaron and Cecile Goldman Theater is The Chameleon, which Finn adored when she read it. She also recognized what she called a through-line in her own love of nurturing plays from the page to the stage. “In all of my work, there is really a love of plays, a love of the playwright and of new work and how to help nurture it from the early stages of development all the way to production and connecting with audiences.”
“Opening the season, The Chameleon by Jenny Rachel Weiner had this really long-term relationship with the director Ellie Heyman,” Finn noted. “They met when Ellie was a graduate student and Jenny was an undergrad and stayed collaborative partners. I see how they work together and how they’ve worked on this play together. They have a shorthand — a way that they just know each other’s aesthetic. That trust and deep collaboration over many years is very powerful.”
Billed as a “laugh-out-loud” comedy, Weiner’s world premiere wrestles with issues of identity, representation, and assimilation in the Hollywood world of a superhero franchise and the fallout of social media hype.
“It’s very much of the moment,” Finn said. Navigating when to show your identity as someone who is Jewish might be risky, even dangerous, she said, adding, “The play starts off as an intergenerational comedy, everyone sitting around a dinner table celebrating the fact that the main character gets her big break in a superhero movie — then we learn about the director, that he’s been seen with Nazi propaganda.
“Because the character has assimilated, when does she come out? What does that mean? It’s a funny piece that has some serious themes at the center.”
Between November and January, Finn has programmed a triptych of solo shows, one featuring Israeli actor Iris Bahr in a poignant take on a long-distance mother-daughter relationship. Moses by Michele Lowe was a finalist in Theater J’s Vradenburg New Jewish Play competition, while Sun Mee Chomet’s How to Be a Korean Woman features the author’s struggle with identity and love as a Korean-American adoptee into a Jewish family.
Theater J has never offered family-oriented programming, but with a six-year-old son at home, Finn is looking to expand the offerings, starting in December with an interactive Chanukah program. This pilot program will feature adaptations of Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer folktales adapted by Maryland theater power couple Aaron Posner and Erin Weaver. The event will include a workshop where kids get to make their own living-room-style theater with pillows, flashlights, and sundry found objects. And then, Finn said, “We’ll have donuts and juice. My dream is then to build this out and to commission playwrights to write full productions” for families and children, Finn said. It’s a first step in building a new generation of theatergoers and theater-lovers, according to Finn, who is looking ahead to new audiences.
She will also continue the popular Theater J talkbacks and conversations but hopes to add a more hands-on approach to some. A “makers’ workshop” is scheduled to run in conjunction with The Chameleon. “There’s a superhero theme in Chameleon, so we’re doing a workshop called ‘Make Your Life a Comic Book.’ Then for the solo play series, we’re thinking about a workshop on how to make your life a monologue. What do you do to create your own monologue? You don’t have to be a theater person to engage with that. We are thinking of different ways to create a community-artistic connection and inspire audiences beyond what’s happening on the proscenium stage.”
Building Community Through Theater
Since moving to Washington, DC, Finn has been connecting and reconnecting with theater colleagues she has met during her more than 25 years in the field — friends like Maria Manuela Goyanes at Woolly Mammoth, Hana Sharif at Arena Stage, Reginald L. Douglas at Mosaic Theater, and Jason Loewith at Olney Theater Center, to name a few. She says “yes” to invitations to participate in events like recent DC Theatre Week panels, and is getting to know the board members, patrons and avid subscribers at Theater J and the Edlavitch DC JCC.
“Theater J has been lucky,” Finn noted. “We’ve got some very loyal subscribers who are very committed to our mission. But even so, we’re thinking about trying to lean into what theater can offer.”
“Theater,” she continued, “can be a community place — with that live experience, you’re connecting with other people, having conversations after the show, before the show, having a drink or a meal with someone. That’s very different from just sitting on your couch watching Netflix.”
Theater, she said, offers “deeper engagement. The question is: How can we create community in a very authentic way? One of the beauties of being in the Edlavitch DC JCC is that it’s a community center. We have already built community into the ethos of what we do. [Theater J] is an authentic appreciation of that mission to create a community.”
Theater J announces 2023/24 season (news story, June 6, 2023)